Nature vs. nurture: Do genes influence our morals?

To what extent do environment and education shape our moral compass, and how responsible is the genetic cocktail we inherit from our parents? Recent research aims to get to the heart of the matter.
identical twins

Recent research suggests that our genetic makeup may partly drive our sense of responsibilty and conscientiousness.

The well-known “nature versus nurture” debate goes back hundreds of years, and it is still of interest today.

It asks whether certain behaviors are rooted in our natural inclinations, or whether our social environment shapes them.

Recently, the release of the documentary Three Identical Strangers reignited some discussions into the importance of environmental factors and education versus that of heritable traits.

The documentary presents the case of a contentious “twin study” (or in this case “triplet study”) conducted in the 1960s. It involved separating identical triplets during infancy and adopting them out to different families as “only children” to assess how the siblings would evolve throughout their lives.

A new study by Pennsylvania State University in State College, the University of Oregon in Eugene, and Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, CT, followed sets of siblings in an effort to better understand whether our moral compass is solely down to our upbringing, or whether our genetic inheritance also has a say in the matter.

First study author Amanda Ramos, from Penn State University, refers to a person’s moral qualities as their “virtuous character” and explains that both nurture and nature could work together to shape them.

“A lot of studies have shown a link between parenting and these virtuous traits, but they haven’t looked at the genetic component,” says Ramos.

However, she adds, “I thought that was a missed opportunity because parents also share their genes with their children, and what we think is parents influencing and teaching their children these characteristics may actually be due, at least in part, to genetics.”

So, Ramos and team conducted a study investigating the extent to which “virtuous character” is a heritable trait. The researchers report their findings in the journal Behavior Genetics.

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