Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture


Today, much information about improving child development exists, but most discussions focus on the differences between nature and nurture. Childhood is a critical period because many biological, emotional, and psychological changes occur, affecting human abilities and skills. There are theories to support and oppose both positions in the nature-nurture debate. In this paper, attention will be paid to the peculiarities of cognitive development, addressing Genie’s case, a feral child isolated during the first 13,7 years of her life. The impact of inborn qualities and the environment on cognition and socialization cannot be ignored, and there are two efficient theories to indicate both positions. Burrhus Frederic Skinner proposes the theory of operant conditioning that explains environmental (nurture) influences, and Noam Chomsky introduces the theory of language acquisition as a part of universal grammar to underline biological (nature) influences. The connection between language and cognition determines the quality of child development, proving the worth of the chosen theories. The analysis of the nurture and nature characteristics through Skinner’s and Chomsky’s ideas allows understanding of the specifics of cognitive development in Genie’s example.

Cognitive Development

The development of cognitive skills in children is a critical topic in psychology and health care. People want to improve individual abilities, enhance critical thinking, remember information, use experiences, and strengthen communication. Children have to develop their cognitive skills in terms of thinking, reasoning, and understanding, and the first several years of life represent a serious period with multiple changes (MAL-ED Network Investigators, 2018). It is important for parents and other caregivers not to miss a moment when children need some help and support and to take a step in their progress and combine thought processes. Many factors predetermine cognitive development, including family status, parental education, and methods of cooperation (Yang et al., 2021). If professional recommendations and guidelines are followed, mental and physical changes are impossible to stop. However, when parental neglect or other challenges occur, certain cognitive problems interrupt the development process in childhood, and additional help and investigations may be required.

Nature and Nature Debates and the Case

Child development is a complex concept in psychology, and multiple discussions are raised to prove the importance of nature and nurture. On the one hand, theorists and scientists believe that genetic predisposition plays an important role in cognitive development because this biological makeup defines human abilities (Sravanti, 2017). On the other hand, there is a thought that the physical environment, meaning nurture, also identifies the level of stability in child development (Sravanti, 2017). Both arguments are strong enough to discuss their connection and impact on human relationships and interactions. Gene expression cannot be neglected because it is something people are not able to control. At the same time, the environment affects people in a variety of ways, showing what is desirable, forbidden, or unwanted. Sometimes, nurture questions natural characteristics, and modifying the environment is necessary to support children and contribute to their cognitive development (Sravanti, 2017; Yang et al., 2021). Naturalists and environmentalists analyze cognitive development in childhood, and their theories reveal the role of internal and external factors.

Genie’s case should be mentioned to learn the relationship between nature and nurture in cognitive development. In the 1970s, the world was shocked by the existence of a wild (feral) child who lived in Los Angeles. The girl was a victim of domestic abuse, suffering from parent neglect during her first 13 years. Not many facts could be found about the true reasons for her father kept the child in the dark, closed room for such a long period. Still, it was known that neither communication nor cooperation was done with Genie, which negatively affected her cognitive, psychological, and physical skills. When the girl was rescued, many professionals were involved in her rehabilitation processes, including physicians, linguists, psychologists, and social workers. Her vocabulary was weak, and she did not understand most things and people’s requests. Little is known about her progress, but her language development and communication have significantly improved.

Chomsky’s Theory

Cognitive development may depend on human biology, and implementing a naturalistic theory is a solid argument in this perspective. In the middle of the 1900s, Chomsky introduced his theory of language acquisition, according to which children have an inborn quality of being biologically encoded with a universal grammar (Sobecks, 2020). It means that the child’s brain has certain language-learning mechanisms, and this skill is not obtained with time but remains present since birth. The idea of innateness underlines the importance of being biologically determined to learn and understand the world. The core element of this theory is a language acquisition device (LAD) that is a normal part of human development to explain the child’s predisposition to learn languages (Sobecks, 2020). Still, it does not mean that a child born in a particular country, e.g., the United States, is born with some specifics of American English. Chomsky says about common language principles with the LAD, meaning some qualities are inborn and serve as biological evidence (Sobecks, 2020). This approach supports the impact of nature on a child’s cognitive development and the possibility to speak words and create sentences with time.

