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Physical characteristics of human beings have been known to depend on certain genetic inheritance of their parents. For instance, the colour of eyes, skin pigmentation, and type of hair among other genetic characteristics are components of genetic inheritance. According to McLeod (2007), “life expectancy and vulnerability to specific illnesses (e.g. breast cancer in women) are positively correlated between genetically related individuals.” Statements like these have led to general debate about whether human behaviour tendencies, abilities of the mind, and personal qualities can be predetermined before an individual is born. Are they formed as a results of psychological development or by biological characteristics? There is a group of people, who take an extreme position on heredity while explaining characters of individuals. They are referred to as nativists. On the other hand, there are those, who rely on environmental aspects to explain human behaviours (Keller 2010). This essay presents various arguments that relate to the explanation of nature vs nurture debates based on nativists and empiricists’ views.
Nativists base their argument on the notion that people's characteristics are a result of evolution. They also claim that differences in individual characters result from unique genetic codes. Some of these characteristics cannot be seen at birth. To explain this phenomenon, nativists argue that at birth some characteristics may not be detectable because they show later due to maturation as one grows up. McLeod (2007) claims that “we all have an inner ‘biological clock’ which switches on (or off) types of behaviour in a pre programmed way.” The perfect example to support this statement is the change of physical state of children when they reach adolescence stage. Nativists believe that maturation is the process during which attachments are developed during infancy. They also claim that ability to acquire language and the whole process of cognitive development are the elements of maturation (Roberson & Davidoff 2000).
Nativists’ concept builds on Bowlby’s theory of attachment to explain the concepts of nature. This theory explains that there is an innate bond created between a mother and a new born, and this process is critical for the survival of the child. This is in line with the concept of development that language thrives on the mechanism of acquisition (Tan et al 2008). Nature position also borrows from Freud’s theory of aggression, according to which aggression is driven by an innate force referred to as thanatos.
Davidoff et al (2009) concurs with the findings of Franklin et al (2009) that infants’ linguistic ability can be influenced by how people categorise the language prior to appropriation of the labelled categories. However, Davidoff et al claims “We disagree, however, that the currently available evidence is sufficient to allow us to conclude that all humans have an innate set of colour categories resembling that of (English-speaking) adults...” (p. 249). Debates among researchers has intensified due to modern technology of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that can provide more evidence on this argument. This will be critical for determining the existence of linguistic ability of people at an early age.
Arguments made by nativists are countered by scientists of environmentalist ideals, also referred to as empiricists. Empiricists argue that at birth, mental abilities of an infant are close to zero. This state is referred to as a state of ‘tabula rasa’. The child gradually grows and develops a certain mindset due to life experiences. Differences in behaviour between when an individual is born and the time one becomes an adolescent are due to learning experience that one undergoes. In this regard, the manner in which an individual is brought up determines the development of psychological aspects. The process of upbringing is nurturing, while the process of maturation is biological. Hence, when a child develops an attachment to a given aspect of life, it happens because of positive attention and love. McLeod (2007) claims “language comes from imitating the speech of others and cognitive development depends on the degree of stimulation in the environment and, more broadly, on the civilization within which the child is reared.” Alternatively, Franklin et al (2005) uses categorization of colour to support the concept of nurture.
The empiricists view is build on Bandura’s social learning theory, which holds that aggressiveness is developed in an environment where it is the norm. Therefore, aggression is learnt via observation and imitation. The proof of this concept is the ‘bobo doll experiment’. Empiricists believe that the process of learning a language is mainly influenced by behaviour changing procedures. In response to nativists’ ideals, empiricists explain that temporary change of environment has the ability to disorient the functioning of heritable traits across generations. Genetic composition of future generations will be affected by the environment as some genes will be made active, while others will be inhibited (Mill & Petronis 2007; Foley et al. 2009; Spelke et al. 1993; Spelke 1998).
Highly diverse opinions held by empiricists and nativists make it difficult for somebody to take any position. This is because extreme positions affect both: the positive and negative thinking. The arguments of both nativists and empiricists can be all consistent, however, the two cannot be totally right. The current debate on the nature vs. nurture question has now been narrowed to how much truth either empiricists or nativists views hold in modern era. This is because both nature and environment affect development process of a person. Allen (2012) writes “It should be noted that there is nothing inherent in the naturists’ position that leads necessarily to conservative social policies nor anything inherent in the nurturists’ position that leads necessarily to liberal social policies” (p. 198). Nature and nurture are two most important factors that determine the life of organisms and how these organisms behave. In the recent times the debate takes into account hereditary and environment discussions or biological and cultural determinism dimensions. Diverging views of the debates on nature-nurture are ironical because both extremes seem to explain normal development of living organisms. Yet, they remain mutually exclusive. This debate is historical and lasts from classical times to recent time.
