Processes of Development (page 2)
An understanding of development requires resolution of a fundamental question: Do we develop primarily because we learn from our surroundings (environment) or because we are predisposed to grow in certain ways (heredity)? An explanation of each position provides an interesting framework for examining contemporary theories of child development.
Heredity is the totality of characteristics transmitted from the parents to the offspring. The view that behavior and development are primarily directed by heredity, or nature, was initially set forth by Jean Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century. Rousseau was a French philosopher who believed that a child’s growth and development were ultimately determined by nature, and that the child’s surroundings had little influence on development. According to this viewpoint, nature provides the primary guidance for healthy growth and development. This philosophy has been advocated by Gesell (Gesell & Ilg, 1943), Jensen (1980), and others.
The position that environment is primarily responsible for how a child develops can be traced to the work of seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke. Locke resurrected many of the teachings of Aristotle in describing the mind of an infant as a tabula rasa, or “blank slate.” Locke believed that all of an individual’s experiences contribute to filling the blank slate. The child was perceived as a passive receiver of information and thus easily shaped by environmental influences.
Watson (1924) and many other theorists (e.g., Skinner, 1961) have been strong advocates for the environmentalist position. Watson was a prominent force in American psychology and adhered almost exclusively to the nurture philosophy of the nature–nurture controversy. The basic tenets of his thinking are revealed in one of his earlier works (Watson, 1924):
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief, and yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, race of his ancestors. (p. 104)
Watson represented an extreme environmentalist position that downplayed biological influences on development and truly emphasized Locke’s tabula rasa philosophy.
Interaction of Heredity and Environment
As a resolution to these seemingly opposing positions, common sense dictates that neither heredity nor environment alone explains a child’s typical growth and development. Heredity does not dominate development, nor are environmental influences solely responsible for one’s personality, talents, or physical abilities. It seems that an interaction between these two positions most likely accounts for the multiple facets or elements of development. Although the interaction between heredity and environment is well accepted from a contemporary viewpoint, the exact degree of interaction remains a mystery; however, current scientific discoveries in the area of genomics (the study of genes and their expression) should provide clearer guidance with respect to the degree or magnitude of this interaction in the next several decades. The task for observers of child behavior and development should be to focus on describing the specific aspects of each philosophical position that may be affecting the development of any particular child. For Nathaniel, the interaction of heredity and environment clearly is present; but, how this interaction will manifest over time remains to be seen.
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