I did an online psychology course a couple of years ago and spent a great deal of time reading through articles written by some of the presenters or quoted professionals. It seems that the debate around nature and nurture very much goes on. Just as when I first became aware of it existing many moons ago. The case for nature being the primary influence on us and our development is strongly put by some, whilst others do the same for nurture having the dominant role. The third group – with which I side - believes that they both affect and influence the people that we are. It is this joint influencing that I will be sharing with you in this piece.
WHERE I STAND
Aside from any research findings, I simply like to believe that we are not solely defined by our forebears. OK, not very scientific I know. I would love to think that some of the characteristics of the likes of Ellen Cicely Wilkinson, who is a twig on my family tree, may have filtered down to me. Ellen was small in stature Mancunian who made up for her lack of height with a determination to support causes in which she believed. She was an advocate of women’s rights, initially through women’s suffrage. She was a teacher who apparently sought to interest her pupils rather than simply ‘educate’ them. She went on to be Member of Parliament for Jarrow, taking part in the Jarrow marches. She was the third woman to be appointed as a privy counsellor, and she served as Minister for Education. She was an advocate for mental health and consistently stood up for the underdog. She wrote several books including a semi-autobiographical novel entitled ‘Clash’. Whilst I didn’t inherit her love of politics, or her red hair, I like to think that, probably in a somewhat diluted form, I have inherited some of her beliefs. Maybe I will eventually get round to writing that book - one day.
I have also, more directly, inherited some of my mother’s and my father’s features. Whilst fortunately this doesn’t include my father’s bald head yet very hairy chest, I have taken on his love of words, and gardening. He loved to be creative and so do I, though through different media. I wonder if these traits were passed down to me via my genes or via being surrounded by such things? Seeing him write, joining in with the gardening. Getting down and dirty with this from an early age. I was also responsible for throwing the bread in an effort to get swans to come in to land on the river for a photograph. The latter always took ages, probably a combination of my poor aim and an unwillingness on behalf of the swans to touch down at the desired spot! This not only instilled in me a love of animals, be they feathered or furry, but also an acceptance that they are their own beings and our planet is just as much their home as ours. I like to think that mother nature and a good example of parenting combined to mean that such traits feature very strongly in a description of what makes me tick.
Both of my parents were very nervous people. OK, I still find it hard to cope with heights as I was always being nervously pulled back from going too close to any drop. However, I was able to overcome such things as I didn’t want my sons to take on my fear. Presumably, environment and an element of choice took over and wiped out mother and nature’s genetic influence here. As an adult I am aware that my mother must have had to overcome her own fears to allow less risky happenings to occur. She encouraged me to sing and dance in public, to be able to lead groups and to take a very active leading role as Head Girl at my school. I know it was hard for her when I had to give a speech at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. For those who do not know it, the place at which I took centre stage was home to a large orchestra, the Halle, and looked out onto two tiers of seats. I was fine. My mother however went home afterwards with a migraine. Sadly, mother nature thought it a good idea that I inherit these. Thanks a bunch.
MIX AND MATCH
So, are we a mix of who and what our forebears were, how we were formed in utero; then going on to adapt and modify as we emerge as a separate being. To grow and develop duly influenced by our surrounding. The ethics, culture and examples set by the people, places and things around us? I believe we are.
Whether you consider the big picture of the person looking back at us from the mirror or the minute one at the sub-cellular level, we are complex, individual beings. Identical twins, though sharing nearly the same genetic material, if brought up in the same setting can still develop differences. These differences become more marked if they are, for whatever reason, brought up independently. Yes, there will still be likenesses that go beyond the obvious physical ones. Maybe the same choice of fashion style, even similar choices when it comes to a long term partner. However, presumably due to their different upbringing, there are also differences that would not have been expected by the professionals. Having said that, I have worked professionally with three sets of such monozygotic twins and they were certainly very much their own people.
CAN WE ONLY BE WHAT WE FEEL WE WERE ‘DESTINED’ TO BE?
