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The Nature vs Nurture Debate

By sarahebirch Apr 27, 2013 1559 Words
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NATURE/NURTURE DEBATE WITHIN PSYCHOLOGY The debate between the influences of our biology and genetics (nature) versus our environment (nurture) on human behaviour is long standing within psychology. The phrase nature-nurture was first used in 1874 by Francis Galton in his publication ‘Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture’, and the subject has been debated ever since. The term “nature” typically refers to what is considered to be inherited, therefore meaning people’s genes and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The term “nurture” means anything that may be a potential source of influence which is external to the individual’s body. This includes the individual’s environment, society as a whole, peers and family. At each end of this debate are the Nativists and Empiricists. Nativists believe that it is nature which determines our abilities and capabilities. That knowledge of the world is innate and inborn. The differences that are not observable and apparent at birth, that emerge later on in life are regarded to be a product of maturation. Whereas, Empiricists believe that we gain knowledge and can determine our own abilities and capabilities as the human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate) which can be filled with knowledge of the world by learning, and through our experiences. Empiricism was based on the ideas of eighteenth century British philosophers, Locke, Hulme and Berkeley. Early theories from Gesell reflect the extreme arguments from nativists. Gesell coined the term maturation which refers to a genetically programmed pattern of changes which all individuals will go through in the same order. Gesell believed that abilities unfold naturally, practice and training is not required. (Gesell, 1925). Another advocate for extreme nativist include Bolwby’s Theory of Attachment, which views the mother and child bond as an innate and inborn process that will ensure the survival of the child. Whereas Watson believed from an empiricist extreme view that environmental influence is all-important and that human beings are completely mouldable, adaptable and pliable. Watson claimed that there was no such thing as an inheritance of talent or capability. (Watson 1928). Another advocate for extreme empiricist theory include Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory which states from his Bobo doll experiment, that behaviours can be learned from the environment through observation, imitation and reward. Behaviour genetics has attempted to confirm how much a certain trait can be attributed to heritability, shared environments and non-shared environments, however it has resulted in confirming the effects that nurture has: “…behaviour genetics has helped confirm the importance of environmental factors…even when genetic factors do have an essentially powerful effect, environmental interventions can often fully or partly overcome the genetic dominants”. (Ceci and Williams, 1999).

More recent arguments include from Bee (2010), who states that all development, is a combination of both nature and nurture and does not believe it is an either/or consideration. Bee’s argument states that every element of a child’s development is the product of their interaction between both nature and nurture. (Gross, 2010).

THE WAYS IN WHICH INTELLIGENCE CAN BE APPLIED TO THE NATURE/ NURTURE DEBATE WITHIN PSYHOLOGY Within psychology the notion and perception of intelligence is widely argued when applied to the heredity – environment debate. Most favour the psychometric approach, which measures the individual differences in intelligence through the use of intelligence tests (IQ). Different theories of intelligence include: the psychometric (factor-analysis) theories, fluid and crystallised intelligence and the information-processing approach. All of these theories argue the “best” way to interpret and correlate scores by using one form or another of factor analysis. Vernon (1950, 1971) argued that general intelligence plays a part in all mental abilities, however in order to excel, then specific abilities are needed to be present as well. However factor analysis models have been criticised as they are required to be given a psychological interpretation, and this has been argued that these interpretations are not objective. Piaget’s biological approach to intelligence argues that it is the individual’s ability to adapt to their environment. “…a state of balance or equilibrium achieved by the person when he is able to deal adequately with the data before him…not a static state, it is dynamic…continually adapts itself to new environmental stimuli” (Piaget, 1950). To explain genetic influences on intelligence there have been many studies including family resemblance studies which have investigated intelligence via studying monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (non-identical) twins. Bouchard and McGue (1981) have determined that the closer the genetic similarity, then the more strongly correlated their IQ’s seem to be. However, this has been criticised, because as the genetic similarity increases (e.g. as in the case of monozygotic twins) then so too will the environmental factors. However this was overcome by Bouchard (1979) and The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA). The environmental factors which may influence intelligence include pre-natal environmental influences such as toxins e.g. drugs and alcohol ingested while being pregnant. Post-natal environmental influences can include vitamins administered from an early ago, and also the upbringing of the child, e.g. disadvantaged children. A highly publicised study, The Milwaukee Project by Heber et al (1968) showed that: “…prolonged and intensive intervention can make a difference to severely disadvantaged children’s cognitive performances” (Rutter and Rutter, 1992). However, Howe (1997, 1998) has criticised this as they believe that the improvements to IQ would eventually fade due to their continued disadvantaged environment e.g. squalor, poor parenting, addiction, violence, unemployment and poor housing. (Howe, 1997, 1998). According to Sternberg and Grigorenko (1997) virtually all researchers accept that both heredity and also the environment contribute towards intelligence, as heredity and environmental factors interact in various ways and therefore enriched environments can interfere with an individual’s intelligence, regardless of their heredity.

