How the Pendulum Swings: The Nature-Nurture Debate
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....