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Biology 103
2003 First Paper
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How the Pendulum Swings: The nature-nurture debate

Su-Lyn Poon

     One of the most intriguing science-and-culture debates of the twentieth century is that of the origin of behavior. The issue that has its roots in biology and psychology is popularly framed as the "nature versus nurture" debate. At different points in time, consensus has swung from one to the other as the supposed cause of our actions. These changes are not only the result of an internal dynamic but were subject (as they are today) to external influences, most notably politics and developments in other academic disciplines. The oversimplified polarities in this case-study illustrate an important characteristic of the larger scientific process. In search of a more refined theory, these are the necessary stepping stones in the attempt to get it 'less wrong'.

      Historical developments of a political nature have had a significant impact on the way the nature-nurture debate developed. Social Darwinism is a doctrine based on genetic determinism and natural selection, advocating a laissez-faire capitalist economy and promoting eugenics, racism and the inherent inequality of such a society. Extending Darwin's theory of evolution to social thought and political philosophy, the biologically-deterministic view culminated in the extremism of Nazi Germany. After the horrors of World War II, the debate swung in favor of "nurture", with American psychologists taking up a rhetoric of environmental influences on behavior, emphasizing the learning process. In turn, the European school of ethology arose in opposition to the environmentalists, focusing on innate behavior (that is, their genetic origins). While this divergence was eventually resolved, according to Barlow (1991)1 the subsequent development of sociobiology was subject to disagreements that were far more political in nature. Its proponent, biologist Edward O Wilson (1975)2, "speculated incautiously on the genetic basis of human social behavior, and often with regard to highly complex, situation-sensitive behavior" (Barlow, 1991)1, which drove the groups involved in the nature-nurture debate back into their opposite corners. Wilson was accused of being "politically motivated, even if he were himself unaware of it" while his own critics, as Barlow (1991)1 points out, were openly political in their approach to science. The Sociobiology Study Group, for example, applied Marxist philosophy to their practice of science, emphasizing environmental influences above biological. They were shown, along with the rest of the world, that environmentalist determinism in the form of social engineering in the Soviet Union, is as dangerous as genetic determinism.

      Opponents in the debate also positioned themselves along traditional academic lines. The development of behavioral psychology, a crucial component in the history of the nature-nurture debate, was itself highly influenced by the biological sciences and all that they espoused. As Rem B. Edwards (1999)3 notes:

Behaviorism arose in psychology out of frustration with older introspective approaches to mind and consciousness that appeal to direct awareness of mental states and processes, and out of the desire to turn psychology into a proper natural science with an empirical methodology and subject matter, one that makes claims that are publicly verifiable or falsifiable in repeatable sensory experience.

John Watson4 emphasized that the subject matter of psychology must be observable behavior, an approach that was developed by B F Skinner5, who incorporated numerous laboratory experiments into his studies. For both psychologists, mind and consciousness were held to be non-existent or at least irrelevant to psychology as they envisioned it. Ethologists, in turn, set themselves apart from the psychologists by focusing on the naturally occurring behavior of animals, which they viewed as a more 'objective' pursuit than the artificiality of laboratory experiments, a fact that no doubt failed to impress many behaviorists, who were of the mind that their research was the more objective of the two (Barlow, 1991)1. It seems ironic that shortly after the behaviorists began to focus on external causes of behavior in their bid for scientific status, biologists James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix design of the DNA, opening the way for new understandings of the internal causes of behavior (Bettelheim, 1998)6. Laboratory advances in DNA research followed, together with increasing interest in the genetic causes for behavior. Once again, the balance shifted in favor of "nature". The development had eclipsed psychology's quest to 'become' a science (Richelle, 1993)7, but it was clear that the debate within 'science proper' was profoundly influenced by work that had been done outside its jurisdiction. As psychology stood straddling the division between the natural sciences and the social sciences, E O Wilson's attempts to encourage a synthesis of approach to behavior between the social sciences and the biological sciences, in the form of sociobiology (Wilson, 1975)2, met with great resistance from the social sciences, who valued the traditional divide (Barlow, 1991)1.

      Biological and environmental determinism, particularly as they pertain to human nature, have both had their time and their supporters, but both are fundamentally problematic. Attempts to find innate and unchanging (thus inescapable) traits across species to be applied to human behavior are flawed. As Jaggar and Struhl (1995)3 write:
Biological determinist theories of human nature are not just empirically unconfirmed; they also fail to acknowledge what is most distinctive of our species. The human genetic constitution determines highly developed learning and cognitive capacities that allow humans to respond flexibly rather than instinctively to environmental problems, as well as to develop a range of distinctively human cultural characteristics.
Behaviorism, on the other hand, as a good example of environmental determinism, is unable to account for consciousness, for creativity and for human agency. Whitney (1995)3 notes: "'environmental cause' does not mean 'easily changed,' and 'genetic cause' does not mean 'unchangeable'." To the extent that both schools of thought strive for a water-tight theory that is both universal and immutable, they represent oversimplified polarities.

