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Nature vs nurture debate
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For over a century there’s been a debate about the extent to which genetics or external influences, such as nutrition and comfort, influence a child’s growth and development. This is the so called nature versus nurture debate.
As an example, the nature argument might suggest that the ability to understand language is innate regardless of the environment a child finds themself growing up in, whereas the nurture argument would suggest that language ability is fully determined by the environment and all children could develop the same language abilities given the same circumstances.
A contemporary view of child development and behaviour now encompasses both aspects of this debate. It’s widely recognised that the complex and unique genetic makeup that each child has will predispose their development, abilities, health and behaviour in all areas of their life, but that this only provides a framework and is heavily modified by the physical and social environment of the child.
So in our language example, some children will be genetically predisposed to have better language abilities than others, but how these abilities develop and which children actually end up with better language abilities is largely down to the environment that a child grows up in.
BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS BLOGS
Nature vs Nurture: Is One More Important to Language Development?
Author: Andresa DeSouza, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA
I just watched “Three Identical Strangers,” a documentary directed by Tim Wardle which tells the story of the accidental reunion of three identical triplets at the age of 19. The triplets were given up for adoption at 6 months of age to three different families. During the adoption process, none of the families were informed that their soon-to-be adopted child was a triplet of two other living-children. Their reunion became a big sensation in the early ’80s with the three young men appearing on the first-page of newspapers, magazines, and being invited to several talk-shows. Everyone, including the triplets, were shocked at how many traits and interests they all had in common. The first part of the documentary brought up the influence of genetics in the development of behavioral traits and interests.
The Nativist Theory vs The Behavioral Theory
The nativist theory defends that all children are born with the ability to develop language skills and to organize them within the grammatical rules of their native language. In other words, language is innate to the individuals and part of the human experience ( Litchfield & Lambert, 2011 ). The most famous nativist is Noah Chomsky, who suggested that children are born with a language acquisition device (LAD), hard-wired in their brain which enables the acquisition of language and the use of grammar. Furthermore:
“Nativist theories support this notion and believe that if a native language is not learned before this age, it can never be learned in a normal, natural manner or to a fully functional state” ( Litchfield & Lambert, 2011 ).
According to the nativist point-of-view, every child has an innate capability to develop language within a developmental window regardless of their environment and other developmental conditions. Watch the video below for a brief and general overview of Chomsky’s conceptualization of language development.
The behavior analytical view of language (a.k.a., verbal behavior) approaches the development of these behaviors from the same perspective as any non-verbal behaviors: They are shaped and maintained by the variables in the environment and the contingencies of reinforcement available in one’s context. These involve appropriate models, incentives for engaging in language, direct teaching of specific communication skills, and positive consequences for engaging in these behaviors. In his book Verbal Behavior, Skinner (1957) breaks down the different types of verbal behavior and described the variables which evoke and maintain these behaviors.
What Has Research Shown Us?
Children start acquiring communication and language skills at a very young age. It is not easy to pinpoint when each new language response is acquired. The reason for that is not because of the existence of an innate, internal brain device but due to the fact that most of a child’s early learning occurs in informal interactions with their caregivers and other people around them (read: Let’s Talk Baby! and Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About! for a review of the importance of parent interactions with their infants). During these interactions, language is modeled and the child’s attempts of reproducing the model are shaped and reinforced throughout these interactions.
All this is not to say that genetics are not important. Of course, our DNA matters! We still need a physical apparatus to produce language or functioning limbs to make gestures. However, the language that we will produce and the gestures we will demonstrate depend on what we learn from others around us and how they are received by our community. Asking which one is more important is not beneficial; it is like asking: What is more important to play baseball: the ball or the bat? We need both, but they serve different functions in the game ( Nesterak, 2015 ).
So…What Happened with the Triplets?
