Open Book

Understanding the Nature of Nurture

50 years of change in our conception of human development

Magazine Issue
September/October 2006
Understanding the Nature of Nurture

An Argument for Mind By Jerome Kagan Yale University Press. 304 pp. ISBN: 0-300-11337-4

Nature vs. nurture is one of our most long-running intellectual debates. When Jerome Kagan started out as a psychology graduate student at Yale in 1950, nurture held sway. It was believed that human beings either learned their behaviors through conditioning (like rats in a lab) or (if you were a Freudian) were shaped by the overwhelming psychological influence of their parents or early caretakers. In his new book, An Argument for Mind,Kagan guides us through the half-century of shifts in the field of psychology that have undermined the pillars of his graduate school education.

Kagan has not only observed the changes in the science of psychology, he’s one of the contemporary figures who’s been most influential in shifting the balance back, more or less, to nature. As one of the leading developmental psychologists of the past half-century, he’s helped restore an appreciation for the fundamental role of biology in determining the kind of person we become.

Studying children in their cribs, Kagan observed that infants were divided into two basic categories: high or low reactive. High-reactive infants screamed when faced with unfamiliar stimuli or a new toy; they were shy and less adventurous, often timid. Low-reactive infants were more easy-going, more readily engaged. In addition, Kagan found that these early characteristics, far from being something that children outgrew, typically ripened as they grew older. High-reactive infants became more inhibited children. Low-reactive infants became children who were more expressive, more socially relaxed among strangers, and more comfortable in their own skins.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus told us that a man’s character is his fate, and the idea of temperament reflects this ancient truth. But this was forgotten during the 20th century, a time of daring and rapid change, when pivotal figures like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and B. F. Skinner altered the landscape of the social world. As a psychologist, Kagan has helped temper a worldview fixated on the idea that human beings were malleable–putty in the hands of social engineers and politicians.

Kagan grew up in New Jersey. He tells us that as a child he was fascinated with nature. Around the age of 12, he remembers wrapping up a dead squirrel and taking it home so he could inspect it in his bedroom. He sliced open its belly with a kitchen knife to probe its “life-giving organs,” finding the moist viscera to be “in a sense, sacred.”

As this story reflects, Kagan has a certain doubleness about him. A good scientist, like a philosopher, should tolerate ambiguity–perhaps even embrace it. The sacred remains an unquantifiable, ineffable quality. Still, in spite of his pride in the exactitude of science, he believes the sacred is necessary for the health of a society, though he spends little time writing about it. But what a snapshot of himself he gives us: in his room late at night, we observe the precision of the scientist, and we see a boy filled with wonder. He writes: “the glistening intestines evoked a feeling that may have resembled the state of a future cosmologist staring at the Milky Way at two in the morning.”

The scientist who went on to study temperament in children became his own first case study. He was a shy, diffident boy who wet his bed, to his embarrassment–clearly high reactive. Throughout his adolescence, he was wracked with gnawing doubts that he now admits could be diagnosed as generalized anxiety. His mother was protective and loving, but his father was full of bitterness and unpredictable anger.

As both scientist and philosopher, Kagan is careful to show that his life demonstrates the overriding role of contingency, that great unfurling of the unexpected in human affairs. One day at Rutgers University, he had one of those startling, life-changing incidents that can seem quite ordinary: a professor took him for a walk and told him, “You know, you’d make a good psychologist.” Whatever his belief in our inborn nature, Kagan also understands the power of somebody’s saying just the right thing, at the right time–and remaking the larger pattern of our life.

Still, nothing is just luck. Luck comes in its own little context (a favorite word of Kagan’s)–luck, and its companion, uncertainty. Contingency often depends (as the saying goes) on those who are prepared for it. Sure, Kagan loved nature, but he was also uncertain and modest about his abilities (being temperamentally inhibited). He liked the idea of psychology as a career. It appealed to his scientific and moral side, that’s for sure. But as a shy and insecure kid, he also thought he didn’t need any special abilities to become a psychologist. A neurosurgeon friend once told him he’d become a surgeon because he was born with “talented hands.” Kagan doesn’t trumpet his talents in this book. Still, you get the picture: here’s a man who can sit for hours and study the darting, repetitive movements of children. The shy can be supremely patient. It’s a good temperament for a certain kind of scientist or clinician.

