Nature/Nurture – A Philosophical Analysis


The debate about whether an attribute or idea is a product of human ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ has a long, interdisciplinary history. In the work of Socrates and Plato, we see the first philosophical arguments for the view that some of our ideas originate from innate concepts. Even today, many philosophers hold that certain ideas are part of a shared human nature, rather than a product of 'nurture' (i.e. environment). Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the current debate is whether the concept of ‘innateness’ has a place in modern genetics. The implications of genetic theories of human nature are not obvious since genes alone do not produce attributes.

Key Concepts

  • ‘Nativists’ employ ‘poverty of stimulus’ arguments to demonstrate that an idea or cognitive ability could not have been learned.
  • ‘Empiricists’ believe that our beliefs about the world come from our perceptual connection to the world and not from our natures.
  • IQ is likely to be influenced by nurturing environments.
  • Likely, there is no such thing as the singular good life; rather, there are numerous valid conceptions of the good life.
  • The gene/environment dichotomy is false, so ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ are not mutually exclusive. But, that does not mean we cannot distinguish between robust and plastic developmental events.

Keywords: nature; nurture; genetics; language; knowledge

Figure 1. René Descartes (1596–1650).
Figure 2. John Locke (1632–1704).

Further Reading

Chomsky N (1966) Cartesian Linguistics. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Cowie F (1999) What's Within? Nativism Reconsidered. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Herrnstein R and Murray C (1996) Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York, NY: Free Press.

Hobbes T (1660) The Leviathan.

Lewontin R (1993) Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Locke J (1690) Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Nisbett RE (2009) Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

Pinker S (2004) Why Nature & Nurture Won't Go Away. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 133 (4): 5–17.

Pinker S (2007) The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Plato (380 bc) Meno.

Richerson P and Boyd R (2006) Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Ariew, André, and Shorey, Katy(Jul 2016) Nature/Nurture – A Philosophical Analysis. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003458.pub2]