Heredity or Environment

Charles Horton Cooley
University of Michigan

I take it that the formulation of a scientific problem is designed to promote truth by summing up what has been ascertained and indicating where more illumination is needed. For the past fifty years or thereabouts (since Galton began to write on Nature and Nurture) it has been usual to accept the heredity-environment dilemma as a formula of this sort and to endeavor to advance knowledge by extending one horn of it or the other.

I have long been dissatisfied with this discussion, and the more I think of the formula in question the more it seems to me illusive, out-of-date and tending "t present rather to obstruct and misguide the pursuit of truth than to further it. It does not sum up the known facts but puts in their place a quasi-metaphysical antithesis which has no precise meaning and suggests antagonism between two aspects of what should be seer as an organic whole. Let us look at its terms.

Heredity is something carried. by the germ-plasm, which disappears, as such, when conception %as taken place and gives way to the developing organism. Precisely speaking it does not exist as a concrete fact in the later life of an individual. It is an origin, a historical antecedent, which is now merged and lost in a new phenomenon, namely development. Like the Battle of Gettysburg it has immense historical importance —

( 304) no doubt we should have been very different if it had gone otherwise—but no contemporary reality. Therefore it is untrue to say that heredity is one of two factors to which we must ascribe what is now taking place. The immediate factor is the organism, which although the successor of heredity is by no means the same thing.

And what is environment? Apparently an external and surrounding condition, distinguished from an organism, which is a living thing that it surrounds. It is easy to see the fish, for example, in his environment the water. But does the distinction represent for scientific uses an actual state of facts? In the lower forms of life, whose relations with their surroundings are simple, it perhaps does. But as we go upward in the scale to human life, and particularly when we come to civilized man, we find that organism and environment interpenetrate and mutually absorb each other, so that there is no longer a line of demarcation between them, and the distinction either becomes wholly unreal or requires to be defined in some new way. Are our automobiles and motion pictures part of our organism or of our environment? Certainly of the former, because our life is expressed in them as much as in our words or our thoughts. But they environ us also. On the other hand, the things you might suppose to be wholly in the organism prove to be environment. Social psychologists who wish to preserve the distinction say that anything is environment which is capable of giving a stimulus to the nerve processes.[1] But almost any part of the organism may do this to almost any other part. It means that our stomach, our heart, our ductless glands are environment; also our emotions, memories and thoughts. Our hereditary traits are environment, so that if you regard

( 305) heredity as a fact it is the same fact as its rival. In short, under this conception, (and no other seems to be tenable,) organism and environment are merely aspects of what is, in truth, a single and indivisible life.

It would really seem, then, that neither heredity nor environment has any such distinct existence in human life as to make it possible, even in theory, to appraise their several functions. They are, as commonly used, vague expressions not answering to concrete facts that you can see, describe or even imagine; useful currency, perhaps, for some purposes of every-day speech, but not convertible into facts available for science. The conception, as regards human life, is based on the analogy of lower forms, and is indeed a survival from the obsolete biological sociology of a former epoch.

But, I ask myself, even if these terms do not stand for separable facts, do they not together cover the whole ground, and must we not assume that one or the other is the reason for everything that takes place in any human life? Let us see.

Heredity, we know, is an initial condition, present in the germ-cell, and everything that takes place after conception is development. Heredity and development, then, cover the life process. And development, we have seen, has two aspects, organism and environment. We may diagram this as follows:

Life Process

{ Heredity    
Development { Environment


It would appear, then, that the thing which is alter-native to heredity is development. and not environment, unless you interpret the last to include the organism. Otherwise you leave out the organism.

But (and here is the critical point) can we not

( 306) assume that the organism itself is negligible as a cause, and that everything in it must be due to the historical origin (heredity) and the surrounding conditions (environment) ? This is indeed precisely the assumption that the popular statement of the case makes. Notice what it means. It means that we are to set aside the one thing which is present before us as a concrete whole, namely the actual life of the individual, and assume to infer it from a historical antecedent (of which we have in fact no first-hand knowledge, since heredity is always inferred from development) and from a surrounding condition which, as we have seen, has no distinct existence? Is this science? Evidently not; science keeps as close as possible to concrete facts. Far more important to the understanding of an individual life than either heredity or environment, or than both together, even if we could know much more about them than we do, is the study of the actual history of that life, from conception to the present time. "Case study" is the only science of the individual; it includes environment, and if we can learn anything reliable about heredity, let it include that too.

Even as a quasi-metaphysical assumption the heredity-environment dilemma is highly questionable. It implies that a life process can be inferred in a mechanical manner from an antecedent life process of a different sort, and from external conditions. Now if there is anything anywhere creative in itself and not mechanically infer-able it is the human life process, and so unless we are willing to abandon the world entirely to mechanism we ought to reserve for this process a certain autonomy.

But after all, you may say, are there not real and urgent problems, of race, for example, of genius, of crime, of social classes; problems which in general turn

( 307) upon the question how far social differences are innate and determined by the germ-plasm, and how far they are due to variation in social environments, or perhaps to both causes? Even admitting that the study of the individual is of prime importance must we not also seek to get a general view of these large conditions? If "heredity or environment" is not the right statement what will you substitute?

Certainly these are real problems, but what is the heredity-environment formula doing to solve them? Nothing, so far as I know. On the contrary, it tends to keep biologists on the one hand and sociologists on the other fighting straw men and advancing pseudo-scientific proofs that "heredity is more important than environment," or vice versa, which have no effect upon the other side because the two sides have no common ground to start from and the whole game is unreal.

A good working idea would first of all,, I should say, show human life as a single organic process in which the germ-plasm, the social process and the various phases of individual development have complementary functions—doing away with the silly notion that the sociologist and the geneticist are natural enemies. It would accept what is definitely known about heredity, glandular secretions, nerve mechanisms, social patterns, group processes and social organization—but not encourage a speculative and particularistic inflation of any of these aspects. It would thus attempt to give some sort of moderation and order to that anarchic extravagance of single track minds by which reason is now obscured.

If we must have a slogan let it not be "heredity" nor yet "environment," but "See life whole."


  1. This, if I understand him, is Professor Bernard's view.

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