Cognitive Science | The Nature-Nurture Debate in the Study of Behavior and Cognition
Q700 | 22008 | K. Stotz

COGS Q700 / HPSC X755 — The Nature-Nurture Debate in the Study of
Behavior and Cognition
Meeting time: Th 4:00-6:30 Location: Eigenmann 821

Instructor: Karola Stotz, PhD,>
Office / Telephone: Eigenmann 810 / 856-6397
Office hours: Wed 2-4 and by appointment

The study of behavior and cognition is a highly interdisciplinary
subject with contributions from biology, psychology, cognitive
science, philosophy, and anthropology, and a longstanding tradition
leading back to before Darwin. Major contemporary debates in this
field concern the power of field study and natural observation
versus laboratory studies and rigorous experimentation, or of
behavioral versus neurological versus intentional approaches.
Arguably the longest standing dispute that still finds its way in
the investigation of cognition is the tendency to attribute a
behavior or cognitive mechanism to either ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’.
While today lines between the different schools are more blurred
than in the time when either instinct or associative learning
accounted for most of the observed behavior, the debate is far from
resolved. Part of the problem is the entrenched, dualist terminology
of describing aspects of behavior or the underlying cognitive
mechanisms as either innate/inherited/genetic or

One objective of the course is to show that it is misleading to
assume that a physiological or behavioral phenotype derives from
either nature or nurture, not even from both nature and nature. Both
the exclusive and the additive models make no biological sense
whatsoever, since no genetic factor can be studied independent of,
or just in addition to, the environment. The same is true for the
environment, which is itself a concept that includes a wide variety
of very different causes and factors, from the genomic environment
of a gene, over its chromatin packaging and cellular context, up to
ecological, social and cultural influences. Genes need to be
expressed in and by an (intra and extra-cellular) environment. In
addition, what we describe has hardwired or innate might as well be
the effect of the organism’s extended inheritance of epigenetic
factors, gut organisms, parental care, conspecifics, and its
habitat, and therefore the provision of reliable exposition to
species-typical experience that brings the trait about.

The course will survey representative research from the dawn of
animal psychology in the 19th century, classical behavioral
genetics, the instinct concept in ethology, ethology’s development
into sociobiology and evolutionary psychology on the one hand and
behavioral ecology and developmental psychobiology on the other, the
rise of behaviorism and comparative psychology in America and its
development into cognitive psychology. We will read research from
newer traditions such as dynamical systems theory, developmental
systems theory, cognitive ethology, developmental ecology, and
social neuroscience, and their attempts to leave the old dichotomy
and other disputes behind. A major goal of the course is to relate
ongoing debates to their historical antecedents, and students will
be encouraged to pursue research projects which deepen our
understanding of the philosophical disputes by examining the sources
of the presuppositions of key participants in those disputes.

Each week one student is selected beforehand to lead the discussion,
while every student has to prepare a one-page reaction to the week’s
reading. 50% of the grade will be based on this reaction pieces and
class participation, while 20% will be based on the discussion
facilitation. A final project, custom-designed to suit interests of
particular students, will be due at the end of the course for the
remaining 30% of the grade.
Readings will be made available at the website