The debate concerning the contribution of nature and nurture to human psychological functioning is one of the longest running and most controversial within psychology. The question is what elements of human behaviour can be explained in terms of physical being and what can be explained in terms of social environment. Although this debate is relevant to many topics within psychology this essay will focus on two: language and sex and gender.
Firstly it must be made clear what is meant by nature and nurture. Nature refers to the characteristics and abilities that are determined by a person’s genetic material which is transmitted from generation to generation. Evolutionary psychologists such as Darwin argued that certain behaviours evolve and adapt because of the benefits to survival and increased likelihood of passing on ones own genetic codes. Nurture refers to the environmental influences, such as historical and cultural context, that shape human behaviour. The behaviourist approach is an example of this. John Watson argued that ‘human behaviour was largely at the mercy of the environment’ and to him ‘saints and sinners were largely formed by early environmental influences’ (Littleton, Toates and Braisby, 2002, p.169). The relative importance of these two influences will now be discussed with regard to language and sex and gender
‘Language is the main medium for communication between human being and where we express, explore and pursue those goals that mean most to us’ Cooper and Kaye, 2002 p67) How much this ability to produce and understand language is programmed into our genes and how much acquired through experience is an important area of research as verbal communication is a key part of society. As all humans use language in one form or another it can be assumed that it is part of the biological make up. Evolutionists argue that at some stage language conferred an adaptive benefit as ‘there was an advantage to communicating more information rather than less’ (Cooper & Kaye, 2002, p.77) and that natural selection would ensure that groups who communicated fully would have a better survival rate and thus breed more successfully. The position of the larynx and the structure of the throat enable humans flexibility to form different sounds which are specialised anatomical features that only humans have, also the structure of the brain is different with specific regions known as Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas dedicated to language which, when damaged, affect speech. Noam Chompsky in 1965 (Wikipedia 2007) theorised that humans were born with an innate ability for acquiring language and he suggested this ‘Language acquisition device’ (LAD), helped all humans, whatever language they spoke, to understand certain grammatical rules without being taught thus suggesting it to be a biological function. A criticism of the view that language is a genetic predisposition is that all humans cook their food but there is no ‘cooking gene’ it is a learnt behaviour thus supporting the nurture viewpoint.
The supporters of the ‘nurture’ theory suggest that humans advanced because of their ability to speak rather than the other way round and that as language was beneficial to problem solving it was a learned behaviour rather than a genetic predisposition. The behaviourist theory of language acquisition is that language is learnt through experience by a process of imitation and shaped by operant conditioning. Skinner proposed that learning is done through a series of positive reinforcements as parents constantly praise and reward their children for attempting to communicate thus increasing the likelihood of them trying again. As most humans live in social groups there must be some organisation and rules for communication. Grice in 1975 proposed that ‘in...