Nature versus Nurture – Thursday Thoughts

So that’s where they get it from?

Photograph of hands holding a seedling is clump of soil Nature versus Nurture Thursday Thoughts blogpost. Copyright freeimages.com / Alicia Jo McMahan.

In the 2015 BBC television family history series Who Do You Think You Are? choirmaster and television presenter Gareth Malone stated at the outset of his ancestral exploration that he wanted “to find out where my performance gene comes from”. Indeed he was able to trace his theatrical roots to Dublin where in 1879 his four times great grandfather owned a music hall called “The Star of Erin”. Malone finally substantiated family recollections and put his parents’ and his own love of music and performance into ancestral context.

Another series participant the journalist Frank Gardner was looking to “discover bravery or stoicism”, traits which he admired greatly in his mother who served as only the third woman appointed to the British Foreign Office. Gardner himself is the survivor of a fatal attack by terrorist sympathisers which left him paralysed. His family discoveries uncovered close contacts with King Edward VI and direct descendance from William the Conqueror and King Edward I.

Both these stories highlight a recurring aspiration common to many of us as we embark on our own family history research journeys. Through our research we hope to find out information about our ancestors which in some way explains subsequent family experiences or at least helps make sense of who we are, our personal character traits and natural abilities.

The Nature versus Nurture debate is alive and kicking in the realm of family history research.

In 2015 scientists published a paper which quantified the debate by drawing on 50 years of twin studies. Their results showed that 49% of the average variation for human traits and disease were due to genetics and 51% were caused by environmental factors.

When we find ancestors who show a correlation with our own patterns of behaviour, particular interests or skills, do we believe this confirms Nature’s role as we see examples of genetically prompted family tendencies? Or do we see the role of Nurture at play, when ancestors’ experiences shaped circumstances which became the background cause of an embedded family trait or ability?

Over just how many generations do we think the influence of historical events and ancestral family characters can reach? There are different schools of thought about this, although hidden patterns of family relational behaviour can have subtle but far reaching effects.

Whether we frame our fascination with our ancestors in terms of the Nature versus Nurture arguments or not, there is a strong desire among many of us to find meaning for our own lives. It is reassuring to find sources which shed light on perceived family traits such as personality, appearance, behaviours and abilities. Perhaps because this gives us a sharper sense of identity and belonging and a greater hope that we too might pass something of value down to our descendants.

Hannah, historytrace, 11/02/2016


Tinca J C Polderman, Beben Benyamin, Christiaan A de Leeuw, Patrick F Sullivan, Arjen van Bochoven, Peter M Visscher & Danielle Posthuma, “Meta-analyisis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies”, Nature Genetics 47 (2015), 702-709, published online 18 May 2015, see extract http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/v47/n7/abs/ng.3285.html.

Historytrace can help you to explore your ancestors and their life experiences. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Nature versus Nurture – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: freeimages.com / Alicia Jo McMahan.

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