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Nature vs Nurture - Why We Need Both

Updated on March 16, 2017
Sustainable Sue profile image

Sustainable Sue acquired a masters degree in sustainable development before there was such a thing, then worked in the field for many years.

A recent study conducted by the UK government (link below) showed a high correlation between individual well being and contact with nature. This is not surprising, since we humans are an organic part of nature, having evolved from nature, and dependent upon it for our health and sustainment.

Without regular interaction with nature we starve ourselves emotionally and intellectually, but especially spiritually. With it, we learn about ourselves, how life works, and where we fit into society and the natural world. The real question is not "nature vs. nurture," as though they are antagonistic, but nature and nurture, i.e. how nature nurtures us.

It feels great to be out in nature!
It feels great to be out in nature! | Source

Nature's Psychological Benefits

In February, 2009 Newsweek reported that Peter Kahn, an environmental psychologist from the University of Washington, ran a test to see what benefits office workers might receive from exposure to technological versions of nature. They erected plasma TV "windows" in otherwise windowless offices, through which they projected a variety of nature scenes for almost four months. They found that workers sitting near scenes of parklands and mountain ranges had a "greater sense of well-being, clearer thinking, and a greater sense of connection to the natural world."

Walking through the desert display of Huntington Gardens in Pasadena CA.
Walking through the desert display of Huntington Gardens in Pasadena CA. | Source

Kahn continued the experiment by testing the difference between technological views of nature and the real thing. This time he found that the real thing reduced stress in workers, whereas the plasma image did not.

Then his team tested to see if getting outside the office was enough to reduce stress. They found a distinct difference between those who walked down a busy street and those who walked in a corner of the local arboretum. Those who took the nature walk brought back to the office a better focus and clearer concentration on their work.

Nature Deficit Disorder in Children

In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes how children are affected when they have no contact with nature - when they are constantly talking on the cell phone, watching TV, or playing games on the computer. He stated that humans do not have the capacity to live without nature - which is hardwired into us - and children who do not get out on a regular basis develop attention problems, anxiety, depression, and obesity.

When I was a child there were no cell phones. My seven siblings and I always played outside on sand piles, explored the woods, swam in the ocean, or climbed trees. We had a ton of adventures that taught us about ourselves, whetted our curiosity about life, and helped us focus and learn better in school. Being out in the natural world gave us a sense of confidence and wonder about the world in general.

Lessons of Nature

When I was two years old I was caught by the sight of sunlight streaming through red, green, and gold maple leaves that overhung the country road down which we drove. Colored sunbeams lit dust motes floating in the air and filled my eyes and heart. That was the day I learned about Beauty.

When the sun shines through these leaves, the effect is transcendent.
When the sun shines through these leaves, the effect is transcendent. | Source

When I was four years old I stood alone on a bridge at the San Diego Zoo, entranced by elegant white swans swimming in circles below me. They watched me as I watched them. When my mother came to fetch me for chocolate cake I didn't want to go. I was busy learning Grace and Dignity.

Signet swans are quiet, beautiful, dignified.
Signet swans are quiet, beautiful, dignified. | Source

When I was 11, body-surfing alone in Hawaii, I was caught by a fierce riptide and nearly drowned. Tumbling over and over in the ocean, unable to breathe and on the verge of panic, I heard, "Relax. You don't need to breathe. You'll know when it's time to get up." I relaxed and soon lay on the warm sand of the beach - with an intense clarity to the scene around me I had never seen before. I now knew to be careful of Power.

Powerful riptides are typical of beaches in Hawaii.
Powerful riptides are typical of beaches in Hawaii. | Source

When I was 13 at a girls' church camp in the mountains, I climbed a hill alone behind my cabin. I lay down in the meadow on top of the hill and immersed myself in the sun, the smell of the earth, the buzzing insects, and the calls of birds. Time drifted. I felt myself merge with everything around me and knew Belonging.

The sun, the mountains, trees, insects buzzing, birds singing. I belong too.
The sun, the mountains, trees, insects buzzing, birds singing. I belong too. | Source

Continuing into my adult years, I learned lesson after lesson through interactions with nature. Even at 51, I learned to dissolve fear into Trust when the cliff ledge I was hiking at Devil's Punchbowl petered out and I couldn't turn around. These are spiritual and psychological lessons we learn from nature. There are also tangible, physical benefits that come from interaction with nature.

Devils Punchbowl both scared and inspired me. I tested myself a lot climbing these rocks and trails.
Devils Punchbowl both scared and inspired me. I tested myself a lot climbing these rocks and trails. | Source

Products of Nature

In addition to becoming better humans, we need the natural world to help us stay alive and be healthy. We need the food it produces, the insects that pollinate and make plants fruit, the birds that keep the insects in balance (especially mosquitos) and the little microbes and fungi that break down rocks, chemicals, and soil into compost, so the plants we harvest and eat are healthy.

