Reconciling Nature and Nurture in the Study of Behavior
The study of behavior and cognition is highly interdisciplinary, with contributions from philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, computer science, linguistics, and anthropology. Major contemporary debates concern the power of natural field observation versus rigorous laboratory experimentation, and the virtues of behavioral, neurological, or intentional approaches. Arguably the most intractable dispute is the tendency to attribute a behavior or cognitive mechanism to either ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’. The nearly universal ‘interactionist consensus’ of today is said to finally have put the debate to rest, but this ‘dead horse’ continues to kick back, as Susan Oyama pointedly phrased it. Part of the problem is first the entrenched, dualist terminology of describing aspects of behavior or the underlying cognitive mechanisms as either innate/inherited/genetic or acquired/environmental, second a lack of basic biological knowledge in most of cognitive science, and third the different understandings of what counts as an explanation, which may be in terms of causal mechanisms, developmental processes, the function and fitness value or the evolutionary origin of the behavior in question. Humanities scholars, especially philosophers & historians of science, are important contributors to these debates, helping to clarify logical, historical and conceptual ideas that frame the debates. In addition, discussions in the humanities about how to understand the human condition have been and will continue to be shaped by the scientific controversy over nurture versus nature.
The symposium will challenge the widely held view that a physiological or behavioral phenotype derives from either nature or nurture, not even from both nature and nature. Both the exclusive and the additive models make no biological sense whatsoever, since no genetic factor can properly be studied independent of, or just in addition to, the environment. The same is true for the environment, which in itself is a concept that includes a wide variety of very different causes and factors, from the genomic environment of a gene, over its chromatin packaging and cellular context, up to ecological, social and cultural influences of the whole organism. So-called innate traits include effects of the organism's extended inheritance of epigenetic factors, which are reliably reproduced with the help of ontogenetic niche construction.