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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 ? $\endgroup$ – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Nov 1 '16 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ And what about Dale Goldhaber, The Nature-Nurture Debates: Bridging the Gap (2012) ? $\endgroup$ – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Nov 1 '16 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 Nov 3 '16 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. $\endgroup$ – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Nov 3 '16 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. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Nov 6 '16 at 23:51
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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.

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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.

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  • $\begingroup$ 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? $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Jan 9 '17 at 15:05

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