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Nature vs Nurture

By Daniel Hubbard | June 15, 2014

I’m getting ready to give a talk about understanding the use of DNA in genealogical research. It is one thing to just jump right into DNA. It is another to wrap your head around it.

One thing I’ve realized is that I need to point out that there are two types parental role. There is the biological role and the upbringing role—nature and nurture. We are used to those roles being one and the same but they aren’t always. The documents that we use have the potential to tell us about both roles. DNA can only tell us about the people who filled the nature role.

That can be a powerful difference. DNA is not ambiguous about which role is which, as documents can be. Nature is in the DNA, nurture is not. Yet it can also lead down a path that is not truly correct. Once we think that we can use DNA to answer questions like, “Who was his real father?” we have started down that wrong path. The parent that raised a child is just as real as the parent that helped to create the child. Genes are one thing, years of nurturing are another, very real thing. If we are really doing family history, then those parents who filled the nurture role without filling the nature role are people that we need to research, even if they did not pass on their genes to us. Who they were, how they were brought up, who shaped them and raised those that shaped them, are all important influences. They are people who might have made an ancestors life totally different from what it would have been.

DNA can help to unravel the pairs of people who filled the biological role and usually, that tells us about the nurture role as well. Nevertheless, if those biological ancestors aren’t the same as the ones who filled the nurture role, then DNA is silent. In that case, DNA’s strength can become a weakness if we make it so. We make it so if we think that the flow of genes is all that we are researching.

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2 Responses to “Nature vs Nurture”

  1. Ellen Jennings Says:
    June 15th, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    I have a couple of adopted grandparents and have researched both the side which adopted as well as the genetic side. It’s good if you’re interested in medical history.
    Fascinating subject. Are you familiar with the Minnesota Twins study?
    I believe there’s some truth in the old phrase “nature loads the gun and nurture pulls the trigger”

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    June 15th, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Hi Ellen,
    I like that phrase! Glad you’ve researched both. We forget that genes aren’t everything. Thanks for reminding me about the Minnesota Twins Study ( – with external links to official information). It really shows that it takes both nature and nurture.