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Blupete's Weekly Commentary

January 30th, 2000.

"Nature Or Nurture"

In 1914, J. B. Watson1 came out with his book, An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. By it, its author became the founder of "psychological behaviourism." Watson proclaimed that the subject matter of psychology should be behaviour, not consciousness. He, in addition to putting the study of man on an objective basis, gave great support to the view that belief in consciousness is a hangover from our superstitious pre-scientific past, akin to belief in witchcraft.

B. F. Skinner (d.1974) of Harvard University carried on in the same vein as that of Watson and, in particular, relied very much on the work of Pavlov2, - learning takes place by the conditioning of the reflexes.

Psychology, or the empirical study of human behavior is a study, which by its nature rejects the metaphysical notion, first advanced by Plato, that of dualism; psychology is "scientific." Frankly, while I am ready to accept that human behaviour might well be measured in a scientific way, I do not believe that human behaviour can be explained scientifically. Skinner's theories, like those of Marx, have been seized upon by the "social planners," and set out, enlisting the coercive power of the state, to attempt to manipulate and to attempt to control human behaviour, and by so doing make a sham out of individual freedom and dignity. These social planners -- they would like us to think -- know how to design a culture; know what is best for us. Why, -- they have a vision as to how human beings should act.

Is Behaviour Learned, or is it that we cannot help ourselves? Is it Genetics or Culture? Is it Nature or Nurture?

Skinner thought, like most all human behaviour, language was learned. Avram Noam Chomsky (1928- ), an America linguist, had another theory, viz., man has an innate capacity for learning and using language. Skinner held that our language-learning must be due just to a complex set of reinforcements from our human environment. Chomsky suggests that the amazing speed with which children learn the grammatical rules of the language they hear from a very limited and imperfect sample of that language can be explained only by the assumption that there is in the human species an innate capacity to process language according to such rules. So behind all the apparent variety of human languages there must be a certain basic systematic structure common to all, and we must suppose that we do not learn this structure from our environment, but process whatever linguistic stimulation we receive in terms of this structure. This fascinating hypothesis has by no means been proved, but the available evidence does tend to favour it rather than Skinner's extreme environmentalism.3 The question soon comes to one, - What other human behaviour is innate and does not come from an individual's environment? I suspect human beings start out with simply more than physiological reflexes; I suspect that heredity is more the determinating factor. It is heredity that lays out, in great brush strokes, our entire personality; repeated experiences only add to its formulation.



1 John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) was an American.

2 Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), the Russian physiologist , is most famous for his study of "conditioned" or acquired reflexes. It was Pavlov's view that the brain's only function is the coupling of neutrons to produce reflexes. Pavlov was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 1904.

3 See Leslie Stevenson book, Seven Theories of Human Nature (1974) (Oxford University Press, 1987) pp. 113-4. It seems to me that part of the evidence, now available, are the results of research carried out on song birds. Keep a song bird away from everything you possibly can, and in particular other song birds. The result is that they grow up singing the song peculiar to its species; but the highs are not as high, the lows not as low; they sing out of tune, so to speak.

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Peter Landry

January, 2000 (2011)