For decades, scientists and parents explored how much of children’s chances for success were determined by their nature (the genes and the body chemistry they were born with) and how much came from nurture (whether or not they were raised in a loving, nurturing, safe environment).

This has historically been one of the biggest debates in the global research community.

The nature-nurture balance affects, for instance, whether researchers should focus on finding better ways of teaching to improve learning ability, or instead devote their time to developing gene therapies designed to achieve the same end.

But, as is so often the case in advanced research, it turned out that the original question was framed incorrectly.

Asking whether nature or nurture has the greater impact on human development is like asking whether length or width has the greatest impact on the area of a rectangle.

Examining them as separate entities is meaningless.

The traditional nature vs. nurture debate is based on the idea that you are given a set of genes at conception and that combination of genes determines or influences everything from eye colour to learning ability.

It turns out, though, that you’re not nearly as limited by your original blueprints as it used to appear.

The reason for this has to do with how genes express themselves.

You might have a gene in your DNA that predisposes you to, say, breast cancer.

But that gene might never be activated, and therefore never have a chance to do any harm.

What determines whether the gene turns on or not?

In many cases, environmental factors make the difference.

Very early childhood experiences have the greatest effect on gene expression.

What this means is that in early life, factors traditionally associated with nurture — whether you are born rich or poor, into a happy or an unhappy family, etc. — can actually change the actions of the genes that we traditionally think of as part of our inherent nature.

Nurture and nature consort in ways that shape people’s health and happiness for their entire lives.

In fact, nature and nurture begin consorting even before prospective parents do.

The food, drink, and drugs the parents consume before conception can influence how the genes in their children turn on and off.

This is truer for men, who are constantly generating new sperm carrying updated genetic material, than for women, who are born with all the eggs they will have for their lifetime, genes included.

Thus, it is not nature and/or nurture but rather it is a nature-by-nurture interaction.

On a personal level, understanding this new relationship between nature and nurture means that parents and prospective parents can learn new and better ways to care for themselves and their children.

Things as simple as a small dietary change, regular physical contact, or even a song or a nightly story, can change the direction of a child’s entire life.

And of course, as we find new ways to improve individuals’ health and well-being, societies themselves become healthier and happier.

In fact, answering this question helps ensure that future generations are prepared to answer the big questions of their own day, which will no doubt be that much more complex than those of today’s researchers.

Kolb is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge.

Source:, Canada –