This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Genes and Environment: "There is No Versus"

Because physical and social environments are intertwined in development, many psychologists do not like to hear references to "genes vs. environment." That makes it sound as if genes and environmental influences are independent, opposite forces of nature. The reality is that one is never found without the other. As developmental psychologist John L. Locke put it, "There never was a versus" (Ratner, 1993). Complex mixes of genetic and environmental factors influence all behavior, without exception. The environment also influences genetic expression, without altering the DNA itself, in the process called epigenesis. So the two are thoroughly intertwined, and it makes little sense to ask whether a personality trait or behavior pattern is "nature or nurture." It is almost always both.

What was Locke's point? What was Eleanor Gibson's complaint?

The famous developmental psychologist Eleanor Gibson referred to the nature-nurture dichotomy as a "hobgoblin." (Gibson, 1994) She complained about colleagues who should know better asking, "Where do you stand on the nature-nurture dimension?" Gibson points out, "There is no such dimension." The word dimension suggests a line stretching from heredity on one side to environment on the other. But heredity and environment are not on such a dimension. They are always intermixed, not standing on ends of a continuum.

Even when heredity is a powerful influence, environment is still crucial. Consider Wayne Gretzky, often called the greatest hockey player of all time. Socialization and learning were both essential to that outcome. He was born in Canada, where hockey is emphasized. Wayne played hockey in an organized league at a young age. He excelled and was called The Great One even as a child. He spent huge amounts of time on hockey as he grew up.

What are some points illustrated by the example of Wayne Gretzky?

No doubt Gretzky had natural talent. He probably had a good body build for hockey, good reaction time, and excellent motor coordination. Not every child earns a nickname like The Great One while still in grade school. However, this introduces a complication. Think of the psychological (environmental) impact on a young child of being called The Great One. Would this not stimulate a powerful motivation to excel, perhaps to try to become the best in the world?

What would have happened if Wayne Gretzky had grown up in Mexico instead of Canada? He might have been a very good athlete, but probably he would not have been a hockey player. What if Gretzky had grown up in Canada but under conditions of extreme poverty, so his caretakers could not afford to enroll him in the junior hockey league? What if another hockey player was already called The Great One and Gretzky was called Number Two? Such environmental factors might have altered the outcome of his career. Genes are important, but they do not determine what we become, they only provide a potential.


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