The importance of the social environment
The nature-nurture debate
The roles of nature (what we inherit) and of nurture (what we learn) in making us what we are have long been debated. In the seventeenth century it was generally believed that people became what they were taught to be. By the second half of the nineteenth century, a quite different view was popular. Instead of looking to nurture – what people are taught – to explain human behavior, many social scientists looked to nature – what people inherit from their parents. Opinion on the question has gone back and forth ever since.
Obviously we do inherit something of what makes us who we are. But what? Physical traits such as skin color are clearly inherited, but people also appear to inherit temperament – a natural tendency to behave and react in a certain way. For example, some people are naturally active, nervous, or easily annoyed. Others, brought up in a similar environment, tend to be the opposite – passive, calm, and rarely upset. The role of heredity in determining our intelligence and aptitude is less clear, and the debate is far from over. What is clear is that, although nature may limit what we can achieve, socialization plays a very large role in determining what we do achieve. That is, whatever potential ability we inherit from our parents may be enhanced or restricted through socialization. Case studies of children who have not been cared for, and of children who have been stimulated to achieve at a high level, are evidence of the importance of social or environmental learning.
Children who are not cared for
Since the fourteenth century there have been more than fifty recorded cases of feral children. Feral children have supposedly been brought up by animals in the wild. One of the most famous is “the wild boy of Aveyron.” In 1997, this boy was captured by hunters in the woods of southern France. He was about 11 years old and completely naked. The “wild boy” ran on his arms and legs, could not speak, and liked uncooked food. He could not do most of the simple things that younger children can usually do (Malson 1972; Lane 1976). he was obviously deprived of socialization.
There have been similar stories of social deprivation this century. Anna, for example, was born in 1932 in Pennsylvania to a young unwed mother. The father was outraged by the birth and did not want to have anything to do with the child. The mother tried to give Anna away but could not, so she hid her in the attic and gave her just enough food to keep her alive. Anna was neither touched nor talked to, neither washed nor bathed. When she was found in 1938 at the age of 6, Anna could not talk or walk. She could do nothing but lie quietly on the floor, her eyes and face expressionless.
Children who receive little attention in orphanages suffer similar harmful effects. In 1945, researcher Rene Spitz reported on an orphanage where 18-month-old infants were left lying on their backs in tiny rooms most of the day without any human contact. Within a year, all had become physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially impaired. Two years later, more than a third of the children had died. Those who had survived could not speak, walk, dress themselves, or use a spoon (Spitz 1945).
While the lack of of normal socialization can destroy minds, specialized socialization can create geniuses. A young woman named Edith finished grammar school in four years, skipped high school, and went straight to college. She graduated from college at age 15 and obtained her doctorate before she was 18. Was she born a genius? We do not know. However, as soon as she stopped playing with dolls, her father filled her days with reading, mathematics, classical music, and intellectual discussions and debates. When she felt like playing, her father told her to play chess. This very special attention to her academic development is likely to have contributed significantly to her achievements. Another example is Adragon Eastwood Demello who graduated with a degree in mathematics at age 11. When he was a few months old, his father gave up his career as a science writer to educate him.
Many parents of geniuses have deliberately given their children very stimulating environments. In his study of Einstein, Picasso, Gandhi, and other world-famous geniuses in various fields, Howard Gardner (1993) found that they were all born into families that valued learning and achievement with at least one loving adult who especially encouraged their ability.
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