I'm taking a class in language acquisition called "Nature vs Nurture". I'm not particularly fond of that framing, because the divide seems overly dichotomous. In addition, the N-vs-N debate has been used as a tool of oppression throughout history, namely in eugenics.

So I'm wondering whether there are any cases in linguistics (or related fields like Cognitive Sciences) where this debate is being used for harm?

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    $\begingroup$ Have you tried wit the Nature versus nurture entry of Wiki ? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ And what about Dale Goldhaber, The Nature-Nurture Debates: Bridging the Gap (2012) ? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 8:51
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    $\begingroup$ @MauroALLEGRANZA the wiki entry only covers acquisition of a specific language. The class and question pertain to language capacity in general . Thanks for the link to the book though. $\endgroup$
    – Maggie
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ You are welcome :-) But Wiki's entry can be useful for ref... See e.g. Ceci, Stephen J. & Williams, Wendy M., editors (1999), The Nature–nurture debate: the essential readings as well as Steven Pinker. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ This question makes very little sense. It seems to assume that debate concerning a scientific question can or should be shut down because debate harms people. Then it asks whether nature versus nurture in linguistics is a case of this type of harm. You lost me at the assumption. Open debate is a prerequisite for all of science. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 23:51

3 Answers 3


No, at least not in the academic sector. It it now commonly held knowledge that it is not one or the other, but the interaction between nature and nurture that shapes an individual. The "debate" therefore is currently how much of each contributes to any given developmental mechanism. However, I cannot guarantee that some independent special interest group is not using a perversion of the "original debate" for their own agenda. All this being said, it is important to note that there are some aspects of maturation (e.g., language or sight, for example) that have either sensitive or critical periods for development. With that being said, it IS important, and extremely useful, to discuss nature/nurture within these contexts.

Key individuals in this area of study include Robert Plomin, Arnold Buss, Michael Rutter, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Jay Belsky, Sandra Scarr, and Michael Pluess (to name a few). If you are interested in additional information, many of these individuals have published works on this topic within the last 10 years.


I'm wondering whether there are any cases in linguistics (or related fields like Cognitive Sciences) where this debate is being used for harm?

The subject of nature vs nurture is a hot debate and is very divisive in many scientific and non-scientific communities.

Where there is prejudice, there can be harm on both sides of the debate

In cognitive sciences, I can think of 2 examples straight away.

Good and evil inborn or developed?

The debate on whether good and evil is inborn or down to upbringing or other environmental issues has been raging for decades. The research by Philip Zimbardo, Stanley Milgram, Soloman Asch et al. shows that. It can also be seen to be harmful on both sides or the debate.

Sexual abuse of a child is an evil that most people want to eradicate. This in turn has led to a fight against paedophilia, hebephilia etc. when it is debated that paedophilia etc. are sexual orientations which may not lead to sexual abuse of a child. After all, male rape of men and boys can have nothing to do with homosexual orientation (one example of research outcomes)

If it is inborn

If it's inborn, what do you do about the evil people born that way? They can't help it after all. Do you put an extremely close 24/7/365 watch on them in order to step on the moment they are about to do something evil?

Maybe you look to eugenics to eliminate the problem by aborting future pregnancies which could lead to an evil person being born. But that is not fair on the unborn child as it may not be 100% accurate and the child could turn out to be a Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi incarnate.

Maybe you could sterilise evil people so the gene pool for evil people is weakened. But that is unfair on the potential mother of a child who again, could turn out to be another Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi.

If it is nurture

Do you put aside your indifference toward evil people, admonish those who caused it (mothers, fathers, school teachers, politicians, influences on social media...) and support the evildoers toward going the other way, or do you punush both and leave the admonishment to correct their ways? After all, it costs a lot of money to imprison an individual and the finances are finite.

Homosexuality inborn or influenced?

If inborn (which is where science has swung toward)

There has been, and continues to be, incidents of fear of the unknown where straight people worry there will be issues from homosexual people coming on to or attacking heterosexual people. So, this fear induces violence toward them.

There has been a search for "the gay gene" and that has caused controversy as that has good and bad implications and scientists have sought to "kill" a particular test for homosexuality. There have been calls for eugenics to step in to eliminate "the abomination". Do we try to remove homosexuality through genetics? That is actually a debate in some circles.

Do we prevent gay men from donating sperm? Do we prevent them from fathering a child through surrogacy? Do we use conversion therapy to stop them acting on their urges? Do we try to develop brain implants to "cure" it?... The list can go on. After all,

Homosexuality has been [attempted to be] treated with lobotomies, chemical castration, electrical shocks and nausea-inducing drugs as well as psychotherapy.

If there are environmental influences

Again, fear of the unknown steps in. Can a straight person be made to be gay by another gay person? Should we prevent gay people socialising with heterosexual people? Should we just beat it out of them?

Should we perform lobotomies, chemical castration, electrical shocks and nausea-inducing drugs as well as psychotherapy?


There was, long ago, a confusion in social science circles. Alfred Marshall, Karl Pearson, Bernard Shaw, Ronald Fisher, etc, framed the question in terms of nature versus nature. However, this framing was later critically addressed, by prominent figures at the time within biology and neuroscience.

In 1956 (2), Donald Hebb wrote that it is 100 percent both, that the nature versus nurture is misleading and incorrect, that there is no nature part and no nurture part. They cannot be separated or calculated as fractions. Environment determined how genes are expressed and while absence of one (now called developmental resource) causes some behavior not to be learned, no behavior is attributable to some environment or to some genetic component, because mere presence of that independent of the whole complex system does not produce that behavior. He was later elected president of the American Psychological Association. In his earlier famous coalitional neural networks monograph (1), he wrote that attributing substantial differences in human learning behavior specifically to different genetics is very misleading. Most significant genetic differences in a species, he argued, do not themselves cause any behavior difference when small and cause obvious physical illness when sufficiently great. Before him Raymond Wheeler wrote much the same thing in places like Psychological Review, and Conrad Waddington wrote the same thing on numerous occasions in his well known books in 1949, 1954, 1957, etc, and in places like Nature. Today we talk about whole developmental systems and developmental resources that must be present at a certain time for something to occur but none of which by itself codes or causes anything. So much for the scientific history of this.

(1) HEBB, DONALD. 1949. The Organization of Behavior, New York: Wiley.

(2) HEBB, DONALD. 1982. The Conceptual Nervous System, Oxford: Pergamon.

  • $\begingroup$ This seems broad and overstated. What body of traits is this answer supposed to be about? The original question was about language acquisition, but the answer pulls in Ronald Fisher, which makes it sound as if you're making some kind of very broad claim, maybe about intellectual differences in general? When you talk about "genetic differences in a species," it sounds like you're not even restricting yourself to humans...? Are you claiming, for example, that there's something wrong with twin studies that estimate the percentage of variation in human height that can be explained by genetics? $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 15:05

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