Scholars who believe nurture trumps nature also tend to doubt the scientific method

74896366_cb518860b6_z.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

How far has evolutionary thinking permeated through academia? A survey of more than 600 scholars from 22 disciplines, ranging from psychology and economics through to gender studies, sociology and the humanities, finds that there remain two distinct cultures in the academe, at least regarding views on the principal causes of human behaviour and human culture.

One group, made up of psychologists, economists, philosophers and political scientists believes more strongly in the genetic influences on behaviour, beliefs and culture. The other group, consisting sociologists, non-evolutionary anthropologists, women’s and gender studies scholars and all humanities scholars (except philosophy), believes in the primacy of environmental influences. What’s more, those scholars favouring environmental accounts also tend to be sceptical of the scientific method. The findings are published open-access in the newly launched journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.

Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and his colleagues, including Mathias Clasen at Aarhus University, identified influential scholars in different disciplines based on their authorship of papers in their fields’ leading journals. Each participant rated their agreement with 24 statements pertaining to the nature/nurture debate and gene-environment interactions. The camp favouring genetic explanations tended to agree more strongly with statements like “Human behaviour is produced predominantly or exclusively by genetically transmitted characteristics”. The other camp rated more strongly items like “Human behaviour is produced predominantly or exclusively by environmental conditions, including cultural conventions.”

A glimmer of hope for future consensus was found in the fact that both camps tended to answer in the affirmative to items pertaining to gene-environment interactions, such as “Human values, beliefs and feelings are produced by an interaction between adaptations shaped by selection and environmental conditions, including cultural conventions.”

However, signs of consensus were somewhat undermined by the participants’ open-ended comments which showed that the two camps had a different perspective on what gene environment interactions mean. For instance, on the topic of gender identity, an evolutionary social sciences scholar said: “I believe gender identity reflects a mixture of genetic and culture inputs, with the genetic being somewhat more important”, while a literary studies scholar said: “I agree that biological characteristics play a role in gender-identity formation but I suppose I absolutely disagree that they do so ‘predominantly'”.

Perhaps most worrying, in the sense of undermining hopes of any future consensus on understanding human behaviour and culture, is that the scholars who favoured environmental and cultural explanations for behaviour also tended to doubt the scientific method:

“Human behaviour is not subject to immutable laws, and, therefore, can’t be studied scientifically,” said a religious studies scholar. “Scientific knowledge has something to tell us about material artefacts and their production, but ‘human nature’, ‘human experience’ and ‘human behaviour’ are not empirically stable,” said a literary studies scholar.

In contrast, scholars favouring genetic and evolutionary accounts of behaviour expressed faith in science.

Carroll and his colleagues said their survey had provided a “statistical snapshot … from a landscape constantly changing” of the diverging views on human nature and culture held by the social sciences and humanities. Their own optimistic feeling is that opinion is moving “unmistakably toward an integrated biocultural view of human behaviour”.

So, will the gap between the two cultures ever be bridged? The greatest obstacle, the researchers believe, is those scholars who declare that human behaviour cannot be studied scientifically (consider the views of another ethnic studies scholar: “I don’t believe in the genetic evolution of species,” they wrote, “There is an imprint of divinity in each person that ensures our commonalities”). Carroll and his colleagues said “Most researchers who regard human behaviour as beyond the reach of science, or who deny that science has any special claims on the production of knowledge, have more academic respectability that creationists, but they are similar to creationists in that they step willingly outside the circle of knowledge susceptible to empirical falsification.”

A Cross-Disciplinary Survey of Beliefs about Human Nature, Culture, and Science

Image: via youplayawhat/ flickr

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

10 thoughts on “Scholars who believe nurture trumps nature also tend to doubt the scientific method”

  1. Then why are psychologists let off the scientific method? Looking for cause not interesting correlations?
    The article suggests sociologists are heavily in to circumstance creating behaviour and yet psychologists do exactly the same thing. Just read and study that says “this makes them feel…” where “this” is the environment or circumstance or another person.
    Fortunately quantum physics and biology and neuroscience proves it is the orher way round with causality

    1. You seem to be completely misunderstanding the nature of the debate. While psychologists do indeed investigate environmental and contextual influences on human behavior, that doesn’t entail that they deny that human psychology is shaped by genetic and innate biological factors. Biologists do the same thing. In fact all scientists look at how specific, unique circumstance are shaped by and subject to universal laws – a physicist for example, might analyze how the behavior of a particular instance of a man throwing a baseball is determined by universal physical laws, namely Newton’s laws of motion.

      In the case of psychologists, they look at how contextual factors (e.g. social norms, physical stimuli, physiological state, previous experience, etc.) affect one’s behavioral, cognitive, and emotional state and response. I.e. they look at how one’s “environment” makes them “feel”. That being said, this doesn’t commit them to denying the efficacy or causal relevance of, for example, genetic predispositions. In fact, such variables are one of the components they’re interested in when analyzing and understanding how a person responds to a situation. I don’t how you could fail to understand this (you’re obviously not involved or experienced in any scientific or academic research yourself). Just because they’re interested in studying the relationship between one’s environment or experiences and their overall psychological state doesn’t mean that psychologists deny the influence of innate and biological factors on human behavior and psychology.

      In fact, psychologists (much like anyone who actually studies human behavior in a scientific manner – so cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers are included as well) recognize that the problem isn’t really nature or nurture – we’re not stuck in a position where we must choose one or the other. The reality of the situation is that both nature and nurture, or both biology and sociology, exert an influence on human behavior and “human nature”

  2. Thanks for this. I am a firm believer in the scientific method. Unfortunately, evolutionary psychologists don’t often comply with it.

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