Thoughts on Nature Vs. Nurture

Prospero: A devil, a born devil on whose nature Nurture can never stick, on whom my pains, Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost. And as with age his body uglier grows, So his mind cankers. I will plague them all, Even to roaring. ~ William Shakespeare (The Tempest).

We can thank Shakespeare for the concept of nature and nurture, as elucidated by Prospero in The Tempest about the ‘foul’ Caliban.

George Romney - William Shakespeare's The Tempest - Act 1, Scene 1

George Romney – William Shakespeare’s The Tempest – Act 1, Scene 1

During my recent author interview with Viv Oyolu at Dream Corner – which gives inspiring women a voice – we talked about my novel, The Virtuoso, life and dreams. Towards the end of the interview we discussed children and education, and Viv mentioned that as someone who doesn’t have kids she was able to look objectively at how parents raise their children.

family-holding hands

She mentioned the nature/nurture scenario and it got me thinking. The nature vs. nurture debate has long been hit about the court of public and professional opinion like an endless ping pong, so as a mum of four, with some experience of nurture, I thought I’d serve up my take on it.

From a maternal perspective nature deals the earthly hand, whereas nurture gives a helping, developing hand. It’s a team effort!

We’re born with specific physical attributes, personality traits, various talents, but our future success and happiness in the world depends largely on how nurture shapes and molds these raw ingredients that we have to work with.


Rather than asking which one is better, or which one has the most influence, I think we should consider the possibility that the two are co-dependent and therefore inextricably linked.

Max Macdowell explains the basic question of Nature Vs. Nurture:

It’s a complex interaction of genes and environment that shape who we are, and more importantly, who we can become. Nature without nurture and vice-versa means that we face greater challenges in reaching our true potential.


Nurture can come from different sources, but early in life it’s predominantly from our parents or another caring adult.

I saw a fascinating and moving programme on BBC 4 Sunday evening about two identical Chinese girl twins. I missed the very start, but basically the two had been separated at birth and adopted in China at the same time by two different families, one living in Norway and the other in North America. The two families, (having met in China) only found out for sure that their adopted daughters were twin sisters six months after they have been caring for them.

Mia and Alexandra eventually met and got to know each other, distance and language challenges notwithstanding. Both are growing up in loving homes, albeit in different cultural and environmental circumstances, yet when visiting the other family their mothers noticed shared behavioural tendencies in the twin daughter.

A fun and interesting talk from experimental pyschologist, linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, about his book, Human Nature and The Blank Slate, where he focuses on the arts and parenting:

Interestingly, British runner Mo Farah, now one of the most successful athletes in the world, has a twin brother in Somalia, who he used to race against as a child before he came to the UK. Mo didn’t always win. Today Mo’s brother is a car mechanic. He may be very happy with that, but it’s obvious that environment/nurture played a massive role in how their lives and careers diverged.

Trauma in childhood can be a massive hurdle to overcome. You may have great genes, but a terrible environment. How do some people achieve and emerge victorious from their circumstances, and yet others don’t?

Earlier this year I learned the story  of Mohed Altrad, which blew me away. I recommend you read his inspiring story: From Bedouin to Billionaire.

Here is an example of a young and vulnerable boy losing his mother in a cruel twist of fate, an outcast even among the Bedouins, yet he had the strength of character to understand that school would give him the nurture he needed to escape his environment. His story strongly supports my view that nurture can also be an inside job.

If you intend to nurture your abilities and dreams the people and circumstances who can help you will show up. It reminds me of this Zen proverb:

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

On the other side of the coin I’ve heard stories of child prodigies and young musicians in particular, (Mozart is the most famous example of this), who learnt one or more instruments at an early age. Many were propelled by their parents who recognised and encouraged their musical talent and actively supported them in attaining their musical goals. In Mozart’s case his nature trump card was a brilliant mind, but it’s unthinkable that he would have been the sensation he was without some serious nurturing from his family, (especially  his father Leopold), tutors as well as wealthy and influential patrons!

It’s the same with many achievers, whether they’re athletes, dancers, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, actors and so on…they had teachers, coaches, supporters and benefactors.  I suppose the bottom line is, if you don’t have the genetic makeup (physique) to be an athlete, then no amount of coaching will get you the gold medal. It has to be a combination of both.


There are also stories of talented people not achieving all they could in life because they just didn’t develop resilience, persistence and self-belief, which to me is also product of nurture. Reading a book and learning from the author is nurture. You may not know that person, but they can still help you.

The backbone of being nurtured is being loved and cared for. It also encompasses education, home environment, a healthy diet, sleep, being out in nature, learning skills, enjoying hobbies, having a mentor and the desire for a better life.

But is there such a thing as negative nurture? You only have to study religious fanaticism to understand that the wrong kind of nurturing produces evil deeds.

Nature or Nurture? Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman explores the link between genes and poverty in studies of twins:

It seems to me they are surmising that the more nurture a person receives the more nature comes to the fore.

Yet the facts of Mohed Altrad’s life buck this trend. Whilst it seems fair to say that poverty radically decreases one’s chances of fully expressing inbuilt genetic benefits, the rags to riches stories mean you can’t write people off just because of their socioeconomic background. They have faced and overcome challenges that those in more privileged positions haven’t and so develop an inner strength that can influence everything.

Sheer intention, imagination, determination, faith and deeply felt dreams can surely elevate nature and provide nurture to any individual’s circumstances?

Sometimes a person can have everything going for them and still squander it all. Perhaps there is such a thing as too easy a life?!

Maybe there’s an extra dimension to this conundrum…

What about the human spirit/soul? Does it have a pre-set blueprint (Karma) for life on Earth? What if we assumed for a moment that it has a divine nature and exists beyond time and space? If it isn’t genetic, and it isn’t defined by its earthly environment, how does it interact in the trilogy of Spirit Vs. Nature Vs. Nurture?

I thought I’d share this wonderful lecture given by Professor Steve Jones at Gresham College, in which he explains about genes and environment and their interaction beautifully. Nature, Nurture or Neither? The View from the Genes:

In conclusion I feel I may have asked more questions than I answered! But to me, it seems that a human being born in good health, with properly functioning genes, but neglected as an infant without a shred of nurture will perish, just as an individual born without robust genetic material will either die or have health problems despite nurturing.

Ultimately, for a person blessed with a sound body and mind by nature and given enough of the right kind of nurture, the sky’s the limit!

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