• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 09th April, 2009

Putting nature and nurture on the same train

The urgent exploration of the interacting forces of nature (our genetic make-up and inherited characteristics) and nurture (the environments we inhabit) was the timeless theme of Arnold Sameroff's closing presidential address to the Society for Research in Child Development.Reviewing how far development science had traveled and where it was heading, he said recent progress had depended too heavily on the success of genetic or environmental scientists working in isolation. In future, similar gains would depend on closer integration. “Understanding nature means understanding what nature cannot explain, but environment can. And vice-versa. Both are required. They penetrate each other. Nature changes nurture and nurture changes nature.” In the first three decades of the last century. inherited individual differences and human instinct had featured strongly. The next phase had seen the ascendancy of the behaviorists, who demonstrated how far conduct was a response to social rewards. By the 1980s new understanding of behavioral genetics and biology had triggered a resurgence on the nature side of the equation. Not to be outdone, nurture experts produced evidence on the effects of poverty and the different meanings people attached to similar risks. During the last 15 years scientific advances had transformed molecular biology and our understanding of the brain, presenting equivalent attempts to measure environmental factors with a profound challenge.“At each stage we thought of it as closure,” he said. “We thought we had an answer. But in every case most of the variance in children’s outcomes remained unexplained.”He predicted that the cyclical aspects of the argument were unlikely to persist much farther into the new century. “It is obvious that one group of scientists isn’t going to get it right.”Of the potential combination and integration of genetic and environmental explanations, he said. “We need to understand how individuals change their trajectories. That means understanding organic and social risks, and it means understanding how children assess those risks and adjust their behavior.”Similarly, how the contexts of family, school, neighborhood and society altered risk trajectories had still to be understood. The make-up of individual children, including their genes and their biology, had furthermore to be treated as a contextual influence. Thus every social context was affected by its interaction with every child.Another illustration he gave concerned children’s self regulation. Much of the variance was biological, and the role of genes was significant, as in the case of children with attention deficit disorders, for example. But parents, teachers, friends and all other acquaintances helped children regulate their behavior and to understand the need for regulation.So behind him he saw the improving understanding of child development partitioned by nature and nurture, running on parallel tracks with too few points of interchange.Ahead he saw something more akin to the orderly intersection of tracks at a mainline railway station where interests, disciplines and journeys converged.Better understanding of society, social science and meaning making would depend on closer collaboration between developmental scientists, anthropologists, sociologist and economists.As well as giving the incumbent Society president license to survey the scientific landscape, the conclusion of the biennial meeting creates an opportunity to honor some who have invested their careers in child development studies. President Sameroff drew the audience’s attention to the awards given to Alan Sroufe, Megan Gunnar, Janellen Huttenlocher, Mary Rothbart and Ross Parke.There were plaudits also for Mark Greenberg and James Heckman, representing those who press scientific knowledge into service for the betterment of public policy, and for others whose efforts have improved the lives of children, by securing significant, evidence-based alterations to policy, practice, communication and advocacy. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was honored for such a contribution, as were Robert Haggerty and Thomas Berry Brazelton, both well-known in the field of pediatrics.

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