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Nature versus Nurture: The debate

3162 words (13 pages) Essay in Education

15/05/17 Education Reference this

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A View of Two Fields of Thought: Nature versus Nurture

A debate has been brewing in the field of education and philosophy for hundreds of years. Many intellectuals have pondered over this subject and have taken one side or the other, but to this day no definite answer exists. The battle of nature versus nurture, or rationalism versus empiricism, has so long been debated and has been addressed in so much literature that one would be hard pressed to find an educator who hasn’t thought about this topic and considered the merits of each school of thought. This debate affects how educators view their students as well as how they believe children can be taught, so it is important to explore the history of each side and investigate the evidence so educators as well as parents can understand how to access their child’s potential.

In 380 B.C.E. Plato wrote a play titled Meno. In this work, he discussed through his characters how intelligence was based on recollection. This concept was derived from the idea that once a human being dies, his soul is reincarnated into another human being and that newly born person has all of the knowledge that his former life possessed. Therefore, Plato believed in the idea that knowledge was innate (Allen 165-174). He believed that people were divided into social or intellectual classes by the type of metal that supposedly ran through their souls. These metals were gold, silver, brass and iron and they were used to keep the social hierarchy in check. If someone were believed to have gold in their soul, they would theoretically govern the state and be of superior intelligence. Someone who had silver in their soul was seen as a warrior of the state and if someone was believed to have brass or iron in their soul, they were never meant for a high ranking position in the social sphere but to dwell on the earth as members of the lower class (Voegelin 230).

The next great mind to enter the nature versus nurture debate came around in the mid 1600s. Rene Descartes created an entire school that is known today as the Cartesian school of thought. Descartes and his followers adopted the idea of dualism, meaning that the soul is separate from the body and that the soul does not have a physical manifestation (Gardner 33). This idea goes along well with the previously mentioned theories of Plato. In a dedicatory letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes attempted to prompt his literary work, Mediations on First Philosophy. This letter outlined Descartes’ key ideas concerning knowledge and dualism. He emphasized that all that is known about God is manifested in people, and to figure out those manifestations one must use reasoning, which takes place in the brain. Also throughout the letter Descartes made it a point to mention how people have certain aptitudes for different vocations, such as metaphysical studies or geometry; he also explored the idea that people can be intellectually gifted, as to say they were granted their intelligence from birth. Descartes had little evidence to support this reasoning beyond his heavy reliance on philosophy and his strong religious beliefs. Like Plato, he believed that the soul lived on after the body had expired (Descartes 3-11). As time moved on, the nature argument started to move away from the religious vantage point and more toward scientific research. Francis Galton would be among the first men who conducted such experiments.

In Galton’s book Hereditary Genius he stated the argument that the high reputation of a man could be used as an accurate assessment of high ability. He studied eminent men such as the Judges of England from 1660 to 1868 and also the Statesmen during the reign of George III. Along with these men, Galton also studied men of a wide variety of professions since he believed it was important to study many different grades of ability (Galton 2). He studied nearly 300 families and concluded that eminent men do tend produce eminent sons (307). From this conclusion, Galton set out to continue his research, only this time he wouldn’t focus his attention on the biographies of successful men; he would continue his research with the study of twins.

Through the process of sending out surveys to people who either were twins or those who were close relatives of twins, Galton found further support for his rationalist theories. At first he addressed a number of twins who were very similar from birth, and then he addressed those sets of twins who were dissimilar from the very beginning, which he considered more relevant to his cause. He presented several testimonies from parents of twins stating that even though the twins were nurtured the exact same way from the moment they were born, they showed great difference. A specific case stated that two male twins acted as compliments to one another. One boy would possess a certain set of qualities and attributes where as the other would be the polar opposite of his twin brother who had received the same nurture. Galton states that through all of his correspondences, he could not find one case where the twins started out different and were assimilated through nurture (Galton 391-406).

Galton continued to study the issue of hereditary intelligence in many other books and journals, but one his most famous proposals was his ideas on eugenics. Because Galton believed that knowledge was inherited, he thought that it would benefit humanity if only intelligent people were allowed to reproduce. In “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims”, Galton laid out his plan for how this process would go about happening. He went as far as to call this way of living a “new religion” that should be fully pushed upon people so they whole heartedly accept it (Galton ). We now know that for a period in history, Galton’s ideas were successful and many people around the world were sterilized against their will as a way to attempt to breed the perfect human race (Dikotter). In Galton’s later research he discovered “regression to the mean”, which is the idea that human beings tend to move toward the average no matter how above or below average their parents are. This discovery disappointed his hopes of breeding the perfect human race (Galton “Regression”).

