Does nature determine who we are or can we change it by how we interact with our environment? That is the question we shall endeavour to answer this month.
Let us start by defining nature and nurture. Nature refers to our genes and their role in controlling how we are constructed. Nurture in its broadest sense represents how we (once constructed) interact with the environment around us and how the environment interacts with us. By environment we mean the space around us. It includes the climate, the objects within our proximity, the people or animals who share the space, the emotions generated within that space, the air, etc.
So once constructed (nature), does the space we live in (nurture) influence the constructed self? To answer this, we must pose another question. Do we change physically on a day to day, month by month and year by year basis? Because if we don’t change then the environment is irrelevant. The answer is, we do change because we age. However you will be surprised to know that we are changing daily! Most of our cells are constantly dying or being broken down and replaced by new cells. So much so that in a month from now the vast majority of our cells will be different! Knowing this means, we can appreciate that a changing self has the potential to be influenced by its surrounding.
Let us now take the example of something we consider ‘set in stone’, our skin colour. Given to us at birth by our genes which originated from our parents. Yet when we go on holiday (i.e. interacting with a sunnier environment, nurture) our skin colour changes! Take another example of a person with a short temper. Nature wired their nervous system in a certain way that a small stimulus causes a larger release of a chemical which results in anger. Yet that person can learn to control their temper provided the environment is right. Somebody may have a predisposition for high cholesterol but by eating and living in a certain way they may never have a heart attack or any form of vascular problems. In fact, I challenge you to think of anything within us that is independent of our interaction with the environment.
So how does nature and nurture interact, well here is the science bit.
Nature as we stated early, represents our genes. Genes are blocks of DNA which hold the blueprints to our construct. These blueprints are under lock and key in the centre of the cell. The only special proteins can read the blueprint, let’s call them the architects. These architects roam around the cell but are constantly in touch with the outside world. They do this by reading the reports created by the sensory receptors on the outer aspect of the cell. They do this because they want to ensure that what they are making is fit for the environment in which it has to function.
So the architects will take the sensory reports with them when they read the blueprint. They will then interrupt the information on the blueprint based on their understanding of the sensory reports before passing on their instructions to the proteins that perform the construction, i.e. the builders. Therefore, depending on what is happening outside the cell will determine how they read the blueprint and therefore what is created.
Using this analogy in today’s housing industry. The materials used to build a house are bricks, mortar etc… The manner in which the houses are built are very similar i.e. bricks or stone alternatively stacked against each other, a timber construction for the internal parts etc… Yet all the houses are not the same along the street. This is because the architect has interpreted the blueprints differently and the construction company (as well as the owner) has asked for different things. Each house is built within a different environment but from the same basic blueprint.
The same is true with our cells. This concept is very important because we think that all aspects of ourselves are predetermined by our genes. Yet the reality is very different. We have the power to modify that expression. We have a significant say in who we are.