      Given the way in which the nature-nurture debate has progressed, it is easy to perceive science as fickle at best and reactionary at worst. However, a closer look at the trajectory that the debate has taken since reveals that the scientific process has not been completely haphazard. A far less polarized view of the debate is expressed in a Newsweek article: "Biology, in short, doesn't determine exactly what we'll do in life. It determines how different environments affect us" (Cowley, 1995)8. The Independent similarly reported (Morrish, 2003)9 in a book review of Matt Ridley's 'Nature Via Nurture' that genes have to be environmentally modified:
The gene combines with environmental factors to make a statistical tendency. ... If you place 30,000 genes in an infinite number of different environmental settings you get an unknowable range of interactions and outcomes. Ridley concludes that such a genome makes free will possible.
Simplified polarities are the necessary stepping stones in the process of discovery to more refined theories of greater complexity.

      A likely result of this is that different academic disciplines will find their goals converging, as biology and psychology did and as biology and cultural studies might in the future. What is required for such a synthesis is the recognition of the respective roles of the different fields in the quest to understand behavior, the recognition of which is able to pursue what kinds of questions in terms of knowledge and methodology. For example, as Frans de Waal predicts (1999)10, the development of the neural sciences in understanding how the brain works will make an important contribution to the study of behavior, and the adoption of the evolutionary paradigm by the social sciences will enable them to engage in an on-going conversation on behavior among the scientific community. A subfield has already developed in the latter, in the form of memetics (Laland & Brown, 2002)11, though it has yet to be accepted by social scientists.

      Yet, synthesis is only the end-product; convergence is the process by which we will arrive at synthesis. The process is a messy one, requiring the perpetual redefinition of academic boundaries as new fields emerge and existing ones fade into the background, no doubt entailing much squabbling over who belongs where. This raises an important question about the way in which science is defined and the way in which it has evolved and continues to evolve. In the foreseeable future, the contention lies between the natural sciences and the social sciences –misnomers, or convenient labels that are not meant to reflect an external reality? The nature-nurture debate alone has demonstrated that these contentions are mediated by external influences such as politics and developments within each field, and that these can have great impact on science as it is understood and practiced.


  1. Barlow, George W. (1991). Nature-nurture and the debates surrounding ethology and sociobiology. (Animal Behavior: Past, Present, and Future). American Zoologist, 31(2), 286-296.
  2. Wilson, Edward O. (1975). Sociobiology : the new synthesis. Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  3. Reich, Warren Thomas. (1995). Encyclopedia of Bioethics (Ed.), New York: Macmillan Pub. Co. : Simon & Schuster Macmillan ; London : Prentice Hall International.

  4. Wikipedia: online encyclopedia entry on John B Watson

    Watson, John B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177. Retrieved from

  5. Wikipedia: online encyclopedia entry on B F Skinner

    Skinner, B F. (1947). 'Superstition' in the Pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172. Retrieved from

  6. Bettelheim, Adriel. (1998). Biology and behavior. CQ Researcher, 8(13), 291-308. Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis.

  7. Richelle, Marc N. (1993). B F Skinner: A Reappraisal. Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  8. Cowley, G. (1995, March 27). It's time to rethink nature and nurture. Newsweek, 125(13), 52-53. Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis.

  9. Morrish, John. (2003, April 27). Books: Don't keep your baby in a soundproof box, Mr Scientist; Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley. Independent on Sunday, Sunday features, 19. Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis.

  10. De Waal, Frans B.M. (1999). The end of nature versus nurture. Scientific American, 281(6), 94-99. Retrieved from Expanded Academic.

  11. Laland, Kevin; Brown, Gillian. (2002, August 3). The Golden Meme: Memes offer a way to analyse human culture with scientific rigour. Why are social scientists so averse to the idea. New Scientist, 175(2354), 40-43. Retrieved from Expanded Academic.

Nature versus Nurture

Additional Web Links:

Nature versus Nurture

Lesson Plan from the Discovery Channel School intended for a Grade 9-12 class setting with discussion. This website provides a solid introduction to the basic concepts and fundamental questions in the nature-nurture debate.

Genes, Environment, Development and Behavior

Part of the online course material for a Behavioral Ecology course at the University of California, Santa Cruz, this site by Barry Sinervo discusses classic ideas of nature and nurture, genetics and the role of the environment from a biologist’s point of view.

The role of nature and nurture in the development of behaviour

Study And Learning Materials ON-line (SALMON) from Paul Kenyon of the University of Plymouth’s Department of Psychology, for a class on Biological Bases of Behavior. This website compares ethology and behaviorism, giving the psychologist’s perspective on the nature-nurture debate.

Nature vs. Nurture: A public health perspective

The Office of Genomics and Disease Prevention’s highlights page focuses on one topic and provides information relevant to public health practice.  Includes the public health perspective, journal articles, news stories and slides.

Nature vs Nurture Debate Goes Public

An article dated 27 January 2003 from Science a GoGo, a science news website, about a debate over "nature vs. nurture" in the February issue of the journal Current Anthropology between advocates of genetic determinism and two prominent Stanford University scientists.

The Great Blank Slate Debate

From The Great Debate (UK). A series of articles arising from a conversation between Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley, tackling the nature-nurture debate as well as wider issues, such as understandings of human nature and the implications for policy-making.

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