Nature and nurture

A longstanding debate

The ‘nature versus nurture' debate is of long standing, going back at least to the time of Plato. Currently, developments in psychology and also much more detailed knowledge about our genetic make-up have contributed to the discussion.

Basically, the arguments concern:

  • the extent to which our personality and skills are inherited by nature
  • the extent to which they depend on our upbringing, or nurture.

Obviously both are important: we are undeniably born with certain characteristics, but equally obviously we learn at least some of our behaviour. This is clear from, for example, the study of feral (that is, ‘wild' children) such as the two girls found living with wolves in India in the 1920s, who, because of their nurture, behaved like animals in many ways even though they had been born to human parents.

Language and education

Language studies in the twentieth century, particularly those instigated by Naom Chomsky, argued that children have innate language skills, since they do not simply copy what they hear. On the other hand, children who are not exposed to speech do not talk. Their speech depends on both nature and nurture.

The two sides of the argument have implications for education:

  • Are children born with characteristics – good or bad – which society must try to shape and control?
  • Or are they ‘a blank page' on which their upbringing must try to draw the features of a good citizen?

Children – innocent or savage?

In the late eighteenth century the French philosopher Rousseau wrote Emile, a work which describes how a child born naturally good – as Rousseau believed was the case with all children – could be protected from corrupt society. However, the mid-twentieth century novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding suggests that children are basically savage; once removed from the civilising effects of society, and stranded on a desert island, they rapidly revert to savagery. (Golding does, however, show that even the so-called ‘civilisation' from which the boys come is violent and destructive, posing a paradoxical problem.)

The Biblical perspective

In Lord of the Flies Golding draws heavily for his symbolism on the Bible, particularly its first and the last books – Genesis and Revelation. In Genesis, which depicts the creation of the world, the first humans, Adam and Eve, are described as being created innocent, but, having disobeyed God, their offspring, and all humanity since then, are said to be guilty of an innate propensity to evil: this is known as original sin. It is this propensity which Golding (who was, incidentally, a schoolteacher) sees in children; having seen the horrors of war, Golding suggests that mankind has a nature which is innately violent.

Nature v.s nurture in Shakespeare

King Lear

The debate about the relative significance of nature and nurture has influenced many other works of literature, including those of Shakespeare.
In King Lear, for example, the character Edmund, illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, is seen as being innately evil; following the attitude of his day, Shakespeare depicts bastardy as reflecting corruption; Edmund declares

‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess'

and is pleased to claim that he has commited himself to evil / Nature. The play is riddled with references to nature and nurture: Edmund is a ‘natural' – that is, illlegitimate – son; but it is his brother Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son, who behaves ‘naturally ‘- that is, as a son should - towards his father. As a counter-balance, all three of Lear's daughters are legitimate, yet the elder two are evil and the youngest one is not, leaving Lear to ponder

'Is there any cause in Nature makes these hard hearts?'

The Tempest

However, it is in the Romance plays of William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, Pericles, The Tempest and The Winter's Tale) that the nature / nurture debate has greatest significance. In The Tempest, for example, the innate nobility of Miranda, who has grown up on a remote island away from the court but has instinctive gentility, is contrasted with the ‘deformed slave' Caliban, who has grown up in the same environment but is:

‘a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick'.

However, there is also a contrast between the gentle and virtuous Prince Ferdinand, brought up in the court of Naples, and the corrupt and villainous Antonio, also of high rank by birth but evil in nature. As Miranda says,

‘Good wombs have born bad sons.'

Prospero, Miranda's father, and brother of Antonio, is a magician, and throughout the play his magic is described as his ‘Art'. Art in this sense may be contrasted with nature, implying learnt or ‘artificial' skills, which Prospero uses to control the natural forces of the island, such the invisible spirits which inhabit it, and also wider natural powers such as the sea and winds.

The Winter's Tale

The debate about nature and nurture is also at the centre of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, where the heroine Perdita, a princess who has been abandoned at birth and brought up by poor shepherds, grows up with such innate grace that Prince Florizel falls in love with her beauty of person and delicacy of character, declaring that

‘All your acts are queens'

His father, King Polixenes, upon meeting Perdita, remarks that:

‘Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.'

Other young shepherdesses do not share her instinctive nobility, suggesting that it is nature, not nurture, which is dominant.

Perdita herself engages with Polixenes in a debate about the importance of natural purity, asserting that she does not like ‘streak'd gillyvors' (carnations and pinks)

‘which some call nature's bastards',


‘I have heard it said
There is an art which, in their piedness' (mixed colouring) ‘shares
With great creating nature.'

Polixenes argues that the gardener's skill which creates hybrid plants is a natural art:

‘Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that sort
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes….
The art itself is nature.'

The scientific perspective

The debate is unlikely ever to be settled, but it continues to exercise the minds of educationalists, linguists, psychologists and geneticists. It was given a new impetus in the nineteenth century with the publication of Darwin's work on natural selection, and in more recently with discoveries about DNA and inherited gene-patterns. Doubtless, therefore, as a fundamental question about human development, it is an issue which will continue to inspire writers.

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