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I Introduction: Development as Individual ⇔ Context Relations Across Time and Place


Development as Individual<=>Context Relations Across Time and Place

The arc of my scholarly career can be understood by the one good idea that has framed virtually all of my work in developmental science, and this idea was not mine. It belonged to the renowned comparative psychologist T.C. Schneirla, who—if intellectual genealogy' is important—was the person with whom Herbert G. Birch primarily studied for his Ph.D., and Birch was the person with whom my mentor, Sam J. Korn, primarily studied during his Ph.D. work.

Across his career, Schneirla and his students were engaged in fierce intellectual battles with both of the two opposing sides of the nature—nurture debate that was framing theory and theory-predicated research (such as it was) in the 1950s and the 1960s (see Bronfenbrenner, 1963, and Mussen, 1970, for statements about the place of theory during this period in what was then mostly labeled as the field of child psychology'). In several publications (e.g., Schneirla, 1956), Schneirla criticized B. F. Skinner and other behaviorists for environmental reductionism. He also criticized Konrad Lorenz and other nature theorists for genetic reductionism. Schneirla and his students (e.g., Daniel Lehrman, 1953) proposed an integrative “solution” to the “nature—nurture problem,” one that coalesced the “innate” and the “acquired” into a fused relation.

One of Schneirla s publications appeared in a chapter in a book, The Concept of Development, edited by Dale B. Harris (1957) (who was then a professor at the University of Minnesota but, years later, when I became a member of the faculty of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, Dale was a colleague in the Psychology Department of Penn State). In a section of his chapter titled “Circular Functions and Self-stimulation in Ontogeny,” Schneirla (1957, pp. 86)—89) explained that individuals are, in effect, in relationships with themselves over the course of their development. This individual—context relationship was superordinate to either nature or nurture; it was a “third source” of development. In commenting on the importance of this third source of development, Schneirla (1957) said:

An indispensable feature of development is that of circular relationships of

self-stimulation in the organism. The individual seems to be interactive with itself throughout development, as the processes of each stage open the way for further stimulus—reaction relationships depending on the scope of the intrinsic and extrinsic conditions then prevalent.

(p. 86, italics added)

In other words, based on their characteristics of individuality, individuals evoke differential reactions in other organisms; these reactions constitute feedback to the individual and become a significant portion of the experience that promotes the development of further individual distinctiveness for the organism. In essence, by influencing those who influence him or her, a circular function is created, and the person becomes a source of his or her own development (Lerner, 1982; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981; Lerner & Walls, 1999). As such, the integration of actions—the actions of the organism on the social context and the actions of the context on the organism— becomes the focal process of development (Brandtstadter, 1998, 1999; Brandtstadter, 2006). Schneirla s “good idea” is the concept I have used to frame my career. As I hope I explain in this chapter, it is the foundation of the conceptual frame I have used to contribute to the enhancement of the lives of diverse children and adolescents in the United States and internationally.

Graduate School Roots

1 was unaware during my time in graduate school (I graduated from the Developmental Psychology Ph.D. program of the City' University of New York in 1971) that, by drawing on Schneirla’s (1957) ideas about circular functions, I was aligning myself with a group of developmental scientists primarily from Germany. These scholars were developing what I later understood were action theories of human development, concepts that focused on the mutually influential—the dynamic—relations between an individual and his or her physical, social, and institutional contexts. These scholars, for instance Paul Bakes and Margret Bakes (1980), Jutta Heckhausen (1999), and Jochen Brandtstadter (1998), focused on the concept of developmental regulations, the rules governing the substance, intensity, duration, periodicity', and valence of the coactions between individual and context that defined the course of human development. Their key idea was that these rules involved the integration of action that I have noted—actions of the individual on the context and the context on the individual. These integrative relations, represented as individual <5> context relations, were regarded as the fundamental process of life and its development, and when the bidirectional relations were mutually beneficial, when they supported the positive maintenance and healthy perpetuation of both components of the relation, both the individual and the context, they' were adaptive developmental regulations (Brandtstadter, 1998, 2006).

Years later, I would turn my attention to the dynamic and systematic character of individualOcontext relations and to how adolescents contribute to these adaptive developmental regulations, through either relatively automatic physiological processes (e.g., involving hypothalamic functioning or circadian rhythms) or intentional means, that is, via intentional self-regulation (Gestsdottir & Lerner, 2008; Lerner, Freund, De Stefanis, & Habermas, 2001).

I met and got to know and collaborate with Paul and Margret Bakes and their colleagues in Germany and across Europe, particularly Alexander von Eye, Jochen Brandtstadter, Rainer K. Silbereisen, Alexandra Freund, and Jutta Heckhausen, as well as their colleagues in the United States. Most important for me were John R. Nesselroade, Glen H. Elder, Jr., and K. Warner Schaie. The stimulation from and the work of these scholars would be the means through which I saw the connections between the idea of circular functions and action theory.

However, I would not meet Paul and Margret for several years and so, at this point in my graduate education, I just recognized that studying circular functions would be both of great interest to me and, at the same time, an innovative approach to addressing processes that seemed (albeit vaguely to me, at the time) to go beyond the nature—nurture controversy. However, I was not clear about how to study these circular functions in children and adolescents. Schneirla had studied mostly army ants and cats. Was there any way to approach this topic with humans?

