Genetics – Nurture or Nature?

A long-term debate has raged on the question of whether we are ‘born’ a certain way, such as happy, lucky, blessed or successful, or ‘made’ that way by our circumstances. Are we who we are because of the ‘nature’ of our being, such as something built into our DNA, or because of the things we are taught and the ‘nurture’ we receive in our formative years? This is the debate over whether it is Nurture or Nature that forms us.

Expert opinions and diverse theories have spoken to both positions. Life experience also argues both ways. We see people who seem to have innate advantage over others in the same situation. We also see how the right input makes a profound impact on people.

Elizabeth Kotlowski, in her book on Australia’s early history, points out that the convict parents of the colony’s children seemed irreparable in their nature, yet their children were recognized by an early judge as being of the highest integrity. This transformation was not embedded in the genetic ‘nature’ of the children, but came from the ‘nurture’ they received from the colony’s early church schools.

Similar transformation was noted by Charles Darwin on his second visit to Tierra del Fuego. He originally deemed the natives of that area to be so reprobate as to be incapable of nobility. On his second visit there, some years later, he discovered that the simple process of taking the Bible to these people had positively transformed them. Nurture, external impact from a quality source, has undoubted profound effect.

Recent genetics research now indicates a synthesis of the ‘nurture or nature’ ingredients. The science works like this. While we each have a unique DNA specifying our genetic potential and influencing all the many features of our being, we also have a unique set of control switches that activate or de-activate those underlying genetic choices. So there’s a double stream of genetic dice rolling that impacts who and what we are.

While the underlying DNA may prove to be strictly a matter of ‘nature’ – passed to us by our parents and resilient to the conditions under which we are raised – the genetic switches prove to be influenced by the ‘nurture’ we receive.

Recent scientific findings were reported in the Public Library of Science Journal, ‘PLoS ONE’. Moshe Szyf of McGill University in Montreal studied the brains of men who came from abuse or neglect backgrounds and who later committed suicide. These brains were compared with the brains of men who died of natural causes and who did not have an abuse background.

The genetic material of the suicide victims displayed changes in all 18 cases. While the genes were unchanged the related genetic material functioned differently. A cellular process called methylation, involving the RNA within the cell, is engaged in turning the genes ‘on’ or ‘off’. The observed changes in the cell indicate that the genetic function was being switched differently as a consequence of past abuse.

So, nature and nurture work together, not independent of each other.

Now that some discernible physiological change at a genetic level can be associated with nurture it will be interesting to see where science takes us in our further confirmation of what God’s Word says.