Short Arms and Talking Eggs: Why We Should No Longer Abide the Nativist–Empiricist Debate


  • We would like to thank Karla McGregor, Amanda Owen, the members of the Delta Center, J. Lebowski, and five anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. This work was supported by NSF HSD 0527698 awarded to John P. Spencer, an Independent Scientist Award (MH66424) from the National Institute of Mental Health awarded to Mark S. Blumberg, and NICHD 045713 awarded to Larissa K. Samuelson. To join the discussion of this article and associated commentaries, visit the Delta Center’s Facebook page:

concerning this article should be addressed to John P. Spencer, Department of Psychology & Delta Center, E11 Seashore Hall, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242; e-mail:


Abstract— The nativist–empiricist debate and the nativist commitment to the idea of core knowledge and endowments that exist without relevant postnatal experience continue to distract attention from the reality of developmental systems. The developmental systems approach embraces the concept of epigenesis, that is, the view that development emerges via cascades of interactions across multiple levels of causation, from genes to environments. This view is rooted in a broader interpretation of experience and an appreciation for the nonobvious nature of development. This systems approach is illustrated here with examples from studies of imprinting, spatial cognition, and language development, revealing the inadequacies of the nativist–empiricist debate and the inconvenient truths of development. Developmental scientists should no longer abide the nativist–empiricist debate and nativists’ ungrounded focus on origins. Rather, the future lies in grounding science in contemporary theory and developmental process.