Sam Korn’s tutelage in these ideas led me to switch my concentration from physiological to developmental psychology and to ask Sam to be the chair of my doctoral committee and my dissertation advisor. I told him of my interest in circular functions, and he was glad to know of my interest. Given the intellectual family tree I have outlined (Schneirla, to Birch, to Korn, to Lerner), Sam, as an intellectual “grandchild” of Schneirla, was glad that one of the “children” to whom he would give intellectual birth wanted to follow in the Schneirla tradition. However, I was not interested in studying ants or cats. As was true for Sam as well, I was interested in studying human development and, in particular, children and adolescents. Now all I had to do was to figure out how to accomplish this task while studying them.

I was taking one of my last courses in graduate school—a seminar in personality' development in childhood and adolescents. The text for the course was authored by Boyd R. McCandless: Children and Adolescents: Behavior and Development (1961). McCandless was discussing the work of Harvard physician William Sheldon (1940, 1942). Sheldon claimed that he had identified three basic body types in men, endomorphs (whose bodies were dominated by adipose tissue), mesomorphs (whose bodies were marked by strong musculature), and ectomorphs (whose bodies were thin and linear). Sheldon claimed that the genes that gave men their body' types also gave them their temperaments. However, McCandless, who was a social learning theorist, cited a 1954 publication by' Brodsky that found that there were different social stereotypes associated with drawings of adult male endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs. He suggested that the existence of these stereotypes might serve to differentially socialize men with different body build and, as a consequence of this conjecture, he claimed that social learning, and not nature-related variables, could account for links between body type and temperament, or personality more broadly.

McCandless did not suggest precisely how the presence of social stereotypes translated into different personality development, but I had an idea or, more accurately, I had Schneirla’s idea: Circular functions were involved. I reasoned that, if children, adolescents, and adults with different body builds elicited differential (and stereotyped) reactions from the people in their social world, these reactions could be associated with differential actions from people that would constitute feedback to the individuals. If this feedback was associated with differential opportunities for some behaviors and constraints on other behaviors, a social relational process could occur that might channel people with different body builds into at least some stereotype-consistent behaviors. Therefore, people holding the stereotype of body build—behavior relations might eventually see that there was a “kernel of truth” to their beliefs and, as such, a self-fulfilling prophecy would be created. Of course, all these ideas were just speculation. I had no data.

My thought at the time was that such social channeling might be especially true if the people possessing these different body builds had the same body build-behavior stereotypes as found generally in society. If so, then people with different body builds might themselves be a source of differential opportunities for and constraints on their own behavior. If the stereotype for their body type was essentially negative, they might be loath to engage in some behaviors because of anticipated approbations from people in their social milieu; in turn, if the stereotype was relatively positive, they might engage in some behaviors because they would anticipate support or approval from others in their social milieu.

Conducting the longitudinal research necessary to verify this intricate circular function process was not feasible for a dissertation. However, as a start, I could present the model and assess part of it. I could see if children, adolescents, and (young) adults of different body builds had the same stereotypes about body build—behavior relations that were generally held in their social world. In short, for my dissertation, 1 used the circular functions idea to frame a study of the relation between the body builds of male children, adolescents, and young adults and their social stereotypes about body build- behavior relations.

Empirical Beginnings

1 conducted research to test the feasibility of my ideas prior to embarking on my dissertation, and some of this work resulted in some of my first publications (e.g., Lerner, 1969a, 1969b). The results of this research, as well as the research I conducted for my dissertation, were consistent with the Schneirla-intluenced theoretical model I had developed (Lerner & Korn, 1972). My work on this topic was my initial foray into testing the “one good idea” I had, that individuals, through their effects and actions on the context, could contribute to circular functions that provided a source of their own development. I believed I had some evidence (albeit quite limited, e.g., it was not derived from longitudinal data) that Schneirla’s (1957) idea, that individualO context relations were a “third source” of development, could be applied to human development. That is, I believed that my findings were sufficient to suggest that it was plausible to believe that there was an individualO context relation, a circular function, that constituted a fundamental process in human development.

Accordingly, I began to think beyond body build—behavior relations because, if this circular function was in fact a fundamental process in human development, evidence for it should be able to be identified in regard to other individually distinct physical attributes (e.g., level of physical attractiveness; Lerner & Lerner, 1977) or behavioral attributes (e.g., temperamental style; Lerner & Lerner, 1983). I thought that a person’s physical or behavioral individuality created a source of the individual’s experiences, because the treatment of the individual by others was based on the specific effect of the individual’s specific characteristics on them. The specific feedback to the individual, initiated by the individual’s specific characteristics, shaped the further development of the specific features of the individual. In other words, the feedback to the individual that is represented by these reactions changes the individual in a manner that makes it increasingly distinct across time and place; and, consequently, the circular function continues. Thus, the circular function is a basis of person-specific, that is, idiograpltic, development of the individual organism (see Rose, 2016, for a similar analysis of the basis of idiographic development).

I became intrigued by the idea of idiographic development and wrote about it in my first book (Lerner, 1976). However, as I discuss later in this chapter, I did not have the methodological skills to empirically study it until I came to Penn State and began to learn about such methods through the mentorship of John R. Nesselroade (e.g., Hooker, Nesselroade, Nesselroade, & Lerner, 1987). As I will describe, this mentorship has been the foundation for, at this writing, current research I am conducting on the specific, idiographic pathways of development of diverse children and adolescents.