Grapefruit tree bearing fruit.
Grapefruit tree bearing fruit. | Source

We need rain and oxygen and sunlight, and we need them to function in a balanced way. We need wolves, lions and tigers, vultures and condors, sharks and whales, and all the other predators to keep the smaller animals in check. We need grass to feed our cattle and pigs and chickens (grain is not enough), and wild stock to interbreed with our own when a species grows weak.

We need to know we belong to something bigger than ourselves, something to keep us touring and exploring, forever expanding. We need the challenges nature provides us - mountain climbing, sailing, swimming, hunting, spelunking. We need nature's security and its unpredictability. And we need its systems of survival to show us how to effect our own survival in more comfortable and sustainable ways.

Bee pollinating lavendar. We need the bees to have the flowers and fruit.
Bee pollinating lavendar. We need the bees to have the flowers and fruit. | Source

Inventions from the Natural World

In addition to lessons about ourselves as humans and the nature of the natural world, we have learned practical lessons from nature that have helped us to develop products - countless products that make our lives easier:

Christmas lights looking like fireflies.
Christmas lights looking like fireflies. | Source
Art created from animals, real and imagined.
Art created from animals, real and imagined. | Source
  • From the balance existing in a thriving ecosystem we learned about composting, fertilizing, companion planting, and permaculture.

  • With the power of the waterfall and storage capacity of dams, we made electricity; from natural hot pools we created spas and jacuzzis.

  • In imitation of our bodily functions we created cameras (eyes), microphones (the eardrum), windshield wipers (eyelids), ball joints (the ball of the shoulder), knives (incisors), mortar and pestle (molars), plumbing and hydraulic systems (our circulatory system), hydraulic shock absorbers (knee joints), and many more.

  • We got suction cups from the octopus, inboard (boat) propulsion from the squid, anesthetics from venoms and poisons, sonar from bats and dolphins.

  • We created architecture in the shapes of mountains, icebergs, stalagmites, caves, cliffs, and low hills. We've imitated nature in countless sounds of music and objects of art.

  • Using the aerodynamics of the albatross we created airplanes and drones, and from the hummingbird came the helicopter; the smooth, deep-water glide of a whale we converted into submarines, complete with the occasional surfacing for air.

  • And who hasn't seen a long train hugging the ground, winding up and down and around a mountain, like a giant, segmented caterpillar?

Segmented freight trains look like caterpillars, especially winding through mountains or along a coastline.
Segmented freight trains look like caterpillars, especially winding through mountains or along a coastline. | Source

These are only a very few of the thousands of inventions we've created already from observing and experimenting with nature, then combining and perfecting what we've learned. And we have more to learn. Every time we run out of ideas, we turn back to nature.

Questions we ask ourselves now are:

  • How can we solve our energy crisis?
  • How can we absorb and translate the heat of the sun into heat for ourselves and our houses, or turn the spiral energy of whirlpools, tornados, and hurricanes into energy for running machines?
  • How can we mimic the ability of mushrooms and algae to break down rock, oil, chemicals, and other throwaway toxins?
  • How can we set up complete life cycle systems in our manufacturing processes, so that nothing is wasted - where one factory's discards become another's raw materials?

Mushrooms are the fruit of underground mycelium, which breaks down toxins in the soil.
Mushrooms are the fruit of underground mycelium, which breaks down toxins in the soil. | Source

"Kia hora te marino, kia whakapapa pounamu te moana, kia tere ai te karohirohi i mua tonu i o koutou huarahi."

"May the calm be widespread, may the sea be as the smooth surface of the greenstone (jade), and may the rays of sunshine forever dance along your pathway."
- Maori prayer

We humans could not live without nature for many, many reasons. We need regular connection with it in order to thrive psychologically and spiritually, support from it to thrive physically, and ideas from it to create more comfortable and sustainable lifestyles. It's time to recognize the extent of our need for nature and to make it a more conscious center of our lives, rather than a sometime, occasional side thought.

Exploring the natural world.
Exploring the natural world. | Source

What has been your favorite experience with nature so far? Please share it:

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    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 4 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      I lived for years in Oregon in and near the Cascades, MermaidMoney. I totally know what you mean. Except for the overabundance of cloudy days, I really loved being so close to nature.

    • MermaidMoney profile image

      Alanna Fox Starks 4 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      This is an amazing article, Sue. I love these ideas. My children and I cannot live without nature. We spend several weeks per year just enjoying outside, in Lake Tahoe and at the beach in San Diego county. We take regular trips to the ocean, just to watch the waves in the SF bay weekly. They grew up in the forest and miss those days of watching deer, owls and squirrels play in our tall pines. =)

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      how true this is.. and how wonderful a hub.. I want everyone to read this.. I am sharing


    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 5 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      I have now (lol). Great word. And very expressive of how I feel about nature. I feel the craving especially living in a city, where nature is so tamed down that you almost can't connect with it. Luckily, there are foothills nearby. :-)

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Fantastic article Sue. Have you ever heard of 'Biophilia' It's a theoretical condition that all humans have. It's basically an intrinsic link between us and the living world. We need a healthy, fertile world for both our physical and psychological well being. Voted up etc.