Back to the film…years after the triplets were reunited, the writer and journalist Lawrence Wright uncovered that their separation was intentional and part of a study conducted by Dr. Peter Neubauer, a respected New York, a child psychiatrist. The purpose of the study is not completely known as no publication resulted from it and all records are kept sealed until 2065 by Yale University. Anecdotal information from individuals of the research team suggested that the goal of the study was to evaluate the effects of different parenting styles in the development of children; by ruling out genetics due to the fact that the three boys were identical triplets, any difference in behavior traits would be a result of their environment. Unfortunately, the purpose of the study is still unclear. Nonetheless, apart from some superficial similarities such as preferred sports and food taste, each of the three boys grew up to be different men in terms of their social skills, work ethics, and coping repertoire. All of which were acquired through verbal interactions with others.
Andresa De Souza is an Assistant Professor in the Applied Behavior Analysis Program at the University of Missouri St. Louis. She has been interested in verbal behavior and the development of language in children with autism since she began her studies in Behavior Analysis in 2009. Contradicting the nativist theory, Andresa learned English as a second language at the age of 25, Spanish and French years later, all at a functional level!
- Call to +1 844 889-9952
Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture
Introduction, cognitive development, nature and nature debates and the case, chomsky’s theory, skinner’s theory.
Today, much information about improving child development exists, but most discussions focus on the differences between nature and nurture. Childhood is a critical period because many biological, emotional, and psychological changes occur, affecting human abilities and skills. There are theories to support and oppose both positions in the nature-nurture debate. In this paper, attention will be paid to the peculiarities of cognitive development, addressing Genie’s case, a feral child isolated during the first 13,7 years of her life. The impact of inborn qualities and the environment on cognition and socialization cannot be ignored, and there are two efficient theories to indicate both positions. Burrhus Frederic Skinner proposes the theory of operant conditioning that explains environmental (nurture) influences, and Noam Chomsky introduces the theory of language acquisition as a part of universal grammar to underline biological (nature) influences. The connection between language and cognition determines the quality of child development, proving the worth of the chosen theories. The analysis of the nurture and nature characteristics through Skinner’s and Chomsky’s ideas allows understanding of the specifics of cognitive development in Genie’s example.
The development of cognitive skills in children is a critical topic in psychology and health care. People want to improve individual abilities, enhance critical thinking, remember information, use experiences, and strengthen communication. Children have to develop their cognitive skills in terms of thinking, reasoning, and understanding, and the first several years of life represent a serious period with multiple changes (MAL-ED Network Investigators, 2018). It is important for parents and other caregivers not to miss a moment when children need some help and support and to take a step in their progress and combine thought processes. Many factors predetermine cognitive development, including family status, parental education, and methods of cooperation (Yang et al., 2021). If professional recommendations and guidelines are followed, mental and physical changes are impossible to stop. However, when parental neglect or other challenges occur, certain cognitive problems interrupt the development process in childhood, and additional help and investigations may be required.
Child development is a complex concept in psychology, and multiple discussions are raised to prove the importance of nature and nurture. On the one hand, theorists and scientists believe that genetic predisposition plays an important role in cognitive development because this biological makeup defines human abilities (Sravanti, 2017). On the other hand, there is a thought that the physical environment, meaning nurture, also identifies the level of stability in child development (Sravanti, 2017). Both arguments are strong enough to discuss their connection and impact on human relationships and interactions. Gene expression cannot be neglected because it is something people are not able to control. At the same time, the environment affects people in a variety of ways, showing what is desirable, forbidden, or unwanted. Sometimes, nurture questions natural characteristics, and modifying the environment is necessary to support children and contribute to their cognitive development (Sravanti, 2017; Yang et al., 2021). Naturalists and environmentalists analyze cognitive development in childhood, and their theories reveal the role of internal and external factors.
Genie’s case should be mentioned to learn the relationship between nature and nurture in cognitive development. In the 1970s, the world was shocked by the existence of a wild (feral) child who lived in Los Angeles. The girl was a victim of domestic abuse, suffering from parent neglect during her first 13 years. Not many facts could be found about the true reasons for her father kept the child in the dark, closed room for such a long period. Still, it was known that neither communication nor cooperation was done with Genie, which negatively affected her cognitive, psychological, and physical skills. When the girl was rescued, many professionals were involved in her rehabilitation processes, including physicians, linguists, psychologists, and social workers. Her vocabulary was weak, and she did not understand most things and people’s requests. Little is known about her progress, but her language development and communication have significantly improved.
