Nature and Nurture Explanations of Human Behaviour

Nature = biology explains behaviour, Nurture = social factors explains human behaviour.

Nature explanations argue that biological inheritance and genetics determine human behaviour; nurture explanations argue that society, culture and social processes such as socialisation explain human behaviour.

While not denying the role of biology in explaining some aspects of human behaviour, sociology very much emphasises the role of society (nurture) rather than nature in explaining human action. The material below forms part of lesson one of an eight lesson introduction to Sociology. 

naturenurture

Nature Explanations of Behaviour

In Sociology, we are looking at human behaviour. Human behaviour is the term we use that refers to all of the things that people do. There are many ways of explaining why certain people do things in particular ways.

Some biologists and psychologists think that people behave as they do because they are animals who primarily act according to their instincts. This is known as the “nature theory” of human behaviour. Other scientists and psychologists are researching whether our behaviour is “genetic” i.e. certain types of behaviour are passed down from parent to child. Again, this is a nature theory of human behaviour because it supports the belief that our behaviour is pre-programmed to a large extent. For example, it has been debated whether there is a criminal gene which means some people are more likely to commit crime.

Nurture explanations of behaviour

Nurture arguments focus on the way people are brought up and how their environment moulds their personality and behaviour. Sociologists argue that some people are brought up to be kind and caring, and others are brought up to display very different forms of behaviour.

An individual’s personality and identify are moulded and developed in response to their social environments and the people they meet. They are by taught others around them telling them what is right and wrong, including teachers, siblings and most importantly parents. This is why sociologists study the family and education (the two topics on the AS course) amongst other topics because it allows to investigate how these institutions effect human behaviour.

Nurture explains more than nature

We have two different ways of explaining human behaviour. One uses nature to explain behaviour, the other uses nurture. The question is, which is the best explanation?

If you explain human behaviour as being the same as animal behaviour, that means that humans would all behave in the same way. French cats behave in the same way as British cats. Do British people behave like French people? People in Britain do tend to behave in a similar way. They do similar things and wear certain types of clothing. Do all people all over the world behave in the same way? Sociologists tend to say ‘no’ and use two main types of evidence to prove the point:

  • historical comparative evidence
  • Anthropological (cross cultural) comparative evidence.

Historical Evidence against Nature theories

Nature arguments suggest human behaviour isn’t dissimilar to animal behaviour, which is based on automatic responses and pre-determined modes of behaviour or that our behaviour is pre-determined by our genes. However, human behaviour has changed significantly throughout history whilst animal behaviour has changed only slightly over a very long period of time. This suggests humans interact with their environments in a unique manner, both moulding and being moulded by it.

 

changing gender roles
Rapidly changing gender roles are one example against nature theories of behaviour

Anthropological Evidence against Nature theories

The second argument uses anthropological evidence. Anthropologists are people who study and compare societies from all over the world. If our behaviour was in our genes then people all around the world would behave in the same way. This is because other than the external physical difference between humans, the actual biological difference between people from different parts of the world is tiny. However, anthropologists show that people behave differently in different societies.

 

nature and nurture
Tribal societies with different norms and values are good evidence against nature theories of behaviour

 Further evidence against nature theories

The Analaysis podcast below demonstrates the importance of nurture over nature explanations of human action…

I should be a psychopath, but I’m not?” 5:30 – 11:44 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010mcl1 (2011)

What was the pattern in the professor’s family history? What genetic pattern did the professor have?What factors does researcher suggest prevented him from becoming a killer, criminal etc?How do the researchers view of genetics vs surroundings explanations of behaviour change?

Nature or Nurture: Conclusions

NOTE – the Nature Vs. Nurture debate is hotly debated topic. No side can claim to provide compelling evidence that entirely disputes the other i.e. neither side can completely disregard nature or nurture in explanation of human behaviour.

Signposting and Related Posts 

I usually teach this material as part of an introduction to sociology module.

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