THE WAYS IN WHICH GENDER CAN BE APPLIED TO THE NATURE/NURTURE DEBATE WITHIN PSYCHOLOGY Within psychology, the term “gender” refers to how we come to see ourselves and the social interpretation of our sex, e.g. masculine or feminine traits and their ability to conform to their respective gender roles. Whereas the term “sex” refers to the biological and functional differences between males and females. Therefore meaning the differences in their chromosomes, hormones and their reproductive systems. The biological approach, the nativist approach towards gender argues the influence of hormones and also the biosocial theory. The influence of hormones is that we are predestined by our biology and chromosomes to be either male or female. The hormones dictate whether the reproductive system develops with testes, therefore male, or ovaries meaning female. However, this theory does not account for intersex conditions, complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) and congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). Biosocial theory takes into account that social factors as well as biological factors affect our gender. It stresses that it is the interaction between the two factors that determine a child’s gender development. Doctor Money believed that everyone is psychosexual at birth, therefore neutral and our gender is a result of the nurture that we receive as children. As in the case of David Reimer which Money oversaw, who suffered accidental penile destruction following a circumcision that went wrong. David was raised as a girl until aged fourteen when he decided to become a male again. However, in 2004 David committed suicide. Money was heavily criticised for the psychological damage that David had undergone while under his supervision, for skewing the results and only reporting the benefits of the study. Even after David’s suicide, Money continued to claim that a baby biologically born as a boy at birth can be raised as a girl. As he had an unflinching belief that nurture can overpower nature. According to Social Learning Theory (SLT), the environment (e.g. peers, parents, media), continuously repeat messages regarding gender appropriate behaviour. Based on the principles of operant conditioning the child is rewarded and positively reinforced when behaviour that is suited to being gender appropriate and punished for inappropriate gender behaviour. Also through observational learning the child learns from observing others and their behaviours which may be positively reinforced or punished. SLT advocates include Bandura et al (1961, 1963) and Sears (1957) whose studies have concluded that boys and girls learn to behave gender appropriate by being treated differently according to the sex of that child. Criticisms of SLT with regards to gender include Barkley et al who claim that Bandura’s research is inconclusive and has: “…failed to prove that children are more likely to imitate same gender than opposite gender role models” (1977). Cognitive-development theory (CDT) states that the child already knows which gender they are, and then continues to learn the appropriate role. (Durkin, 1995). However, CDT has been criticised by Faggot (1985) as they believe that babies are a long way away from achieving their gender stability, therefore there is a long period of time where influences can occur.

Banerjee, J (2007): Francis Galton (1822-1911) retrieved from: on 7th October 2012. Franklin, L (2012); Gender
Gross, R (2003); Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology
Gross, R (2010); The Science of Mind and Behaviour
Gross, R; McIlveen, R; Coolican, H; Clamp, A; Russel, J (2000); Psychology – A new Introduction to A Level Hodder and Stoughton Education, LONDON
Hodder and Stoughton Education, LONDON
Hodder Education, LONDON
Palgrave MacMillian, HAMPSHIRE
Piaget, J (2010); The Psychology of Intelligence
Routledge, OXON

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