Four steps to interpret and move beyond nature-nurture (for a handbook on environmental studies)

My four steps to interpret and move beyond nature-nurture for the current draft of a 1500-word entry for a handbook on environmental studies:

Interpreting ideas of nature

First, ideas of nature underlie a great deal of social thought, present and past.   Following Williams (1980), discussions of nature invite interpretation that attends to “the history of human labour” (p. 78) suppressed in promoting abstract ideas about society.

Interpreting nature-culture oppositions

Second, culture is placed in opposition to nature in a variety of ways.  These oppositions can be criticized from several angles, all of which can be applied to nature-nurture, as a key instance of the nature-culture opposition.

Five nature-nurture sciences

Third, five different nature-nurture sciences exist (Taylor 2015).  The common response to the nature-nurture opposition “of course, it is some of both” or “it is both in interaction” implies a single nature-nurture opposition.  That suggestion discounts the control of materials and conditions needed to establish reliable knowledge in each of those sciences and to translate, if that is possible, between those different sciences.  To understand the development and changeability of human behavior requires going beyond the interactionist angle of criticism.

Intersecting processes

Finally: build on the well-developed alternatives to the nature-culture opposition found in political-economic studies of environment that analyze situations as the outcome of intersecting processes (Taylor and García-Barrios 1995). Even in phenylketonuria, genetic medicine’s posterchild, the individual’s life course is shaped not only by diagnosis and the special diet—genes then environment—but also by the presence (or absence) of: insurance coverage for that diet; family, cultural and peer support for compliance; counseling and support groups; access and responsiveness to the drug BH4; and much more.

References Cited

Taylor, P. J. (2015) “What difference does it make? An essay review of James Tabery ‘Beyond versus: The struggle to understand the interaction of nature and nurture’.” Working Papers on Science in a Changing World http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cct_sicw/1

Taylor, P. J. and R. García-Barrios (1995). “The social analysis of ecological change: From systems to intersecting processes.” Social Science Information 34(1): 5-30.

Williams, R. (1980). Ideas of Nature. Problems in materialism and culture. London, Verso: 67-85.


I don’t think the steps hand-hold the audience for a handbook enough, but there is a bigger issue: Critique of nature-nurture requires some hard work.  If there were a slam-dunk takedown of nature-nurture, the debate wouldn’t remain so active–or the takedown would be flawed.

Comments welcome.  Perhaps now that I have the 4 steps I can come back after a break and take a fresh look to create a new version more suitable for the handbook audience.

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