Raging boffins

“The nature v nurture debate has never been so fierce. Robin McKie and Vanessa Thorpe report on the bitter row between two leading scientists:

One is a boor, a scientific dinosaur and ‘a hardline left-winger’ whose ideas have long since ceased to matter. The other is a ‘wicked’ individual whose ideas could lead more children to be assaulted by abusive parents.

That is how two leading scientists have denounced each other over their claims to know the causes of human aggression. Violence is in the air and, it appears, at its roots.

In his book They F*** You Up British psychologist Oliver James argues family influences are critical. Neuroscientist Steven Pinker says nothing matters more than our genes. Both are openly abusive about each other’s stance. Hence, the accusation of one of Pinker’s allies that James is ‘fucked-up’ while he has retorted in turn that his opponent is telling lies.

The extraordinarily angry row reveals the depth of the scientific battle that is emerging over the soul of mankind. On one side stand the followers of the fledgling science of evolutionary psychology, led by Pinker. They say studies of human evolution show that parents have little impact on their children’s behaviour. Only their genes, and a person’s interaction with peers and friends, matter in the shaping of violent personalities. Road rage and murder are in our DNA.

On the other side are traditional psychologists and psychoanalysts who say that children’s aggressive behaviour is picked up from violent parents. The family is the root of all troubles. Genes have only a limited role in the birth of of criminal, violent behaviour. Learning from parents is key.

Pinker, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s centre of cognitive neuroscience, outlines his views in The Blank Slate. His and James’s books were published last week and sparked an exchange of vitriol between the authors. Guardian-Observer