Another interesting contributor to the nature argument was Cesare Lombroso. In his book, “Crime, its causes and remedies”, Lombroso attempted to lie out the naturally occurring tendencies of a criminal. He studied groups of people in Europe and came to the conclusion that features such as hair color, skull size and facial structure were indicators that a person was innately criminal. He also determined that race was a factor in finding naturally born criminals as well. He used the Jewish people as an example for his race theory. He said that Jews were much less likely to commit crimes compared to the gypsies, who he believed where in the same socioeconomic class. Lombroso wrote about schooling as well. He believed that if a student in elementary school displayed the characteristics that he had categorized as criminal then the student should be taken away from the other children and be caught in a way to discourage the innate criminality from surfacing (Lombroso).

Much more recently, Charles Murray has addressed this debate and has strongly lobbied for inherited intelligence. In the book “The Bell Curve” written by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, these men aimed to prove that America’s growing inequality was due to the fact that skilled labor was much more valuable today than unskilled labor. Because both Herrnstein and Murray believed that IQ directly correlated with skill, they believed that the gap between people in society will only continue to grow as unskilled jobs fade away (Murray bell curve). In an article written by Murray published in the Wall Street Journal, he claimed that a person’s IQ is directly connected to their intelligence and that that number cannot possibly change no matter what kind of education is given to that student. Through his investigation, he found that when someone tried to raise their IQ, it only went up an average of about 8 points as after time progressed, the number returned back to what it had originally been. Considering the national assessment of educational progress scores, 36% of all fourth graders were below the standards of basic achievement in reading; Murray stated that this number should be considered acceptable since 36% of fourth graders, according to the normal distribution, have IQ’s lower than 95. He even made the bold claim that if you argue that an IQ test doesn’t determine intelligence, then G, someone’s natural intellectual ability, does (Murray Newspaper).

The other side of the nature versus nurture debate lies with those who believe nurture is the predominate cause of intelligence and personality. A few years after Descartes died, John Locke came forward with his views on rationalism verses empiricism. He thought it was wrong to believe a small child had any innate ideas, and he is well known for his theory that a mind is like a blank, white piece of paper that parents and teachers can write on as they see fit to shape and mold the child into adulthood. Locke believed that ideas came from two places: first from sensory information and second from reflections (115spiral). In Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” he attacked the theory of innate knowledge by assuming that if there were innate principles in the human mind, everyone would agree on these principles. Because not all people agreed, it proved to Locke that there were in fact no innate principals at all. Also, in what seems like a direct attack at Descartes, Locke argued the innateness of God to be fictional because there are cultures all around the world that do not recognize any god at all (Locke).

Around the same time as Locke, George Berkeley achieved recognition for his theories on empiricism as well. Berkeley believed that the mind was what everything in existence revolved around and that matter did not actually exist, thinking that all things in the world were composed of ideas (Flage). He thought that all things were either sensations or perceptions and one can only know what one sees. Berkeley believed that when a person looks at something, they only see the appearance of the object and not the real qualities which aren’t perceivable to anyone. Human senses are the only way people can understand the things in the world (Berkeley 193-215).

The third well know empiricist of the time was David Hume. Hume believed that what was in the mind could be broken down into basic sensations. He theorized that thinking was just a byproduct of disconnected sensations and ideas were like vague copies of distinct perceptions or impressions and everything past those ideas and perceptions were unnecessary to explore (D. Murray 11-12).

Years later in the late 1800s, John Watson published a book called Behaviorism. He presented a thesis about human instincts and discussed what human beings are born being able to do. He claims that those functions are in fact not instincts as instincts were defined at the time. He claimed that everything that people had initially thought were instincts were actually learned behaviors that came about as a result of training. On this evidence, he stated “that there is no such thing as an inheritance of capacity, talent, temperament, mental constitution and characteristics” (Watson 75). He believed that if a child has a father that is a good swordsman, the child will only become a good swordsman if the father nurtures him to be so, not just because he has his father’s genes. He supported this idea by referencing all the different customs and tendencies of people all across the world and how they all differ due to their culture and environment (74-75).

One relevantly recent phenomenon is the Flynn Effect, which is describes as significant increases in IQ over time. This effect has been attributed to a variety of factors such as “improved nutrition; increased environmental complexity; and family, parental, school and methodological factors” (Daley 215). All of these components of the Flynn affect were at first criticized for focusing on only industrialized and urban areas, but a group of people from the University of California went to Kenya to help strengthen the Flynn Effects environmental explanations (215).

The study took place in the Embu District of Kenya. The first research was done in 1984 and then again in 1998 with two different groups of children. The researches administered three tests to the group of children they were studying. The tests were: the Raven’s Progressive Matrices, the verbal meaning test, and the digit span test. It was determined that the second group of children in 1998 scored higher than those in 1984, proving that the Flynn Effect was definitely present. To explain these increases the researchers looked to see if the environmental factors had changed during the 14 years. Nutrition became better, which is represented by the increase in kilocalories and protein from 1984 to 1998 as well as a decrease in children who had an insufficient caloric intake. The environment also became more complex, with the addition of a few televisions as well as a majority of parents reporting to have read a newspaper or magazines at least once a week. Both of these factors had not existed in the community during the 1984 study. In addition, family size decreased in Kenya, which allowed the households to spend more on the individual children and the family structure shifted from nuclear families to single parent households run by the mother. Parental education and literacy also increased during the 14 years, going from 26% of mothers reporting no schooling in 1984 to only 8.7% in 1998. Schooling didn’t change much during the time period, but there was an increase in the number of children who attended Sunday school, so this could be seen as an extra day of schooling. The health of the children didn’t improve and the hemoglobin counts actually worsened over the time period, but the most severe causes of anemia decreased from 1984 to 1989 (217-219).

