Research Digest

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

By 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