During my introduction to psychiatry as a sophomore medical student, the professor asked us, “Which do you think is more important in making us who we are: nature or nurture?” We students were in our early 20s and therefore still fairly immature. Yes, we had been through examinations in gross and microscopic anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, bacteriology. We thought we were pretty special and pretty smart. Most of us chose nature. In other words, we believed that the brain you inherited was what really mattered.

Human beings are social animals. We are constantly looking at others and drawing opinions. What does that person look like? Is that one well dressed (in context with the current style)? How good is that person in sports? How well does that person speak? How well can that person write? How smart is that person in school? How well can that person play the piano or some other musical instrument? We believed that you became what you were endowed with at conception: the sperm meeting the egg. As to the professor’s question, we never got a definitive answer. He left us to ponder that topic over time.

Nurture basically involves how we were raised by our parents: love, discipline, challenge, dependability, assuming responsibility, truthfulness, compassion, jealousy, hate, dishonesty, lying, cheating. Much depends upon how our parents were raised themselves. We learn so much from our early and continuing family situations. The child who has two loving parents has such an advantage over the child that has little or no parenting at all. The latter winds up being “parented” by his or her cohorts (gangs) “on the street.”

One survives “on the street” by becoming part of a gang. One learns in that environment to serve self first, if one is to survive. Honesty serves the individual only if it offers an advantage in a “jungle” environment. Selfishness develops so that one can survive. There is little or no stimulation to study and to learn, other than to survive. The unfortunate child, who has never been “parented,” will rarely be able to “parent” his or her offspring to their offspring’s advantage. Nurturing will be missing!

As a physician, I believe every individual is a special person, and that person’s life begins at conception: the sperm meeting the egg. Rarely, if ever, should abortion be performed. Every new life is precious for mankind’s future, but a tragedy begins when there is no one to parent that newborn. The child who is created as a result of two person’s momentary ecstasy and not because of their desire to begin a family has a slim chance of being nurtured and loved during childhood. Good nurturing may occur if the child becomes wanted and accepted, and if the parents have been nurtured themselves. From observation of how my children have nurtured their children (my grandchildren), I have noted many ideas and thoughts they garnered during their childhood and adolescent years being passed on to their children. I also remember that many disciplines from my parents and my wife’s parents were employed while we were raising our children. Yes, nothing is black and white, all things are varying shades of gray. There is a saying, what goes around, comes around. This is certainly true in human relationships. Because of these precepts, I can accept a woman’s wanting an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy; and being able to obtain one.

So back to the original question that was posed to us in psychiatry during those medical school years long ago. Children who were desired in the circumstances surrounding their conception, and have parents that have a reasonable amount of intelligence (brain power) and have been fortunate to have been well parented themselves, will have a much greater chance of achieving a life of value to themselves and to their fellow man. Those persons will have traits that are admirable in all humans: love, discipline, challenge, dependability, wisdom, truthfulness, and compassion.

So, which is more important, nature or nurture? The answer is so obvious: neither is alone. They both are!


Tom Putnam is a retired pediatric surgeon who lives with his wife, Barbara, in Rockland. He serves on a variety of nonprofit boards, as well as municipal committees, and is a communicant of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.