Nature vs nurture

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By Francis Ewherido

Today’s topic was influenced by the headline of a story in last week’s Sunday Vanguard:“Boko Haram commander’s mother: I gave birth to him, but I didn’t give birth to his lifestyle!” Falta, mother of one of the Boko Haram commanders, Mamman Nur, while readily accepting Nur as her son, distanced herself from his fundamentalism and murderous tendencies. She claims she does not know when and why her son joined the jihadists. The disclaimer brings to fore once again the raging debate about nature and nurture, which is dominant in the culture, behaviour and personality of human beings?

What is nature and what is nurture? Stripped of all technicalities, “nature refers to traits and characteristics that are inherited or genetic in origin, while nurture refers to traits and qualities that are learned by organisms (human beings) as they grow.”

For over four centuries, social scientists have been going back and forth on which is predominant in the culture, personality and behavior of people. Over 400 years later, the views remain divergent, but they are at least firm and uniform that both phenomena contribute to the constitution of human beings. On the sociological realm, there will continue to be divergence on the percentage of each contributory factor.

But some characteristics are basic. If you are black, you give birth to a black child. The height of a person, colour of eyes and hair are basically natural. Nurture plays almost a zero role there. For instance, if one black identical twin lives in Europe, while the other lives in Africa, the skin of the one in Europe will likely be lighter than that of the one living in Africa due to environmental factors, but the Europe-based one will never change to a Caucasian; he remains black.

But contrary to what some people think, humans do have some control over nature. For instance, humans can naturally predetermine the sex of their babies, but they cannot determine the height of their children, their complexion, the size of their feet and hands. Scientists also advise pregnant women to eat certain foods at certain stages of the development of the foetus to increase the probability of giving birth to intelligent children. Comparatively, human influence over nature is limited.

Nurture offers humans larger latitude to influence the personality and behavior of their children. It starts with the internal environment (home) where the child is born into. That is where the parents have the most control and every parent needs to make the most of it in the formation of the children.

As we have said here many times, the first 10 years are the most important years in the formation of the child’s character. Every parent should guard those years jealously because if you get it right, chances are that your child will come up good, no matter the turbulence she/he comes up against later in life, which are inevitable anyway.

The core, which has been formed in those early years, will become the compass that will guide the child at every critical point and crossroad later in life. That is why the Old Testament wisdom tells us that we should train the child in the way he should go and when he grows up, he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6).

That is also why I strongly believe that Nur’s mother cannot be totally exonerated from blame. She partly gave credence to her culpability by following her son to live in Sambisa forest until she was captured four years later. Her excuse that she had no one else to take care of her, notwithstanding, some principled women, who do not support their children’s actions, would not have followed their sons or accepted the proceeds of the action they abhor. But this is not only about Mamman’s mother. Many parents distance themselves from failings of their children when they are partly responsible. Scratch a little deeper and the truth comes to fore.

Within the internal environment, technology has invaded and is now competing with parents in shaping their children’s character. Uncontrolled access to television, internet and social media is very dangerous. These children are not experienced enough to deal with issues emanating from uncontrolled access.

My wife once drew my attention to a children’s cartoon where kissing, dating and sex were being freely discussed in a programme meant for children less than 10 years. Pornography is available on the internet at the touch of a button. These children are not just old enough to handle these issues. Even some adults are battling social media and pornography addiction, not to talk of children.

Coming to the external environment, parents have less, but reasonable control. If you live in a multi-tenancy environment, for instance, you can reason with your children and advise them to stay away or limit their interaction with children from homes you are not comfortable with.

You can also help your children choose schools they will attend and steer them away from some of these notorious schools. Religious organizations are also there to help you in the formation of the children. But parents must always remember that schools and religious bodies are supplementary. Do not outsource your parental responsibilities. There are many wolves in schools, churches and mosques and they can turn your children’s lives upside down if you are not vigilant.

Going through the literature of nature versus nurture, sometimes you are tempted to go for nature; at other times, you are inclined towards nurture. For instance, looking at the pervasive corruption that has literally crippled Nigeria, what do you blame, nature or nurture? It is easy to blame the spate of kidnapping, corruption and other violent crimes in Nigeria on nurture, but can we totally exonerate nature. How come you see certain people and you automatically know their ethnicity; nature or nurture? This debate will continue to go on.

But as parents and Nigerians, our primary concern should not be on which is dominant between nature and nurture. Rather we should use those factors that are within our control in nature and nurture positively to create good micro societies, which cumulatively bring about a better macro society. I am sure if we chip in our bit, God will crown our efforts with success.


The Lenten season is always a sobering time. The symbolic ash used to trace the sign of the cross on the forehead of faithful reminds all of us, whether or not you participate in the ritual, that thou art dust; from dust we came and to dust we shall all return, without exception.

Social media have made all of us social critics, but this is a time to self-critique. It is not always about what others did like stashing away $9.8m. What about those little acts we did or failed to do which have all contributed to making Nigeria the mess it is today. Lent reminds us to keep our corners clean. It’s time to wrench our hearts not our garments.

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