"Nature versus Nurture" In the Making of Social Careers

Charles Horton Cooley
Ann Arbor, Michigan

One who, like -myself, has learned a great deal from the works of Mr. Galton will recall how fond he is of speaking of the case of "Nature versus Nurture," intending by this alliterative phrase to set forth concisely the problem of the relative influence of heredity and environment in the making of social careers. As this expression has been taken up by other anthropologists, and seems moreover to embody the popular conception of the matter, it makes a good starting-point for some observations which I propose to offer.

It is the old question, so often discussed in debating societies, as to whether the man makes the circumstances or the circumstances make the man ; and, like that question, is in its very form somewhat misleading. All such statements give the impression that the nature a man has at birth and the circumstances that act upon him after-ward are separable forces, each of which impels him in a definite direction. If they agree, all goes smoothly, but if more or less at variance, they contend for mastery like the Greeks and Trojans over the body of Patroclus.

I would not say that this conception is altogether false ; but it is inadequate, and often leads to confused and contradictory notions about the relation :)f society to the individual. To show where the inadequacy lies I w11 suggest another comparison, which is, in some respects, much nearer the truth. A man's nature is like a seed, and his circumstances like the soil and climate in which the seed germinates and grows : the coworking of the two is indispensable to every vital process whatever, and they are so different in their functions

( 400) that they cannot without inaccuracy be said to be in opposition. It would be absurd to ask whether the soil or the seed predominates in the formation of the tree. Each predominates in its province, and -where there is growth they are working not in opposition but in harmony. No soil can make an apple-seed produce an oak-tree, but neither can any seed produce wood or fruit except as it gets materials and energy from the earth and the sun. There are some cases in which we may say, speaking rather loosely, that there is an opposition between the seed and the soil,— as for example when a tree of a tall species, like the elm, is growing in poor ground, and the question is whether it will attain a given height. It would seem that the tree strove upward while the soil held it back; but this is clearly a figurative and undiscriminating manner of speech which will pot bear close examination. It is quite the same, I think, with the notion of an opposition between the individual and his environment ; there is often a certain truth in it, but at the same time so much inaccuracy and vagueness as to make it little suit-able for scientific analysis.

The point is that a social career is not the sum or resultant of two forces similar in kind but more or less opposite in direction ; it comes by the intimate union and co-operation of forces unlike in kind and hence not comparable in direction or magnitude. So soon as a child is born, the nature he brings with him begins to unite with the world into which he comes to form an indivisible product that is to say, a character and a career. The union of nature and nurture is not one of addition or mixture, but of growth, whereby the elements are altogether transformed into a new organic whole. One's nature acts selectively upon the environment, assimilating materials proper to itself ; while at the same time the environment moulds the nature, and habits are formed which make the individual independent, in some degree, of changes in either.

To show how imperfectly the conception, "Nature versus Nurture," corresponds to fact, suppose I take by way of illustration a certain class of natural faculties and inquire what their relation is to the environment. The class I mean may be described as the imitative, emulative, and sympathetic faculties,— the higher manifestations of what Professor Giddings has named the " consciousness of kind." These are the distinctive and peculiar attributes of a social being, and have for their function the binding of men together into a

(401) unified, communicative and co-operative life. Through them the social whole prevails over the separative tendencies of the individual, and social institutions and progress become possible.

It is the nature of these faculties to conform the conduct and opinions of the individual to the standards of the society in which he lives, without any reference whatever to the absolute ethical value of those standards. They make neither for good nor for bad, but for likeness. They are the root of fashion, of public opinion, of all working morality.

We none of us realize the degree in which we are dominated by these forces. Conformity is like the air ; we do not mark it,. for the very reason that it is always present. Whatever is general is assumed to be natural, and only when it is gone do we perceive that we can get along without it. To think out an independent system of conduct is something that not even the most active mind can altogether accomplish, and men in general make no attempt at such a thing. They accept the moral standards of the persons they look up to,— their parents, perhaps, or the leaders of their. profession,— and do not take seriously any notions that conflict with those they find so accredited. Men are profoundly moral but their morality is not that of Sunday-schools. It rather follows the original sense of the word "moral" and em-bodies that which is customary among the people with whom they feel most sympathy

We see in the case of these elements of man's natural outfit how misleading it is to think of nature and nurture as independent forces alike in kind. Rather may we say that a child — to improve a little upon my first comparison — is like a vine, whose nature is to grow, but to grow not in,' any predetermined direction, as east or west, up or down, but along whatever support it finds within reach. We have emulation by nature, but the direction in which emulation will lead us depends entirely upon the. ideals suggested to us by our social experience. The 'well-nurtured boy emulates his own father and George Washington ; but the child of a criminal, for precisely similar reasons, emulates his father and Blinkey Morgan, or some other illustrious rascal.[1] It is not necessary to suppose any organic difference between the two. The very faculties that serve to elevate and ennoble a child who lives among good associations may make a

( 402) criminal of one who lives among bad ones. We rise or fall with equal facility through our associative instincts.