Cognitive development may depend on human biology, and implementing a naturalistic theory is a solid argument in this perspective. In the middle of the 1900s, Chomsky introduced his theory of language acquisition, according to which children have an inborn quality of being biologically encoded with a universal grammar (Sobecks, 2020). It means that the child’s brain has certain language-learning mechanisms, and this skill is not obtained with time but remains present since birth. The idea of innateness underlines the importance of being biologically determined to learn and understand the world. The core element of this theory is a language acquisition device (LAD) that is a normal part of human development to explain the child’s predisposition to learn languages (Sobecks, 2020). Still, it does not mean that a child born in a particular country, e.g., the United States, is born with some specifics of American English. Chomsky says about common language principles with the LAD, meaning some qualities are inborn and serve as biological evidence (Sobecks, 2020). This approach supports the impact of nature on a child’s cognitive development and the possibility to speak words and create sentences with time.
In Genie’s case, the girl did not get a chance to develop her language and cognitive skills in childhood. However, Chomsky’s theory proves that it is possible to use the LAD and restore the innate ability to learn the language (Sobecks, 2020). Nativists like Chomsky believe in inborn language capacity, which explains why it was possible for specialists to work with Genie and develop her cognition to the best possible extent. Genetics plays an important role in understanding what a person can or cannot do, and language development is a skill that should not be defined through the prism of learning alone. Although a critical period of acquiring language was missed in Genie’s situation, the fact that she was born with the LAD exists. Thus, attention to her biological factors helped the experts to achieve positive outcomes and improve the quality of the girl’s life with time.
The criticism of naturalistic theories was introduced by many behaviorists who specified the role of the environment in the cognitive development of children. There are many examples of how external factors define human decisions and abilities, and the work of Skinner focuses on such conditions. This theorist opposes certain mental processes and genetic predispositions but investigates observable behaviors that show what individuals can or cannot do. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning introduces a method of learning through punishment and reward to demonstrate how an understanding of consequences affects human behavior (Overskeid, 2018). From Skinner’s point of view, a child develops cognitive or other abilities through learning the consequences and repetitions. Behavioral changes results are related to stimuli adults introduce to children, which means that the environment is crucial in the child’s cognitive development. Although environmental determination is not the only reason to explain behavior, prediction and control are vital in children’s growth (Overskeid, 2018). In other words, when a child experiences positive or negative emotions related to a specific event, cognitive abilities are developed or diminished respectfully.
The case of Genie proves the effectiveness of Skinner’s theory from some points. For example, the father punishes the child for making sounds or disobedience and rewards for silence and order. As a result, the girl did not speak, was calm, and moved slowly not to attract someone’s attention. Behaviorists might not reject the impact of genetics, but the environment is the factor that prevails over all biological issues. Each inborn quality could be changed, improved, or even removed under certain conditions. Genie’s life was unfavorable for her cognitive development, and the changes offered by other people, who were not her family members, were enough to prove how critical the impact of the environment was.
It is hard or even impossible to take one particular side in the debate about nature vs. nurture in child development. The arguments introduced by Skinner for behaviorism and Chomsky for naturalism are both valid and can be approved through the prism of Genie’s case about child abuse in childhood. Heritability explains differences in people and proves how some skills may be inborn. The environment also plays an important role in cognitive development because children learn how to behave, think, make decisions, and use sources. Their critical thinking abilities, language mechanisms, and cooperation depend not only on the people or subjects around them but on genetics. Chomsky and Skinner have strong and clear points in the nature-nurture debate. This project serves as a good example of how the environment can affect genetic predisposition to enhance or challenge cognitive development in childhood.
MAL-ED Network Investigators. (2018). Early childhood cognitive development is affected by interactions among illness, diet, enteropathogens and the home environment: Findings from the MAL-ED birth cohort study. BMJ Global Health, 3 (4). Web.
