Nature and Nurtures Impacts on Animal Behavior

There has been significant debate on whether nature or nurture dominates in the development of human behavior since the fields of human psychology and human psychiatry evolved. Prior to the Industrial Revolution it was presumed that the son would follow the craft of the father and the daughter be as her mother. Many human societies actually constrained children to follow in the footsteps of their parents, the son of a blacksmith was not only expected to be a blacksmith, but had virtually no opportunity to be anything else. That nature, or what your parents were, determined who you would be. While this is still sometimes savagely argued in the arena of human behavioral development, the same cannot be said in regard to animal behavior.

In animal behavior, nature and nurture are two of the three factors that determine the development and expression of any animal’s behavior, no matter what the circumstances and in any situation. The third factor is the present situation, that is the animal’s internal environment, what is occurring in their body, and its perception of the external environment; which might therefore be called the now. So these three factors together are sometimes referred to as the three Ns.

Nature is the genetic make-up of the animal, the specific mix of genetic traits inherited from their parents. This not only gives us the instinctive, sometimes called the hard-wired, behavioral traits but also controls the morphology (shape) and physiology (internal biological processes) of the animal. It places limits on what it is physically possible for the animal to do, for example most animal’s forepaws are not physically capable of grasping and manipulating tools, although arboreal (tree-living) animals often are. Animals can only express behaviors they are physically capable of doing.

Nurture is the accumulation of past experiences, pre-natal to present. This creates learned responses and behavioral trends to familiar stimuli. Unfamiliar stimuli will still induce an instinctive (natural) behavioral response. As an example, if a dog has previously experienced cars in non-threatening circumstances it will probably be calm near traffic, while a dog that has not experienced cars before is likely to exhibit some form of fear response.

Now is the current situation, what is going on in the animal’s internal environment and what it perceives in the external environment and how it interprets that. Many animal’s interpretation of a given stimulus may be significantly different to that of a person, because they do not evaluate it in comparison to past experience but simply do a direct association, nor is it assessed on the basis of any future expectation.

It is the combination of these three factors that will result in an animal’s actual behavior.

An animal’s natural or instinctive behaviors are those that it is born with; for example, suckling is an instinctive behavior in the young of all eutherian and marsupial mammals, including the egg-laying platypus. While other egg-laying species such as birds, reptiles and amphibians, where there is any nurturing by the parents at all, generally supply partially digested adult food regurgitated in response to the youngs’ demands. Their young demanding such feeding is that species instinctive (natural) behavior, equivalent to mammalian young suckling.

For all of these species, it is essential to the survival of the young animal that it be able to feed right from the start without having to be taught how. Most instinctive behaviors are ones that improve the individual’s chances of surviving to breeding age and successfully mating, birthing and raising young.

Learned behaviors on the other hand are those that have to be taught or discovered, during the animal’s developmental period and beyond. These always occur with animals that receive parenting, whether deliberately taught or not. A human teaching a dog to sit on command is a learned behavior that has been taught. A dog barking when by itself may be a learned behavior that the dog has discovered gets a human pack member to give it attention. Even being yelled at is preferable to no interaction at all from the dog’s point of view.

For animals that are not nurtured by parents, learned behaviors are the result of experience. Turtles, for example, never even know their parents. Their mother buries her many eggs and whether or not the young even reach the sea after hatching is totally dependent on chance. Even some fish species are more nurturing than that, establishing territories around where they deposit and fertilize their eggs, then trying to protect their young from the many interested, opportunistic predators.

Many freshwater fish keenly sought by anglers learn by experience. To manage to catch a grand-daddy trout, anglers need to use flies that closely imitate a trout’s natural prey physically and fish in a manner that imitates that fly’s normal behavior. While it is true that fish do not emote pain in the same way as ourselves they still feel it, and the fear they experience is very similar to our own. Fear is a defensive mechanism from the earliest days of multi-cellular life; the fear humans feel is generated in the earliest and most basic part of our brains, the parts we share with a vast array, in fact most, of our fellow animals. Being constrained by a fishing line is a terrifying experience for any fish; something they would never want to repeat if they can recognize how to avoid it.

In essence, the fundamental difference between nature and nurture is that nature affects the animal’s internal environment, neurological, anatomical and physiological, while nurture is completely about the animal’s external environment, anything and everything occurring outside the animal’s body that impacts on its survival.

There is significant debate in science circles on whether behavior is dominated by nature or nurture. Geneticists and physiologists generally advocate nature, while sociologists and psychologists generally favor nurture. This writer’s opinion is that behavior is generated as a combination of the two, and is strongly influenced by the present circumstances for all animals that do not have the intellectual capability to comprehend time. Whether that is all animals besides humans is debatable, although it is certainly likely to be most. Considering the brain to body mass ratios of cetaceans and the complexities of some cetacean species brain structure, bottle-nose dolphins having a more complex brain structure than humans for example, it is highly likely that we are not the only species on the planet capable of deciding our behavior on a basis beyond both nature and nurture.