Learning and Memory: Biology vs. Society

There has been much debate about the nature of human’s intelligence.  Questions arise from the matter.  Is the way you think and learn inherited, or as the nature side of the debate argues, biological?  Or is the way you think influenced by outside forces, or as the nature side of the debate argues, societal?  This paper aims to present the points of view of each side of the argument.  At the end of the paper, the author gives not just a summary of what has been presented but also an integration of the two views that gives the more believed perspective nowadays.  From this point on, the society that is referred to in the title is the environmental factors and biology is the genetic factors.
During the last twenty years, genetics has moved from a relatively difficult to understand sub-field of biology to one of its most well funded segments.  Over these twenty years, there has been an explosion of genetic discoveries.  Nevertheless, more and more questions pop out from our minds regarding genetics.  One of these is the question: How does genetics research fit with our existing notions of us as humans?
Recently, there have been an increasing number of researches that prove that cognitive abilities such as learning and memorizing are determined by genes.  That is, that our intelligence is hereditary.  Our human knowledge and cognitive processes are passed on from our parents.  Nature theorists believe that our cognitive abilities are the product of “a unique web of interactions among genes” (Lickliter and Honeycutt 461).

These nature theorists believe that when we were born, our intelligence and everything that we know of are already part of ourselves because of our genes.  That is, they believe that “Nature is everything, nurture nothing” (Gopnik).  Leamnson and Betz (as cited in McMahon) argue that learning is a biological process as much as respiration or circulation is.  McMahon further explains that cognitive abilities such as thinking, learning and memorizing take place when biochemical reactions occur across synapses which then form the neural networks.
While some researchers agree to the fact that genetic and environmental factors both play an important part in our cognitive development, they still believe that genes take the primary part in influencing our thinking, learning and memorizing abilities.  In their study, Genetic and Environmental Influences on the Development of Intelligence, Bartels et al. found that as the child grows up, the genetic influence on his intelligence increases while environmental factors decrease influence to his cognitive ability.  Thus, they conclude that “genetic influences are the main driving force behind continuity in general cognitive ability” (Bartels et al. 247).
On the other side of the debate are the nurture theorists.  These theorists believe that environmental factors have a more significant part in sharpening our cognitive processes.  These nurture theorists believe in John Locke’s philosophy that when we were born, our minds are in blank states or as they call it tabula rasa. That is, when we were born, we do not know anything.  We only acquire knowledge, that is, we only learn as we experience the world around us.  That is, as Gopnik puts it, “nurture is everything, nature nothing.”  Locke believed that we learn through experience.
James Flynn, a NZ-based political scientist, found that after World War II, the average IQ in all countries increased which he claims is due to environmental effects.  Ulric Neisser explains further that this is because children are increasingly exposed to sophisticated visual images such as ads, posters, videogame and television in contrast to the methods of learning before the world war.  This suggests that the children’s cognitive abilities are influenced by the environment (Gopnik).
Recently, however, there are an increasing number of researchers who believe that intelligence is influenced by both genetics and environmental factors.  There is no dominant factor; both play an equal role in the development of human intelligence.  Lickliter and Honeycutt describe the developmental systems theory (DST) that believes in the power of both genetics and environment to influence our cognitive abilities.  According to this theory, our cognitive abilities cannot be determined by genetics or environmental factors alone.
As Lickliter and Honeycutt explain, “development is seen as a self-organizing…process in which pattern and order emerge and change as a result of complex interactions and relations among developmentally relevant resources both internal (including genes, but also cells, hormones, organs) and external to the organism (and not from some set of prespecified instructions)” (Lickliter and Honeycutt 462).  In contrast to the solely nature theorists, DST argues that genes and the mere passing of it to a child is not a sufficient explanation or cause of an individual’s learning and memorizing.  That is, although genes and environment both play an important role to the cognitive development of human beings, we cannot separate them and consider them as independent causes.
The nature vs. nurture debate is likely to continue on but unlikely to be resolved to the satisfaction of those who strictly believe that intelligence is solely nature caused or nurture caused.  However, recently both environmentalists and behavior geneticists have called for the matter to have be ended by echoing Anastasi’s call to emphasize more on the question “How?” rather than “How much?” in the study of heredity and environment.
Works Cited:
“Nature Vs. Nurture in Intelligence”.  2005. November 20 2007. <http://wilderdom.com/personality/L4-1IntelligenceNatureVsNurture.html>.
Bartels, M., et al. “Genetic and Environmental Influences on the Development of Intelligence.” Behavior Genetics 32 (2002): 237-49.
Gopnik, Alison. Nature vs. Nurture. 2004.
Lickliter, Robert, and Hunter Honeycutt. “Evolutionary Approaches to Cognitive Development: Status and Strategy.” Journal of Cognition and Development 4 (2003): 459-73.
McMahon, Graham Peter. “Getting the Hots with What’s in the Box: Developing Higher Order Thinking Skills within a Technology-Rich Learning Environment.” Curtin University of Technology, 2007.

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