However, at the time of my dissertation defense, both my methodological skills and my vocabulary about the individualO context process, and about the idiographic (person-specific) pathways of development that would be produced by this process, was limited (perhaps because my thinking about the process at that time was quite limited as well). Nevertheless, I did think I was on to something important by my partial test of Schneirla’s idea. Indeed, the first question asked of me in the oral defense of my dissertation, by Joseph Glick, then the head of the developmental psychology program at City' University of New York (CUNY), was “What do you hope to accomplish with the line of work you have set upon through your dissertation research?” My response was “I want to solve the nature—nurture controversy.”Joe and some other faculty members at the defense laughed at my response. However, Sam just smiled and nodded approvingly.1

It is important to add that, although my dissertation was obviously successfully defended, it is prophetic that a key objection of the CUNY psycholog)' doctoral faculty to my proposal to do this research as a dissertation was that the topic was not psychological in nature. Although Sam Korn did not ever tell me which colleague or colleagues raised the objection to the proposed focus of the research, he did say that when the faculty met to discuss my defense of the proposal, one objection was that the topic seemed more sociological or anthropological than psychological.

At the time, given the perhaps understandable lack of objectivity by a graduate student interested primarily in completing his doctoral degree, I objected to and in fact dismissed this criticism. Boyd R. McCandless (1961, 1967, 1970)—the then (founding) editor of the new APA journal, Developmental Psychology—discussed just the sort of research I undertook (recall that his discussion of the work of Brodsky, 1954, gave me the idea for my dissertation research) and, as well, McCandless sponsored analogous dissertation research (see StafFieri, 1967). However, in retrospect, there was a good point being made by this comment—at least insofar as the traditional personologi- cal approach to psychological development is concerned.

Initial Theoretical Ideas

Psychology is only one of the disciplines that contribute to an understanding of human development (Lerner, 2012, 2018a). As my reading and thinking about the ideas of Schneirla continued—in particular, the reading of a festschrift volume in memory of Schneirla (who died in 1968), Development and evolution of behavior: Essays in memory of T. C. Schneirla, edited by Lester R. Aronson, Ethel Tobach, Daniel S. Lehrman, and Jay S. Rosenblatt (1970)—what I discovered was a very related book by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Modern theories of development (1933). I realized that the circular functions process was only one instance of the dynamic relations across integrated levels of organization, ranging from the inner physiological, through the psychological and behavioral, to the social relational, physical ecological, cultural, and historical that comprised the ecology of human development. Within and across all these integrated levels, variables coacted with each other in a dynamic manner. These coactions meant that changes in any one variable were products and producers of changes at all other levels in what, I began to understand, was a dynamic, developmental system (e.g., Gottlieb, 1970). Just as there were individual^context circular functions between, say, the physical and/or behavioral attributes of an individual and others in the ecology of the individual, there were also dynamic coactions between a family and the community, between the community and culture, between culture and the physical ecology, and between the physical ecology and time (or history).

Shortly after completing my Ph.D. in April 1971, and while I was still an assistant professor in my first professorial position in the Psychology Department of Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, 1 began writing about these ideas. The first edition of my first book, Concepts and Theories of Human Development (1976), was one important product derived from this work and a second one was my first attempt to publish a refereed article about the evolving theory I was developing about human development. In this article, “Nature, nurture, and dynamic interactionism,” I contributed my first peer-reviewed statement in “the” theory journal within developmental science, Human Development (Lerner, 1978). The article discussed how Schneirla s concept of circular functions was an instance of the dynamic relations within the relational developmental system (Overton, 1973, 2015) and of how an understanding of these coactions in fact provided a means to resolve the nature—nurture controversy.

This model would evolve across the ensuing four-plus decades—due in no small part to the collegiality of and collaboration with the scholars I have already noted and, as well, the many others I met and began to work with after I arrived at Penn State in the fall of 1976. Because of the modeling and mentorship of Paul Bakes—who was in my experience the most astute observer of academic culture I have ever known and, as well, the incomparable master of academic networking—I met and became deeply engaged with the work of several scholars, whose erudition and creativity provided me with a continuing education experience from which I am still profiting.2

The incalculable intellectual and personal debt I owe these scholars cannot be overestimated. I had Schneirla’s good idea to work with, but these colleagues gave me much more—their own great ideas and the support and patience to allow me to learn from them and then—with credit to all of them explicitly and repeatedly emphasized in my written work, professional presentations, and undergraduate and graduate classes—to attempt to integrate their ideas into the model of human development I was devising and using as a frame for the research I was conducting.

The Emergence of an Applied Developmental Scientist

The model has evolved from 1978 to, at this writing, its most recent full instantiation, in the fourth edition of Concepts and Theories of Human Development (Lerner, 2018a). However, about a decade after I began publishing “theory papers,” I “discovered”—through the prodding of my Penn State colleague, Richard (Rick) Birkel—that my ideas could be the basis of applications to enhance the development of all individuals. During a conference I attended in New York City, I had a drink with another meeting attendee, Irving Sigel, a researcher at Educational Testing Service and, at that time, the Editor of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Irv said he thought that the readers of his journal would be interested in learning more about current trends in developmental theory, and he invited me to write an article on this topic. I happily accepted this invitation, but—although Irv said that he believed my ideas were relevant to the application of developmental psychology—I was not certain they were. Rick helped me understand that Irv’s intuition was in fact the case. He, and another Penn State colleague, Michael A. (Mick) Smyer, both of whom were clinical psychologists as well as developmental scientists, led me to announce in print that 1 was an applied developmental scientist (Birkel, Lerner, & Smyer, 1989).

What I learned from Rick and Mick was that the dynamic coactions being described in my model could do more than explain the specific pathways of development enacted across the life span by the individual. The relative plasticity of human development that I had discussed as deriving from the dynamics of the relational developmental system (Lerner, 1984) meant that, if there were changes in system coactions, then different pathways—for better or worse—could occur. Simply, the plasticity of the dynamic, relational developmental system meant that the course of life was malleable.

