Nature or Nurture? A Key Debate in Psychology
Is psychology a science? Is it our genes or is it the environment in which we are brought up, that determines our behaviour, personality and character? Though there are many issues and debates in Psychology, this is the pivotal question that has led to debates and theories of opposing views within the discipline.. Being a young science, Psychology is rich with many debates like this, which makes it an interesting area of study.
Psychology as a science
There is a long running debate within Psychology as to what extent can it be called a science. People who do not pursue psychology studies claim that it is just ‘common sense’ and not a science. For example, a definable subject matter, theory construction, hypothesis testing and the use of empirical methods for data collection are all features of the scientific approach. However, these features fail to explain how the scientific process takes place, the sequence of events involved, and the relationship between theory construction, hypothesis testing and data collection.
Contemporary views on Science asserts that objectivity may not be achievable, and for that matter true objectivity is actually impossible, to attain and that a single explanation may not fully account for a phenomenon.
If Science is concerned with the aspects of the real world, then Biology is the science of the living world, Physics is the science of the physical world, and Chemistry is the science of the chemical world. In his book Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, Richard Gross says that Psychology is the science of mind and behaviour.
According to traditional views, Science needs to be objective where we can see things for what they really are. In addition, Science requires understanding, prediction and control. However, contemporary views on Science asserts that objectivity may not be achievable, and for that matter true objectivity is actually impossible, to attain and that a single explanation may not fully account for a phenomenon. A number of theories – psychodynamic, behavioural, humanistic, biological, and cultural – holistically contribute to the explanation of one behaviour.
Nature-nurture debate (heredity vs environment)
The nature-nurture debate – also referred to as heredity vs environment debate – is a significant debate within the field of Psychology. It is concerned with the extent to which our behaviour, thoughts and actions are determined by our genes (nature), or whether they are the product of our environment (nurture).
Nativists and empiricists have two extreme views on this subject. Nativists, who support the assumption that humans as a whole are the product of evolution, adopt an extreme heredity position. For example, Plato believed that children are born with some innate knowledge. This knowledge will stay dormant in their minds. They recollect this knowledge as they grow up rather than learning anything new.
However, empiricists believed that during the time of birth, human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate), and knowledge comes from experience and perception. For example, John Locke believed that all behaviour is learnt and that the environment plays a major role in the way people behave. Neither of these extreme positions is usually adopted since there are too many facets to the matter that is difficult to support an all-or-nothing view.
How do nature and nurture interact? This question was first proposed by Francis Galton, an English, Victorian-era polymath in the 19th century. According to the article, ‘Genetic and Environmental Factors and the Distribution of Multiple Sclerosis in Europe’ written by A.E Handel, L.Handunnetthi, G.Giovannoni, G.C.Eibers and S.V.Ramagopalan published in European Journal of Neurology, it is the interaction of both nature and nurture that determines the behaviour of a human being. This is known as the interactionist view.
Contemporary scientists agree on the fact that both genetics and the environment work together to enhance an organism’s ability to adapt to various environments.
In their theories, Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget, both interactionists, emphasised the fact that experience is as important as the underlying mechanisms. The interactionist view is generally accepted, like in the case of sexual identity where it does not determine the character or behaviour of a person on its own– it always interacts with experience, and this experience determines how genetic material is exposed.
Contemporary scientists agree on the fact that both genetics and the environment work together to enhance an organism’s ability to adapt to various environments. The interactionist view has been garnering a lot of attention in recent years, in explaining a range of complex human disorders like autism, asthma and heart disease. However, some people argue that genetics can outweigh environmental achievements in areas such as education.
Nature-nurture debate: Does genetics have a place in academics?
Can all children achieve academically irrespective of their background? According to Robert Plomin, a behavioural geneticist, children’s academic achievements are not equal, irrespective of their background. In the book titled G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement, co-authored with Dr Kathryn Asbury, Plomin argues that the idea that children are akin to a blank slate, is wrong. Children’s ability to learn is influenced more by genetics than by experience. He also put forward the idea of having a ‘genetically sensitive school’.
In their book, Plomin and Asbury says: “If we really do equalise educational opportunity for all children, we get rid of a lot of the environmental variability, so what’s left is the genetic variability. You don’t get rid of the genetic differences between the children, so, proportionally, more of the individual differences in school achievement will be due to genetic differences. May be that’s why there is a national curriculum, to the extent that it’s successful; this actually does increase heritability.”
We will get into more detail on the ideas governing mind-body relationship and ‘free will versus determination’ in the coming articles.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
What do you think — does both genetics and environment play a role in modelling a person’s behaviour?
Can you think of the reasons for the nature-nurture debate in psychology?
Can you think of how genetic and environmental factors affect a person's behaviour?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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