The Nature versus Nurture Debate

Nature Versus Nurture

The question of whether characteristics are inherited (nature) or fostered (nurture) was first proposed by Francis Galton.

English polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911) was born into a rich and influential family that included naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82), his cousin. He initially studied mathematics at Cambridge University but became interested in psychology, along with anthropology, geography, statistics, and many other subjects.

In one study, Hereditary Genius (1869), he considered the implications of his cousin’s theories on sociology and psychology. He favored the position that all characteristics, including intelligence, are inherited through natural selection, though he later came to believe that the nurturing environment had an important influence. His work also led him to develop the pseudo-science of eugenics.

Much of the important evidence in the nature versus nurture debate has come from the study of twins, including both nonidentical (fraternal or dizygotic) twins (who, when raised together, possess different natures but share the same nurture), and identical or monzygotic twins (who, when separated at birth or very soon after, experience different nurture but possess the same initial natural inheritance). The results of such studies have highlighted some remarkable instances of natural inheritance, such as the development of Type 2 diabetes in separated identical twins at almost the same time in their mid-life, and have also cataloged the psychological effects of a variety of environmental factors.

Today, the debate initiated by Galton is still very much alive. At one extreme, Nativists such as John Bowlby and Noam Chomsky believe that most or even all psychological characteristics, including those that develop later in life, are governed by the body’s genetic code. On the Empiricist side of the argument, theorists such as Albert Bandura and B. F. Skinner see the human mind at birth as resembling a blank slate, onto which character is engraved by later experiences.

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