Human Development 2006;49:336–342
Another Nine-Inch Nail for Behavioral
Richard M. Lerner
Tufts University, Medford, Mass. , USA
Development, human ? Gene-environment interaction ? Genetics, behavioral ?
Norgate, S.H. ? Reductionism, genetic ? Richardson, H. ? Sociobiology
About the time that I was completing my doctoral training (in 1971), reactions
to Jensen’s  paper in the Harvard Educational Review about the heritability of
intelligence were beginning to be published [e.g., Hebb, 1970; Hirsch, 1970] and were
explaining to social and behavioral scientists the egregious flaws in theory and meth-
od associated with behavior genetics. As a neophyte in developmental science, I na-
ively believed that the matter of genetic reductionism would have been settled by this
exchange, and by the classic paper of Anastasi  and the earlier one by Schneirla
. I was certain that no one would again take seriously the idea that genes (na-
ture), split off from the environment, from the multiple levels of the context (or ecol-
ogy) of human development (nurture), could provide an independent, noninteractive
source of intelligence or of any other functional (or structural) feature of human de-
velopment, no matter what dazzling statistical [but ill-founded; e.g., Feldman & Le-
wontin, 1975; Layzer, 1974; Wahlsten, 1990] methods were used to estimate the addi-
tive and isolated influence of genes on behavior.
I was wrong. Across the ensuing third of a century the erroneous claims and mis-
interpreted data of behavioral genetics, and of associated biologically reductionist ac-
counts of human development (such as sociobiology or evolutionary psychology),
have continued to ‘rise from the grave’ [e.g., Buss, 2003; Herrnstein, 1971, 1973;
Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; Jensen, 1973, 1980; Plomin, 1986, 2000; Rowe, 1994;
Rushton, 2000], despite the biological, psychological and statistical scholarship that
should have kept these ideas ‘dead and buried’ [e.g., Braun, 2004; Collins et al., 2000;
Gottlieb, 1997, 1998, 2004; Gottlieb, Wahlsten, & Lickliter, 2006; Greenberg & Tobach,
1984; Hirsch, 1981, 2004; Joseph, 2003; Kamin, 1974; Lerner, 2002; Lewontin, Rose,
& Kamin, 1974; Overton, 1973, 2006; Suomi, 2004].
Richard M. Lerner, Institute for Applied Research in
Youth Development, Cliot-Pearson Department of
Child Development, 105 College Avenue, Tufts University
Medford, MA 02155 (USA), Tel. +1 617 627 5583
Fax +1 617 627 5596, E-Mail email@example.com
© 2006 S. Karger AG, Basel
Accessible online at:
Fax +41 61 306 12 34
Another Nine-Inch Nail for Behavioral Genetics!
Why do we have to keep reinterring behavior genetics or other counterfactual
conceptualizations of the role of genes in behavior and development? Why is it still
necessary to continue to drive additional nails into the coffin of this failed approach
to developmental science, through for instance the publication by Richardson and
Norgate (this issue), which discusses the several problems linked to the assumptions
and data analytic techniques associated with the adoption designs of behavioral genet-
Contributions of Richardson and Norgate
There are two key reasons why articles such as the one by Richardson and Nor-
gate (this issue) constitute important contributions. One reason pertains to scholar-
ship within developmental science. The second reason pertains to the understanding
of developmental science by members of the public, including policy makers and
In regard to the first reason, the majority view within contemporary develop-
mental science [e.g., Lerner, 2006] rejects the philosophical, theoretical and (in large
part) methodological features of the split thinking associated with genetic reduction-
ist approaches to human development, as found in behavior genetics. Nevertheless,
there remain subtle and nuanced problems of language that continue to suggest that
these split approaches to human development remain legitimate. Overton 
points to the subtlety of language that needs to be appreciated to avoid loading our
scientific language with phrases that, while on a manifest level, may seem to reject the
split thinking of genetic reductionism, on a deeper, structural level, employs terms
that legitimate the language of such thinking remaining part of scientific discourse.
