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Promoting Positive Development, Health, and Social Justice Through Dismantling Genetic Determinism

Richard M. Lerner

Prominent forums have not adequately countered the egregiously flawed work and counterfactual claims of modern instantiations of genetic determinism, that is, positions that claim that human behavior and development may be reduced to, and explained by, genes. Such formulations are essen- tialist in character, that is, they hold that there are necessary properties of things and that these properties are logically prior to the existence of the individuals who instantiate them (Lerner, 2016). The essentialist, genetic determinism idea is, then, that the to-be-reduced-to element—the gene— comprises the unit of analysis existing at the fundamental or ultimate level of analysis (i.e., the one that explains human development or, perhaps better, that explains it away or, at the least, that assigns to development a secondary or trivial role in providing a foundation for key features of human structure or function).

An example of such a formulation in developmental science is the idea of evolved probabilistic cognitive mechanisms (EPCMs), which are innate entities said to reside in genes by proponents of evolutionary developmental psychology (EDP) (e.g., Bjorklund, 2015; Bjorklund and Ellis, 2005; Del Giudice and Ellis, 2016). As explained by Witherington and Lickliter (2016), the argument of EDP proponents has been that these EPCMs control the parameters of the higher levels of organization (e.g., cognition or social relationships). The role in human development of these higher levels is only to manage the expression or release of the information contained in the essential, genetic level.

I hope this chapter will be an important, albeit initial, step forward in eliminating genetic determinist ideas from the agenda of contemporary science—and from applications to health and social policies and programs— in America. To establish the basis of such dismantling, 1 present a view of the role of genes, and of biological processes more generally, within what is, today, the cutting-edge theoretical approach within the study of human development, that is, relational developmental systems theories (Lerner, 2015; Overton, 2015). Throughout the discussion, I contrast this relational developmental systems approach with genetic determinist thinking. I conclude by pointing to the implications of relational developmental systems for enhancing health and social justice for the diverse people of our nation and world.

In my view, social justice focuses on the rights of all groups in a society to have fair access to and a voice in policies governing the distribution of resources essential to their physical and psychological well-being (Fisher and Lerner, 2013). Social justice 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.

Some Past and Present Arguments of Genetic Determinism

Reductionist, genetic determinist ideas have abounded in past and contemporary behavioral and social sciences. These ideas have created inequities in access to individual and social resources and opportunities. As a result, these ideas have created inequities in health, education, and social justice.

For instance, in 1911, the then-renowned scientist Charles Davenport published a rabidly racist book, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, one that included a call for the selective breeding of white people to ensure the health and welfare of the United States through the propagation of people with positive “traits.” Davenport’s ideas about perfecting humanity by identifying and selectively breeding people who possessed desirable physical and psychological attributes had supporters, but perhaps none so influential as a then-inmate in Landsberg Prison in Germany who wrote a book steeped in the ideas of Davenport: Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925. In turn, the connection between genetic determinist ideas was furthered in the 1960s, when Nobel Laureate William Shockley of Stanford University' argued that intelligence was genetically based and that African Americans had genes that made them less intelligent than white Americans. He discouraged education as a remedy for the low levels of African American intelligence. Instead, Shockley called for birth control and sterilization (see also Herrnstein and Murray, 1994).

Today', there are few scientists who would make the case for selective breeding of humans or who would recommend ideas popular during Davenport’s time, such as forced sterilization or eugenics report cards to focus attention of how well children were doing in manifesting the purportedly' positive traits present in their germ line. Nevertheless, there are more recent manifestations of genetic determinist ideas, such as behavioral genetics, her- itability' analyses of human behavioral attributes, human sociobiology, and evolutionary developmental psychology' (see Box 20.1).

BOX 20.1 Examples of Genetic Determinist Ideas in the Study of Human Development

Behavior genetics. A field that seeks to identify the proportion of human behaviors and development that are attributable to genes, to environment, and to the interactions between genes and environment.

Heritability analyses of human behavioral attributes. A method used by behavioral geneticists to identify the percentage of differences between people in a specific sample that are associated with genetic differences between them.

Human sociobiology. A field that seeks to explain human behavior across the life span by reference to ideas about how humans evolved.

Evolutionary developmental psychology. A field related to human sociobiology that seeks to explain how evolved genetic mechanisms, inherited at birth, set the range of characteristics that can be developed across the life span.

Some of the versions of these ideas come perilously close to making the eugenicist arguments redolent of the Davenport and Shockley eras. One example is Jay Belsky’s neo-eugenicist November 2014 op-ed piece in the New York Times Sunday Review. Belsky claims that there are some children who have genes that make them unable to gain from social interventions. Consistent with Shockleys rejection of educational interventions for African Americans, Belsky recommends that society should not waste money on attempts to enhance their lives, presumably even when these programs are aimed at reducing inequities in health or education.

Moreover, these genetic determinist ideas find their way into contemporary media. For instance, a 2014 book by journalist Nicholas Wade includes a claim akin to one made by Shockley. Wade (2014) argues that genes shape social behavior, manifested as behavioral traits that are alleged to vary significantly among races. Wade argues that these genes account for racial differences in wealth and economic institutions more generally. In short, if racial groups are either poor or rich, Wade contends that it is because of the evolution of their genes and not social discrimination, racism, lack of education, etc. This book continues to elicit attention despite the erudite and compelling criticism it has received, for instance, in a review of the book by Stanford University geneticist Marcus Feldman (2014).

Feldmans (2014) criticisms do not stand alone. Indeed, the ideas of modern reductionists/genetic determinists such as Belsky and others (e.g., Belsky, 2012; Ellis et ah, 2012; Plomiti et ah, 2012; Rushton, 2000) have been subjected to penetrating criticism by scientists from diverse disciplines (e.g.,

Bateson, 2015; Ho, 2010; Jablonka & Lamb, 2005; Joseph, 2014; Keller, 2010; Lewontin, 2000; Lickliter & Honeycutt, 2015; Molenaar, 2014; Pan- ofsky, 2014; Woese, 2004).

An Alternative to Genetic Determinism: Relational Developmental Systems

Developmental science has three goals. First, developmental scientists seek to describe the changes within a person over the course of his or her life. They also seek to describe any differences between people in regard to how they change across life. Second, developmental scientists seek to both explain how individuals develop and to account for why people differ in their development. For instance, some people show increases, others show decreases, and still others show curvilinear changes in some chapters across life. Why? In addition, what accounts for the differences between people in their pathways across the course of life? Third, developmental science is vitally concerned with applications. Scholars working in this field strive to find ways to promote healthy development for all people. They seek to optimize the chances of all people to lead positive and healthy lives (Bakes et al., 1977; Lerner, 2012; Lerner et al., 2014).

At this writing, contemporary developmental science is characterized, theoretically, by the centrality of theories or models derived from the relational developmental systems (RDS) metatheory.1 The RDS metatheory embraces a new understanding of the role of biology in human development, one predicated on integrative understanding of evolution and of epi- genetics, that is, the study of genetic activity' caused by processes other than changes in DNA sequence and that result in changes passed on to other generations (Misteli, 2013; see also Jablonka & Lamb, 2005; Meaney, 2010, 2014; Woese, 2004). The link between developmental and biological science enables scholars using RDS-based research to enact applications to optimize human health and development and to promote social justice.

The RDS Metatheory

Because of the contributions of Willis F. Overton (e.g., Overton, 2015; Over- ton & Muller, 2013) and others (e.g., Gottlieb, 1997, 1998), the sun has set on split, reductionist accounts stressing nature or nurture. The metatheory' described by Overton is termed relational developmental systems. Within the RDS metatheory, the integration of different levels of organization frames understanding of lifespan human development (Lerner, 2006; Overton, 2015). Figure 20.1 presents an RDS-based model of the fused relations among the levels of organization in the ecology' of human development (cf. Bron- fenbrenner, 1977, 1979; Gottlieb, 1992; Lerner, 2004; Lerner et al., 2015a).

Accordingly, the conceptual emphasis in RDS-based theories is placed on mutually influential relations between individuals and contexts, represented as individual—context relations. These relations vary across place and across time (Elder et al., 2015); the “arrow of time,” or temporality, is history,

Promoting Positive Development 371

t A relational developmental systems-based model of the fused relations among the levels of organization in the ecology' of human development

Figure 20. t A relational developmental systems-based model of the fused relations among the levels of organization in the ecology' of human development.

Source: Inspired by Gottlieb (1992), Bronfenbrenner (1977, 1979, 2005), Lerner (2004), and Lerner etal. (2015a).

which is the broadest level within the ecology of human development. History imbues all other levels with change. Such change may be stochastic (e.g., nonnormative life or historical events; Baltes et al., 2006) or systematic, and the potential for systematic change constitutes a potential for (at least relative) plasticity (i.e., the potential for systematic change) across the life span. Such plasticity is a strength of human behavior and development (Lerner, 1984, 2012).

Theories derived from an RDS metatheory focus on the “rules,” the processes, that govern, or regulate, exchanges between (the functioning of) individuals and their contexts. Brandtstiidter (1998) terms these relations “developmental regulations.” When developmental regulations involve mutually beneficial individual—context relations, then these developmental regulations are adaptive. Developmental regulations are the fundamental feature of human life; indeed all life exists through bidirectional exchanges with the physical and/or social context (Darwin, 1859; Tobach and Schneirla, 1968). Among humans, these exchanges involve physiological systems and functions (e.g., respiration, circulation, digestion, reproduction) and behaviors (e.g., social affiliation and cooperation, as might be involved in protection, hunting, and scavenging; Johanson and Edey, 1981), and involve both organismic self-regulation (e.g., hypothalamic functioning, circadian rhythms) and intentional self-regulation (e.g., goal selection, resource recruitment, and executive functioning; Gestsdottir and Lerner, 2008; McClelland et al., 2015).

The developmental course of self-regulation is, in effect, the developmental course of human agency (Sokol et al., 2015).

In short, models derived from RIDS metatheory emphasize that all levels of organization within the ecology' of human development are systemically integrated across life. As such, any variable from any level is embodied in, or fused or integrated with, variables from all other levels; the structure and function of one variable is thus governed, or regulated, by the structure and function of other variables. For the developing person, these developmental regulations mean that individual—context relations are the basic unit of analysis within human development.

As noted, plasticity is always a relative phenomenon within RDS. Temporally ordered events in the life or lives of an individual or a group, respectively, may constrain change as well as provide affordances for it (Lerner, 1984). A system that promotes change can also function to diminish it, a point made as well by Maruyama (1963), in his discussion of deviation amplification and deviation countering processes within systems and, later, by Aldwin (2007) and Aldwin and Gilman (2013) regarding human development systems. However, because of relative plasticity, developmental scientists may be optimistic that instances of individual—context relations may be found or created to promote more positive human development among all people, and to promote social justice by providing opportunities for all individuals to optimize their chances of positive, healthy development (Lerner and Overton, 2008).

The creation of such promotion and optimization efforts rests on the conduct of multidisciplinary research, the use of change-sensitive methodologies, and the translation of research into policies or programs. Contemporary developmental science is marked by such scholarship within and across several substantive areas framing the field. Of particular relevance here is the burgeoning attention to the interrelated areas of evolutionary biology and of epigenetics.

Evolutionary Biology and Epigenetics

Within the integrative RDS metatheory, biological, psychological, and behavioral attributes of the person, in fusion with culture, have a temporal (historical) parameter (Overton, 2015). As such, the fusion among all variables and all levels of organization within the RDS has implications across both ontogeny (the life span of a species) and phylogeny (the evolutionary history of a species) (Ho, 2010; Jablonka and Lamb, 2005). One key implication involves the idea that qualitative changes emerge across the life span through the integration of organism and contextual levels of organization (Lerner, 1984, 2012).

A second key implication is the creation of relative plasticity' in phylogeny and ontogeny occurring because of embodied actions (i.e., actions involving the physical body of the individual with his or her social and broader ecological context) resulting in autopoietic (or self-constructing) change in the developmental system (Witherington, 2015). That is, relative plasticity characterizes the relations between organisms and contexts that, across time, create qualitative change in developmental processes within and across generations (Lerner, 1984). This qualitative discontinuity involves what developmental scientists have termed “epigenetic (emergent) change” (e.g., Gottlieb, 1997, 1998; Werner, 1957) in ontogeny. In turn, the action of genetic—context processes that are instances of embodied change within the developmental system is the focus of study in the field of epigenetics (e.g., Meaney, 2010; Misteli, 2013; Slavich and Cole, 2013).

It is important to distinguish the differences in denotation for these two uses of the term “epigenesis.” Within the description of developmental change across the life span, the term “epigenesis” refers to the emergence of qualitatively discontinuous characteristics (e.g., developmental stages) across ontogeny (see Gottlieb, 1997, 1998; Lerner, 1984; Lerner and Benson, 2013; Werner, 1957). In turn, Misteli (2013) notes that the term “epi” comes from the Greek and means “over” or “above,” and indicates that epigenetic effects are effects that are ones “beyond” the effects of genes. Accordingly, in the literatures of evolutionary biology and of molecular biolog)', the term “epigenetics” refers to a process involving gene—context relations resulting in the modification of information transmitted by DNA (through messenger RNA, or mRNA) across long, even multigenerational, timescales (e.g., Meaney, 2010, Misteli, 2013; Slavich and Cole, 2013).

Bateson and Gluckman (2011) observe that gene expression is fundamentally shaped by variables external to the cell nucleus (where deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA| is located). They stress, therefore, that “A willingness to move between different levels of analysis has become essential for an understanding of development and evolution” (Bateson and Gluckman, 2011, p. 5). Similarly, Keller (2010) explains that it is erroneous either to conceptualize development as involving separate causal influences or to posit that attributes of the person develop as an outcome of the interaction of causal elements. Indeed, she notes that the concept of interaction is itself flawed, in that its use is predicated on the idea that there exist attributes that are at least conceptually separate. Keller explains that the concept of developmental dynamics precludes such separation. She emphasizes:

From its very beginning, development depends on the complex orchestration of multiple courses of action that involve interactions among many different kinds of elements—including not only preexisting elements (e.g., molecules) but also new elements (e.g., coding sequences) that are formed out of such interactions, temporal sequences of events, dynamical interactions, etc.

(Keller, 2010, pp. 6-7)

Moreover, Pigliucci and Muller (2010) note that genes are not as much generators of evolutionary change as they are followers in the evolutionary process. They explain that “evolution progresses through the capture of emergent interactions into genetic-epigenetic circuits, which are passed to and elaborated on in subsequent generations” (Pigliucci and Muller, 2010, p. 14). Similarly, West-Eberhard (2003) connects evolution and the presence of relative plasticity across development. She explains that environmental variables are a major basis of adaptive evolutionary change. As also pointed out by Pigliucci and Muller (2010), West-Eberhard (2003) notes that genetic mutation does not provide either the origin or the evolution of novel adaptive characteristics because “genes are followers not leaders, in evolution” (p. 20). In addition, she explains that the relative plasticity of the phenotype can facilitate evolution by providing immediate changes in the organism (West-Eberhard, 2003). Similarly, Gissis and Jablonka (2011) note that plasticity “is ... a large topic, but, just as Lamarck anticipated, an understanding of plasticity is now recognized as being fundamental to an understanding of evolution” (p. xiii).

Crystallizing the integration (embodiment) of variables from all levels of organization within the RDS that create epigenetic change across generations, Jablonka and Lamb (2005) present evidence demonstrating that human evolution involves four interrelated dimensions: genes, epigenetics, behavior, and culture. They explain that contemporary research in molecular biolog)' indicates clearly that current, neo-Darwinian assumptions (i.e., ideas about evolution that build on but transcend the specific ideas introduced by Darwin about evolution) about the role of genes in evolution are mistaken. This research demonstrates that cells can transmit information to daughter cells through non-DNA, epigenetic means. Therefore, genetic and epigenetic processes constitute two dimensions of evolution. In addition, animals can transmit information across generations though their behavior, which constitutes a third dimension of evolution. A fourth dimension of evolution is constituted by culture, in that humans “inherit" from their parents symbols and, in particular, language. As such, Jablonka and Lamb (2005) conclude that “It is therefore quite wrong to think about heredity and evolution solely in terms of the genetic system. Epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic inheritance also provide variation on which natural selection can act” (p. 1). Figure 20.1 is again useful in envisioning the relations discussed by Jablonka and Lamb (2005).

These epigenetic effects referred to by Jablonka and Lamb (2005) occur because chemicals in the cell either allow or do not allow DNA to be transcribed into inRNA (Misteli, 2013). For example, acetyl groups (chemicals in the cell that may activate genes), when linked with one of the four base chemicals composing DNA, that is, to cytosine, allow DNA transcription; this process is termed acetylation. In turn, when methyl groups (chemicals in the cells that may silence genes) are linked to cytosine, then there is no transcription of DNA into mRNA. This process is termed methylation. In short, acetylation processes allow DNA to be transcribed into mRNA (and to, therefore, play a role in producing proteins), and methylation processes silence DNA transcription.

If DNA is not transcribed into mRNA, then this DNA cannot play a role in the production of proteins for use by the cell. Because this silencing of gene transcription can persist (can remain stable) across generations (Meaney, 2010; Misteli, 2013; Roth, 2012; Slavich and Cole, 2013), epigenetic influences constitute heritable changes explained by processes other than DNA. Indeed, Gissis and Jablonka (2011), in a book discussing the transformations of Lamarckian theory that have arisen in relation to the increasingly more active focus on epigenetic processes in the study of both evolution and development (Meaney, 2010), note that a form of inheritance of acquired characteristics does exist in the form of epigenetic inheritance systems.

This system of epigenetic effects involves chemicals within the cell, within the internal milieu of the body, and within the external ecology within which the body is embedded (Misteli, 2013; Roth, 2012; Slavich and Cole,

2013) or embodied, in the terms used by Overton (2015). For instance, Roth (2012) notes that the genome of infants is modified by epigenetic changes involving experiential and environmental variables. She explains that parental stress, infant separation, or caregiver nurturance or maltreatment can alter methylation patterns that affect neurobiology and behavior across the life span. Similarly, Slavich and Cole (2013) discuss evidence that changes in the expression of hundreds of genes occurs as a function of the physical and social environments inhabited by humans, and they note that “external social conditions, especially our subjective perceptions of these conditions, can influence our most basic internal biological processes— namely, the expression of our genes” (p. 331)—a view that again highlights the implications of embodied biological changes as a focus of actions aimed at enhancing positive human development or social justice.

The evidence concerning epigenetics, embodied action, and plasticity that today is understood as accounting for the features of evolutionary and developmental change necessarily leads to deep skepticism about the “extreme nature” (Rose and Rose, 2000) of the claims of biological determinists, for example, evolutionary psychology (Rose and Rose, 2000), sociobiology (Lerner, 2002; Lerner and von Eye, 1992), and behavior genetics (Molenaar,

2014) . Clearly the claims of such reductionists are inconsistent with the now quite voluminous evidence in support of the role of epigenetics in the multiple, integrated dimensions of human evolution, discussed earlier (Bateson, 2015; Coall et al., 2015; Gissis and Jablonka, 2011; Gunnar et al., 2015; Jablonka and Lamb, 2005; Lickliter and Honeycutt, 2015). Moreover, these claims run counter to research that has importantly begun focusing on the role of the organisms active agency (McClelland et al., 2015), and of culture (Mistry and Dutta, 2015), in creating change within and across generations.

In contrast to the claims of biological reductionists, concepts associated with the RDS metatheory (Overton, 2015) suggest that transmission across generations is accounted for by the plastic embodied processes of the individual functioning in a reciprocal, that is, bidirectional relation with his or her physical and cultural context. Thus, within the RDS perspective, and in the context of contemporary evolutionary scholarship, (e.g., Gissis and Jablonka, 2011; Ho, 2010; Keller, 2010; Lickliter and Honeycutt,

2015; Meaney, 2010, 2014), the “just so” stories (Gould, 1981) of evolutionary psychology' are conceptually and empirically flawed. Furthermore, embodiment constitutes the basis for epigenesis within the person s life span (Gottlieb, 1997, 1998), including qualitative discontinuity across ontogeny in relations among biological, psychological, behavioral, and social-cultural variables. Evidence for the relative plasticity of human development within the integrated levels of the ecology of human development makes biologically reductionist accounts (or, equally, completely sociogenic accounts) of parenting, offspring development, or sexuality implausible, at best, and entirely fanciful, at worst (Lerner, 1984, 2006, 2012). This evidence also makes the neo-eugenicist claims of Belsky (2014) scientifically vacuous. Using such claims as a basis for health or social policy is inappropriate at best and irresponsible at worst.

In sum, the RDS metatheory provides an approach to the study of change that capitalizes on the dynamic, mutually influential relations between developing individuals and their complex and changing ecology. As such, this approach to conceptualizing human development may be used to integrate both the agency of individuals (e.g., related to such concepts as grit, executive functioning, soft skills, noncognitive skills, or character) and contextual processes (e.g., involving the social determinants of health) manifested with the designed (i.e., built) and natural ecologies of human development.

The “strands” of theory associated with the RDS metatheory merged in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and created a focus on models emphasizing that time and place matter in regard to shaping the course of life (Bronfenbrenner, 2005; Elder, 1998; Elder and Shanahan, 2006; Elder et al., 2015). A key emphasis in these ideas is that the scientific study of human development may test ideas about the importance of relative plasticity by instantiating evidence-based changes in individual—context relations in attempts to promote positive and healthy development (Lerner et ah, 2014).

Implications for the Application of RDS-Based Research

Among the many split conceptions maintained by viewing the study of development through reductionist, and essentialist, lens (Overton, 2015) was the split between basic and applied research. However, within models of human development derived from the RDS metatheory, this split joins other ones (e.g., nature—nurture or continuity—discontinuity) in being rejected. When one studies the embodied individual within the developmental system, then explanations of how changes in the individual—context relation (at Time 1) may eventuate in subsequent changes in this relation (at Time 2, Time 3, etc.) are tested by altering the Time 1 person—context relation (again, Figure 20.1 provides an illustration of these temporal, historical relations). When such alterations are conducted in the ecologically valid setting of the individual, these assessments constitute tests of the basic, relational process of human development and, at the same time, applications—interventions— into the course of human development (Lerner and Callina, 2014).

Consider youth development as a sample case (see Lerner et al., 2015b, for a review). Depending on the level of analysis, aggregation, and timescale at which these interventions are implemented, such changes in the ecology of the individual—context relation may involve relationships between individuals (e.g., mentoring relationships), community-based programs (e.g., youth development programs such as 4-H, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, Girls, Inc., Boys & Girls Clubs, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters), or social policies (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 2005). There is burgeoning evidence that these initiatives can promote the positive development of diverse young people (e.g., Rhodes and Lowe, 2009; Roth and Brooks-Gunn, 2003; Van- dell et al., 2015)

As we have explained, the rationale for applying developmental science to enhance the lives of individuals or groups is predicated on the presence of relative plasticity in human development, a concept that is derived from RDS-based ideas, such as directionally influential individual—context relations and embodiment. The relative plasticity of human development is not only a fundamental strength of human development but also a basis of optimism about human development. Developmental scientists can be hopeful that there are combinations of person and context that can be identified or created (through programs or policies) to enhance the lives of all individuals and groups. In other words, developmental scientists may act to change the course of developmental regulations, of individual—context relations, in manners aimed at optimizing the opportunities for individual and group trajectories across life to reflect health and thriving.

In short, in light of the relative plasticity of human development, neo- eugenicist claims that genes preclude some youth from profiting from health or education programs (e.g., Belsky, 2014) are conceptually inadequate and empirically flawed. There is no constraint imposed by the nature of the human developmental process on the potential productivity of programs or policies aimed at eliminating health and education inequities and thereby furthering social justice. To the contrary, the fundamental plasticity of the individual—context developmental process is a basis for optimism that elimination of such inequities can enhance the health and well-being of diverse youth.

Implications for the Promotion of Positive Development, Health, and Social Justice

Developmental scientists have in the repertoire of models and methods (Molenaar et al., 2014) in their intellectual “tool box" the means to work to promote a better life for all people. When these tools are used within effective collaborations with scholars from other fields, practitioners, policy experts, and community members (Fisher et al., 2012; Fisher and Lerner,

2013; Jensen et al., 1999), developmental scientists may contribute to initiatives that offer to diverse individuals the requisite chances needed to maximize their aspirations for, and to promote their actions aimed at, being active producers of their positive development. Simply, through such collaborations, developmental scientists may act to promote a more socially just world (Lerner, 2002, 2004; Lerner and Overton, 2008).

In this regard, Lerner and Overton (2008) note that theoretically predicated changes in the RIDS need to be evaluated in regard to how more positive development may be promoted among individuals whose ecological characteristics (e.g., socioeconomic circumstances or educational opportunities) lower the probability of such development. To contribute significantly to creating a developmental science and to a joint effort involving multiple disciplines, multiple professions, and community collaborations aimed at promoting social justice, scholars need to identify the means to change individual—context relations in manners that enhance the probability that all individuals, no matter their individual characteristics or contextual circumstances (e.g., of poverty, racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and xenophobia) have greater opportunity to experience positive development (e.g., see Fisher et al., 2012).

Developmental science framed by the process-relational RIDS paradigm has a clear agenda involving such scholarship. For instance, Fisher et al. (2012) provides a vision for social justice—relevant research in developmental science. Some of the research foci they discuss are:

  • • 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.

The epigenetic and embodied developmental changes that characterize individual-context relations within the autopoietic RDS and that provide both a rationale for and optimism about applying developmental science in the service of promoting thriving and social justice for all people require “a theoretical framework more akin to current dynamic-systems models than to traditional conceptions of either behavioral development or evolution" (Harper, 2005, p. 352). Overton (2013) provides this theoretical framework. The RDS metatheory that he has forwarded explains why “the Cartesian-split- mechanistic scientific paradigm that until recently functioned as the standard conceptual framework for subfields of developmental science (including inheritance, evolution, and organismic—prenatal, cognitive, emotional, motivational, sociocultural—development) has been progressively failing as a scientific research program” (Overton, 2013, p. 22). He notes:

An alternative scientific paradigm composed of nested metatheories with relationism at the broadest level and relational developmental systems as a midrange metatheory is offered as a more progressive conceptual framework for developmental science. Termed broadly the “relational developmental systems paradigm,” this framework accounts for the findings that are anomalies for the old paradigm; accounts for the emergence of new findings; and points the way to future scientific productivity.

(Overton, 2013, p. 22)


So, where do we go from here? 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 make Kurt Lewin’s (1952, p. 169) quote, that “There is nothing so practical as a good theory,” an oft-proven empirical reality. The scientific and societal value on which developmental science will be judged will be whether its theoretical and methodological tools can, on the one hand, contribute (in collaboration with other disciplines) to effectively dismantling genetic determinist ideas that, at this writing, continue to constrain opportunities for health and positive development among diverse individuals and, as well, to denigrate, disempower, and deny hope to them.

On the other hand, developmental science will also be judged by the scholarship it leaves in the place of genetic determinism. This science must accurately reflect the diversity and dynamism of human development, must build bridges across disciplines, professions, and with diverse communities to ensure integrative, multidisciplinary, collaborative approaches to promoting human health and social justice (Fisher and Lerner, 2013; Fisher et al., 2012), and be centered on promoting thriving across the life span for all people. Therefore, promoting human thriving and health and social justice is, and will be, the most significant lens through which the contributions of developmental science, and of the broad collaboration of which it must be a part, will be viewed.


Preparation of this article was supported in part by grants from the John Templeton Foundation to Richard M. Lerner.


1. A metatheory is a theory of theories; it is a set of ideas about how theories should be constructed and/or about the ideas that should be included in a theory.


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