Overskeid, G. (2018). Do we need the environment to explain operant behavior? Frontiers in Psychology, 9 . Web.
Sobecks, B. (2020). Language acquisition device and the origin of language. Brain Matters, 2 (1), 9-11.
Sravanti, L. (2017). Nurture nature . Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 59 (3), 385. Web.
Yang, Q., Yang, J., Zheng, L., Song, W., & Yi, L. (2021). Impact of home parenting environment on cognitive and psychomotor development in children under 5 years old: A meta-analysis . Frontiers in Pediatrics, 9 . Web.
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PsychologyWriting. (2023, September 18). Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture. Retrieved from https://psychologywriting.com/skinner-and-chomsky-on-nature-vs-nurture/
PsychologyWriting. (2023, September 18). Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture. https://psychologywriting.com/skinner-and-chomsky-on-nature-vs-nurture/
"Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture." PsychologyWriting , 18 Sept. 2023, psychologywriting.com/skinner-and-chomsky-on-nature-vs-nurture/.
PsychologyWriting . (2023) 'Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture'. 18 September.
PsychologyWriting . 2023. "Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture." September 18, 2023. https://psychologywriting.com/skinner-and-chomsky-on-nature-vs-nurture/.
1. PsychologyWriting . "Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture." September 18, 2023. https://psychologywriting.com/skinner-and-chomsky-on-nature-vs-nurture/.
PsychologyWriting . "Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture." September 18, 2023. https://psychologywriting.com/skinner-and-chomsky-on-nature-vs-nurture/.
- Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
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- “Exploring Lifespan Development”: Theories in the Textbook and Infant Development
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- The Developmental Theories of Piaget and Vygotsky
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Nature, Nurture or Interacting Developmental Systems? Endophenotypes for learning systems bridge genes, language and development
Dept. of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dept. of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Dept. of Linguistics & DeLTA Center, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA
In the foregoing article, Lee and Tomblin (in press) present an innovative picture of language. Their exploratory study integrates the genetics and structural neuroscience of the procedural learning system to help understand an important and widespread developmental communication disorder, Specific Language Impairment. This study is necessarily exploratory, highly technical, and seemingly focused on language disorders. However, it plants a flag for a new approach to thinking about language. In their sophisticated approach to the biology of language development, there are clear bridges to the well-worn issue of nature and nurture in language development. Yet, a closer look at their results and their approaches points the field to something richer, more sophisticated, and ultimately more insightful.
Perhaps the oldest issue in the language sciences is the question of nature and nurture ( Chomsky, 1958 ; Skinner, 1957 ). To what extent are uniquely human abilities like language the product of our so-called “endowment”, or to what extent are the acquired from our rich and complex developmental experience? The argument for a heavy contribution from a human endowment is well worn and seems compelling: humans are the only species with something as sophisticated as language; there appear to be certain universals in the way that language is structured ( Pinker & Bloom, 1990 ); and despite the sophistication of language most children seem to acquire it with little direct instruction ( Bowerman, 1988 ; Marcus, 1993 )
However, the case for an endowment may be circumstantial, as these widespread assumptions are under continuous debate. Research suggests animals may possess many of the requisite capacities for language (e.g., Gentner, Fenn, Margoliash, & Nusbaum, 2006 ; Griebel & Oller, 2012 ; Wasserman, Brooks, & McMurray, 2015 ); the case for language universals may rely on fairly selective sampling of languages ( Evans & Levinson, 2009 ); and there are clever ways of overcoming the problem of lack of negative evidence (e.g., Elman, 1990 ; A. S. Hsu & Chater, 2010 ).
Getting beyond this circumstantial case would seem to require a more direct investigation of the biology – such as that of Lee and Tomblin (in press) . But in light of these broader questions of nature/nurture it is helpful to consider the intellectual and historical underpinnings of this kind of work. Behavioral genetics—twin studies—would seem to offer a more direct answer to the question of nature and nurture. The deceptive simplicity of twin studies appears to offer a clear delineation of the amount of variability due to genetics and environment. It is important to note that the emphasis of twin studies is necessarily on variation among individuals in language, not on the innate underpinnings of a universal ability. As such, researchers must identify phenotypes that vary across individuals, and have often focused on estimating heritability for clinical conditions like specific language impairment (SLI).
