The age-old debate as to what causes human behaviour – nature vs nurture – shows little sign of running out of steam, despite having been emphatically resolved as far as science is concerned.  Although all knowledge is contingent and no scientist worthy of the name would ever say there are no facts established completely beyond doubt, the mountains of evidence that have piled up in favour of genetic causes for behaviour as opposed to environmental ones is solemnly impressive.

No one argues that genes are wholly responsible for how we behave or that the environment has no effect on how we turn out. There’s definitely some sort of interaction between the two. You will, however, find plenty of folk who point out that genetic forces cause both social and behavioural factors. There are many examples of the coevolution of genes and culture – animal husbandry leading to an increased capacity to digest cows’ milk for example – and, even on an individual level, our genes shape our environments. The taller you are, the more likely you are to be picked for a basketball team; the more basketball you play, the better you’re likely to be at basketball.

Contrary to much popular wishing thinking, shared environmental effects like parenting have (almost) no effect on adult’s behaviour, characteristics, values or beliefs.* The reason we are like our parents and siblings is because we share their genes. Identical twins raised apart will be more similar – often strikingly so – than non-identical twins raised together and no less similar than identical twins raised together. Moreover, adopted siblings raised together will be no more similar than random strangers. Free will, it would appear, is nothing but a convenient and persuasive fiction.

So does this mean children’s behaviour in schools is, largely, biologically determined? No. School culture and policies can obviously mediate these genetic forces – we all moderate our behaviour in light of external expectations and social norms. But what is does mean is that an individual’s behaviour will be, for the most part, unaffected by this experience when outside the school environment. It also suggests that attempts to teach ‘character’ in the belief that such lessons will endure into adulthood are likely to be a waste of time.

No doubt many readers will not want to accept this, and it may provide some comfort to know you are not alone. A recent piece of research carried out by Joseph Carroll and colleagues has revealed a startling intellectual divided amongst academics. He and his team conducted a survey of over 600 academics in an attempt to establish the extent to which evolutionary thinking has embedded itself in other disciplines. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it turns out that psychologists, economists, philosophers and political scientists believe more strongly in the genetic influences on behaviour, beliefs and culture, while sociologists, non-evolutionary anthropologists, women’s and gender studies scholars and all humanities scholars other than philosophers believe in that environmental influences are more likely to explain human behaviour. What’s particularly interesting is that the latter group also tend to mistrust the scientific method itself.

Now, of course, science cannot ever meaningfully comment on what values we should hold or how we ought to act, but there’s no better method for providing answers to empirical questions on such matters as cause and effect. What causes human behaviour is just this sort of question. It doesn’t matter what you value or what you’d like to be true, testing and experiment all point in the same direction. Doubting the ability of science to answer empirical questions is dangerous.

As Carroll et al point out,

If all the disciplines discussing these questions agreed on the validity of scientific evidence, some eventual consensus would seem more likely. The low regard in which science is held by disciplines that emphasize environmental causes suggests that there are no common criteria of epistemic validity by means of which the two groups—those who emphasize genetic causes and those who emphasize environmental causes, and especially cultural causes—could work toward a reasoned consensus. (p. 27)

If you dismiss the scientific method then there are no grounds for your beliefs to be questioned – you can, quite literally, believe what ever you like and when anyone pops up with troubling evidence you can simply stuff your fingers in your ears and refuse to listen.

This seems awfully familiar when surveying the landscape of education debate. On the one hand there are those who are interested in discussing and debating evidence and how children think and learn, and what might be the most practically effective ways of running school systems, and on the other hand are those who believe in the primacy of feelings and intuition. If evidence is contradicting by belief, belief wins and no amount of reason, logic or rational debate will ever convince them otherwise.

Although there are many questions in education to which science cannot help us answer (What is the purpose of education?) just as with the identification of causes for human behaviour, there are plenty of empirical questions. Here are a few:

  • Do children learn more effectively when allowed to work collaboratively on ‘real world’ projects or when taught directly by a knowledgable teacher?
  • Is bullying most likely to be reduced in schools when children negotiate their own rules and engage in restorative approaches, or when there is clear adult authority and proportionate consequences?
  • Are children most likely to learn when they receive individual written feedback on their work or when teachers provide interactive whole class feedback?
  • Are outcomes more likely to be improved in a school when teachers’ lessons are regularly graded on a four-point scale or when teachers work together to support each others’ professional development?

We might not ever agree on the answers research throws up, but if we reject the validity of scientific evidence altogether, consensus will never be possible. As long as some dismiss the possibility that science can ever provide answers, we will always talk past each other.

*There are some obvious exceptions to this. Extreme neglect or abuse before the age of 5 will likely cause permanent developmental damage as will hitting someone in the head with a hammer at any age.