Kagan says that several events were instrumental in forming his intellectual life. Going to Yale as a grad student was crucial, as was winding up at Harvard, where he taught for 40 years. One great piece of luck was getting the chance to do field work in the ’70s in Guatemala. There he discovered the children in Maya Indian villages spent their first year hung up at the back of a room, in darkness, swaddled, barely able to move–hardly an ideal environment for early development. When tested, these children appeared to be seriously developmentally delayed. Yet five years later, Kagan found that most of these same kids were scampering about their villages, completely normal. Anyone believing that early imprinting was all important had to face the astonishing sight of these resilient children, seemingly undamaged by their restricted early environment.

Yet context plays more than a small role, as does contingency. Not all kids grow up the way their tests might suggest: not all shy kids remain inhibited, for instance. In Guatemala, Kagan discovered that kids turned out differently, depending on the circumstances of their village. The country had been wracked by a brutal civil war. In places where villagers considered themselves victims, their kids didn’t recover so easily, while in villages without this extra burden, the kids developed robustly. Ever respectful of the power of contingency, Kagan’s favorite word is “maybe.”

Kagan is also noted for another signal contribution to our understanding of children: he put the search for novelty as a driving force in development on the map. What Kagan discovered is that children are novelty-seekers, right from infancy, primed to notice what’s different, what’s unusual, what’s out of the ordinary. In that sense, children in their cribs are essentially like reporters constantly searching for a fresh story. And even as adults, we retain this taste for what’s novel. Whether watching CNN or intrigued by the latest fashion, we’re perhaps not all that different from the 1-year-old whose eyes are glued to a new toy or a cavalcade of bright, shiny, new stimuli.

Here’s where Kagan speaks directly to the mystery of therapy, speculating that therapies may be effective only when they’re novel and exciting. Once clients and therapists get used to them, a certain glazed routine sets in. Just look at all the competing therapies that crowd the marketplace (and this magazine), with old therapies fading and newer ones becoming part of the status quo. Doctors tell us that even medications yield the best results when first put on the market–“Take it before it stops working” is a familiar expression.

Counterbalancing this instinct for novelty is another of Kagan’s core concepts: “coherence.” As he writes: “Humans spend most of their waking hours trying to find or create evidence that affirms they rightfully belong to the category good person.'”

Coherence means more than just what society approves of, though; it’s more than our desire to be well liked and favorably regarded. At its core, coherence gives a person, and a society, a belief that life is meaningful. For coherence encompasses not just the ordinary, everyday, and mundane; it also partakes of the transcendental and spiritual.

Kagan warns us that fooling around with someone’s sense of coherence is a perilous activity, especially when it comes to money and religion. Hyperinflation robbed Germans of their savings and helped to usher in Hitler. And he respectfully tells us to try to understand those who are perplexed, for instance, by gay marriage. According to a fundamentalist Christian, a Muslim, or an orthodox Jew, marriage can only mean a union between a man and a woman. For them, gay marriage is a culturally upsetting oxymoron. They feel betrayed by those who wish to rock the foundations of society established three thousand years ago.

Kagan may be socially respectful, but as a scientist, he insists that overturning coherences is inevitable and necessary. New discoveries will be made and old categories upended. In An Argument for Mind,Kagan tells us we must use the rules of evidence, for sure. Throughout, he warns us, rigorous and exacting scientist that he is, never to confuse intuition or wishful thinking with scientific reasoning: “Don’t put words in nature’s mouth.”

At the end of the book, Kagan poses one question he’d like to ask a genie about the future of psychology: “What is the inherited neurochemistry that contributes to the new findings about temperament?” Kagan doesn’t expect to hear the answer in this lifetime. He knows that neuroscience is a very young science. Its impact will be revolutionary, but is still obscure.

So, at the end of the book, with all his accomplishments, Kagan seems like a sort of professor as Moses: having reached the edge of the Promised Land, he can only point toward it, but isn’t allowed to enter. That’s left to the younger generation just entering (or leaving) graduate school. Kagan knows that curious, young scientists will follow their noses and make discoveries that’ll one day become psychology’s next set of coherences. Foundations are rebuilt that way: on new evidence and the shifting sands of novelty.

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.