I believe that there is an important element that can affect how the who you are changes to the who you become. You do not have to be what you have always been, though if you always do what you’ve always done – yes, you’ll always get what you have always got. Maybe, it is in a way back to nature – by way of recognising, and ensuring that we utilise the strength that we have to change. A feature of ourselves that may have been put on the back burner for some time.
There are so many people that we read about who have beaten the odds and made changes, huge changes, to their lives. This can be as a result of an accident or illness leading to dramatic physical changes. They unleash a great strength to change how they approach life, how they tackle things that before they could well have believed to be beyond their ability. Now, despite their new problems, they move onwards and upwards. Neither genetics nor physical or mental changes stopped these people reacting in such a life changing positive way. I wonder if each and every one of us has this same ability?
We react in such a wide range of ways; do some of us have a braking point beyond which we are seemingly unable to progress? The red tail lights come on and that’s it. Having worked with many clients over many years, some seem to dig deep and make great, lasting changes. On the other hand, at the other end of the spectrum are those who resist change. This despite them hating where and what they are. The work then begins to find out what is happening to prevent the change taking place.
There is a theory around range of reaction – not agreed on by all researchers. According to the concept, our genes set definite limits on potential, and environment determines how much of that potential is achieved. Knowing the background of the clients with whom I have worked, this could fit for many. Or maybe there is some aspect of self that remains to be discovered by researchers that could be an influencing factor, as new aspects of our bodies and their miraculous workings continue to be looked into.
I remain, simply by looking within my own family, intrigued by how two biological parents can produce such very different offspring. Yes, there are traits – my husband was a pilot, my son is and one of my granddaughters assures me that this is what she is going to do. I presume that whilst aptitude for such a skill may be biologically, genetically based. Add in the fact that the family was very much influenced by planes – being flown, being watched, and even being painted. More than a little influence there. Was there a genetic bias towards flying aeroplanes that was backed up by surroundings? This combination working together to be mutually supportive. If so, why does this not happen in each case – why don’t all children follow in the footsteps of their predecessors as happened in earlier generations?
In earlier days there was far less choice, fewer opportunities open when it came to a job. With the increased mobility of people and an ever increasing choice of opportunities, is that element of choice coming in to play again? That choice that saw my husband choose to fly rather than follow in the footsteps of his forebears (father, grandparents and before) and become a greengrocer. I wonder how long before choice breaks the current chain. Or maybe larger scale environmental issues and changes may come into play here.
Incidentally, my other son also wanted to be a pilot when he was younger, but his eyesight did not come up to par, so biology had the controlling influence - and I am not sure that it would have suited his character had it suited his eyes.
MIX AND MATCH
I knew a couple who desperately wanted children, in the days well before IVF. It wasn’t happening so they adopted two children – a baby and a toddler. Very shortly after, I guess when the pressure to reproduce had been removed, they became pregnant. A subsequent pregnancy followed quite quickly. Physically all four children happened to be similar, but their characters, behaviour patterns, likes and dislikes were so similar that it was impossible to distinguish biological from adopted children. They were always all treated the same, so presumably this consistent nurturing meant that genetic differences were over-ridden? I lost contact with the family but would be intrigued to see them as adults with children of their own and how these previous influences are affecting current offspring.
So, I believe that it is a mix of nature and nurture with choice thrown in for good measure that shape the people that we are. But, just a thought – is it nature or nurture that affects our choices as well as our ability to make them? We don’t exist in a vacuum and I am a great believer in ‘what goes round comes round’. Hence, my reason for the picture at the beginning of this piece. An amazing building in Anhkor Wat, Cambodia. Many centuries ago, man dominated nature by clearing a way to build this and the surrounding city. Things changed for man, allowing mother nature to take back total control of the area. Further change and the discovery of the lost, forgotten city leading to people fighting back to (partially) reclaim the amazing architecture.
I am left wondering if I am in the middle of a familial cycle. Maybe offspring of mine will return to being greengrocers if the days of jetting around the world decline and a need for a greater focus on being plant eaters takes over. I will not be around to witness this possibility. Will nature take a greater role through protection of this fragile planet of ours rather rather than simply at the minute level of human genetics and individual biology? I wonder.
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