Book Excerpt from Future Science: Essays From the Cutting Edge

In an essay entitled "Nurture, Nature, and the Stress That is Life," neurobiologists Darlene Francis and Daniela Kaufer envision a future where science moves past the nature vs. nurture debate in considering differences in human behavioral responses to stress.

Oct 1, 2011
Darlene Francis and Daniela Kaufer


People are different—from other animals and, perhaps more interestingly, from one another. One important way we differ from one another is in how we respond to stress. Why is it that when faced with the same challenges, some of us crumble, some of us survive, and some of us even thrive? How we react to stress matters; it is intimately tied not just to our vulnerability to disease states and pathologies but to our general health and well-being.

If you were to poll people at random and ask, “Where do differences in human behavior and biology come from?” most respondents, regardless of their background, education, or profession, would provide some version of this reply: “Differences between people are due both to their genes and to the environments they grew up in.” Most of us, that is, are savvy enough to know that the correct response isn’t one or the  other but some combination of the two. Yet scientists and laymen alike still spend too much time and effort trying to quantify the relative importance of nature and nurture. A journalist once asked the behavioral psychologist Donald Hebb which of these mattered most to personality. Hebb replied that the question was akin to asking which dimension of a rectangle was the most important, length or width?

As neurobiologists who study stress, we believe that research in this area will help reframe the study of human nature. Recent advances in our discipline make a compelling case for fi nally abandoning the nature-nurture debate to focus on understanding the mechanisms through which genes and environments are perpetually entwined throughout an individual’s lifetime. . . .

Reprinted from Future Science: Essays From the Cutting Edge, edited and with a preface by Max Brockman © 2011 by Max Brockman. Used with permission of the publisher, Vintage Books.