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1.2.1: Heredity

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  • Nature and Nurture

    Most scholars agree that there is a constant interplay between nature (heredity) and nurture (the environment). It is difficult to isolate the root of any single characteristic as a result solely of nature or nurture, and most scholars believe that even determining the extent to which nature or nurture impacts a human feature is difficult to answer. In fact, almost all human features are polygenic (a result of many genes) and multifactorial (a result of many factors, both genetic and environmental). It’s as if one’s genetic make-up sets up a range of possibilities, which may or may not be realized depending upon one’s environmental experiences. For instance, a person might be genetically predisposed to develop diabetes, but the person’s lifestyle may determine whether or not they actually develop the disease.

    This bidirectional interplay between nature and nurture is the epigenetic framework, which suggests that the environment can affect the expression of genes just as genetic predispositions can impact a person’s potentials. And environmental circumstances can trigger symptoms of a genetic disorder.2

    Environment Correlations

    Environment Correlations refer to the processes by which genetic factors contribute to variations in the environment (Plomin, DeFries, Knopik, & Neiderhiser, 2013). There are three types of genotype-environment correlations:

    Passive genotype-environment correlation occurs when children passively inherit the genes and the environments their family provides. Certain behavioral characteristics, such as being athletically inclined, may run in families. The children have inherited both the genes that would enable success at these activities, and given the environmental encouragement to engage in these actions.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Two skiers. (Image by Alexey Ruban on Unsplash)

    Evocative genotype-environment correlation refers to how the social environment reacts to individuals based on their inherited characteristics. For example, whether one has a more outgoing or shy temperament will affect how he or she is treated by others.

    Active genotype-environment correlation occurs when individuals seek out environments that support their genetic tendencies. This is also referred to as niche picking. For example, children who are musically inclined seek out music instruction and opportunities that facilitate their natural musical ability.

    Conversely, Genotype-Environment Interactions involve genetic susceptibility to the environment. Adoption studies provide evidence for genotype-environment interactions. For example, the Early Growth and Development Study (Leve, Neiderhiser, Scaramella, & Reiss, 2010) followed 360 adopted children and their adopted and biological parents in a longitudinal study. Results have shown that children whose biological parents exhibited psychopathology, exhibited significantly fewer behavior problems when their adoptive parents used more structured parenting than unstructured. Additionally, elevated psychopathology in adoptive parents increased the risk for the children’s development of behavior problems, but only when the biological parents’ psychopathology was high. Consequently, the results show how environmental effects on behavior differ based on the genotype, especially stressful environments on genetically at-risk children. 4

    Genes and Chromosomes

    Now, let’s look more closely at just nature. Nature refers to the contribution of genetics to one’s development. The basic building block of the nature perspective is the gene. Genes are recipes for making proteins, while proteins influence the structure and functions of cells. Genes are located on the chromosomes and there are an estimated 20,500 genes for humans, according to the Human Genome Project (NIH, 2015).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): DNA’s location in the cell. (Image by Radio89 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Normal human cells contain 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs; one from each parent) in the nucleus of the cells. After conception, most cells of the body are created by a process called mitosis. Mitosis is defined as the cell’s nucleus making an exact copy of all the chromosomes and splitting into two new cells.

    However, the cells used in sexual reproduction, called the gametes (sperm or ova), are formed in a process called meiosis. In meiosis, the gamete’s chromosomes duplicate, and then divide twice resulting in four cells containing only half the genetic material of the original gamete. Thus, each sperm and egg possesses only 23 chromosomes and combine to produce the normal 46.

    Table 2.1 - Mitosis & Meiosis 6
    Type of Cell Division Explanation Steps
    Mitosis All cells, except those used in sexual reproduction, are created by mitosis Step 1. Chromosomes make a duplicate copy
    Step 2. Two identical cells are created
    Meiosis Cells used in sexual reproduction are created by
    Step 1. Exchange of gene between the
    chromosomes (crossing over)
    Step 2. Chromosomes make a duplicate
    Step 3. First cell division
    Step 4. Second cell division
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Mitosis and Meiosis. (Image by Community College Consortium for Bioscience Credentials is licensed under CC BY 3.0)

    Given the amount of genes present and the unpredictability of the meiosis process, the likelihood of having offspring that are genetically identical (and not twins) is one in trillions (Gould & Keeton, 1997).