While this would seem to make for a narrower window onto these issues, SLI is clinically defined as poorer than normal language in the absence of any obvious cause (neurological disorder, hearing impairment, etc.). With such a loose definition, a number of researchers have argued that SLI may in fact be the low end of a continuous scale ( Leonard, 1987 , 1991 ; Tomblin & Christiansen, 2009 ; Tomblin & Zhang, 1999 ), meaning that an SLI diagnosis may be more properly seen as a proxy for functional language ability writ large. Thus, in this light, genetic studies of SLI, may offer real insight into the heritability of language more generally.
Indeed, a large number of studies suggest a moderate heritability to many domains of language ( Bishop & Hayiou-Thomas, 2008 ; Dale et al., 1998 ; Kovas et al., 2005 ; Tomblin & Buckwalter, 1998 ) (see Stromswold, 2001 , for a review). However, behavioral genetics have also been criticized on a number of grounds ( Davis, Phelps, & Bracha, 1995 ; Joseph, 2002 ; Kan, Ploeger, Raijmakers, Dolan, & Van Der Maas, 2010 ; Richardson & Norgate, 2005 ): monozygotic and fraternal twins may not have identical developmental environments, they assume an additive model making it difficult to account for dynamic interactions among factors, and twin studies have a hard time dealing with alternative routes to heritability like epigenetic or prenatal factors.
This would seem to drive the need for studies that more directly link genes and gene variants to language outcomes. However, as Lee and Tomblin (in press) discuss, these studies have also been inconclusive. For example, for even the best known gene linked to language, FOXP2 ( Lai, Fisher, Hurst, Vargha-Khadem, & Monaco, 2001 ), only relatively rare variants have been linked to variation in language ( Meaburn, Dale, Craig, & Plomin, 2002 ; Newbury et al., 2002 ). The bottom line though is that there is a sizeable set of candidate genes, but none exert large effects that are clearly independent of environmental factors. This sets up a sort of missing heritability problem (for an interesting discussion of this problem, see Chaufan & Joseph, 2013 ).
The fundamental issue with this entire line of thinking however, is the assumption that there is a unique contribution of genes (or anything “innate”) to language. That is simply not how genes work ( Fox Keller, 2009 ; Johnston & Edwards, 2002 ). This is not to criticize geneticists or those that do this kind of work – that work is often pitched carefully and biologically realistically. However, when extrapolating from genetics to these broader issues of nature and nurture, often the subtlety is lost.
So if genes do not make a unique contribution to language, what do they do? Genes contain information for creating proteins, which help build cells, and so forth. But genes don’t “act” alone – they are expressed in response to the cellular environment, which in turn is shaped by brain activity and that is in part a product of the organism’s environment. There is no single path between genes and language ( Figure 1 ). There do not appear to be any proteins or brain structures that are unique to language; just as there do not appear to be any learning events that are solely about language. The path from genes to language is more complex than this.
Language as part of a developmental system in which levels of the system like genes engage in bidirectional interactions with adjacent levels, such that genes are used to create proteins that can be involved in neural processes like learning, but gene expression is simultaneously modulated by the cellular environment. Similarly, language is a product of regularities environment, but this is shaped at the higher level by cultural forces (the structure of the language, regularities of the social environment), and these regularities must be acquired by neural mechanisms which are shaped by the biology of the organism.
In light of this, mounting work in developmental psychobiology eschews the utility of a clear nature/nurture divide in favor of developmental systems ( Gottlieb, 2007 ; Johnston & Edwards, 2002 ; Oyama, 2000 ; Spencer et al., 2009 ), the notion that developement is the product of ongoing bidirectional interactions between genes, proteins, cells, brain structures, behavior and the environment. Under this view, development is not simply the additive result of genes and environment, but rather, can only be described in terms of ongoing interactions between multiple levels of the system. This helps (but does not fully) explain the difficulty in linking genes to high level outcomes like language. Genes don’t code for language, they code for proteins, and between genes and distal outcomes like langauge, there are a lot of levels of analyses and developmental pathways.
