Nature vs. Nurture & What is Learning

A series of articles for professional dog trainers, those who want to become professional dog trainers, and those who want to become certified dog trainers.

Each time I sit down to write this column, I want to get right to the nitty gritty of learning concepts. But, each time this happens, something important to understanding learning holds me back! We’ve talked about science – what it is and what it isn’t; and, we’ve talked about the usefulness of a common terminology. Today, it occurred to me that a brief discussion of nature and nurture is necessary before we can really get into the specifics of learning concepts.

We’ve all heard the arguments regarding nature and nurture. The pendulum of opinion keeps swinging back and forth, back and forth. The truth is, it’s both! Always has been, always will be.

Different disciplines of science tend to focus on something specific – for instance behaviorists tend to focus on how the environment influences behavior while biologists tend to focus on how genetics influence behavior. But all good behaviorists and biologists understand that environment and genetics are intertwined and you cannot separate one from the other. We are products of our genetics and our environment. We may be genetically disposed to behave in certain ways, but it’s unlikely we’ll do so without an environmental stimulus of some kind to elicit the behavior; and the likelihood of that behavior recurring will depend on the consequence of the behavior, which is often environmental. And, of course, there are certain behaviors that specific animals will never do because they are not biologically designed to do so – for instance, pigs will never fly!

In February I hosted a Ray Coppinger seminar and was privileged to have both Dr. Coppinger and Dr. Susan Friedman stay at my house. The discussions were fascinating and of course, they both love to debate their side of the issue (ethologist vs. behaviorist). However, when push came to shove, they both agreed that the animal’s phenotype sets parameters for the behaviors the environment elicits. Of course Dr. Coppinger places more emphasis on biology, because that’s his area of expertise; and, Dr. Friedman emphasizes the environment, because that’s her area of expertise. But neither of them is so naïve that they do not understand the importance of the other person’s knowledge and they both have a better-than-average understanding of the other’s area of expertise!

According to Paul Chance (Learning & Behavior, 5th ed., pg 27) “Someone has said that asking, ‘Which is more important in determining behavior, heredity or environment?’ is like asking, ‘Which is more important in determining the area of a rectangle, width or length?’” The two are inextricably intertwined and trying to separate them will not serve any particular purpose.

In fact, when we try to pigeonhole or limit behavior, we are seriously underestimating the beauty and efficiency of nature and are doing ourselves a great disservice. The beauty of nature is that we are designed to adapt to changing circumstances. When the environment changes (and it does, all the time), our behavior changes.

One thing we must keep in mind, though, is that learned behavior is not heritable. For instance, if you live in the city and have a dog that is very street-wise, and that dog has a puppy that is raised in the country, that pup will not be more street-wise, nor become street-wise more quickly, than other pups. That is strictly learning based on experience and is not passed down to offspring.

This brings us to the definition of learning:  “Learning is a change in behavior based on experience.” This is the most common definition, however I actually prefer “learning is a change in behavior over time, based on experience.” Those who study behavior know that when assessing whether or not learning has taken place, it is actually the rate of behavior that they are measuring.  Because rate of behavior takes place over a given period of time,, for those of us who are not so entrenched in the science of learning, it can help to add in those words “over time” to distinguished a learned behavior from a one-time action.

To sum up, learning is a change in behavior based on experience, and it is a combination of genetics and environment that set the stage for learning. We cannot separate genetics and environment when assessing learning.

Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.