If people were interested in doing more than describing and explaining the course of human development, for all humans, a group of individuals, or any specific individual, the presence of at least relative plasticity meant that human development could be changed in the direction of optimizing its course across time and place (Elder, 1998; Elder, Modell, & Parke, 1993; Elder, Shanahan, & Jennings, 2015). Researchers could test their explanations of human development by modifying specific individual^ context relations in the ecology in which people lived people (i.e., in their ecologically valid settings) and then assess whether theory-predicated changes occurred. This explanatory research is also, at the same time, optimization research.

The model of dynamic, relational developmental systems I was developing provided a rationale for being optimistic that studying individualOcontext relations could eventuate in evidence for positive instances of developmental malleability. Because it would be unethical to knowingly change the context of human development in order to create individualO context relations that would deteriorate the quality of peoples lives and development, researchers would be testing their explanations through attempting to improve behavior and development. People would intervene within the actual ecology of individuals in order to alter individual О context relations. Depending on the level of organization targeted by these efforts, such intentional changes in individualO context relations could be labeled policies or programs.

The evaluation of the success of these policy or program interventions, aimed at changing the course and outcomes of development by altering the course of individualOcontext relations, would provide evidence of the usefulness of these applications of developmental science. At the same time, this evaluation research was also a test of models of the explanation of how specific facets of the coactions of individuals and contexts provide the basis of specific courses and outcomes of development. Such specificity reflects the fundamental relational process of human behavior and development (Bornstein, 2017, 2019).

Therefore, I became convinced that there is no conceptual split between basic and applied research within a dynamic, relational developmental systems-based approach to human development (Overton, 2015). Basic research and applied research are isomorphic within this dynamic systems approach to the description, explanation, and optimization of human development across the life span (Bakes, Reese, & Nesselroade, 1977).

Enlightened by my collaboration with Rick Birkel and Mick Smyer, I began to write about the then burgeoning field of applied developmental science (e.g., Fisher, Murray, & Sigel, 1996), and, with Celia B. Fisher and Richard A. Weinberg, I founded in 1997 a new journal, Applied Developmental Science (Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 1997), which I continued to edit through 2019. Not surprisingly to anyone who had read my theoretical papers, the specific approach 1 took to the application of developmental science was the dynamic, relational developmental systems approach I have discussed in this chapter. In addition, I saw an opportunity to instantiate my theory-predicated approach to application within the portion of the life span within which I was devoting most of my empirical attention: Adolescence.

Positive Youth Development and the Development of Character Virtues

For much of the 20th century, the scientific study of adolescence was conducted in the context of a deficit-oriented perspective initiated by Hall’s (1904) conception that storm and stress define the adolescent period. This deficit lens was pervasive, and existed even in programs and policies. Prevention and/or remediation after problems emerged, rather than promotion of positive attributes, were the focus of work. Into the 1990s, this deficit perspective was the predominant lens for research on adolescents, despite more than 30 years of countervailing research findings (e.g., Bandura, 1964; Douvan & Adelson, 1966; Offer, 1969).

However, in the 1990s a new lens for viewing adolescent behavior and development emerged, spurred by the convergence of the work of youth program professionals, such as Rick Little, of the International Youth Foundation, and Donald Floyd, of the (U.S.-based) National 4-H Council. Practitioner beliefs in the strengths of youth and their potential for positive development had a fortunate convergence with contemporaneous theory and research in developmental biolog)', comparative psychology', and developmental science regarding the relative plasticity of human development across the life span (Lerner, 2018a). These ideas coalesced to suggest that there was a potential for systematic change in the features and trajectories of youth development. What one saw in the behaviors of an adolescent at a specific time in his or her life and/or in a specific context were not a genetically fixed or neuronally hard-wired, and thus immutable, facet of the young person (Lerner, 1976, 1978, 2018c).

As such, if young people could be placed into positive-development- promoting circumstances, then, through their coactions within the relational developmental system, their attributes could be change in positive ways. Developmental scientists who were attracted to this strength-based approach to youth development used dynamic, relational developmental systems-based ideas to propose several important formulations of the substance of positive youth development (PYD). For instance, Benson (2008), Damon (2008), and Spencer (2006) proposed creative and empirically useful models (see Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, 2015, for a review of these and other models). With Jacqueline Lerner, I developed a formulation that focused on what was subsequently labeled the Five Cs of PYD (Competence, Confidence, Character, Connection, and Caring), a conception owing its origin to Rick Little (Lerner, 2018a). We proposed that youth would thrive when, in psychologically and socially safe spaces, their strengths (e.g., intentional self-regulation, hope for the future, school engagement, and spirituality) were aligned with three key resources in such a setting: (1) positive and sustained relations with a caring, competent, and reliably committed adult, such as a mentor, coach, teacher, or faith leader (Rhodes, 2020); (2) life skills building experiences; and (3) opportunities to participate in and take a leadership role in valued family, school, program, or community activities. The Five Cs of PYD would develop and, when high degrees of these Cs emerged, a “sixth C,” Contribution (to self, family, school, community and, eventually, the institutions of civil society and democracy), would follow (Lerner, et al., 2015).

The Lerner and Lerner “Five Cs” model of PYD represented, as did all PYD models associated with dynamic developmental systems-based ideas, an optimistic view about the potential efficacy of programs or policies to promote PYD. If such efforts were able to capitalize on developmental plasticity and focused on the specific strengths of young people, the course of their lives could be enhanced.

