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There is an issue that has been debated upon by philosophers in the past and still so by scientists today. This issue is whether heredity or environment plays a greater role in the determining or shaping of an individual’s behavior. It is known as the nature versus nurture debate.
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Numerous generations before us have deliberated on the reasons behind the development of human behavior. There have been many theories formulated to explain why humans behave the way they do. The surviving theories for behavior derive 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.* As of today, people utilize both explanations to explore human behavior.
Considerably before our time, early philosophers endeavored to understand the 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, ). Plato theorized that all knowledge is present at birth. Plato also believed that the environment played a part in human processes, but he thought it had a 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.
Alternatively, 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). 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 theories. Two philosophers, G.W. Leibniz and John Locke, were the main representatives of their respected explanations. Leibniz promoted the externalism 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). 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).
Simultaneously, 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 their unique experiences (Ashcraft, 1998). Locke argued against the internalists by tentatively 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). 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 key point should be made that even though the literalists 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). 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).
The most recent studies that have been done on twins and adoption use both identical and fraternal 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). 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). The statements of Dr. Fausto-Sterling and Dr. Evan Balaban can sum up the interaction between nature and nurture. Fausto-Sterling states, “People want simple explanations for hard-core problems. If there was an anti-testosterone drug that we could to inject to make young boys nice…it 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).
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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, I hope 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.
Works Cited Ashcraft, M. (1998). Fundamentals of Cognition. New York, NY: Longman.
Brooks, J. (2004). The process of parenting. (6th ed). Toronto, ON: McGraw-Hill.
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: http://folk.uio.no/roffe/faq/node11.html Hockenbury&Hockenburry. (2003). Discovering Psychology Third Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers
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