Scientists, psychologists, anthropologists and others have long debated which is more influential in making us who we are: nature (that is, the genetic qualities we inherit and are born with) or nurture (the environment in which we are raised). Which do you think has the greater role in shaping us? Why?

In “How Parenting Matters,” David Leonhardt talks with Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia University professor who specializes in research on children:

Q. Bryan Caplan — the subject of our last Book Chat – argues in his new book that “parents barely affect their children’s prospects.” He says that the research on adopted twins suggests that nature trumps nurture over the long term: twins who grow up in very different families often end up very similar.

I’m somewhat skeptical of that claim. I don’t doubt that genes exert a powerful influence. But my sense is that environment does too, and not just in the short term. That sense stems in part from reading your work. Can you sketch out your view of what the research on nature and nurture shows?

Ms. Waldfogel: I think we need to be careful with the evidence from adoption and twin studies. Such studies rely on the assumption that twins adopted into different homes experience different environments, but in fact twins who are reared apart are often raised in quite similar homes. Another confounding factor is that the influence of genes seems to be stronger in more advantaged settings than it is in more disadvantaged settings. Think of corn planted in fertile, well-watered soil; the main thing that will matter in that context is genetic variation in seeds. Because adopted children more often grow up in advantaged homes, studies of adopted children will therefore tend to overstate the influence of genetics.

More generally, one very clear message from research is that the relevant question is not nature vs. nurture. The more we learn about these things, the more we understand the role played by interactions between genes and environment. …

It is clear that environmental factors, and parenting in particular, have a large influence on child development. Parenting is particularly important in early childhood, when children are so dependent on their parents and when they are exposed to few outside influences; but even during the school years and adolescence, parents continue to be an important influence. They select the community their family lives in and the school their child attends. They even have some influence over the peers with whom their child associates.

Students: Tell us whether you think nature or nurture has the stronger effect on making us who we are. In your own experience, which seems to have the upper hand? Why? Why do you think scientists have been debating this question for centuries?

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Source: New York Times –