The nature-nurture controversy refers to the debate over whether heredity or environment play a greater role in a person’s behavior. The debate addresses how much of our makeup, behavior, personality and preferences are the product of biology such as genetics and biological makeup as opposed to the result of the way we are raised, our environment and essentially everything we come into contact with in our lifetime.
Those following a nature viewpoint believe everything we are is a result of biology.
Evolutionary scientists believed in the nature side of the debate as did those following biological theories such as the one in psychology. This theory said that everything is accountable by biology and even if the cause is not known at this time with better equipment and greater knowledge eventually the biological cause of everything would be discovered.
On the other side of the argument were theorists like John Watson who believed that the environment shaped everything and that man essentially had no free will. In 1913, Watson made the now famous statement:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own special world to bring them up and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, beggarman and thief.
The reason the theory is controversial is because scientists now realize there is not a dichotomous classification of whether something is determined solely by biology or environment. Now it is realized that both heredity and environment contribute to almost everything such that it is more a discussion of how much of a contribution to a characteristic is nature and how much is nurture.
In the article “The Nature–Nurture Debates: 25 Years of Challenges in Understanding the Psychology of Gender,” the authors examine the literature in relation to the contribution of genetics and environment to the psychology of gender. The begin by acknowledging that both explanations are important and like any complex phenomenon, gender psychology, is comprised of numerous aspects all of which are effected differently by nature and nurture or genetics and environment.
After a presentation of the history of gender research and theories regarding the effects of nature and nurture and a discussion of the importance of meta-analyses in determining the differential contributions of nature and nurture the authors focus on specific aspects of gender. The two aspects that are focused on are socialization and preferences for mates. They discuss the importance of interactionist theories and models, showing how genetics and environment work together and influence each other. In one important model discussed, genetic influence is dependent on social environment. This model presents the idea that genetics are not determinant in and of itself but is triggered by social environment. Thus, genetics is presented as providing a predisposition which is turned on or not turned on to express itself by the environment.
In the article “The nature (and nurture?) of plasticity in early human development”, the authors re-examine the effects of environment on early development and who genetics effects the influence of environment. This topic is one that has been discussed for some time in the area of developmental psychology as this area is highly concerned with how children develop and what factors contribute to normal and abnormal development. The idea that there is a degree of plasticity in human development is one that is gaining popularity as cause and effect relationships that have been accepted for generations are being called into question due to unexpected variations which cannot be explained according to what the relationship would predict. Thus, inquiries into what factors may contribute to the ability of children to be resilient during development especially when they race negative environmental influences are increasing.
Areas that could lead to difficulties adjusting to environmental factors include negative temperamental qualities such as being adverse to novelty, inflexibility, being excessively introverted or lacking the ability to adapt, perceptual preferences and intelligence. However, the authors review additional evidence which suggests that as opposed to some children simply being more vulnerable genetically to negative environmental influences that genetics predispose some children both negatively and positively to the environment with which they interact. The authors take this line of inquiry even further by exploring how nature and nurture may effect the degree to which child development is plastic and how plasticity may be influenced by not just a combination of genetics and environment but by the various ways they can interact.
Unknown relationships are also explored such as recent research which questions whether maternal stress prior to a child’s birth may influence child behavior problems after birth suggesting that children may be preprogrammed genetically prior to being born. The article concludes with cautions to researchers and theorists regarding the tendency in psychology to focus on negative influences and outcomes exclusively while ignoring the equally important positive half of this equation.
The two article discussed in this paper point out similar things. In particular, the way nature and nurture are now viewed is described to be different from the dichotomous nature suggested by the very name of the controversy. Both articles state that almost everyone now recognizes that this is not an either/or categorization but that genetics and environment both contribute in important ways to psychology, development and behavior. These articles both also suggest the complex way nature and nurture function. They discuss the way the two factors may interact such that they aren’t viewed as additive instead in most cases are seen as more likely being multiplicative. This means they interact, influence and are influenced by each other in numerous ways at the same time.
Belsky, J., & Pluess, M. (2009). The nature (and nurture?) of plasticity in early human
development. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(4), 345-351.
Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (2013). The Nature–Nurture Debates 25 Years of Challenges in
Understanding the Psychology of Gender. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(3), 340-357.
Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological review, 20(2), 158.