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David L. Taylor
Office of the Vice Provost for Research

Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012

IU biologist adds to 'nature vs. nurture' debate in 2012 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture

March 27, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Nature or nurture? This persistent age-old debate can be simply expressed: If nurture plays the dominant role in determining characteristics, then desired social change can be brought about by allocation of scarce resources. If characteristics are "hardwired" by nature, however, then it is futile to attempt to change characteristics, since nothing can change the underlying genes.

Mike Wade

Photo by Rasmus Winther

Mike Wade

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For individuals, this debate concerns whether one's characteristics are fixed at conception or caused by the environment in which the individual develops. It's a debate with wide-ranging effects on a variety of policy decisions, including financial resources and early education.

In recent years, growing attention has been focused on the interactions between genes and environment, especially with respect to complex human diseases such as autism, obesity and asthma. Although each of these diseases has a genetic component, the rise in occurrences within a single generation is too fast to be accounted for by genetics alone. Rapid change in environments is affecting some genotypes more than others, implying that gene-environment interaction is a major causal component of these diseases.

Michael Wade's 2012 Distinguished Faculty Research Lecture adds a new dimension to the "nature vs. nurture" debate -- namely, the nurturers, which are the biotic, or life-based, components of the environment. These biotic components have genes, and their existence allows the possibility of the co-evolution of genes and environments.

A specialist in theoretical and experimental studies of the evolution of social behaviors, Wade is Distinguished Professor of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. He delivers his lecture, called "Nature, Nurture and the Nurturers," at 3 p.m. Thursday, April 5, in the Indiana Memorial Union, State Room East. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Wade will discuss maternal effects as examples of what are now called "indirect" genetic effects. He'll also discuss other social contexts in which genes play an important role, including why genes are of interest to animal breeders for improving animal welfare.

Raised in Westport, Conn., Wade spent his boyhood collecting reptiles and amphibians, developing an interest in biology at a very young age. He received his undergraduate degree from Boston College in 1971, with a double major in mathematics and biology, and completed his Ph.D. in theoretical biology at the University of Chicago in 1975.

In the same year, Wade was hired as an assistant professor by the University of Chicago, becoming a full professor there in 1986. From 1991 to 1998, he chaired Chicago's Department of Ecology and Evolution.

Wade moved to IU Bloomington in 1998. He has served as director of the graduate program in evolution, ecology and behavior in the Department of Biology as well as associate vice provost for faculty and academic affairs.