As my work on PYD continued, I became increasingly involved with efforts to promote one C, in particular, positive character development (or character virtues development; Clement & Bollinger, 2017). 1 began to consult with and to conduct research supported by the John Templeton Foundation and, as well, I became very interested in the vision and philosophy of Sir John Templeton (e.g., Templeton, 1998). As such, much of my research on PYD came to focus specifically on character and on the implications of character virtue development for active and engaged citizenship (e.g., Lerner, 2018b, 2018c). Since the writing of the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (written in about 350 B.C.), character virtues have been identified as key attributes possessed by thriving youth (e.g., Nucci, 2017). In addition, character virtue development has been found to foster positive civic engagement and positive and valued contributions to communities and to the institutions of civil society (Berkowitz, 2012). Character virtue development has been associated with coherently “doing the right thing” (morally and behaviorally) across time and place in order to provide mutually positive benefits to both self and others, that is, to contribute to mutually beneficial individual <4>context relations (Lerner, 2018b, 2018c).

For example, Nucci (2001) emphasized that character virtue development involves “human welfare, justice and rights, which are a function of inherent features of interpersonal relations” (p. 7). Moreover, Berkowitz (2012) indicated that character development invariantly involves interpersonal relations that reflect “a public system of universal concerns about human welfare, justice, and rights that all rational people would want others to adhere to” (p. 249). Similarly, Narvaez (2008) explained that a person with character lives a life that is good for oneself and for one’s community.

If these ideas about character virtues were correct, I reasoned that the application of developmental science could be a means to promote thriving among the diverse youth of the world and, as well, serve civil society. However, I decided that, although all the Cs were important indicators of healthy, positive development, and all were relatively highly correlated (Lerner, et al., 2015), a specific emphasis on the promotion of character virtues would be the best means to enhance both individuals and civil society. I could do this work by capitalizing on the core relational focus of dynamic, relational developmental systems-based models: the individualO context relation. Such a dynamic, relational approach to character virtue development would contribute to instantiating Berkowitz’s (2012) apt conception of a youth of good character, that is, of a young person possessing the complex constellation of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral attributes that motivate and enable an individual to function as a competent moral agent supporting the health and well-being of self and members of society.

This admittedly values-based, aspirational, and optimistic vision for the application of developmental science was rationalized by me through reference to the evidence of the relative plasticity and resulting developmental malleability of individuals provided by their embeddedness in the dynamic developmental system (e.g., Immordino-Yang, Darling-Hammond, & Krone, 2019; Moore, 2015; Slavich, 2020; Slavich & Cole, 2013). However, as I discussed the research, program, and policy implications of this approach to enhancing youth development and the democratic institutions of civil society in an integrated way, an old intellectual “nemesis” continued to elicit the attention of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers: genetic reductionism.

Proponents of this perspective presented a counternarrative to mine; they spoke of genetic constraints on positive development (e.g., Belsky, 2014) or of the fact that there was a genetic blueprint that was the most influential source of a persons development across life (e.g., Plomin, 2018). At the same time that I was working to describe, explain, and optimize PYD in general, and character virtue development and its link to positive civic engagement more specifically, I worked to counter the counternarrative of genetic reductionism.

Confronting the Counterfactual Nature of Genetic Reductionism

In the 1970s, first Overton (1973) and then I (Lerner, 1978) published articles in Human Development explaining the conceptual and methodological errors (including egregiously flawed statistical analyses and misinterpretations of the findings from these analyses) of then current instantiations of genetic reductionist ideas, that is, behavior genetics and heritability analysis. The 1978 article I discussed earlier in this chapter was an outgrowth of the reviews of such genetic reductionist work that I initially presented in the first edition of my Concepts and Theories of Human Development book (Lerner, 1976).

In these publications, Overton and I warned of the substantive and applied dangers of this flawed work. Our articles built on earlier publications, for instance, those of Schneirla (1956, 1957) and Anastasi (1958). In turn, as different instantiations of genetic reductionism appeared, we and many, many others critiqued the several conceptual, logical, and methodological problems of genetic reductionist ideas, whether cast as behavior genetics, human sociobiology, or evolutionary psycholog)' These critiques of bad science and of the dangerous misapplications stemming from these ideas were provided by scholars in developmental science or comparative psychology (e.g., Patrick Bateson, Gilbert Gottlieb, Gary Greenberg, Jerry Hirsch, Michael Meaney, George Michel, Peter С. M. Molenaar, Stephen Suomi, and Ethel Tobach) and biology (e.g., Elaine Bearer, Marcus Feldman, Stephen Jay Gould, Mae-wan Ho, Eva Jablonka, Marion Lamb, Evelyn Fox Keller, Richard C. Lewontin, and Benno Miiller-Hill).

The most recent, major example of genetic reductionism is the Blueprint book by Robert Plomin (2018). On the one hand, I marvel at the resilience of bad science. On the other hand, I am appalled by the fact that many bad ideas associated with genetic reductionism, for example, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and religious intolerance more generally, have a staying power that is unfathomable to me. Unfortunately, there have also been very problematic inferences derived by many nonscientists—including journalists—from the continuing visibility of genetic reductionist ideas in developmental science. Key here has been the idea that genes differentiate people into racial groups that have quite different (and allegedly irremediable) propensities for intellectual functioning and for positive or problematic behaviors (for a critique of such assertions about learning and development, see Cantor, Lerner, Pittman, Chase, & Gomperts, in preparation).

The individual responses to bad science and to its socially dangerous application to which I have pointed can (and should) continue to be published, as Overton and I, and others, have done for, now, 40+ years. In an article I published in 2015, I argued that such an approach is necessary but woefully insufficient (Lerner, 2015a). This publication is included in this book. Reference to it will indicate that I suggested that major organizations in developmental science, and the major journals in our field, collaborate in writing and broadly disseminate a consensus document about the bad science associated with past and contemporary genetic reductionist ideas. In turn, this statement should present the contemporary understanding of the dynamic, relational developmental systems within which genes are embodied. The document should explain the abundant and growing evidence (e.g., in epigenetics and in the study of social genomics; Moore, 2015; Slavich & Cole, 2013) about the plasticity of human development and present the profoundly different implications of this work for applications to policies and programs.

