How much of our make-up is predetermined by our genes, and how much by our environment? The truth is that we’re asking entirely the wrong question
11 December 2019
IT IS an age-old debate that crops up everywhere from discussions of gender identity to our propensity to conditions such as obesity. How much is hardwired inside, the inescapable product of our genes, and how much is down to external factors?
Trouble is, this nature vs nurture debate is fundamentally wrong-headed. Even before conception, our make-up is influenced by “epigenetic” factors: choices our parents make, chemicals they are exposed to, infections they get. These don’t alter our genetic code, but just how the instructions it contains are carried out – how it is expressed. Environmental factors continue to change how our genes make us tick throughout life.
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For developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik at the University of California, Berkeley, this constant interplay makes even asking how much we are nature and how much nurture meaningless. “People often think about it as if there’s some kind of formula you could use,” she says. “That’s fundamentally misguided.”
In some cases, identical twins grow up to have dramatically different personalities, while in others identical siblings separated at birth turn out to have strikingly similar personalities, mannerisms and more. Even some genetic disorders can be thought of as environmental. Phenylketonuria, for example, inhibits a body’s ability to break down the amino acid phenylalanine, and can cause devastating brain damage. But if the disorder is identified at birth, children can go on to live happy, healthy lives, by taking supplements and adopting a low protein diet. “In one sense, this syndrome is 100 per cent nature, in another it’s 100 per cent nurture,” …