In Genie’s case, the girl did not get a chance to develop her language and cognitive skills in childhood. However, Chomsky’s theory proves that it is possible to use the LAD and restore the innate ability to learn the language (Sobecks, 2020). Nativists like Chomsky believe in inborn language capacity, which explains why it was possible for specialists to work with Genie and develop her cognition to the best possible extent. Genetics plays an important role in understanding what a person can or cannot do, and language development is a skill that should not be defined through the prism of learning alone. Although a critical period of acquiring language was missed in Genie’s situation, the fact that she was born with the LAD exists. Thus, attention to her biological factors helped the experts to achieve positive outcomes and improve the quality of the girl’s life with time.

Skinner’s Theory

The criticism of naturalistic theories was introduced by many behaviorists who specified the role of the environment in the cognitive development of children. There are many examples of how external factors define human decisions and abilities, and the work of Skinner focuses on such conditions. This theorist opposes certain mental processes and genetic predispositions but investigates observable behaviors that show what individuals can or cannot do. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning introduces a method of learning through punishment and reward to demonstrate how an understanding of consequences affects human behavior (Overskeid, 2018). From Skinner’s point of view, a child develops cognitive or other abilities through learning the consequences and repetitions. Behavioral changes results are related to stimuli adults introduce to children, which means that the environment is crucial in the child’s cognitive development. Although environmental determination is not the only reason to explain behavior, prediction and control are vital in children’s growth (Overskeid, 2018). In other words, when a child experiences positive or negative emotions related to a specific event, cognitive abilities are developed or diminished respectfully.

The case of Genie proves the effectiveness of Skinner’s theory from some points. For example, the father punishes the child for making sounds or disobedience and rewards for silence and order. As a result, the girl did not speak, was calm, and moved slowly not to attract someone’s attention. Behaviorists might not reject the impact of genetics, but the environment is the factor that prevails over all biological issues. Each inborn quality could be changed, improved, or even removed under certain conditions. Genie’s life was unfavorable for her cognitive development, and the changes offered by other people, who were not her family members, were enough to prove how critical the impact of the environment was.


It is hard or even impossible to take one particular side in the debate about nature vs. nurture in child development. The arguments introduced by Skinner for behaviorism and Chomsky for naturalism are both valid and can be approved through the prism of Genie’s case about child abuse in childhood. Heritability explains differences in people and proves how some skills may be inborn. The environment also plays an important role in cognitive development because children learn how to behave, think, make decisions, and use sources. Their critical thinking abilities, language mechanisms, and cooperation depend not only on the people or subjects around them but on genetics. Chomsky and Skinner have strong and clear points in the nature-nurture debate. This project serves as a good example of how the environment can affect genetic predisposition to enhance or challenge cognitive development in childhood.


MAL-ED Network Investigators. (2018). Early childhood cognitive development is affected by interactions among illness, diet, enteropathogens and the home environment: Findings from the MAL-ED birth cohort study. BMJ Global Health, 3(4).

Overskeid, G. (2018). Do we need the environment to explain operant behavior? Frontiers in Psychology, 9.

Sobecks, B. (2020). Language acquisition device and the origin of language. Brain Matters, 2(1), 9-11.

Sravanti, L. (2017). Nurture nature. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 59(3), 385.

Yang, Q., Yang, J., Zheng, L., Song, W., & Yi, L. (2021). Impact of home parenting environment on cognitive and psychomotor development in children under 5 years old: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 9.

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PsychologyWriting. "Skinner and Chomsky on Nature vs. Nurture." April 3, 2023.