The visibility of such a collaborative consensus document, and its publication in the major developmental science journals around the world, could, finally, have the effect of diminishing the presence of bad science in our field or, to recall the stronger words used by Jerry Hirsch in 1981, to “unfrock the charlatans.” Such a statement should also explain the dangers of policy and program recommendations (e.g., neo-Eugenics policies, as in Belsky, 2014) being promulgated on the basis of such bad science and—perhaps—enhance public discourse about how informed citizens can act to promote the positive and healthy development of all people.

At this writing, such a statement has not materialized. I was able to author two additional pieces that did make these points: Larry Nucci, the editor of Human Development, invited me to write a Guest Editorial (Lerner, 2015b) and colleagues serving on a committee of the National Academy of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences asked me to contribute a piece on how PYD can be promoted by dismantling genetic determinism (Lerner, 2017). Both of these publications are included in this book.

The potentially pernicious societal implications of counterfactual genetic reductionist claims can be attenuated, if not completely eliminated (Lerner & Chase, 2020), if developmental scientists, as well as scholars from other fields, make the refutation of genetic reductionist ideas the norm in their writing, public speaking, and classrooms and laboratories. An outcome of this “new normal” would be the development of a new generation of scientists informing the general public, media, and policy makers that genes are plastic components of the dynamic, relational developmental system, and not blueprints that, at conception, design the course of human behavior and development across ontogeny, generations, and contexts. Another outcome of this new normal might be the contribution of science to social justice.

Developmental Theory and the Promotion of Social Justice

Civil society rests on integrative contributions by all sectors and institutions of a nation in support of social justice (Lerner, 2004). Such contributions to civil society should assure that there is a “level playing field” and equality and, as well, act to address historical inequities and the absence of justice, so that all individuals may pursue lives marked by positive and healthy contributions to self, family, and community. To maintain and perpetuate such actions, social functioning that supports civil society must be transformed into public policy. Developmental scientists must apply their work in the service of promoting civil society by ascertaining whether current local, state, and federal programs and policies are supported by or run counter to research evidence and by creating sustained engagement with community partners in collaborative actions that merge research and service in support of civil society and democracy. This work is certainly possible, because developmental scientists have the necessary models and methods in their scholarly “toolbox.”

By using their knowledge and skill sets (e.g., the use of person-specific measures and data analysis methods; Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2015), developmental scientists have the means to act in the service of promoting a better life for each person, no matter the person s starting point in life or the person’s other specific attributes (Bornstein, 2019). Developmental scientists may contribute to efforts that provide diverse individuals with equitable and just opportunities to maximize their aspirations and actions aimed at being active producers of their positive development. They may contribute to promoting a more socially just world.

Social justice focuses on the rights of all groups in a society to have fail- access to, and a voice in, policies governing the distribution of resources essential to their physical and psychological well-being (Fisher & Lerner, 2013). It focuses also on social inequities, characterized as avoidable and unjust social structures and policies that limit access to resources based solely on group or individual characteristics such as race/ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical or developmental ability status, and/or immigration status, among others. Developmental science framed by dynamic, relational developmental system-based concepts and related methods (e.g., Molenaar, Lerner, & Newell, 2014) has the means to enact a program of such scholarship.

For instance, Fisher, et al. (2013) provided a vision for social justicerelevant research in developmental science. Some of the research foci they discuss include addressing the pervasive systemic disparities in opportunities for development; investigating the origins, structures, and consequences of social inequities in human development; identifying societal barriers to health and well-being; identifying barriers to fair allocation and access to resources essential to positive development; identifying how racist and other prejudicial ideologies and behaviors develop in majority groups; studying how racism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of chronic and acute systemic inequities and political marginalization may have a “weathering” effect on physical and mental health across the life span; enacting evidence-based prevention and policy research aimed at demonstrating if systemic oppression can be diminished and psychological and political liberation can be promoted; taking a systems-level approach to reducing unjust institutional practices and to promoting individual and collective political empowerment within organizations, communities, and local and national governments; evaluating programs and policies that alleviate developmental harms caused by structural injustices; and creating and evaluating empirically based interventions that promote a just society that nurtures lifelong healthy development in all of its members.

Social justice-relevant research may be one of the best tools we have to create a more just society. However, the quantity and quality of such scholarship must continue to grow. The theoretical orientations and interests of contemporary cohorts of developmental scientists, the aspiration to produce scholarship that matters in the real world, and the needs for evidence-based means to address the challenges of the 21st century have coalesced to create a challenge and an opportunity for developmental scientists. The challenge is the enormity of the task of promoting thorough and sustained systems change. The opportunity is to contribute in meaningful and enduring manners to the enhancement of the lives of diverse individuals, their families, and their communities in ways that transform for the better the lives of diverse people around the world. Equality for marginalized groups means that the world will be better for all people.

The scientific and societal value on which the developmental science of the future will be judged is whether the theoretical and methodological tools of the field (again, in particular, person-specific measures and analyses; Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2015) describe and explain the diversity and dynamism of human development and, as well, whether the scholarship of developmental scientists is effectively capitalizing on the malleability of individuals’ developmental pathways to promote sustained individual thriving and social justice. In this way, the developmental science of the future can acts as a producer and a product of a more just world, one wherein ever)' individual is born within a social context wherein science and society collaborate to enable each human and humanity to flourish.


