Exploring the Nurture in Our Nature?

The Nature-Nurture debate in both sociology and psychology at a-level has, historically, generally been framed in terms of an either / or approach to understanding the relationship between genes and social / environmental influences. In short, either our behaviour is fundamentally a product of our genetic inheritance (biological determinism) or it is a product of our cultural experiences (cultural determinism).

Recent developments in neuroscience – and, in particular, the ability to see, understand and interpret MRI scan data – have, however, cast doubt on the utility of seeing human behaviour in terms of this relatively simple biology-culture dichotomy.

More specifically, the work of researchers like James Fallon and Kent Kiehl in relation to psychopathy and Randy Jirtle in the field of epigenetics (“above genetics”) has suggested that even though very clear genetic differences exist between the brain structures of “psychopath” and “non-psychopath” the frequently-destructive behaviour of the former can’t simply be explained in terms of simple genetic predispositions: even in what seems one of the most clear-cut examples of genetic predispositions, cultural factors play a clear – and possibly crucial – role in the social development of psychopaths.

This type of research suggests, therefore, that the Nature-Nurture debate is much more complex than previously thought, something you can explore further in a number of ways:

This short article, for example, is an accessible introduction to the work of both Fallon and Kiehl.

If you prefer a visual explanation of Fallon’s work and findings in the context of his own particular life experiences, this short (19 minute) film (reviewed here by Deb Gajic) will be useful.

Similarly, if you want a short (23 minute) introduction to Epigenetics through the work of Randy Jirtle and his ground-breaking Agouti mouse study, also available On Demand.

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