In the early twentieth century a convergence of ideas swirling around sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and eugenics led to an argument that heredity had essentially no place in the shaping of character. Instead of nature, it was all about nurture. This stood in marked contrast to earlier arguments about the primacy of nature, heredity, and genetics in determining who would succeed and who would fail in life. In this study by Aaron Gillette, this subject is explored through an historical lens.
At the beginning of the twentieth century eugenics was viewed as a pseudoscience, but over time it gained credence as a theory that when applied judiciously could consciously guide human evolution and therefore remake humanity along lines desired by powerful societies. Springing from that belief sprang a range of efforts to establish desirable/undesirable traits and to select for those through selective reproduction. In such a setting eugenics emerged in such places as Nazi Germany as a solution to a variety of perceived societal ills. These raised, of course, profound moral, ethical, and religious questions; some scientists and other leaders rejected the idea while others embraced eugenics as a means of reengineering the world in a scientific, logical manner.
Eugenics lost its appeal through the radical experiments of fascist societies, of course, but there were all along some who argued that environment was more important to a person’s key attributes than genetics. The nature-nurture debate was born out of this debate and it raged throughout the twentieth century. On the one side was the morass of deeply troubling issues associated with eugenics, repelling Western science and pushing it toward environmental explanations for character. On the other side, scientists of genetics noted the very real aspects of heredity and how it might be effectively mobilized for positive ends.
In the 1950s a new generation of scientists, led by Edward O. Wilson presented a new take on the “nature” theory called sociobiology. It sparked its own response, “evolutionary psychology,” that emerged in the 1980s, and the nature–nurture debate arose once again.
Aaron Gillette’s very fine study explores this subject in Eugenics and the Nature-Nurture Debate in the Twentieth Century. In addition to being a critically important topic in the history of science in its own right, this study goes far toward explaining a key aspect of ideology and science. In doing so it offers a uniquely valuable discussion of a complex but significant topic.