Schneirla’s (1957) good idea has taken me a long way. Across the now seven decades within which I have been publishing (my first publications appeared in the late 1960s, e.g., Lerner, 1968, 1969; Lerner & Gellert, 1969), I have elaborated the idea of dynamic, individual^context relations in a scholarly journey that has taken me from body-build stereotypes to work focused on and appeals to the larger community to promote social justice.

On reflection, I think I anticipated this journey. In the last three sentences of the last paragraph of the last chapter of my first book, the first edition of Concepts and theories of human development, I said:

The scientist may work for an increased understanding of the sources and characteristics of psychological development. Then the scientist, as citizen, may work for what he or she feels is the proper social application of this knowledge. In this way the science of developmental psychology may advance, and the status of the psychological development of the children in our society may similarly be favorably enhanced.

(Lerner, 1976, p. 303)

However, as I hope I made clear in this chapter, any progress I made on the path from this statement to the preparation of this book occurred because my steps were supported by the intellectual gifts and friendship that were generously given to me by, literally, hundreds of colleagues (only some of whom I have mentioned in this chapter).

The contribution of colleagues to my journey continues at this writing and, as such, the full story of my use of Schneirla s good idea remains to be written. For instance, I am continuing my work on PYD. In the United States, Jacqueline Lerner, Mary Buckingham, and I are extending and replicating the original 4-H Study of PYD (Bowers, et al., 2015; Lerner, et al., 2015) with funds provided by National 4-H Council and the Altria Corporation. Internationally, Jacqueline Lerner, Elizabeth Dowling, Jonathan Tirrell, Patricia Gansert, John Geldhof, Pamela Ebstyne King, and I are collaborating with Alistair Sim and his colleagues at Compassion International (e.g., Sim & Peters, 2014), to conduct a cross-national study of PYD in El Salvador, Rwanda, and (we hope) Uganda (e.g., Tirrell, et al., 2019a, 2019b, 2020). I am also continuing my research on character virtue development. With funds from the Templeton Religion Trust, colleagues from the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, Michael D. Mathews, LTC Andrew Farina, MAJ Cheveso Cook, CPT Jeremiah J. Powers, and COL (Retd.) Gerald Kobylski are collaborating with my Tufts University colleagues, COL (Retd.) Diane M. Ryan, Hillary Schaefer, Kristina Callina, and Elise Murray, and with colleagues from Stanford University, Anne Colby, William Sullivan, and William Damon, in a multicohort longitudinal study of character and leadership development among the cadets at USMA. The study is termed Project Arete, after the Greek word (arete) for excellence (Callina, et al., 2017, 2019; Murray, et al., 2019a, 2019b, 2020; Schaefer, et al., in press-а, in press-b).

I am also working with Marc H. Bornstein, representing the Society for Research in Child Development, and Elizabeth Dowling in a character virtue development project supported by the Templeton World Charity foundation. We are helping the Foundation enact their Global Innovations in Character Development initiative by collaborating with practitioners and researchers from low- and middle-income countries around the world in constructing a consulting platform that works to enhance their capacities to design, conduct, and evaluate programs promoting character virtue development in the communities of their nations.

In addition, after writing since the 1970s (e.g., Lerner, 1976, 1978) about the dynamic, relational developmental systems-based ideas that required empirical attention to the specificity of individual development (as well as to the group differential and nomothetic features of development), I have been able to use change-sensitive measures, research designs, and data analyses, initially introduced to me by John Nesselroade and then by Peter Molenaar and Nilam Ram, to conduct longitudinal research on child- and adolescent- specific development. Supported with funds from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (, this project, termed Measures and Methods across the Developmental Continuum (MMDC), is part of the work of the Science of Learning and Development (SoLD) Alliance ( The work of MMDC, and the SoLD Alliance, are explicitly framed by the dynamic, relational developmental systems-based ideas of Pamela Cantor (e.g., Cantor, et ah, 2019), David Osher (Osher, et al., 2020), and Linda Darling-Hammond (e.g., Darling-Hammond, et al., 2020), which coalesce to understand and enhance a holistic (whole-child) approach to development, learning, and thriving among diverse youth (Cantor, et al., in preparation; Stafford-Brizard, 2016).

MMDC research focuses on the Building Blocks for Learning (BBFL) framework for whole-child development, which specifies constructs that, when developed well, enable every child, no matter their starting point in life, to achieve successfully in school and in life (Stafford-Brizard, 2016). This work has taken great advantage of innovations in the person-specific measurement and longitudinal and dynamic data analysis methods championed by Nesselroade, Molenaar, von Eye, Ram, and others (e.g., Molenaar, 2007; Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2015; Nesselroade & Molenaar, 2010; Ram, et al., 2005; Ram & Grimm, 2015; Rose, 2016; von Eye, Bergman, & Hsieh, 2015). Using these methods, my Tufts University colleagues, Paul A. Chase, Dian Yu, Patricia Gansert, Heidi Johnson, Carolina Goncalves, Yerin Park, and I are collaborating with Pamela Cantor and her colleagues from Turnaround for Children (, and in particular Christina Theokas, with David Osher, and his American Institutes for Research team, in particular, Juliette Berg, Michelle Boyd, Whitney Cade, and Laura Michaelson, and with a group of distinguished developmental methodology' consultants, Sy-Miin Chow, Pascal Deboeck, John Geldhof, Velma Murry, Nilam Ram, Emilie Smith, and P-J Annie Yang. Together, we are using the Bornstein Specificity Principle (2017, 2019) to employ person-specific measures of Executive Functioning, Intentional Self-Regulation, and Relationship Skills (three of the key constructs within the BBFL framework) to identify person-specific (idiographic) pathways of development for youth within the kindergarten through Grade 12 range, and to study the specific individualOcontext relations that provide the basis of an individual young persons specific pathway of development (e.g., Yu, et al., 2020).