This systems view is built on pioneering embroyology, genetics and psychobiology, work which for the most part has not addressed the complexities of human language. This work suggests that 1) genes typically do not produce organismal form or behavior directly, but rather respond in cascades to proteins created by regulatory genes that themselves respond to environmental stimuli both internal and external; 2) development of both organismal form and behavioral capabilities occurs through dynamically varying cycles of interaction among genes, and environmental events ( Lickliter & Honeycutt, 2003 ); 3) the role of environment and experience is not always rational or obvious ( Gottlieb, 1997 ) – language development, for example, is not solely the product of language input; and 4) there are multiple avenues of inheritence beyond genetic mechanisms including culture, learning, prenatal environment and epi-genetic factors (e.g., Francis, Diorio, Liu, & Meaney, 1999 ; Francis, Szegda, Campbell, Martin, & Insel, 2003 ; Weaver, 2007 ). Together they promote a view in which genes cannot be simply equated to traits, but rather participate in a rich developmental process by which traits and behaviors emerge developmentally, but these behaviors in turrn can affect gene expression and participate in multple routes to inheritance.
This developmental systems view is not commonly applied to high level human phenomena like language (though see, Christiansen & Chater, 2008 ; Elman et al., 1996 ; McMurray, in press ; Samuelson & McMurray, in press ; Tomblin & Christiansen, 2009 ). However, while this view makes it apparent that we will not make headway by trying to isolate genetic influences on language, it also underscores the fact that neither can we cannot ignore the role of genes. So what is the role of genes in such a system?
While genes do not “cause” development, they contain rich information that development can use. In particular, genes contain information about proteins, proteins which may be needed to implement changes in cellular structure resulting from learning and experience. In this way, then, gene variants may be more closely linked to upstream processes such as learning systems in the brain.
Lee and Tomblin (in press) take this logic by emphasizing endophenotypes, that is, measureable phenotypes that may be closer to gene action; in a sense moving down a level or two in Figure 1 from language to its neural and cognitive underpinings. They use these endophenotypes to understand the development of SLI (and by proxy, general language abilities). Building on the now important finding that procedural learning systems (centered in the striatal system) may be important for learning language ( Hedenius et al., 2011 ; Tomblin, Mainela-Arnold, & Zhang, 2007 ; Ullman & Pierpont, 2005 ) (though see, H. J. Hsu & Bishop, 2014 ), Lee and Tomblin simultaneously link genes associated with procedural learning to structural brain imaging of basal ganglion system, performance on several procedural learning tasks, and to language diagnoses.
One might take a standard nature/nurture view to argue that this shows the ultimate importance of genes for a learning system necessary for language; that is, genes→learning systems → language. Under this view, this work appears document the innate nature of these learning systems. However, from a systems perspective, development itself is the focus. The point of learning systems is to acquire information for the environment, and these genes likely play a role in how, when, and in what manner this information is stored. That is, they must respond to the state of the organism, not direct its development. Here, genes conmtain the information needed for implementing learning, and of course, learning is intricately dependent on rich input from the environment. From this perspective, this genetic work becomes a way to highlight which learning systems may be involved in harnessing this information to drive particular aspects of language development.
Of course, Lee and Tomblin’s (in press) exploratory study is not that ambitious nor can it be that precisely targeted. However, it illustrates the promise of combining advances in human neuroscience and genetics with careful measurements of cognitive processing and ultimate real-world outcomes like SLI. This study points to the simultaneous contribution of genes, learning systems, and environment as contributors to language outcomes, and by doing this it starts to unpack language as a developmental system.
The author would like to thank Mark Blumberg and Bruce Tomblin for helpful discussions on these issues. Preparation of this manuscript was supported by NIH grant DC0008089.
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