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Nature vs nurture

Nature Vs Nurture


Nature vs. nurture has been discussed by philosophers in the past and by scientists most recently. Philosophers such as Plato argued that all knowledge was inherited through your parent and when you were told something you didn’t learn it you were just reminded of it. Aristotle however argued that all humans were born with a blank slate and built on it with influence from there environment. In the 1700’s the empiricists and the internalists took over the argument. They fought through letters explaining there point of views and denouncing the others. This leads to Pavlov coming up with the idea of behaviorism in the early 1900‘s. Behaviorism became the new wave of Psychology and influenced a lean towards the nurture side. It was not effectively argued against until 1928 when Watson published his book. This opened up the floodgates for environmental influences studies. Soon the idea of nurture was the popular excuse for behavior. Studies using animals were the most popular was in which scientists used to prove a theory, or disprove a theory. The newest studies use human twins to prove nature vs. nurture.

An age-old question has been asked for generations before us. What is the reasons behind the development of human behavior? There have been many theories formulated to explain why humans behave the way they do. Explanations vary from demonology to magnetic fluids controlling people’s behaviors. Over time, two theories have remained

popular in academic fields such as philosophy and psychology. The surviving theories for behavior stem from physiological and sociological explanations. However, the two explanations have not always been compatible with each other. The famous nature vs. nurture debate over human behavior resulted from conflicting views between proponents of the physiological (nature) and sociological (nurture) explanations. Throughout history, research has swayed popularity back and forth between the theories. Yet, theorists have broken down the line separating nature and nurture. Today, people us both explanations in research to advance the knowledge of human behavior.

Thousands of years before the field of psychology, philosophers pondered on

human behavior. As early as 350 BC, such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle

tried to understand behavior. The question of nature or nurture as the primary

drive can be traced to these times. Plato believed behavior and knowledge was

due to innate factors. Author Fiona Cowie states, "The claim that the character

of our mental furniture is to a large extent internally rather than

environmentally determined found its first substantive defense in the works of

Plato..." (Cowie, 1999, p. 3). Plato theorized, and Descartes later agreed, that

all knowledge is present at birth. Plato also believed that the environment

played a part in human processes, but he thought it had an unique role. He

believed the environment did not teach people anything new, but its purpose was

to remind people of information they already knew (Cowie, 1999). Although

Plato’s views are not supported today, he laid the groundwork for other

researchers to follow.

On the other hand, philosopher Aristotle theorized a different idea about human

behavior. He presented the idea that humans are born into the world with a

"blank slate" and people’s behavior and thoughts are due to experience

(Ashcraft, 1998). His tabula rasa explanation believed that the environment and

experience were the important influences in human behavior. Unlike Plato,

Aristotle hypothesized that humans were not born with knowledge, but they

acquire it through experience (Ashcraft, 1998). Aristotle’s idea of the tabula

rasa is not believed today. Nevertheless, his belief that the environment was a

vital factor in behavior influenced many empiricists throughout history.

During the late 1700s, the nature vs. nurture debate began to heat up between

philosophers. Internalists (nature) and empiricists (nurture) wrote literature

back and forth trying to prove their beliefs and disprove the other’s theories.

Two philosophers, G.W. Leibniz and John Locke, were main representatives of

their respected explanations. Leibniz promoted the internalism point of view.

Cowie states, "...Leibniz’s position on this issue is, of course, that the

tabula is far from rasa: ‘The soul inherently contains the sources of various

notions and doctrines, which external objects merely rouse up...' " (Cowie,

1999, p. 7). Leibniz argued against Locke and other empiricists stated that

"...there is no way ideas which come into the mind from outside can be formed

into beliefs and judgments without the operation of specific internal

mechanisms" (Cowie, 1999, p. 17).

At the same time, John Locke and his fellow philosophers campaigned for

empiricism. Like Aristotle, the philosophers believed that humans’ thoughts and

actions were determined not by innate factors, but by the their unique

experiences (Ashcraft, 1998). Locke argued against the internalists by examining

different human processes such as logic and reasoning. He would ask how it was

possible to use logic and reasoning if people were born with all of the

knowledge they would ever acquire (Cowie 1999, p. 19). The contrasting views of

the two groups had begun the nature vs. nurture debate, which would linger in

the fields of philosophy and psychology for decades.

A point should be made that even though the interalists and empiricists felt

strongly about their theories, the explanations were not entirely opposite of

each other. Cowie explains, "...rhetoric aside, both empiricists and nativists are

both internalist and externalists about the origin of what is in our

minds"(Cowie, 1999, p. 17). Even Leibniz and Locke stated that the philosophies

sometimes were only different by the choices of words they used to describe

their theories. Leibniz once wrote that fundamentally their views were the same

about the nature vs. nurture question (Cowie, 1999).