An additional facet of my SoLD Alliance involvement is a collaboration with Sheila Ohlsson Walker, my colleague in the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, that integrates my interest in whole-child development and character virtue development. With Andrea Ettekal of Texas A & M University and Jennifer Agans of the

Pennsylvania State University, we are developing a model of whole-child coaching that is aimed at promoting programs creating cohorts of coaches- of-character who can then coact with diverse young people and enhance their positive development through engagement in sports.

As my work continues on all of these projects, I am aware that it is occurring at a time in which the world is beset with two calamitous challenges to the health and well-being of youth and families and, as well, to social justice and democracy across the United States and internationally. The COVID- 19 pandemic is threatening the lives of people around the globe, and it is particularly virulent among people of color and, as well, people living in poverty, groups that often include the same individuals in the United States and internationally. In addition, the United States is in the midst of social reorganization because of the continuation of the nations long-standing epidemic of racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and brutality and murders by police of men, women, and children of color. The protests and demands for equity', equality', and social justice are reverberating around the world.

If developmental science is to be a useful contributor to addressing and resolving with equity' and fairness these issues of health, equality, and justice, it must help create a “new normal” where all facets of the science— from theory', to method, to data collection, analysis, interpretation, and application—are used in collaboration with families, communities, and all governmental and nongovernmental sectors of society to identify or create healthy and positive pathways for every individual to travel across the life span. A changed focus for education and training of young scientists will be needed. A more diverse group of developmental scientists—involving racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, for instance—is needed.

As well, a new, dynamic lens will be needed to actualize the vision I tried to articulate at the end of my 1976) book: Being a good scientist and being a good (moral and just) citizen must be a commensurate, indeed thoroughly' fused, focus of every' developmental scientist. My personal journey is not over, but it is certainly nearer to its end than it was in 1976). My hope is that 1 will make useful contributions to this fused conception of developmental science and scientists for the remainder of my career. Even more, I hope that new generations of developmental scientists will bring this focus to better and better resolution in the years after me.


M' writing of this chapter was supported in part by grants from the Altria Corporation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Compassion International, National 4-H Council, the Templeton Religion Trust, and the Templeton Word Charity Foundation. I am grateful to Elizabeth M. Dowling. Steinunn Gestsdottir, Jacqueline V. Lerner, Jarrett M. Lerner, and Christina Theokas for their comments about this chapter.


  • 1. In 1989, when I won a Ph.D. Alumni Special Achievement Award from CUNY, Joe Glick came up to me after the ceremony to offer his congratulations. Quite generously, he told me that he and other colleagues at CUNY were very proud of my record of research and, especially, of my contributions to developmental theory, and most notably, he said, in regard to the nature-nurture issue. I reminded Joe of our exchange at my dissertation defense. He said he did not recall the incident.
  • 2. These scholars include Paul B. Baltes, Elaine L. Bearer, Peter L. Benson, Marvin Berkowitz, Marc H. Bornstein, Orville G. (Bert) Brim, Edmond Bowers, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Linda Burton, Nancy A. Busch-Rossnagel, Pamela Cantor, Stella Chess, Anne Colby, Cynthia Garcia Coll, Stephen J. Cozza, William Damon, Roger A. Dixon, Elizabeth Dowling, Ann Easterbrooks, Jacque- lynne Eccles, Nancy Eisenberg, David L. Featherman, David Henry Feldman, Hiram Fitzgerald, Alexandra Freund, Kurt W. Fischer, Celia B. Fisher, Donald H. Ford, Nancy Galambos, John Geldhof, Steinunn Gestsdottir, Gilbert Gottlieb (whose chapter in the Schneirla festschrift volume [Aronson, et al., 1970] was my first introduction to the concept of probabilistic epigenesis), Gar)' Greenberg, Neal Halfon, Beatrix Hamburg, E. Mavis Hetherington, Jerry Hirsch, Karen Hooker, David F. Hultsch, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Francine Jacobs, Stephanie Jones, Jerome Kagan, Samuel Karson, Mary Keller, Pamela Ebstyne King, Samuel J. Korn, Kurt Kreppner, Deanna Kuhn, Michael E. Lamb, Tama Leventhal, Lynn S. Liben, Michael Lewis, Gardner Lindsey, Michael Mascolo, Ann Masten, Michael D. Matthews, Julia R. Miller, Walter Mischel, Jayanthi Mistry, Peter С. M. Molenaar, Velma Murry John R. Nesselroade, Larry Nucci, David Osher, Willis F. (Bill) Overton, Ross Parke, Anne C. Petersen, Erin Phelps, Ellen Pinderhughes, Karen Pittman, Catherine RaefF, Hayne. W. Reese, Jean Rhodes, Todd Rose, Diane M. Ryan, George Scarlett, Lawrence Schiamberg, John E. Schulenberg, Arthur Schwartz, Lonnie R. Sherrod, Graham B. Spanier, Margaret Beale Spencer, Laurence Steinberg, Carl S. Taylor, Sir John Templeton, Christina Theokas, Alexander Thomas, Ethel Tobach, Patrick Tolan, Elliot Turiel, Deborah Vandell, Fred W. Vondracek, Amy Eva Alberts Warren, Daniel Warren, Richard A. Weinberg, Donald Wertlieb, Sheldon W. (Shep) White, Michael Windle, Alexander von Eye, Robert Zucker, and of course Jacqueline Verdirame Lerner.


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