Genetic vs. Environmental Traits
Today we’re going to briefly go over an age-old philosophical question: nature versus nurture, or in other words, genetics versus environment.
Are people born a certain way, or are they shaped and become a certain way based on the environment around them? Is it their nature: Are they born with it? Is it their genetics? Or is it nurture—their environment? What we see, as we look at the vast array and complex of human beings, that some things are almost 100 percent genetic, and some things are almost 100 percent environment, and some things are a clear combination of the two, so sometimes it’s not an either/or it’s a both/and. We’re just going to briefly go over some of those things related to human beings: genetics versus environment (nature versus nurture) and then the combination of both.
We begin, then, with looking at genetics—the nature side, what we’re born with—what we find (assigned to study this) is that things like the color of our eyes, our blood type, the quality of our vision, (whether we need to have it augmented or repaired, or help through glasses and things like that) our teeth, certain diseases—not all, but certain diseases that we might be prone to—heart disease (things like this) where there’s been a clear genetic link found.
Children tend to have eye color based on what they’ve received from their parents, whether it’s a dominant trait or a recessive trait, the information has been passed down genetically. You don’t literally change someone’s eye color by anything in the environment, normally speaking, unless there’s some sort of disease involved or some sort of purposeful augmentation through colored contacts or who knows what, but, genetically speaking, our eye color is passed down to us biologically and has nothing to do with our environment.
The same with our blood type, the quality of vision we have, although the environment can affect our vision—whether it gets better or worse based on certain health care regulations, based on where the person is born can affect it adversely one way or the other—but generally speaking whether or not you’re going to need glasses is not determined by your environment but more by genetics.
There are certain things related to our bodies which we are just born with, certain proclivities to certain diseases, teeth, vision, blood type, eye color, (things like that) are clearly coded in our DNA and in our genes and passed down. Now there are certain things that are environmental and have nothing to do with our genetics: it’s where we grew up, who we grew up around, that influence us. Things like language.
The language you speak is shaped entirely by what you hear as you’re growing up. I have a friend who grew up in a bilingual home. His parents, one was of Japanese descent, one was of American descent. He grew up hearing both Japanese and English spoken to him as a child.
Now genetically he wasn’t programmed to know Japanese or programmed to know English, he was just genetically programmed to receive whatever language came in. Since he received both as he grew up, for a time there he actually meshed both languages, and others around him often had a hard time understanding what he was saying because he was freely associating, mixing both Japanese and English.
Now, eventually, as he got older, he was able to separate the two languages and speak them both fluently, but the fact is it was the environmental influence of hearing both languages that gave him that capability, so the language that you are exposed to from the time you’re born growing up is, generally speaking, a language that you will speak naturally.
You can also, then, learn other languages through school and classroom or living in another country, you pick up the language, so a specific language is one of those things that’s environmental and not genetic. Now our ability to receive, comprehend, assimilate, process, and use language is something that’s genetically inherent in us.
There’s some sort of matrices or lattice in the brain that allows the reception and processing and then use of a language, but what language we speak has nothing to do with our genes. If our children were born in Japan, they wouldn’t be born speaking Japanese because they were born in that country, or they wouldn’t be born automatically speaking English just because their parents spoke English, it’s something that their environment would program into them.
Along with that are things like religion and other social traits. What you grow up around, socially, tends to influence things like that in a person’s life, so people aren’t born a particular religion genetically from their parents, just because their parents are, it’s something that is socially around them and that they pick up, same with other social traits.
Whether they’re (feel like they’re) motivated by guilt or by shame, (we have different cultures that are guilt-based or shame-based) it’s not something that’s genetic but something that’s environmental and social. Those factors get a little more complicated, but it’s clear (it’s obvious) we picked examples to show that which is clearly genetic, that which is clearly environmental.
Now, there are some things that are actually a mix of the two, (a conflation of the two) things like our height. Now you might say, “Well height would automatically fall under genetics.” It falls partially under genetics, how tall you are is partially genetic, but environmental factors actually play a role in that. If your diet is not healthy—if it’s suppressed, if it’s missing necessary nutrients or enough protein—you may not reach your full height genetic potential; your growth may be stunted because of environmental malnutrition and things like this, so how tall you get is a mix of both genetics and environment.
The same with your weight. You may be genetically predisposed to store more fat in your body in particular places, you know, we know apples and pears—the apples store it above the waistline, pears store it below the waistline. This may be a genetic thing, in where you store fat and how much you’re prone to store, but once again environment plays a huge role.
If you’re malnourished, you won’t store as much fat because you won’t be able to. Once again, if you overeat or eat too much of certain kinds of food you may store too much fat, so both genetics and environment play a role in things like height, weight, and then, of course, with diseases.
You may have a genetic predisposition to a particular disease, but you can environmentally take steps to help prevent that through exercise and diet. You may also inadvertently not take steps to prevent that and walk right into it at an earlier age because environmentally you didn’t take the steps necessary to help guard against something that’s in your past, genetically handed down to you.
We’ve gone over the whole nature/nurture debate here that’s often argued in philosophy, and realize that when research is done, when scientific observation is done, we find that some things are clearly genetic, some things are clearly environmental, and some things are clearly a combination of both, to varying degrees. This has been just an overview of this very interesting and detailed topic.