Anthropology Magazine
The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 8

Nature Versus Nurture

In soft focus, a woman's lips gently kisses the tip of a baby's nose.

In this unit (to accompany the SAPIENS podcast S6E4), students will learn the origins of the nature versus nurture debate within the field of anthropology and explore where the debate currently stands. Students will examine the ways in which nature and nurture intersect. Students will explore how the lens of nature versus nurture shaped Freeman and Mead’s understanding of the Samoan people.

Learning Objectives
  • Explore the concept of nature versus nurture from an anthropological standpoint and the ways the two intersect.
  • Express how Freeman’s and Mead’s writings on Samoa incorporated the idea of nature versus nurture.
Cultural determinism
  1. The belief that an individual’s culture influences one’s behaviors and emotions.

  1. A scientifically inaccurate theory that strives to select and reproduce desirable hereditary characteristics in order to improve future generations.

Professor Talking Points
  • During the nineteenth century, the prevalence of Darwinism and evolutionary theory prompted scholars to distinguish natural (what something is born with, genetics, hereditary) versus environmental (parental upbringing, culture, surroundings) causes for animal traits and behaviors. The “nature versus nurture” controversy emerged in the late nineteenth century, with Sir Francis Galton coining the phrase.
  • A key player arguing on the importance of nature was the biologist H.M. Parshley, who favored biological determination, eugenics, and hereditary traits. Another key player was Auguste Weismann. He promoted the theory of natural selection-driven evolution. In contrast, J.B. Watson and Franz Boas leaned into the side of nurture when determining people’s behavior. J.B. Watson popularized the theory of behaviorism in psychology and argued that a child’s environment shapes their behavior.
  • Franz Boas, Margaret Mead’s mentor and professor, was a large promoter of cultural determinism and is credited with the theory of cultural relativism. He argued that a culture’s practices and traditions must be understood within that culture.
  • Boas and early supporters of cultural determinism faced a unique problem. The idea that nature determines animal outcomes within their communities was a well-established dogma. Other supporters of the nature theory used the theory to support their racist ideologies. These individuals misused biological differences in order to classify humans into hierarchies. The misuse of information provided another motive for Boas to push cultural determinism. Freeman claimed, “the Boasians had an antipathy to biology, and to genetics and evolutionary biology in particular” (1998, p. 295). He uses this argument as evidence against Mead’s conclusions about the Samoan people.
  • Freeman’s second book focuses on providing a detailed ethnography of the Samoans and pointing out Mead’s errors. The book includes a history of how the nature versus nurture debate began and its standing at the time of publication and an explanation for why Boas pushed against accepting any genetic study for behaviors.
  • Mead had her own understanding of nature versus nurture. Regarding adolescence, Mead says, “If the same process takes a different form in two different environments, we cannot make any explanations in terms of the process, for that is the same in both cases. But the social environment is very different, and it is to it that we must look for an explanation” (Mead 1928, p. 159).
  • Anthropologist Paul Shankman points out the lack of evidence and outright incorrect conclusions Freeman makes in his argument against Mead. Shankman notes that Freeman overemphasized the popularity of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, disregarded Mead’s acknowledgment of biology in the book (and further work in promoting genetics in the anthropology field), and failed to provide transcripts for his hoax claim interviews. Time also played a factor in the work of Mead and Freeman. Mead was in Samoa in the 1920s, while Freeman studied Samoa in the 1940s and 1950s. The location of their studies varied as well.
  • Today, many experts interchange the words “genetics” and “environment” for nature and nurture, respectively. “Environment” encompasses a broader range of interactions, not solely from parents and caregivers. During the mid-twentieth century, anthropologists were divided and felt compelled to pick a dominating factor in individual development. Today, it is widely accepted that both genetics and environment play a role in human development.
  • Epigenetics, the study of how genes are expressed, has added an additional layer of complexity to the nature vs. nurture discussion in recent decades. Experts have found that some early childhood environmental factors may dictate what parts of an individual’s genetic code are “turned on.”
Academic Articles
  1. Barlow, Fiona Kate. “Nature vs. Nurture Is Nonsense: On the Necessity of an Integrated Genetic, Social, Developmental, and Personality Psychology.” Australian Journal of Psychology 71, no. 1 (2019): 68-79.

  2. Levitt, Mairi. “Perceptions of Nature, Nurture and Behaviour.” Life Sciences, Society and Policy 9, no. 13 (2013).

  3. Schneider, Susan M. “The Tangled Tale of Genes and Environment: Moore’s the Dependent Gene: The Fallacy of ‘Nature vs. Nurture.’” The Behavior Analyst 30, no. 1 (2007): 91-105.

  4. Shankman, Paul. “Culture, Biology, and Evolution: The Mead–Freeman Controversy Revisited.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 29, no. 5 (2000): 539–556.

Student Discussion Questions
  • How did eugenics spark in response to the cultural determinism movement in anthropology? Who were some of the major players?
  • What is the crux of the nature versus nurture arguments? Can the two sides work together to explain human behavior?
  • In their respective works, did Freeman and Mead acknowledge both nature and nurture in relation to developing human behaviors, or do they both strictly adhere to their ideals?
  • What is the status of the nature versus nurture controversy in anthropology today?
  • How have the arguments for nature versus nurture changed over the last 150 years? Where do you see nature versus nurture being debated today?
  • Is it enough to cite a single example claiming nature or nurture are responsible for human behavioral development, or are multiple instances required to prove a theory? For example, is Mead’s work in Samoa enough to prove the nurture theory is applicable in all instances of adolescent behavior, or should it be viewed alongside examples of American adolescents?
  • Select an anthropological study on human behavior. Discuss if the study demonstrates a nature, nurture, or mix of both explanations of human behavior.
  • Write a paper exploring Freeman’s claim that Mead omitted biological discussions in her Samoan work. Does she purposefully deny nature’s impact on human behavior or simply focus on cultural (nurture) factors?
  • List ways the perception of nature versus nurture within the anthropology field has evolved in recent decades, given new discoveries, understanding, and technologies.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: Evan Nesterak’s “The End of Nature Versus Nurture

  2. Article: Hunter Honeycutt’s “Nature and Nurture as an Enduring Tension in the History of Psychology

  3. Article: Psychology Today’s “Nature vs. Nurture

  4. Book: Carl Degler’s In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought

  5. Book: Derek Freedman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth

  6. Book: Derek Freedman, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of her Samoan Research

  7. Book: Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa

  8. Podcast: Steven Pinker’s “Nature vs. Nurture: What’s More Impactful” in “The Life of the Mind, This is 42”

Unit By

Catherine Torres, Freedom Learning Group

The Problems With Coming of Age
Unit 9

Colonialism and Christianity in the South Pacific

A cross stands in silhouette against a sunset in purple hues.