    Of the 23 pairs of chromosomes created at conception, 22 pairs are similar in length. These are called autosomes. The remaining pair, or sex chromosomes, may differ in length. If a child receives the combination of XY, the child will be genetically male. If the child receives the combination XX, the child will be genetically female.8

    Here is an image (called a karyogram) of what the 23 pairs of chromosomes look like. Notice the differences between the sex chromosomes in female (XX) and male (XY).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The 23 pairs of chromosomes. (Image by Nami-ja is in the public domain)

    Genotypes and Phenotypes & Patterns on Inheritance

    The word genotype refers to the sum total of all the genes a person inherits. The word phenotype refers to the features that are actually expressed. Look in the mirror. What do you see, your genotype or your phenotype? What determines whether or not genes are expressed? Because genes are inherited in pairs on the chromosomes, we may receive either the same version of a gene from our mother and father, that is, be homozygous for that characteristic the gene influences. If we receive a different version of the gene from each parent, that is referred to as heterozygous.

    In the homozygous situation we will display that characteristic. It is in the heterozygous condition that it becomes clear that not all genes are created equal. Some genes are dominant, meaning they express themselves in the phenotype even when paired with a different version of the gene, while their silent partner is called recessive. Recessive genes express themselves only when paired with a similar version gene. Geneticists refer to different versions of a gene as alleles. Some dominant traits include having facial dimples, curly hair, normal vision, and dark hair. Some recessive traits include red hair, being nearsighted, and straight hair.

    Most characteristics are not the result of a single gene; they are polygenic, meaning they are the result of several genes. In addition, the dominant and recessive patterns described above are usually not that simple either. Sometimes the dominant gene does not completely suppress the recessive gene; this is called incomplete dominance. 10

    Genetic Disorders

    Most of the known genetic disorders are dominant gene-linked; however, the vast majority of dominant gene linked disorders are not serious or debilitating. For example, the majority of those with Tourette's Syndrome suffer only minor tics from time to time and can easily control their symptoms. When dominant-gene linked diseases are serious, they do not tend to become symptomatic until later in life. Huntington's Disease is a dominant gene linked disorder that affects the nervous system and is fatal, but does not appear until midlife.

    Recessive gene disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia, are less common but may actually claim more lives because they are less likely to be detected as people are unaware that they are carriers of the disease.

    Some genetic disorders are sex-linked; the defective gene is found on the X-chromosome. Males have only one X chromosome so are at greater risk for sex-linked disorders due to a recessive gene such as hemophilia, color-blindness, and baldness. For females to be affected by recessive genetic defects, they need to inherit the recessive gene on both X-chromosomes. But if the defective gene is dominant, females are equally at risk.

    Here are tables of some genetic disorders:

    Recessive Disorders (Homozygous): The individual inherits a gene change from both parents. If the gene is inherited from just one parent, the person is a carrier and does not have the condition.

    Table 2.2 - Recessive Disorders (Homozygous)11
    Disorder Description Cases per Birth
    Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) A condition in which the red blood cells in the
    body are shaped like a sickle (like the letter C)
    and affect the ability of the blood to transport
    1 in 500 Black births
    1 in 36,000 Hispanic
    Cystic Fibrosis (CF) A condition that affects breathing and
    digestion due to thick mucus building up in the
    body, especially the lungs and digestive
    system. In CF, the mucus is thicker than normal
    and sticky.
    1 in 3500
    Phenylketonuria (PKU) A metabolic disorder in which the individual
    cannot metabolize phenylalanine, an amino
    acid. Left untreated, intellectual deficits occur.
    PKU is easily detected and is treated with a
    special diet.
    1 in 10,000
    Tay Sachs Disease Caused by an enzyme deficiency resulting in
    the accumulation of lipids in the nerves cells of
    the brain. This accumulation results in
    progressive damage to the cells and a decrease
    in cognitive and physical development. Death
    typically occurs by age five.
    1 in 4000
    1 in 30 American
    Jews is a carrier
    1 in 20 French
    Canadians is a
    Albinism When the individual lacks melanin and
    processes little to no pigment in the skin, hair,
    and eyes. Vision problems can also occur.
    Fewer than 20,000
    US cases per year

    Autosomal Dominant Disorders (Heterozygous): In order to have the disorder, the individual only needs to inherit the gene change from one parent.

    Table 2.3 - Autosomal Dominant Disorders (Heterozygous)12
    Disorder Description Cases per Birth
    Huntington’s Disease A condition that affects the individual’s
    nervous system. Nerve cells become damaged,
    causing various parts of the brain to
    deteriorate. The disease affects movement,
    behavior and cognition. It is fatal, and occurs at
    1 in 10,000
    Tourette Syndrome

    A tic disorder which results in uncontrollable motor and vocal tics as well as body jerking

    1 in 250
    Achondroplasia The most common form of disproportionate
    short stature. The individual has abnormal
    bone growth resulting in short stature,
    disproportionately short arms and legs, short
    fingers, a large head, and specific facial
    1 in 15,000-40,000

    Sex-Linked Disorders: When the X chromosome carries the mutated gene, the disorder is referred to as an X-linked disorder. Males are more affected than females because they possess only one X chromosome without an additional X chromosome to counter the harmful gene.

