the transactions between the gene2 and the variety of internal environments that surround it within the body (Greenough, 1991; Greenough and Black, 1992). The environment of the cell influences which of the tens of thousands of genes are expressed to affect cell characteristics. Hormones and growth factors in the cell can turn some genes on and turn others off. These substances can arise from the nucleus of the cell, its cytoplasm, or the surrounding cells or organs. The substances that influence gene expression arise also from the functioning of other genes within the cell (so-called regulator genes) and the products of earlier protein synthesis.

It is impossible to think of gene expression apart from the multiple environments in which it occurs. It is impossible to think of the manifestation of hereditary potential independently of the hierarchy of environments that shape its appearance. It is impossible to think of an organism that interacts with the environment without considering the genotypical uniqueness of that individual. It is impossible, in short, to consider nature apart from nurture.

Why, then, are these two forces of human development so persistently differentiated in efforts to understand human development? From ancient Platonic and Confucian philosophy to the present, the dichotomy between inherited capabilities and environmental incentives and pressures has guided human self-understanding in Western and Eastern thought. All contemporary scientists acknowledge the interaction of heredity and environment (see Elman et al., 1996, for a recent and sophisticated version of the interactionist view). Yet an emphasis on whether hereditary constraints or environmental incentives are the preeminent influence in human development can still be observed not only in scholarship in psychology but also, more significantly, in public discourse concerning the importance of parenting and early education, and in policy debates about early intervention programs, family support, delinquency and criminality, and other issues of child and family policy.


Within the nucleus of every cell are chromosomes containing genes, which are segments of DNA. Genes direct the synthesis of proteins that are incorporated into the structure of the cell, regulate its biochemistry, and guide other genetic activity. Genes ultimately affect physical and behavioral characteristics through these influences on the cells within every living being. Although each cell contains genes that are identical to the genes of every other cell, not all genes function in the same way, and this accounts for why cells function differently from one another. Some genes act continuously, for example, while other genes in the same cells turn on temporarily, and others are never expressed. As one colorful description notes, if each gene is represented as a light bulb that is either activated or not, we would see a distinct twinkling of lights within each cell during its normal functioning (Leger, 1992). This is why organisms can have trillions of cells, all of which have the same DNA but many different forms and functions.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement