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Nature, Nurture, and Dynamic Interactionism

Richard M. Lerner

The epistemological goal of any science is to describe and explain that level of analysis of reality to which it pertains (Nagel, 1957). Accordingly, for developmental psychology the task is one of describing the multidimensional facets of ontogeny and of attempting to discover the bases of ontogenetic progressions. With the difficulties of adequate description notwithstanding, recognition of the necessity to ask questions about the sources of development leads to the realization that the nature—nurture issue is the discipline s core conceptual issue. In other words, sufficient explanations of development must necessarily include reference to the confluence of the inner-biological/physiological components of an organism, its immediate physical/environmental- and social/experiential-milieus, and the historical/ cultural contexts within which these organismic and experiential processes are embedded. Because a complete treatment of development must account for the effects of all such components, consideration must be made of the roles of nature-based sources (e.g., maturational variables), nurture-based sources (e.g., experiential variables), and the interfaces that may exist among them.

The centrality of the nature—nurture issue to considerations of the bases of ontogenetic progressions is evident in discussions of the theoretical underpinnings of empirical iiwestigations of various developmental processes (Lerner, 1976). For example, investigations of operant and respondent learning processes have been prime concerns of child psychologists who have had as the theoretical rationale for their focus a commitment to a nurture-based, learning theory conception of ontogenetic progress (White, 1970). However, while it is clear that current theoretically based empirical endeavors in developmental psychology may be located in terms of their stand on the nature- nurture issue (Lerner, 1976; Looft, 1973), a superordinate interrelation has not been generally discussed. Not only are current theoretical positions, and the concomitant research endeavors, divisible in terms of their stance on the core nature—nurture issue, but in turn, these stands are understandable on the basis of the theory’s derivation from one of two developmental “world views” or “paradigms” (Lerner, 1976; Looft, 1973; Overton and Reese, 1973; Reese and Overton, 1970): the mechanistic and the organismic models.

While some attempts have been made at this latter integration (Lerner, 1976; Looft, 1973; Overton, 1973), the categorizations of theories within paradigms on the basis of their stance on the nature—nurture issue has remained largely just another, albeit most basic, criterion for discriminating what have been considered essentially separate world views (Overton and Reese, 1973; Reese and Overton, 1970). As argued by Looft (1973, p. 28), the organismic and mechanistic paradigms have provided the major basis for theorizing in developmental psychology', since they represent the epistemological and metaphysical models which have determined the dimensions of subordinate, more specific theoretical and empirical endeavors; yet they have tended to remain disparate. This is because these paradigms are seen to have distinct truth criteria which, it is believed, serve to make them irreconcilable (Overton and Reese, 1973; Reese and Overton, 1970). Thus, because the characteristics of these models are well-known and have been extensively detailed elsewhere (Lerner, 1976; Looft, 1973; Overton and Reese, 1973; Reese and Overton, 1970), we need only point out the relation of theories derived from these alternative paradigms to the nature- nurture issue. Mechanistically derived theories take a single-source, isolated action stance in regard to the nature—nurture issue (Lerner, 1976), while organismically derived theories typically (but not invariably) stress the interaction between nature and nurture variables.

Some clarification of these terms and assertions is necessary. Lerner (1976, in press) points out that mechanistically derived development theories may be either nature or nurture based. In either case, however, variables from either one or the other source are held to be continuously applicable in their providing the base of development. Thus, the work of Lorenz (1965) is representative of the single-source, isolated action conception derived from a nature-mechanistic perspective, while the position of Bijou and Baer (1961) represents the nurture-mechanistic version of this conception.

However, while it is often asserted that all organismically derived theories take a dual-source, interdependent action stance on the nature—nurture issue (Lerner, 1976), such an interactionist stance has not, in fact, been an invariant component of all organismically related notions (Gottlieb, 1970). That is, although the organismic notion of epigenesis asserts that qualitative discontinuity characterizes ontogeny, and while it may be thought that such emergence can only be understood in the context of the interrelation between qualitatively distinct, yet inseparable, sources of development (i.e., nature and nurture) some organismic theorists have taken a disparate position (Hamburger, 1957). A predetermined epigenetic view of organismic development is posited, and it is asserted that the source of the qualitative changes characterizing development derive solely from maturationally based preformations arising totally independent of experiential contribution (Hamburger, 1957).

However, there exists a second type of organismically derived epigenetic theory—termed probabilistic epigenesis (Gottlieb, 1970; Lerner, 1976)—and an exploration of the implications of this position has, in the present author’s view, great heuristic appeal. First, the probabilistic epigenetic view of behavior development does stress an interaction between nature and nurture variables as the basis of development, and in so doing, describes a form of interaction that will be seen to be different from conventional, “linear” (Overton, 1973), or “mechanistic” (Sameroff, 1975) notions of interaction. The type of interaction specified by probabilistic epigenetic organismic theory is a dialectical one. Thus, second, a consideration of the probabilistic epigenetic stance on the nature—nurture issue will lead to a consideration of a third developmental paradigm, one that has only relatively recently begun to be elaborated (Lerner, 1976, in press; Looft, 1973; Riegel, 1973, 1975, 1976).

This dialectical view of development, although influenced most directly by the organismic paradigm, will be seen to be superordinate—in the sense of being inclusive (Baltes and Cornelius, 1977)—of both the mechanistic and organismic world views. That is, while this third paradigm too leads to a theoretical view of development which necessarily takes a stance on the core nature—nurture issue, it does so in a manner which is capable of integrating not only the “main effects” of nature and nurture variables, and the “weak” or “mechanistic” interactions among these variables, but in addition is capable of integrating the entire range and types of potential interrelations among such variables, including those most directly associated with the cultural/historical milieu. To see these implications of this dialectically derived, probabilistic epigenetic position it is necessary to consider in some detail the stance that the position takes in regard to the nature—nurture issue.

Nature, Nurture, and Probabilistic Epigenesis

The probabilistic epigenetic organismic position views life matter as being organized into two broad source categories, nature and nurture, and asserts that although these two sources are conceptually different, they are totally interdependent. Variables and processes of each source are, at the same time, qualitatively disparate and yet dependent on the alternative source as a contributor to its own constitution. Although hereditary and experiential sources of a living organism are, for instance, representative of variables derived from the two distinct, yet in their combination totally inclusive, sources of life matter, each respective source is dependent on the other for the quality of its influence. As Anastasi (1958) has formulated the issue, there would be no one in an environment without heredity, and in turn, there would be no place to see the effects of heredity without environment. If the expression of a genic influence is dependent on the existence of an environment, then such dependency means that if the status of the environment is different then the same genic contribution will be expressed differently; alternatively if the contribution of the environment cannot be ascertained unless genic influences put some organism into that environment to be acted upon, then the effect of the environment is dependent on the nature of the genic contribution.

For example, maturation and experience are representative of influences deriving from nature and nurture, respectively. However, as Schneirla, a person whose work represents a major instance of the probabilistic epigenetic conception of psychological development, has said of maturation, it

is neither the direct, specific representative of genic determination in development, nor is it synonymous with structural growth. Much as an environmental context is now recognized as indispensable to any development . . ., students of behavioral development. . . emphasize the roles of structure and function as inseparable in development.

(Schneirla, 1957, p. 86)

Yet, in regard to the contribution of experience, he asserts: “The nature of the gains made through experience is both canalized and limited by the relative maturity of species-typical afferent, neural, and efferent mechanisms, in dependence on the developmental stage attained” (Schneirla, 1957, p. 90). Accordingly, he concludes

It would seem to be the prevalence of an intimate, dynamic relationship between the factors of maturation and experience that renders analytical study of behavioral ontogeny so difficult. Methods must be devised appropriate to the complexity and subtlety' of these processes. ... In such work, little may be expected from attempts to estimate the specific or the proportionate contributions of the innate vs. the acquired in ontogeny.

(Schneirla, 1956, p. 407)

Probabilistic Epigenesis and Dynamic Interactionism

From this perspective it is clear that the relations among nature and nurture variables are ones of dynamic interactionism. As contrasted with a single-source, isolated-action, “main effect” view of the nature—nurture issue (Bijou and Baer, 1961), probabilistic epigenetic conceptions, as represented by Schneirla (1956, 1957), view the issue in terms of a dual-source, interdependent interaction effect.

Here it is important to note two ideas. First, this interdependent interaction conception is not identical to what I shall term a “static interaction” conception of nature—nurture relation. Such static conceptions view development as arising from an interaction between sources that are unalterable by each other over the duration of their interaction period. Although both nature and nurture are seen to produce development, the status of one is not influenced by the other. Each is thus viewed as a static determinant, and according to Sameroff (1975, p. 67), “The mechanistic overtones of both the main effects and the interactional model are clear in the way the two aspects—nature and nurture—are viewed as elements whose structure is constant over time.”

However, it is apparent that static interactionism does not characterize the status of the interaction between nature and nurture variables when seen from a probabilistic epigenetic view. Here we have seen that the status of one source, for example, its quality and its time of interaction, is a contributory basis of the alternative source. This conception of interactionism is compatible with Sameroff s (1975) view of the transactional relation between nature and nurture variables, and as will be discussed in further detail later, with Riegel’s (1975) more general formulation of the requirements of a dialectical theory of development. All conceptions stress the interdependent flow across ontogeny of nature and nurture variables, and as such, raise the second idea to note in considering the probabilistic epigenetic view of development.

Parameters of the status of nature and nurture variables pertain to such things as a particular combination of genes possessed by an organism, the content of a particular experience acting on the organism, and, most importantly—because it represents a crucial parameter of each of these former ones—the time that one such source interacts with another. If one source interacts with the other at different, time-associated ontogenetic points, different developments will obtain. This is because such temporal variation means that the contribution by one source to the quality of the other will be different—the process has proceeded to a different ontogenetic point—and this alteration will establish the contributed to source as something other than it would have been had this temporal variation not occurred. In effect the temporal parameter of a source makes it a different contribution and this leads to developmental variation. For example, the experience of contracting rubella will lead to a different developmental outcome depending on if it occurs in the first as opposed to the third trimester of in utero development.

This implication of dynamic interactionism provides the rationale for the probabilistic component of this epigenetic position. In ecologically valid (i.e., naturalistically representative) situations there is not a perfect covariation among interacting nature and nurture variables. Yet, since the quality and timing of each set affects the quality and timing of the other, and since the times of interaction do not occur at precisely comparable ontogenetic points across members of a species, one cannot speak of the characteristics which represent organismic development as emerging in a time (age) invariant sequence. Thus, developmental phenomena and/or levels (e.g., stages) should be expected to show interindividual variation in their ontogenetic time of emergence and duration because in naturalistic developmental milieus the variables that provide the bases of development do not show consistent covariation in their influences across organisms. In fact, in laboratory experiments it is contrived that such variables (when not the ones of experimental interest) are controlled in their presence, quality, and/ or timing precisely because the researcher believes these variables: (1) do not covary naturally and that (2) they need controlling in that they are known bases of behavior in the ecologically valid world (Schneirla, 1957).

Thus, statements about the course of development must be couched in probabilistic terms, and a major task of developmentalists becomes one of, first, describing the species-typical confidence limits involved in the emergence of particular phenomena; second, it is one of ascertaining the variables involved in the interactive bases of these limits; and third, since the timing of these interactive bases will show interindividual variation, the task is one of understanding the nature of the individuality that may characterize each organism of a species. That is, the presence of such variation means that differentially timed interactions may characterize the ontogeny of each specific organism within a species, and that each individual organism may thus develop lawful characteristics of individuality. While the existence of such individuality has profound implications for an organism’s development, a discussion of them is only appropriate after we consider how the dialectically based, probabilistic epigenetic position provides a framework for integrating elements of the mechanistic and organismic views of development.

Probabilistic Epigenetic Integrations of Mechanistic and Organismic Conceptions

Although held to represent diverging notions about the nature of development (Overton and Reese, 1973; Reese and Overton, 1970), the components of the mechanistic and organismic positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, as illustrated elsewhere (Bakes and Cornelius, 1977; Riegel, 1976), proponents of dialectically derived theories of development adopt their stances in part because they view the third dialectical paradigm as providing a basis for synthesizing points from the other two paradigms and reaching conceptual “compromises.” In fact, we will see that such integration is necessary for an adequate concept of development to be specified. Two approaches to such compromise have been identified (Harris, 1957; Lerner, 1976), and although they are not incompatible, they do stress different components of a synthesis between the two orientations.

The first compromise may be termed the “levels of organization” notion (Harris, 1957). Here it is asserted that while the reductionistic laws of the mechanistic view are involved in the functioning of the whole organism, the former does not suffice in accounting for the phenomena characterizing the higher level. The rationale for the lack of sufficiency is based on the assertion of epigenesis. Thus, physiological, biochemical, and ultimately physical processes underlie the development of any organism, and ascertaining the functioning of these levels will elucidate components of developmental processes; yet, exclusive focus on any of these suborganism levels will not explicate how all levels in their combination, contribute to organism functioning. This level of organization compromise has been implied in much of the already presented discussion of the probabilistic epigenetic organismic position. In fact, this compromise is an important component of this view and, as such, the study of suborganism levels is seen as one essential component of the integrated strategy necessary to study the complexities of ontogeny. For example, Schneirla (1957, p. 80) asserted:

The critical problem of behavioral development should be stated as follows: (1) to study the organization of behavior in terms of its properties at each stage, from the time of egg formation and fertilization through individual life history, and (2) to work out the changing relationships of the organic mechanisms underlying behavior, (3) always in terms of the contributions of earlier stages in the developmental sequence, (4) and in consideration of the properties of the prevailing developmental context at each stage.

The use of a “compromise” between components of mechanistic and organismic positions as a very part of an organismic, probabilistic epigenetic view of development, highlights the conceptual integration involved with this position. Since we have seen that a basic component of this orientation is that development is a product of a dynamic interaction among different sources of matter, we are prepared to consider the more heuristic interpretation of how dialectically based conceptions accommodate components of the mechanistic position (e.g., continuity) with components of the organismic (e.g., qualitative discontinuity). This second compromise derives from the first.

The levels of organization compromise may be seen as an assertion that the organism level is a synthesis of the interacting components of the other levels involved in an organism’s functioning. From this perspective the elements of the molecular levels are present at the organism level but, in addition, the specific emergent defining the organism level is present also. In other words, at the level of the organism there is present—at one and the same time—the molecular and the epigenetic, the continuous and the discontinuous. This assertion is the “general and specific laws” integration between mechanistic and organismic conceptions (Lerner, 1976). It is the “third law of dialectics” (Bakes and Cornelius, 1977), that of quantity and quality.

This second compromise represents the major formulation of the synthesis involved in the dialectically derived, probabilistic epigenetic conception of psychological development. Simply, this integrative statement asserts that there exist general, continuously present phenomena at all levels of organismic organization, and at the same time, specific, qualitatively distinct, defining phenomena at each different level. Development is characterized then by an intermeshing of phenomena that function continuously with phenomena that pertain at only specified segments of the life span. Ontogeny is then a synthesis of continuous and discontinuous processes.


The aforementioned integration may be recognized as a reformulation of Werners (1957) orthogeneticprinciple. This general, descriptive principle asserts that whenever development occurs it proceeds from a state of globality

(lack of differentiation) to a state of differentiation (hence, discontinuity) a ltd integrated, hierarchic organization (hence, continuity). Werner views ontogeny as a synthetic process involving the interweaving of two antithetical organismic tendencies; first are those that “maintain” continuity in order to conserve one’s organizational coherence (Clayton, 1975, p. 125), that is, hierarchical integration. Second are those which involve the experience of discontinuity in order for the organism to develop, that is, differentiation. Accordingly, in exemplifying this idea Werner and Kaplan (1948, p. 5) assert;

There is, on one hand, the tendency of organisms to conserve their integrity, whether biological or psychological, in the face of variable and often adverse external or internal conditions. The organism tends to maintain its existence as an integrated entity. There is, on the other hand, the tendency of organisms to develop from relatively little differentiated entities toward relatively differentiated and integrated adult forms.

This view, that development represents a synthesis between discontinuous differentiation processes and continuous integrative, hierarchical processes, is not unique in Werners organismic conceptions. Piagets (1970) equilibration model describes a continuously acting process that moves the person through each succeeding qualitatively different cognitive stage, while Freuds (1949) theory of the libido represents the continuous basis of the emergence of each succeeding psychosexual stage. Similarly, Erikson’s (1959) “epigenetic principle” provides a continuous maturational basis for the distinct psychosocial crises characterizing each qualitatively different stage of ego development. All these conceptions thus provide a statement that the development of an organism iiwolves the intermeshing of two opposing processes.

Dialectics in Development

We come then to the view that development, when considered from the probabilistic epigenetic position, is a synthesis between contradictorally directed processes, for example, those of continuity (thesis) and discontinuity (antithesis). In other words, development is a synthetic process derived from the intermeshing of quite different component processes. The probabilistic epigenetic view of the organism conceptualizes development as arising from a dynamic interaction between the qualitatively distinct, yet interdependent, sources of maturation and experience; now, at this point in the discussion, we see that this conception is a case in point of the general idea that all developmental processes involve a synthesis of distinct, yet inter- meshed, components.

Development then is a dialectical process. While a dialectical view of development thus conceptualizes the flow of events in ontogeny as synthesizing bipolar, alternative processes, since these processes do, in fact, exist in an intermeshed state, they are seen as interdependent (Riegel, 1975). Such interdependency means, as we have already seen in the probabilistic epigenetic view of nature—nurture dynamic interactions, that the status of each process provides a basis of the other. Hence, although they are contradictory processes, since they exist in a state of interdependent synthesis, such dialectical processes as maturation and experience represent not dichotomized variables, but rather reciprocally influencing interfaces along dimensions of interaction (Anastasi, 1958).

We see then that the probabilistic epigenetic conception of psychological development is compatible with a dialectical conception of development. In fact, when we delineate the specific characteristics of development as seen from a probabilistic epigenetic view, they appear to fulfill the general requirements of a dialectical theory of development (Riegel, 1975). As such, we will see that consideration of these characteristics lead to a specification of the import of the role of the individual in its own development and the implications of this role for the development of organism—organism (social) relations.

Characteristics of Development

Although various conceptions of development have been devised which are, at least in part, consistent with a probabilistic epigenetic view (Berta- lanfly, 1933; Erikson, 1959; Freud, 1969; Freud, 1949; Kuo, 1967; Leh- rman, 1970; Piaget, 1970; Riegel, 1975; Schneirla, 1957; Werner, 1948), all positions appear amenable to a common, albeit general, definition of development. Development refers to systematic changes in the organization of an organism, an organism seen as a functional, adaptively oriented, open system throughout its life span (Lerner, 1976). From this view, development denotes systematic and progressive alterations in the organization of a systems processes; and the organization of these processes is considered in terms of its basic functional utility, that is, in terms of its fundamental biological significance, its survival function. In other words, development is a concept basically biological in emphasis (Harris, 1957) in that it considers how progressive changes in a system’s properties subserve an adaptive function. Development considers then how the whole system—the organism— utilizes its processes to adjust to a continually changing environment, and in turn, how such an environment is continually and progressively dealt with by an organism itself undergoing alterations. Thus, the study of development is the assessment of how organismic processes are altered to coordinate with extraorganism processes, and how these latter processes are altered to coordinate with organism processes. In short, the study of development is the study of organism—environment interrelations.

This conception of development indicates the continuous interdependency of organism and environmental processes and, as such, indicates that the bases of the changes that characterize development lie in the parameters of this interdependency. Thus, one must know how alterations in organising processes provide a basis of environmental processes, and in turn, how the variation in such latter processes provides a source of variation in the former set of processes. To understand this intermeshing, we must consider the nature of such organism and extraorganism variables and the characteristics and outcomes of their interfaces.


Maturation refers to processes of growth, that is, progressive alterations in the physical and physiological systems of an organism by tissue accretion, and to processes of differentiation, that is, progressive changes in the structural interrelations among growing systems (Schneirla, 1957). Although these organism processes have often been considered as nature variables of development, ones often viewed as independent of experiential influence (Gesell, 1929; Hamburger, 1957), the above conception of development, based on our discussion of nature—nurture dynamic interactionism, indicates that such processes are in fact interdependent with experience. Thus, the quality of the changes labeled maturational are shaped by the quality and timing parameters of the experiential context in which they occur.


Experience is a broad term denoting all stimulative influences interacting with the organism over the course of its life span (Schneirla, 1957). As such, experience can contribute from the moment of conception (e.g., in providing the “nutritional milieu” of the ovum) until death, and hence we may speak of intrauterine and extrauterine contributions of experience. These contributions take the form of trace effects, a term denoting organis- mic changes resulting from experience and which limit the effects of future experience (Schneirla, 1957). Effects resulting from the intrauterine experience of rubella will provide limits upon the influences of later experiences (e.g., if blindness has developed). Similarly, diseases in an earlier ontogenetic point (e.g., scarlet fever contraction) may leave trace effects (e.g., heart defects) altering the possible outcomes of experiences (e.g., various physical education programs) at later points in ontogeny. This second illustration highlights another dimension of experiential contribution. That is, experiences may occur endogenously and exogenously; experiential influences on the organism are both intraorganism and extraorganism.

However, all these effects of experience are limited also by the maturational status of the organism. As we have seen, the same experience (e.g., excessive maternal stress during pregnancy) may lead to a different developmental outcome (e.g., cleft palate or a normal palate) in dependence on the maturational level of the organism (e.g., if growth and differentiation are at the early embryonic stage or at the late fetal stage, respectively). Thus, just as experience provides a basis of growth and differentiation (e.g., maturation proceeds at different rates and with different outcomes in dependence on the nutritional/health status of the mother), we see that the effects of experience are limited by the organism’s maturational level.

Organism Individuality and Its Role in Development

Just as maturation and experience are invariant components of development, so too is organism individuality. We have seen that the quality and timing of the interactions that provide the source of all organisms’development can be expected to show interindividual variation in ecologically valid milieus, and as a consequence, all organisms should be expected to develop lawful characteristics of individuality as a product of the particular parameters of their dynamic interactional history. Some writers (Bijou and Baer, 1961; Skinner, 1950) have claimed that such individuality is either not necessarily lawful (e.g., it represents error variance arising from, for instance, technological problems of measurement) or that it represents evidence of just environmentally based differences in (a largely unseen) “past reinforcement history’’ (White, 1970). However, the present conception is that individuality' is not only lawful but, too, that it will be an inevitable characteristic of each organism’s development, even in the highly' improbable circumstances of either knowing and/or controlling each organism’s developmental history. For example, Hirsch (1970) has indicated that a conservative estimate of the number of potential human genoty'pes is 70 trillion. Moreover, each geno- ty'pe has its own “norm of reaction” (Hirsch, 1970; Lerner, 1976), and this indicates that an infinite array of potential phenotypes could be produced from an interaction of that one genotype with the infinite array' of experiences it could encounter. However, although a biological reality', the norm of reaction of any genotype is immediately delimited at conception since a genotype must be expressed in one particular environment, an environment providing its specific experiential parameters. Although we have not yet reached the knowledge point of identifying all these parameters (e.g., phenomena like alcohol and other drug contents in the mother’s blood), much less of being able to describe their mode of interaction, the potentially vast diversity' of these parameters, and the fact that they' interact with genetically' different organisms (in ways that obviously do not totally coincide with conventional conceptions of “learning”), indicates that the lawful interactionist basis of individuality is established, at the latest, at conception. Thus, at birth we should expect humans to show identifiable characteristics of individuality, characteristics which have not only' had a lengthy' in utero developmental history but, too, are phenomena that will provide a further basis of individual development.

Each person has unique genotype—experience interactions, or, in other words, an individual maturation—experience interactionist history. As these two sets of processes are intermeshing to provide a singular organism, this organism concomitantly interacts differently with its environment as a consequence of its maturation—experience-based individuality. In turn, these new interactions are a basis of the organisms further experience, and thus serve to further promote its individuality. Endogenous maturation- experience interrelations provide a basis of organism individuality and, as a consequence, differential organism—environment (exogenous) interrelationships develop.

Although the “endogenous” maturation—experience interactions are not discontinuous with the “exogenous” organism—environment interactions, it is appropriate to differentiate between these two sets of interactions in order to indicate how they are interdependent. The organism’s individual developmental history of maturation—experience interactions, what I will term Level 1 development (a term analogous to Riegel’s (1975) inner-biological developmental level), provides a basis of differential organism—environment interactions; in turn, differential experiences accruing from the individual development history of organism—environment interactions, or Level 2 development (a term analogous to Riegel’s (1975) individual-psychological developmental level), provide a further basis of Level 1 developmental individuality. Thus, because of Level 1 uniqueness the organism interacts differently at Level 2, and these differences “feed back” on the organism to promote further Level 1 developmental individuality.

Circular Functions and the Development of Organism- Organism (Social) Relations

Other organisms are part of an organism’s experiential context, and these others will interact differentially with individually different organisms, and it is these differential interactions which constitute the variant feedback on the organism providing a further differential experiential basis of development. Such circular functions have been identified on the biosocial phyletic level in ants (Schneirla and Rosenblatt, 1961), on the nonhuman psychosocial level in rats (Rosenblatt, 1970) and cats (Schneirla and Rosenblatt, 1961), and on the human psychosocial level (Thomas et al., 1970; Thomas et al., 1963). For instance, Thomas et al. (1970) indicate that the individual developmental characteristics of a child promote differential reactions in his socializing others (e.g., parents), and these different reactions provide a further experiential basis of the child’s development. Thomas et al. (1963, 1970) study children’s behavioral style, or temperament. They report that children whose individual pattern of temperament comprised adaptable, rhythmic behaviors of moderate intensity and positive mood, evoked interactions with their parents that were different (e.g., in such dimensions as parental approach/ withdrawal tendencies, and warmth/coldness) than those established among parents of children whose pattern was of relatively unadaptable, arrhythmic behaviors of high intensity and negative mood. As one index of the developmental outcome of such differential child-parent interactions, Thomas et al. (1970) report that of those children in their sample who developed psychological disorders, a higher proportion came from the latter “difficult” child group than from the former “easy” child group.

These data provide a basis for understanding how circular functions may feed back on the individual organism to promote its further individual development. Once, as a consequence of their individual Level 2 organism- organism relations, a psychological disorder emerged among some of the “difficult” children in the Thomas et al. (1963, 1970) sample, they can be expected to have interacted in experiential milieus different from those of either the “easy” or other “difficult” children within whom no such disorder emerged. In sum, just as much as others provide a basis of a child’s behavior—the conventionally thought of “direction” of effects held to exist in the social relationships and socialization literature (Bell, 1968)—a child provides a basis of others’ behavior, both in and of itself and toward the child. In this way children provide a basis of their own development.

Although organism—environment interactions with inanimate as well as non-conspecific organisms certainly exist, and at least for the latter type of interactions circular functions are also certainly involved, the conspecific organism—organism relation—the social relation—has been used to exemplify the nature of circular functions. This was done because, as it will be seen, development by its very nature is basically a social relation phenomenon, a phenomenon necessarily involving a dynamic interaction, or a transaction (Sameroff, 1975), denoted by the circular function concept.

Other conspecific organisms are an obvious component of the typical experiential world of any organism, and on this basis alone, relations with these others are inextricable dimensions of ecologically valid developmental milieus. Yet, conspecific relations are particular organism—environment relations. These Level 2 interchanges invariably involve processes of reciprocal stimulation and hence interdependent influencing, and moreover, especially at the human psychosocial level, they involve relations with stimuli on the basis of stimulus association value (or “meaning”), rather than merely on the basis of stimuli’s immediate physiological import (Tobach and Schneirla, 1968). Hence, because of processes of reciprocity and of relations influenced by the meanings of experiential components (e.g., the cultural or social significance of stimuli), organism—organism interrelations appear to be a special, as well as an invariant, component of developmental processes. In fact, the results of social isolation experiments (Harlow and Harlow, 1962; Tobach and Schneirla, 1968) indicate that organisms deprived of such apparently basic social relations develop aberrant social and nonsocial behaviors.

Moreover, until the transitions between organic and inorganic matter are better understood, it appears tenable to assume that any living cell comes into existence on the basis of a relation to another living cell (Tobach and Schneirla, 1968). Thus, the dependency for existence of one organism on another appears basic to life matter, at any level of functional integration, and suggests that organisms exist basically in relation to one another. As such, the study of the social bond—the multidimensional social relations between conspecifics—becomes not just one important or merely an interesting concern of developmentalists but rather represents the study of an essential core component of the development of all organisms. As Tobach and Schnei- rla (1968, p. 505) have asserted, “no existing form of life is truly solitary and no organism is completely independent of others at all times in its history.”

While social relations are thus a basic experiential component of all organisms’ development, interindividual differences in Level 1 development will provide a basis of interindividual differences in the social relations involved in Level 2 functioning. Moreover, as we have exemplified by reference to the work of Thomas et al. (1963, 1970), the varying experiences involved in these Level 2 relations feed back on organisms to promote both their continued individual Level 1 development and their concomitant Level 2 development. The developmental level of each organism, shaped by the status of its interdependent Level 1—Level 2 development, provides the essential basis of the type of social interrelations it can have. Thus, it has been argued:

The nature of the stimuli reciprocally exchanged between two or more animals in a social group is dependent upon the stage of development of each of the participating group members, as well as upon the group situation and factors affecting the stability of its organization.

(Tobach and Schneirla, 1968, p. 508)

Thus, an organism’s developmental level provides a basis of the specific parameters of social relations. In other words, each organism’s individual developmental status delimits the quality of the social relations it may have, and this means that the effects of that organism on others will be different under varying developmental levels of that organism, and in turn, the feedback that organism receives as a consequence of its behavior is both canalized and limited by this very developmental status. However, it is also the case that the other organisms involved in these circular functions are also developing, and this means that these interchanges with the target organism are similarly delimited and canalized by the others’ developmental levels.

In sum, in the development of social relations the effect of other organisms on a target organism depend as much on the target’s own characteristics— especially those pertaining to its developmental status—as on those of the other organisms. In part then, an organism will shape the contribution that others will have on it; and since this assertion applies to all members of the social group, we see that the social relations of Level 2 development also exist in states of dynamic interaction. In short, social relations are dialectical processes, and the probabilistic epigenetic conception of development which has led to this assertion can now be seen as consistent with Riegel s (1975, pp. 50—51) requirements for a dialectical theory:

A dialectical theory must embrace both inner dialectics expressed, for example, in Piaget’s conceptions of assimilation and accommodation within the cognitive development of the active individual, and outer dialectics concerned with the social and physical interactions of different individuals who are simultaneously engaged in their own active process of change and development. Since, however, inner dialectics and outer dialectics are interdependent, a dialectical theory must move beyond the consideration of either of these interactive processes in isolation to a conception of the complex interactions of both. This expanded conception of dialectics places the human beings at the intersection of interactions. The changing events within individuals interact with and influence the changing events in the outer world of which they are a part. Conversely, the changing events in the outer world are influencing events within the individual.

Stated differently, the thoughts, actions, and emotions of an individual, once generated and actualized, can transform those of others who live with him or come after him. At the same time, the thoughts, actions, and emotions of the other individuals can transform those of the single individual. In this dynamic interactionism of inner and outer dialectics, man not only transforms the outer world in which he lives but is himself transformed by the world which he and others have created.

Some Parameters of Social Interrelation Development

Since social relations exist in dynamic interaction, each member of a group not only alters the others but in so doing initiates a circular function which inevitably alters him- or herself. Accordingly, just as we have seen in considering the nature of the intermeshing components of Level 1 development, these components of Level 2 transactions are not static in their relation. Rather, the involved organisms are engaged in a continual flow of mutual, interdependent alterations. In other words, when seen from the present probabilistic epigenetic perspective, neither Level 1 development, nor therefore interdependent Level 2 development, involves an interaction of components that reaches an endpoint of transaction. That is, any static conception of organismic functioning would appear inconsistent with the presence of successful adaptational processes, that is, functions adjusting the organism to continually altering demands of its world, as when “new questions, doubts and contradictions arise within the individual and within society” (Riegel, 1975, p. 52). Thus, because of their dialectical nature, organism—organism interrelations are never in perfect balance. As Werner (1948) indicated, such an ultimate or complete equilibrium between alternative components of any developmental level never seems to obtain (Clayton, 1975). In essence then, a major parameter of organism—organism dynamic interactions is their continual mutual interdependency.

Recent empirical investigations consistent with this view have been summarized elsewhere (Lerner, in press; Lewis and Rosenblum, 1974), and other writers have presented models of social relations which stress the notion of interorganism developmental interdependency, presented in this paper. Thus Sameroff (1975, p. 67) points out that “the infant is effecting his caretaking environment at the same time that the caretaking environment is effecting the infant.” Moreover, in exploring the social bond between child and mother, as an exemplar of the nature of social relations, Sameroff sees each persons behavior as a function not only of organism—organism dynamic interactions but, too, of organism—environment dialectics analogous to the present writer’s conceptions of Level 1 and Level 2 development. Thus, Sameroff s (1975, p. 72) dialectical analysis:

places our cognitions again in a larger context, requiring not only an appreciation that we see our world as a function of our cognitive structures, but also the appreciation that our cognitive structures are a function of our social, cultural, material, historical and biological experiences. For the mother, the dialectical analysis requires that she view the child’s behavior not only as a consequence of her action on the child, but also to see her behavior as a consequence of her sociocultural experiences among which are included the actions of her own child.

(italics added)

Viewing the social bond then as not only a consequence of Level 2 organism—organism social relations but, too, as a product of all interactions existing at both levels of development allows us to denote “points” along this complex flow of endogenous and exogenous interchanges. To the extent that a person adapts (or in Piaget’s (1970) terms, “accommodates”) to the stimulation provided by other organisms and by his sociocultural context, then the dynamic social bond provides a basis of the influence of the social world on the person. When this point in the dialectical flow of events is occurring—when this process involves restructuring in accord with such extraorganism stimulation—socialization is occurring. Accordingly, this process of organism adaptation accounts for the social and cultural continuities that exist across history. Moreover, a person’s attainment of the societally specified appropriate restructuralizations—adaptational demands which society varies as a consequence of the person’s developmental level—is used by some organismically oriented theorists (Erikson, 1959) as an “index” of adequate development. Society specifies the ego capabilities necessary at each developmental stage in order for the person to meet its “demands” for adaptive functioning; and successive, successful ego structure developments constitute the person—society interchanges defining both adequate socialization and psychological “health” (Erikson, 1959).

Alternatively, to the extent that a person alters or leads to change in other people (e.g., parents) and/or other dimensions of his sociocultural context (e.g., the nature of a governmental institution), then this aspect of the dynamic social bond provides a basis of the influence of the individual on his social world. This process results in a restructuring of such extraorganism stimulation—stimulation which will eventually feed back on the person— and accounts for discontinuity, alterations, and evolutions in sociocultural patterns across history. Because of a continual flow of dynamic interactions, organisms in interrelation may be at one and the same time both products of their social world and producers of it.

In sum, social relations are both an inevitable component of each organism’s developmental processes, and a product and a source of the physical, social, cultural, and historical world. Organisms in relation provide a basis of individual development, allow us to conceptualize the influence of extraorganism influences on a target organism in a social relation as a process of socialization, and, in turn, allow us to consider the contributions of this target organism to alterations in these very same sociocultural extraorganism influences that socialize him across history.


The view of development advanced in this chapter is one which conceptualizes the ontogeny of an organism as arising from a complex of interdependent relations. More than being a product of either nature or nurture alone, or even of a static interaction between components of these two sources, the organism is seen to develop as a consequence of a dynamic intermeshing of interdependent influences both endogenous and exogenous to it. The dialectical nature of these processes have seen to be no less apparent when we consider the other organisms providing an inevitable part of each organ- ism’s necessary ecologically valid experiential milieu. Thus, organism—organism relations also exist in states of dynamic interactionism, and these mutual exchanges both derive from and provide a source of the sociocultural and historical setting within which they exist. In sum, the development of an organism is derived from dynamic interactions among maturation, physical experience, other organisms, the sociocultural context, and, ultimately, itself.

The role for developmentalists now is to move from using this conceptualization as merely a framework for discussion to using it as a prospectus for research. Research design and data analysis models suitable for ascertaining the contributions of these complexly interacting sources of organism development, on the basis of statements derived from the probabilistic epigenetic theory of which they are a part, already exist (Baltes and Cornelius, 1977) among the well-established procedures of the scientific methods. For example, sequential research strategies allow researchers to gather data describing the nature of intra-individual change, of interindividual differences in such change, and of the moderating influences of sociocultural context and time on these changes. Moreover, according to Baltes (Schaie and Baltes, 1975), after such description an attempt to assess the integrative utility of the present conceptual framework could proceed if one would use either “direct measures or manipulations of environmental or biological attributes in conjunction with descriptive sequential strategies or to design experimental arrangements of the age-simulation type as discussed in Baltes and

Goulet (1971).” Programmatic application of these strategies should allow us to detail the quality and sources of the changes comprising an organism’s development, and how these changes lead the organism to both contribute to alterations in and, simultaneously, to be changed by its specific social relations and its general interactions in the social world.


The author thanks John R. Knapp, Wesley Jamison, Nancy A. Busch, and Charles Boukydis for critical readings of earlier versions of this paper.


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