    Table 2.4 - Sex-Linked Disorders13
    Disorder Description Cases per Birth
    Fragile X Syndrome Occurs when the body cannot make enough of
    a protein it needs for the brain to grow and
    problems with learning and behavior can
    occur. Fragile X syndrome is caused from an
    abnormality in the X chromosome, which then
    breaks. If a female has a fragile X, her second X
    chromosome usually is healthy, but males with
    fragile X don’t have a second healthy X
    chromosome. This is why symptoms of Fragile
    X usually are more serious in males.
    1 in 4000 males
    1 in 8000 females
    Hemophilia Occurs when there are problems in blood
    clotting causing both internal and external
    1 in 10,000 males
    Duchenne Muscular
    A weakening of the muscles resulting in an
    inability to move, wasting away, and possible
    1 in 3500 males

    Chromosomal Abnormalities: A chromosomal abnormality occurs when a child inherits too many or two few chromosomes. The most common cause of chromosomal abnormalities is the age of the mother. As the mother ages, the ovum is more likely to suffer abnormalities due to longer term exposure to environmental factors. Consequently, some gametes do not divide evenly when they are forming. Therefore, some cells have more than 46 chromosomes. In fact, it is believed that close to half of all zygotes have an odd number of chromosomes. Most of these zygotes fail to develop and are spontaneously aborted by the mother’s body. 14

    Here is a table of some autosomal chromosomal disorders:

    Autosomal Chromosome Disorders: The individual inherits too many or two few chromosomes.

    Table 2.5 - Autosomal Chromosomal Disorders15
    Disorder Description
    Down Syndrome/Trisomy 21 Caused by an extra chromosome 21 and includes a combination of
    birth defects. Affected individuals have some degree of intellectual
    disability, characteristic facial features, often heart defects, and other
    health problems. The severity varies greatly among affected
    Trisomy 9
    Caused by having an extra chromosome 9 in some cells. The severity
    of effects relates to the proportion of cells with extra chromosomes.
    The effects include fetal growth restriction resulting in low birth
    weight and multiple anomalies, including facial, cardiac,
    musculoskeletal, genital, kidney, and respiratory abnormalities.
    Trisomy 13 Caused by an extra chromosome 13. Affected individuals have
    multiple birth defects and generally die in the first weeks or months of
    Trisomy 18

    Caused by an extra chromosome 18 and the affected individual also has multiple birth defects and early death.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Infant boy with Trisomy 9 Mosaicism. (Image by Ashley Onken used with permission)

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Girl with XXX Syndrome. (Image is in the public domain)

    When the abnormality is on 23rd pair, the result is a sex-linked chromosomal abnormality. This happens when a person has less than or more than two sex chromosomes. 18

    Here is a table of some sex-linked chromosomal disorders:

    Table 2.6 - Sex-Linked Chromosomal Disorders19
    Disorder Description
    Turner Syndrome
    Caused when all or part of one of the X chromosomes is lost before or
    soon after conception due to a random event. The resulting zygote
    has an XO composition. Turner Syndrome affects cognitive functioning
    and sexual maturation in girls. Infertility and a short stature may be
    Klinefelter Syndrome (XXY) Caused when an extra X chromosome is present in the cells of a male
    due to a random event. The Y chromosome stimulates the growth of
    male genitalia, but the additional X chromosome inhibits this
    development. The male can have some breast development,
    infertility, and low levels of testosterone.
    XYY Syndrome Caused when an extra Y chromosome is present in the cells of a male.
    There are few symptoms. They may include being taller than average,
    acne, and an increased risk of learning problems. The person is
    generally otherwise normal, including normal fertility.
    Triple X Syndrome
    Caused when an extra X chromosome is present in the cells of a
    female. It may result in being taller than average, learning difficulties,
    decreased muscle tone, seizures, and kidney problems.

    Contributors and Attributions

    2. Lifespan Development - Module 3: Prenatal Development by Lumen Learning references Psyc 200 Lifespan Psychology by Laura Overstreet, licensed under CC BY 4.0

    4. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective (page 40) by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    6. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective (page 34) by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 (content modified: image made into table)

    8. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective (page 34-35) by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    10. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective (page 35) by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    14. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective (page 38) by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    18. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective (page 38) by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0