In Nature vs. Nurture Debate, Cultural Influence Wins

New research shows that community shapes our genetics in significant ways. Here, how Ayurvedic philosophy aligns with epigenetics.

In This Article

The Science of Epigenetics

The debate about whether our behavior is learned (nurture) or inherited (nature) has concluded that it is neither 100% nature nor nurture—it is both. Through a science called epigenetics, it’s now known that our genes affect our behaviors and our behaviors affect our genes.

The science of epigenetics tell us that the environment, cultural shifts, stress, and emotions can change how our genes are expressed. Behavioral epigenetics is an emerging field of study that measures how our environment can produce changes in our cognition, personality, behavior, and mental health. In some cases, epigenetic changes are passed down for generations in order to prepare the species to endure famine or even a toxic herbicide, such as glycosphate. Other epigenetic changes are temporary and just needed for a week or two to, for example, create an immune response for the common cold. Any outside influence can have an epigenetic influence of how our genes are expressed.

See also Epigenetics—What You See, You Become

New Science on How Nurture May Play a Bigger Role than Nature

Just when we all thought case closed, nature and nurture share responsibility for human evolution, a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that our behavior has become more affected by environmental influences over time.

The researchers found that while our genetic code is our basic blueprint and only gets updated once every generation, cultural and environmental changes happen frequently and are updated on the fly—24/7.

Genetic transfer of information is based only on the experiences of two parents, but cultural transmission is dynamic and unlimited, uploaded from friends, family, and day-to-day activities, all of which, over time, outweigh and outpace our genetic inheritance.

The study also discovered that a major component of cultural impact on behavior is group-oriented, meaning social identity, shared norms, and community played a major role in behavior and have much to do with species survival.

Groups of people are smarter than individuals, and as a result are better able to solve problems and evolve to handle threats to the survival of the species.

In a study published in the journal Nature several years ago, magpies, a species of bird known for their intelligence, were challenged to open a locked box of food. One or two magpies were not able to open the box, but a group of them were quickly able to solve the problem. Researchers observed the birds working together in a large group to get their needs met.

This is similar to the way humans came together to form larger communities as our species evolved—a socialization that may be responsible for tripling the size of the human brain.

See also Is Embracing Community Responsible for Brain Evolution?

Different Schools of Thought on Nature vs. Nurture

Despite the science of epigenetics being well-accepted, there are still varying theories related to how much of evolution is due to nature or nurture. Here, in light of new research findings, we break down those schools of thought, and how Ayurveda relates to them.

Nativism: Extreme Believers in Nature

Nativists believe that all human characteristics are genetic. Humans are a product of evolution and individual differences are based on genetic code that can be passed down from one generation to the next. Traits that are expressed later in life are called maturation–when pre-programmed genetic expressions are locked into our cellular biological clocks.

The Ayurvedic Take on Nativism

According to Ayurveda, the idea that physical, behavioral, mental, and emotional traits can be imprinted in the body and mind and passed on to future generations is well-accepted. If mom, dad, or grandparents experienced extreme stress, the associated genetic imprint related to that stress and its related behaviors can be passed on for generations. These genetic imprints, or inherited stresses, are called samskaras.

See also Inherited Stress (Samskaras) Explained by Epigenetic Science

Empiricism: Extreme Believers in Nurture

Also known as environmentalists, empiricists believe that at birth the mind is a blank slate that absorbs, learns, and evolves based on experiences that shape behavior. All psychological and behavioral characteristics are learned.

The Ayurvedic Take on Empiricism

The Vedic saying, “What you see, you become” actually applies to all of the senses in Ayurveda—you are what you sense. Our senses inform us about the outside world, while also acting as avenues of consciousness that enhance our self-awareness.

Repeated, learned, or facilitated behaviors shape ones emotional disposition. Your emotional body type in Ayurveda, based on more nurture than nature, can drive your life. The goal is to exhibit sattvic behavior, in which you are content, joyful, and loving. With a less-balanced upbringing, one can become rajasic, meaning they are only satisfied by reward chemistry or the need for constant sensory stimulation from the outside world to be content. Over-stimulating the senses can result in withdrawal or tamasic behavior, in which the only source of contentment is to retreat or hide from the stimulation of the outside world.

Landmark behavioral studies on monkeys and rats have shown that animals raised sattvicly and tended to by their mothers on a regular basis grow up to be less stressed. It didn’t matter who the mother was genetically, it mattered whether they were nurtured or not—whether they were raised by a sattvic, rajasic, or tamasic mom. If they were raised by a non-sattvic, less-than-attentive mother, they would grow up to be stressed out rats or monkeys.

See also What’s Your Emotional Body Type?

What Does it All Mean?

The new Proceedings of the Royal Society B study concluded that we are of course hard-wired genetically to take lessons from previous generations to help us endure threats to our species, but we have also become more adaptive to our environment become what we see (like Ayurveda decreed many thousands of years ago).

The findings suggest that what we expose ourselves to in our culture will shape us genetically and modulate our behaviors going forward. Ayurveda make a very clear recommendation to be mindful of what influences you expose yourself to, because your brain is recording everything in order to prepare you for what’s next—the good and the bad.

1 thought on “In Nature vs. Nurture Debate, Cultural Influence Wins”

  1. Thank you Dr, for this beautiful piece that answered a lot of questions I have had.

    Blessings,
    Brad Whitney

    Reply

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