Nature and Nurture

Excerpts from Key Readings


 These excerpts provide a great jump-start into the deep waters of a persistent question;  

Both excerpts reflect the politicized time in which they emerged, but the questions predate contemporary politics and will persist… At various levels of organization –from cells to societies– beliefs (sometimes implicit) about the relative influences and interactions of evolutionary and developmental processes play a huge part in sorting out the paths of cause and consequence that enable us to act in ways that meet our biological needs as individuals and as cultures.

Steven Pinker (2004) about the inevitable persistence of the question:..

 “A common position on nature and nurture among contemporary scientists can be summarized as follows:

 No one today believes that the mind is a blank slate; to refute such a belief is to tip over a straw man. All behavior is the product of an inextricable interaction between heredity and environment during development, so the answer to all nature-nurture questions is “some of each.” If people only recognized this truism, the political recriminations could be avoided. Moreover, modern biology has made the very distinction between nature and nurture obsolete. Since a given set of genes can have different effects in different environments, there may always be an environment in which a supposed effect of the genes can be reversed or canceled; therefore the genes impose no significant constraints on behavior. Indeed, genes are expressed in response to environmental signals, so it is meaningless to try to distinguish genes and environments; doing so only gets in the way of productive research.

 The attitude is often marked by words like ‘interactionist,’ ‘developmentalist,’ ‘dialectic,’  ‘constructivist,’ and ‘epigenetic,’ and is typically accompanied by a diagram with the labels ‘genes,’ ‘behavior,’ ‘prenatal environment,’ ‘biochemical environment,’ ‘family environment,’ ‘school environment,’ ‘cultural environment,’ and ‘socioeconomic environment,’ and arrows pointing from every label to every other label.


This doctrine, which I will call holistic interactionism, has considerable appeal. It is based on some unexceptionable points, such as that nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive, that genes cannot cause behavior directly, and that the direction of causation can go both ways (for example, school can make you smarter, and smart people are most engaged by schooling). It has a veneer of moderation, of conceptual sophistication, and of biological up-to-dateness. And as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have put it, it promises “safe conduct across the politicized minefield of modern academic life.”

 But the very things that make holistic interactionism so appealing should also make us wary of it. No matter how complex an interaction is, it can be understood only by identifying the components and how they interact. Holistic interactionism can stand in the way of such understanding by dismissing any attempt to disentangle heredity and environment as uncouth. As Dan Dennett has satirized the attitude: “Surely ‘every- one knows’ that the nature-nurture debate was resolved long ago, and neither side wins since everything-is-a-mixture- of-both-and-it’s-all-very-complicated,  so let’s think of something else, right?” (Pinker 2004:7)[i]


 George Barlow (1991) on the Nature-Nurture debates:  

“The central problem in the history of animal behavior has been the inability to perceive the phenotype as the result of an interaction between genome and environment, despite the considerable lip service paid to the interaction. In North America the comparative study of animal behavior was overshadowed by the growth of an experimental psychology that produced the general-process view of learning, holding that the mechanisms underlying learning are much the same in all species. That made evolution irrelevant. During the same period ethology emerged in Europe as the study of naturally occurring behavior in an evolutionary context. Because evolution is fundamental to ethology, the genetic basis of behavior was a central precept. Ethology and psychology collided after World War II. After a vigorous exchange on the issues, a synthesis by Robert Hinde materialized, one that advanced the study of behavior and produced a sophisticated understanding of nature and nurture. A few decades later sociobiology appeared and was immediately assailed for making what were seen as unwarranted extensions from animal to human behavior, and for emphasizing genetic control of behavior. Much of the debate that ensued was distractingly political and threw little light on the scientific merits of the issues although it moderated the stance of sociobiologists; on the other hand, the politically inspired debates may have harmed the field of animal behavior.” (Barlow 1991)[ii]

The complete essays are available to read


[i] Pinker, Steven (2004) Why nature & nurture won’t go away. Dædalus Fall 2004: 5-17. https://www.amacad.org/publication/why-nature-nurture-wont-go-away


[ii] Barlow, George W. (1991) Nature-Nurture and the Debates Surrounding Ethology and Sociobiology. American Zoologist 31(2):286-296 URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3883406