Why do scientists still debate about nature and nurture?

by Jana Cunningham

If scientists agree it's not nature versus nurture; rather, it's the interaction of nature and nurture, why does a debate still exist?

In 2003, published a groundbreaking study on the interaction of nature and nurture, showing how a particular gene and exposure to (like losing a spouse or being fired from a job) combine to contribute to the risk of developing depression. The study was hailed in media outlets around the world as an example of moving beyond the old "nature versus nurture" debate and instead revealing how something as complex as depression arises from the interaction of nature and nurture.

In the years that followed, dozens of international teams of scientists set out to replicate that original 2003 study to see if they could find the same interaction of nature and nurture. Many of those studies came back positive, confirming the original study, but many also came back negative, negating the interaction.

"Now, in 2014, the scientists who study the nature and nurture of depression can't agree," said James Tabery, historian and philosopher at the University of Utah. "They argue at scientific conferences, in journal editorials and in news reports covering the controversy. How can scientists from all over the world look at the same data and results but then reach such different conclusions?"

According to Tabery's new book, "Beyond Versus: The Struggle to Understand the Interaction of Nature and Nurture," scientists can't agree because they're not just arguing about data and results. Rather, they're engaged in a fundamentally philosophical debate about what "the interaction of nature and nurture" actually means.

Tabery explains how scientists throughout the 20th and now 21st centuries conceived of the interaction of nature and nurture in two radically different ways—one side envisioning it as crucially important and the other side dismissing it as a rare nuisance.

"From disputes in the 1930s regarding eugenic sterilizations, to controversies in the 1970s about the gap in IQ scores for black and white Americans, to the contemporary debate about the causes of depression—the book traces the frustratingly persistent debate that keeps emerging, even as the cast and context of each iteration of that debate changes from decade to decade," added Tabery.

The result is a book that tells the story of the past, takes stock of the present and envisions the future of a science that continues to make headlines and raises controversy.

More information: "Beyond Versus: The Struggle to Understand the Interaction of Nature and Nurture" was released by The MIT Press on June 13, 2014

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Gender stereotypes and nature vs. nurture

Oct 08, 2012

Is gender difference a result of nature or nurture? Is neuroscience research being manipulated to support gender stereotypes? A debate at the Festival of Ideas will explore the issue later this month.

Explainer: What is heritability?

Dec 23, 2013

Schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and autism have all had recent attention for being "genetically caused". ...

Gene-environment interaction in yeast gene expression

Apr 14, 2008

The nature vs. nurture debate is familiar to most people, and modern conclusions usually predict a balance between the two. A new paper published this week in the open-access journal PLoS Biology shows that there is a simi ...

Recommended for you

New MCAT shifts focus, will include humanities

Oct 20, 2014

(HealthDay)—The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) has been revised, and the latest changes, including more humanities such as social sciences, are due to be implemented next April, according to a report ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Wolf358
5 / 5 (2) Jun 24, 2014
"Why do scientists still debate about nature and nurture?"
1) They were born that way, and 2) they were raised that way... :-)
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Jun 25, 2014
There are four distinct contributors to behaviour, not two.
*) Genetic predisposition, which is heuristic in nature;
*) Cultural imprinting, from language to peer group;
*) Personal interaction with the environment from birth to present;
*) Current conditions and interactions, as described in consciousness studies and Cognitive Neuroscience (subjective and objective stances).

Nature effects all four of the above. All four are also effected by nurture. Thus my four influences on behaviour do not fall into the nature/nurture divide, which is a category error...

[Note that gene expression is regulated epigenetically and this has been shown to occur in real time. One can overcome genetic predisposition if one of the other categories has a stronger influence eg in some religious practice individuals may forgo sexual contact and the desire to breed and have a family and even to eat and sleep to a large degree]
JVK
not rated yet Jun 25, 2014
1996 From Fertilization to Adult Sexual Behavior: http://www.hawaii...ion.html "This discourse calls attention to features that are central to the so-called nature-nurture discussion."

In the context of molecular epigenetics we detailed the fact that sex differences in cell type differentiation are nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled.

2014 Nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled ecological adaptations: from atoms to ecosystems http://figshare.c...s/994281
All cell type differentiation in all individuals of all species occurs via nutrient-dependent amino acid substitutions. Conserved molecular mechanisms (1996) that enable ecological variation to result in ecological adaptations are biophysically constrained by the physiology of reproduction. The model refutes ideas about mutation-initiated natural selection and diversity.
JVK
not rated yet Jun 25, 2014
Excerpt: "...they're engaged in a fundamentally philosophical debate about what "the interaction of nature and nurture" actually means."

The "the interaction of nature and nurture" means that ecological variation epigenetically effects ecological adaptations via conserved molecular mechanisms in species from microbes to man.

That's why I continue to refer to evolutionary theory as pseudoscientific nonsense. Not only did we provide details of the conserved molecular mechanisms in1996, but I included them in a 2012 review: Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors. http://www.ncbi.n...24693349

I concluded that: "Olfaction and odor receptors provide a clear evolutionary trail that can be followed from unicellular organisms to insects to humans..." But that trail eliminates mutations and natural selection along with most ideas about the evolution of biodiversity and substitutes ecological adaptations.