Over the next couple hundred years, popularity was split between nature and

nurture. However, in the early 1900s Ivan Pavlov accidentally discovered what

eventually became labeled as behaviorism. Behaviorists believed that the

environment was the greatest factor in shaping behavior. The theory quickly

gained notoriety in psychology and swayed popularity to the nurture side. One of

the leaders in behavioral research was John Watson, who is most recognized for

his work in conditioning "Little Albert." In 1928, Watson published a book that

included his idea that infants were like clay. Watson stated that he could make

an infant anything he desired by manipulating the environment (Barnet, 1998).

Watson wrote, "Give me a dozen healthy infants...and my own special world to

bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one...and train him to become

any type of specialist..."(Amsel, 1989, p. 24).

In the 1960s, Skinner also became well known for his research in behaviorism.

Most of his work dealt with behavior modification with animals (Amsel, 1989).

Probably Skinner’s most famous research is when he conditioned pigeons to guide

missiles (Modgil, 1987). However, Skinner, and others in his field, began to

receive scrutiny for ignoring the biology of humans. Yet, Skinner responded by

saying, "The objection to inner states is not that they do not exist, but that

they are not relevant in a functional analysis" (Modgil, 1987, p. 228).

From the 1920s to 1950s, behaviorism and nurturism dominated psychology. The

domination did not go without any challenges, and it did not last forever. As

early as 1929, behaviorism came under attack by psychologists who believed genes

were the key to human behavior. To begin, Arnold Gesell questioned the

environmental view of Watson. Author Myrtle McGraw states, "Gesell contended

that there was nothing one could do through training young infants to accelerate

their development; one simply had to wait until the cells of the nervous system

‘ripened’"(McGraw, 1995, p. 264). The biological research continued to build

against behaviorism, and its popularity began to decrease.

In 1959, the final attack that swayed popularity to the nature side of

development originated with Noam Chomsky and other psycholinguists. Chomsky

attacked behaviorism’s scientific empiricism, especially dealing with the

acquisition of language (Amsel, 1989). Ashcraft (1998) explains, "...Chomsky

argued not only that the behaviorist account of language was seriously wrong and

misguided, but that behaviorism was unable in principle to provide useful

scientific knowledge of language" (p. 22). In addition, research developments in

physiology and new studies involving genetics, such as adoption studies, and studies on twins, popularized genetic influence over environmental.

The most resent studies that have been done on twins and adoption use both identical and faternel twins. This consists in the studying of twins that were separated at birth and grew up in separate homes. Identical twins are 100% genetically similar and offer exact genetic replicas to study, where fraternal twins are the same as any other siblings at 50% similar (Vanderbilt pg6). Some of the final results of these studies show astonishing similarities between identical twins, yet others show little evidence of these similarities. With fraternal twins there is some similarities but none that are complete evidence of the nature theory. These studies fuel the pot for both the nature and the nurture ideas.

The nature vs. nurture debate over the last forty years has reached an agreement

that they both influence the development of human behavior. In the 1960s,

researchers from both theories began to study the interaction of the genes and

the environment (Devlin 1997). Dr. Ann Barnet explains, "Even in an unborn baby, genes and environment interact almost from the moment of conception"(Barnet, 1998, p.10). The interaction between nature and nurture can be summed up by the statements of Dr. Fausto-Sterling and Dr. Evan Balaban. Fausto-Sterling states, "People want simple explanations for hard-core problems. If there was an antitestosterone drug that we could to inject to make young boys would be easier and cheaper than transforming schools...or whatever is at the heart of the problem" (Barnet, 1998). However, Balaban replies, "...don’t hold your breath if you think looking for genes to help you understand violence. I would put my money on some clever environmental manipulations, because in the end you’re going there anyway" (Barnet, 1998, p. 206).

The nature vs. nurture debate has produced many research advances in the area of

human development. Even though evidence proves that there is an interaction

between genes and the environment, people will continue to study the effects of

each in development. In these future studies, more groundbreaking advances will

be made to aid humans in better understanding human behavior. In the end, that

is what both sides of the nature vs. nurture debate intended to accomplish.


Amsel, A. (1989). Behaviorism, Neobehaviorism, and Cognitivism in Learning

Theory. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum,.

Ashcraft, M. (1998). Fundamentals of Cognition. New York, NY: Longman.

Barnet, A. (1998). The Youngest Minds. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Cowie, F. (1999). What’s Within?. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Devlin, B. (1997). Intelligence, Genes, and Success. New York, NY: Copernicus.

Deutschmann, Linda B. (2002). Deviance and Social Control Third Edition. Scarborough, ON: Nelson Thomson Learning.

Fujita, Frank. (2000). Nature vs. Nurture. 3/15/2002 from 11.html

McGraw, M. (1995). Beyond Heredity and Environment. San Francisco, CA: Westview


Modgil, S. (1987). B.F. Skinner: Consensus and Controversy. New York, NY: Falmer


Myers, David G. (2001). Psychology Sixth Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

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