Over the course of the last century one of the greatest debates in psychology concerns, the basis of behaviour, specifically whether behaviour is innate i.e. genetically controlled, or whether it is learnt through the socio-cultural environment. This is often referred to as the Nature vs. Nurture debate. There are two main arguments on this issue. The ‘Nativist’ claims that all behaviour is innate believing that genes control the majority of animal behaviour. On the other hand, the empiricist position suggests that all behaviour is learned through an individuals cultural experience and conditioning – that individuals begin life as blanks slates. Extremes of both these positions are reductionist, since they explain all behaviour at one level of explanation. This debate has evolved in such a way that the modern question is not whether behaviour is innate or learned, but rather how much of behaviour, if any, is genetically determined. Most psychologists now accept that both heredity and the environment are necessary for human existence and influence our behaviour. Therefore the question has shifted to considering to what extent nature or nurture affects our behaviour and how they interact– not so much nature or nurture, as nature via nurture. The debate endures because both sides have the ability to create a scientific environment to support their cause.
One persuasion argues that behaviour is determinant, and that genetics influences on behaviour in a minimal way. The main extreme empiricists were the behaviourists. An extreme example of the empiricist point of view is Watson’s concept of behaviourism.
“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and ill guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select- a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant and yes, even into beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.” John B Watson (1930)
The case of “Little Albert”, reported by Watson and Rayner (1920) is a good example of how a behaviour, such as a phobia can be developed through operant conditioning. By showing a child (which had no previous fear of rats) a white rat and simultaneously shocking the child with a loud noise, they showed that it was possible to condition the child. Eventually the baby would show a fear response from just seeing white rats without the shock noise. Crucially however, it does not examine innate variability in fearfulness or the degree of difficulty of conditioning between human subjects.
Other studies aim to prove that learnt behaviours could change individuals in spite of genetic makeup. The famous Ramey studies on the environmental effects of intelligence are a prime example of this school of thought. His experiments demonstrated that the environmental influence on young children could drastically alter their intelligence compared to that of their parents. The study on ‘Susie’ whose mother had an IQ in the 40’s, and who, after receiving a high level of ‘intelligence fostering intervention’, now has two bachelor degrees, demonstrated the independence of an individual’s the overall IQ from that of their parents. Additionally Huttenlocher’s experiments on talkative mothers influencing the vocabulary of offspring leads us along a similar line (Huttenlocher, Wickelgren 1999). But these experiments can never show a complete lack of genetic influence on intelligence. Work done by Devlin et al. (1997) shows, through meta-analysis of other studies, that there is a ‘maternal effect’ to intelligence, which explains the similarity of intelligence between twins reared separately. According to Sternberg and Grigorenko (1997),
“Virtually all researches accept that both...