For instance, he notes that:
In its current split form, no one actually asserts that matter, body, brain, and genes or society,
culture, and environment provide the cause of behavior or development: However, the back-
ground idea of one or the other being the privileged determinant remains the silent subtext
that continues to shape discussions. The most frequently voiced claim is that behavior and
development are the products of the interactions of nature and nurture. But interaction itself
is generally conceptualized as two split-off pure entities that function independently in co-
operative and/or competitive ways [e.g., Collins et al., 2000]. As a consequence, the debate
simply becomes displaced to another level of discourse. At this new level, the contestants
agree that behavior and development are determined by both nature and nurture, but they
remain embattled over the relative merits of each entity’s essential contribution. [Overton,
2006, p. 33]
Similarly, he explains that:
Moving beyond behavior genetics to the broader issue of biology and culture, conclusions
such as ‘contemporary evidence confirms that the expression of heritable traits depends, of-
ten strongly, on experience’ [Collins et al., 2000, p. 228] are brought into question for the
same reason. Within a relational metatheory, such conclusions fail because they begin from
the premise that there are pure forms of genetic inheritance termed ‘heritable traits’ and
within relational metatheory such a premise is unacceptable. [Overton, 2006, p. 36]
In regard to the second reason, there are potentially enormous negative conse-
quences of such problematic use of language in our scientific discourse, especially if
members of the public believe that employing such terms means that the genetic re-
ductionist ideas about social policy, or about the limited success of applications of
developmental science to social programs (due to genetic ‘constraints’), should be
countenanced. As a consequence, we must be assiduous and exact in the terms we use
to explain why genetic reductionist ideas fail as useful frames for scientific discourse
about human development. Indeed, as Lewontin  has cautioned, ‘The price of
metaphor is eternal vigilance’ (p. 245).
Richardson and Norgate (this issue) advance the cause of vigilance. Their work
reflects the consensus in biology [e.g., Insel, 2006] and developmental science [e.g.,
Gottlieb, 1997, 1998] that genes do not function in the way that behavior genetics re-
quires, that is, genes do not exert an additive and independent-of-environment influ-
ence on behavior and development. In addition, their work advances understanding
of the conceptual and methodological flaws of core procedures used by behavior ge-
netics, in this case adoption designs, that, when added to the counterfactual claims
about the ‘nature of nature’ [of gene action; Insel, 2006], obviates any empirical use of
data from adoption designs for the claims of behavior genetics.
Richardson and Norgate (this issue) embed their discussion of the several inter-
pretive and empirical shortcomings of adoption designs within current understand-
ing of the role of genes within the dynamic developmental system [e.g., Gottlieb, 1998,
2004; Thelen & Smith, 2006] and, as such, provide a significant additional corrective
to scholarly slippage with respect to the use of language regarding the role of genes in
human development: genes always function through interaction with the context,
and, in turn, adoption designs provide no data that do or can contradict the systemic
understanding of the role of genes in human development. Moreover in countering
the imprecise use of language in discussing, and in explaining the methodological
shortcomings of adoptions designs used to study the role of genes in human develop-
ment, the work of Richardson and Norgate (this issue) enables developmental science
to better explain to the public the appropriate, albeit complex, way to understand the
contribution of genes to human development and, as such, the relative plasticity of
change across ontogeny. To explain these contributions of Richardson and Norgate
(this issue) it is useful to describe the place of genes with the developmental system.
Understanding the Role of Genes within the Developmental System
No one would deny the ubiquitous role of genes, or of biology more generally, in
human development. No competent developmental scientist does this. In fact, con-
temporary developmental science places genes within a coacting, dynamic system of
relations among the multiple levels of organization that comprise the ecology of hu-
man development [e.g., Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994; Gottlieb et al., 2006; Thelen &
Therefore, one does not reduce human development to the isolated independent
(noninteractive or noncorrelated) action of genes, and one does not ignore the role of
genes in human development. What one does within contemporary developmental
science is to conceptualize and use multilevel and longitudinal methods to study the
coalescing, dynamic interactions of genes and context in the development of human
Another Nine-Inch Nail for Behavioral Genetics!
behavior. Comparative work by Suomi and colleagues [e.g., Suomi, 2004, 2006] and
by Gottlieb and colleagues [e.g., Gottlieb, 2004; Gottlieb et al., 2006] and human re-
search by, for instance, Caspi and colleagues [e.g., Caspi et al., 2002, 2003a, 2003b,
2005], are excellent illustrations of the use of a developmental systems theoretical per-
spective for the elucidation of the interactive role of genes and environment.
This scholarship demonstrates compellingly that it is rarely, if ever, the case that
there is a significant main effect of genes on behavior [Rutter, 2006]. Indeed, Insel
 notes that even for monogenetic diseases (e.g., thalassemia, neurofibromato-
sis) there is a complex relationship between genotype and phenotype. Moreover, Rut-
ter  points out that the studies of Caspi et al. [2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2005] indicate
that the importance of genes may only be demonstrated through the assessment of
gene (G) ! environment (E) interactions. In these studies, G ! E interactions are
specific to particular behavioral outcomes, and it appears that G and E share the same
physiological pathway [Rutter, 2006].
