Nature or nurture? It’s more like nature and nurture

Published: Sept. 30, 2013

It’s popular to frame issues of variation in human health, intelligence and other traits as a question of “nature vs. nurture.” But, armed with new research methods and a burgeoning body of knowledge, leading scholars in the social sciences increasingly find that such dichotomous discussions fail to convey the nuance they observe in their research.

In a post-conference discussion on Oct. 12, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Wisconsin will give the public a closer and deeper look at their state of understanding.

This discussion occurs in the context of a burgeoning field of data. In the past decade, there has been an explosion of research on the molecular genetic basis for a diverse range of behavioral traits.

The popular press has reported that genes are partially responsible for individual differences in smoking, voting, sexual behavior, criminal behavior, mental and physical health, life expectancy, sleep and many other human traits.

These reports often tie the relative contribution of specific genes to the likelihood that any individual may engage in a particular behavior, and they rarely discuss the fact that strength of genetic associations typically depend on the social environment in which individuals live, scholars note. To say, for example, that genes are responsible for individual differences in physical size without also considering the different environments in which people live tells only one side of the story.

Social science researchers from fields such as sociology, economics, geography and political science have recently engaged in these discussions to highlight the complexity of the “nature vs. nurture” paradigm. It is the rare case that it is one or the other; for most things that we care about, the effect of nature depends on the level of nurturing that one receives, and the effect of nurturing is contingent upon one’s nature.

The availability of genetic information from respondents of social surveys has enabled social scientists to explore the delicate balance between these two forces. This work has, for example, shown that the genetic risks for regular tobacco use is triggered by social environmental cues such that genetic risks only manifest for those who work, live, or play within communities in which smoking is more common.

To highlight the work in this area and to facilitate interdisciplinary interactions between biological, psychological, and social scientific researchers, Jason Boardman of the University of Colorado Boulder and Jason Fletcher of the University of Wisconsin host an annual conference at the Institute of Behavioral Science on the CU-Boulder campus titled “Integrating Genetics and Social Sciences.”

Researchers from across the United States and some international scholars attend each year to share new findings from this important body of work.

In an effort to engage the University of Colorado Boulder community and the larger Boulder community, a post-conference summary and public discussion will be held on Saturday, Oct. 12 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The public is invited to hear a brief panel discussion of the results of the conference presented by event organizers Boardman and Fletcher. Questions from the audience will follow the panel. If you would like to attend, please email .

For more information, please visit

Story courtesy of Arts & Sciences Magazine.