I remarked a moment ago that the organism acts selectively upon the environment, assimilating materials proper to itself. It may seem to follow that one does, after all, select the objects of his imitation and emulation, and that in this way the individual nature determines its own destiny as moral or criminal. But this is true only with many conditions and limitations. Some of us are much freer than others, and some periods of life afford more freedom than other periods ; but no man at any time has anything like unrestricted freedom in the choice of the influences that control his life. In child-hood or infancy he has it not, because then everything is chosen for him and he has no outlook beyond the family and the adjacent street. We have in the colleges what are called " elective " and "required" courses. The former are for the more mature students; they can study pretty much what they please; but-the freshmen have their work cut out for them. So in life the freshman work is required, and its character depends altogether upon the institution one happens to be in. The child admires what others seem to admire, like those children around Hull House whose vision of glory, according to Miss Addams, finds embodiment in the local candidate for alderman. And then, as one grows up and, if all goes well, begins to have a wider outlook and to draw upon history and a large experience for his notions of conduct, he finds that his flexibility is not what it was and that habit gives a momentum to his career which makes a sharp turn impossible.

I say "if all goes well"; but with a large class of persons in this country, and one still larger in other countries, all does not go well. The wide outlook and the chance for choice depend upon knowledge, upon a trained intelligence and will, upon a sound and well-grown body. Where there is illiteracy, where there is neglect and under-feeding, where there is stunting toil put upon children, there are the unfree, there are those who can never be free. A real freedom cannot exist until the individual is born into a world where there is opportunity for the development of his highest faculties through access to all the necessary influences. There are many children now growing up who are no more free to choose a moral career than an American baby is free to speak the Chinese language.

There is no doubt, I think, that the writing of Lombroso and

( 403) others who have busied themselves with the physiological relations of crime, especially the studies of heredity like Dugdale's " Jukes," have left upon many the impression that crime, in the light of the latest researches, is to be looked upon as altogether an organic defect of the individual. Our minds like the tangible, and are always inclined to believe in a material cause, if any can be suggested. Accordingly, as soon as you show that crime is, to a considerable extent, associated with physical peculiarities, it seems unquestionable to many that those peculiarities are the sufficient and only cause of the crime.

On the other hand, there is a large and fairly trustworthy body of evidence that seems to make just the other way. I have in mind particularly that afforded by our schools for dependent children, juvenile reformatories, and institutions, on the plan of Elmira, for first offenders of maturer age. Dependent children must often, if not usually, spring from what would commonly be looked upon as a degenerate stock ; yet the experience of institutions like that at Coldwater, Mi&., shows that there are very few of them that cannot be made useful citizens by rational treatment. The juvenile reformatories claim surprising percentages of success,—and I know of no reason to suppose that these claims are greatly exaggerated,—while the experience of Elmira indicates that the period within which reform is possible, the plastic period, lasts longer than even the hopeful might have supposed. All this suggests very strongly that the criminal class is largely the result of society's bad workmanship upon fairly good material.

Indeed, it is c my to the superficial student that the researches of criminal anthropology will seem to contradict this conclusion. A close study of The Jukes, for example, will show that the author imputes much less to heredity than might appear from a glance at his tables. "Contrived crime," he says, "is an index of capacity, and, wherever capacity is found, there environment is most effective in producing modifications of career." [2]

The difficulty comes from trying to think of heredity and environment as independent causes, from failing to perceive that, like male and female, each. is sterile without the other. In studies of criminality or pauperism one sometimes sees such a percentage ascribed to heredity and such another to bad influences. But, strictly speak-

( 404) -ing, it would be as rational to inquire how many persons are children of their fathers, and how many of their mothers. These percentages may always be regarded with a justifiable suspicion.

After all, however, one must admit that there is some practical interest in even a crude and conjectural division between the personal and social factors of a criminal career. I therefore venture the following observations upon the matter.

No one will deny, I suppose, that there is now and then a child born having from the first such weakness of intellect and sensibility, such violence and distortion of certain passions, that no environment short of physical constraint can prevent the commission of crime. But it does not appear that the instinctive criminal of this pronounced type is common, or that he is the most dangerous of his kind, He seems to be of low intelligence, easily detected, and so repulsive in character and appearance that he is not so ,likely to become the object of admiration and emulation as are more accomplished villains.

Above these there is a far larger class of persons having various degrees and kinds of abnormality that make them peculiarly liable to fall into crime. This class produces many criminals, but it also produces many men of useful energy and some of genius. Whatever recklessness and indiscrimination may justly be attributed to Lombroso and his school, they have, nevertheless, shown the frequent association of genius with an abnormal organization.

But I have never seen any satisfactory evidence that more than a small proportion of the men who commit crime belong to either of these classes. With the greater part abnormality appears to be social, not organic, and could therefore have been prevented by a good environment. This, of course, must not be identified with comfort, respectable parentage, education, or any fixed set of circumstances. It is something that varies with the character of the individual, though a sound home-life is an element almost indispensable to it. It calls for a nurture which, beginning with discipline and training carefully adapted to the individual child, gradually permits and encourages the development of free choice and self-control, while supplying at the same time the best and amplest material for imitation and emulation. A just admixture of difficulty and conflict is quite indispensable, and the most sedulous training is usually far from the best.

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Of course I do not now propose to go into the question of specific reforms. The conclusions that follow from what I have said, are, in the main, such as have been reached by those most actively engaged in practical enterprises. We need to work for the organic improvement of the race by arrangements that will make for the survival of the best. The fittest must always survive ; but the standard of fitness is largely in our control. Any one familiar with poor-relief or its literature, can point out a dozen places where this may be hopefully begun. At the same time we must work upon the prevention of crime by the reform of social conditions. And, finally, when an individual actually enters upon a criminal career, let us try to catch him at a tender age, and subject him to a rational social discipline, such as is already successful in enough cases to show that it might be greatly extended.


  1. 1 See "Children of the Road," by Josiah Flynt Atlantic Monthly, January, 1896.
  2. 2 Page 49

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