The main impacts on the children according to this study were parental literacy, family stature and health. All of the children in the study belonged to the same tribe so the researchers believed this to be proof that the environment a child is raised in has much affect on his or her intelligence (219).

One of the most recent empiricists is Geoffrey Canada. Canada grew up in inner city New York but moved to Long Island with his grandparents in his early teens. He graduated from high school and went to college and then attended graduate school at Harvard University. Canada eventually became the CEO and president of Harlem Children’s Zone. Currently, the program spans 97 blocks in New York City and caters to nearly 8000 students. He whole heartedly believes that with the right amount of guidance and direction, the struggling students in inner cities can learn to appreciate learning and to increase their intelligence through their environment in the classroom (Moore). In Paul Tough’s book “Whatever it takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America” the program is described in great detail and it shows how the lives of the children have been adjusted to foster learning (Tough). The program’s success became evident in 2009 “when its charter school, the Promise Academy, eliminated the achievement gap for math between average black students and white students in New York City” (Moore).

The debate over nature versus nurture spans back to when philosophy was predominantly the way of explaining the acquisition of knowledge and continues in more recent times with scientific evidence consisting of facts and numbers giving support to one side or the other. Both the recent and historical back and forth between great scholars helps each individual, be they parent or educator, come to their own personal conclusions of whether nature or nurture is the more dominant factor contributing to a person’s knowledge and IQ.

Works Cited

Allen, R.E.. “Anamnesis in Plato’s “Meno and Phaedo”.”The Review of Metaphysics13 (1959):165-174.JSTOR. Flage. 29 Mar. 2010.

Berkeley, George. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. sax: Indypublish.Com, 2003. 193-215. Print.

Daley, Tamara, Shannon Whaley, Marian Sigman, Michael Espinosa, and Charlotte Neumann. “IQ on the Rise: The Flynn Effect in Rural Kenyan Children .” Psychological Science 14 (2003): 215-219. JSTOR. Flage. 30 Mar. 2010.

Descartes, Rene. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (Volume II). New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 3. Print.

Dikotter, Frank. “Race Culture: Recent Perspectives on the History of Eugenics.” The American Historical Review 103 (1998): n. pag. JSTOR. Flage. 29 Mar. 2010.

Flage, Daniel. “George Berkeley (1685-1753).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . James Madison University, 4 Apr. 2004. Flage. 28 Mar. 2010. <>.

Galton, Francis . “Regression Towards Mediocrity in Hereditary Stature.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 15 (1886): n. pag. Jstor. Flage. 2 Apr. 2010.

Galton, Francis. “The History of Twins, as a Criterion of the Relative Powers of Nature and Nurture.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 5 (1876): 391-406. JSTOR. Flage. 29 Mar. 2010.

Galton, Francis. “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims.” The American Journal of Sociology 10 (1904): n. pag. JSTOR. Flage. 28 Mar. 2010.

Galton, Sir Francis. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry Into Its Laws and Consequences (Classic Reprint). asdbjsadjkas: Forgotten Books, 2009. Print.

Gardner, Howard, Mindy Kornhaber, and Warren K. Wake. Intelligence: Multiple Perspectives. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1995. 33-36. Print.

Herrnstein, Richard J., and Charles Murray. Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (A Free Press Paperbacks Book). 1st Free Press Pbk. Ed ed. New York City: Free Press, 1996. Print.

Lombroso, Cesare. Crime: Its Causes and Remedies. 1918: Legal Classics Library, A Division Of Gryphon Editions, 1994. Print.

Moore, Jina. “Empathy is his superpower / The Christian Science Monitor –” The Christian Science Monitor – N.p., 7 Sept. 2009. Flage. 4 Apr. 2010. <>.

Murray, Charles. “Intelligence in the Classroom Half of all children are below average, and teachers can do only so much for them. .” Wall Street Journal n/a (2007): 1-3. Print.

Murray, D.W.. “What is the Western Concept of the Self? on Forgetting David Hume.” Ethos 21 (1993): 11-12. JSTOR. Flage. 30 Mar. 2010.

Tough, Paul. Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. New York: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.

Voegelin, Eric. “The La.” Plato. 1 ed. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000. 230. Print.

Watson, John. B.. “Are There Any Human Instincts?.” Behaviorism. San Diego: West Press, 2008. 74-75. Print.

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