Thus, Rutter  emphasizes that in human development genes in and of
themselves are neither a risk nor a protective factor. In turn, Insel  notes that
genes function only to code for RNA, which in turn must produce other enzymes that
can only influence structure or function in the context of intra- and extracellular in-
teractions; therefore, genes do not represent ‘blueprints’ for any human characteristic
[see also Gottlieb, 2004; Hirsch, 2004]. There are no genes for intelligence, personal-
ity, temperament or for any characteristic of human behavior [Insel, 2006].
Of course the pathways of G ! E are complex. While this causal complexity is
precisely what is involved in human development, it is precisely what is ignored in the
methods of behavior genetics, which have to set G ! E (or G-E correlation) to zero
in order to make their flawed and misconceived estimates of heritability that are de-
rived from data collected through methods such as adoption designs. Indeed, as Rich-
ardson and Norgate (this issue) point out, the assumption of additive gene and envi-
ronmental effects is not only shown to be invalid by the ubiquity of G-E effects. Even
more, however, the additive assumption leads developmental science down a fruitless
path. When one appreciates the dynamic nature of the developmental system, one
recognizes the thorough coactions between genes and all other levels of organization
within the system [e.g., Gottlieb 1997, 1998].
Issues in the Application of Developmental Science
In place of the complexity of G-E and of the broader set of dynamic interactions
that are part of the developmental system, behavior genetics offers science and the
societal audience for science not only simpler (albeit egregiously inept) methods than
the ones that are used by developmental systems-oriented scholars to study mutually
influential relations among the levels of organization within the ecology of human
development [e.g., Thelen & Smith, 2006]. As well, behavior genetics provides science
and society with an exceedingly simpler (and of course completely counterfactual)
story line about the direct influence of genes on human behavior and development.
And because of this simple ‘just so’ story [Gould & Lewontin, 1979], which is
both palatable and easily digestible to members of the media, policy makers and to
what Horowitz  has termed the ‘Person in the Street’ (PITS), genetic reduction-
ist accounts continue to ‘rise from dead.’ And we need again to inter them and to use
all the nine-inch nails that we have available to keep them from rising and disseminat-
ing their misinformation to the PITS. Why? Horowitz  presents a compelling
answer. She notes that:
If we accept as a challenge the need to act with social responsibility then we must make sure
that we do not use single-variable words like genes or the notion of innate in such a deter-
minative manner as to give the impression that they constitute the simple answers to the
simple questions asked by the Person in the Street lest we contribute to belief systems that
will inform social policies that seek to limit experience and opportunity and, ultimately, de-
velopment, especially when compounded by racism and poorly advantaged circumstances.
Or, as Elman and Bates and their colleagues said in the concluding section of their book Re-
thinking Innateness [Elman et al., 1998], ‘If our careless, under-specified choice of words
inadvertently does damage to future generations of children, we cannot turn with innocent
outrage to the judge and say ‘But your Honor, I didn’t realize the word was loaded.’ [Horo-
witz, 2000, p. 8]
The challenge Horowitz articulates is one that is quite real for human develop-
mental scientists who have been involved with trying to provide ideas and evidence
countering the behavior genetics approach to intelligence.
I am grateful that Richardson and Norgate (this issue) have risen to the challenge
presented by Horowitz . All developmental scientists interested in good science,
and in its appropriate application to policies and programs that can move the field
beyond the description and explanation of human development to its optimization,
must also take up this challenge. In this work, we must move beyond the important
but still relatively simplistic and largely sterile study of G ! E and address the more
complex but necessary task of the analysis of the developmental system [e.g., Gottlieb,
It is daunting both to undertake scholarship that investigates the complexities of
the developmental system and to communicate this complexity to the policy makers,
practitioners, and children, youth and families that depend on the effective and ap-
propriate links between science and application to enhance the human condition.
Nevertheless, undertaking this task will enable developmental science to make a sin-
gularly significant and positive contribution to a world where the treatment of indi-
viduals, families and communities has been ruled more by political expediency or
economic interests than by policies informed by evidence derived from theoretically
useful and empirically rigorous research.
The writing of this article was supported in part by grants from the National 4-H Council
and by the John Templeton Foundation. I am grateful to Amy Alberts, Aida Balsano, Gary Green-
berg, Gilbert Gottlieb and Erin Phelps for their comments.
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