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The question of how much either empiricists or nativists views hold was raised in the 19th century by Galton, Charles Darwin’s relative, based on the idea that intellectual abilities are mainly inherited from parents. Genius people are born from parents with superior intelligence or natural superiority. American psychologist Arthur Jenson found that Intelligence Quotient, (IQ) scores of African Americans is lower than that of whites due to genetic inheritance. The research indicated that 80% of intelligence is inherited from parents (McLeod 2007).
Jenson’s findings raised controversial questions not because of empirical procedures in the research but due to political and social implications in American society. This was a demonstration of intolerance across the social divide of in-groups and out-groups. Many people in Britain hold the opinion that immigration laws are discriminative against people of Asian and African descents. These observations, just like those of the Nazi Germany, show limitations of the view of natural superiority.
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Environmentalists explain that the reason for difference in IQs among different ethnic groups is biasness in adopted methodology by the researcher. Intellectual abilities, according to empiricists ideals, are negatively impacted by limited opportunities, social inequities, and lack of adequate material resource of the out-groups. Therefore, children, who were brought up in slums would score poorly in the IQ test compared to privileged children. This is because the former are denied critical possibilities in life. However, a contradicting statement is made by Lundborg & Stenberg (2010) on conventional researches to study the behaviour of twin children, who claim that “genetic endowments to co-vary with most diseases, mental disorders and behavioural traits, it seems likely that the sensitivity to environmental factors would also partly depend on the genes.”
The example discussed above and the subsequent arguments show the differences in the views of empiricist and nativists. The nature vs. nurture debate began as a debate among psychologists. However, due to the new wake of world affairs, the debates have transformed into highly contested political issues. Political developments have led to injustice, power driven motives, and disputes over discriminative legal framework in societies. Lust (2010) elaborates on the emergence of nature vs. nurture issues in post-communist Europe as there were differences between Soviet Union’s tsarist and Hapsburg empires. Soviet Union promoted the growth of economy and culture of minority groups, whereas in Estonia, the Russian government intended to adopt their language in order to have an edge in European and Estonian labour markets. Ethnic divisions and nationalism inform most of political undertones in post-communist era. People voted along ethnic lines and as such, ethnicity defined voting patterns and relocation procedures in the wake of new social rebellion and violence that were politically instigated (Lust 2010).
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In addition, the society is engulfed in the battle on the question of psychology with regard to sex and gender-based arguments of how nature and nurture affect the issue. It is difficult to justify the extent to which biological and environmental factors cause differences in female and male behaviours. Hence, debates focussing on the impact of social policies and ethics in the society have not yielded any fruits because people do not seem to have changed their behaviour. In essence, this means that the debate on nature vs. nurture contributes to nothing in the society. According to Allen (2012) “It has, however, often been used by one side or the other of a given polemic to obscure the real social and political issues at stake and thus has served to confuse, rather than clarify, the pursuit of human affairs” (p. 207).
Critical social theory shows the interrelation of politics and social order at the macro level. It also shows the affect of stability of the economy, hence the distribution of resources. Resource allocation is an indication of social wellbeing, that affects minorities or less advantaged groups. Existing theories give opportunity for the interpretation of how biological and social factors are interrelated and how they affect the behaviour of the human race. According to Fotaki (2011) "The idea of embodiment, present in all these theories provides opportunities for potentially new and novel interpretations of interactions between biological and social dimensions of human behaviour" (p. 641).
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Debates related to the question of nature vs. nurture involve issues on physiological, behavioural, and physical characteristics of the human race, microorganisms, and animals. The most intense debates are, however, those than involve human beings. There is only one certainty in arguments put forward by nativists and empiricists: the extreme ideals held by psychologists cannot be right. On the other hand, arguments posed by various researchers to support both extreme sides can be factual and real. This explains why the debates have narrowed down to the question of how much truth exists in statements of either sides. Nonetheless, this essay affirms that both nativists' and empiricists' concepts contribute to the formation of human behaviour at levels that no research has established.