place of eugenics in Arnold Gesell’s maturation theory of child development, The

Marchese, Frank J


This paper examines eugenic ideas in the context of Gesell’s maturational model of development. Keeping to an historical perspective which highlights developments within the eugenics movement, the author concurs that Gesell’s early work reveals “sympathies” with eugenic ideas. However, as challenges to the eugenics movement mounted during the 1920s and 30s, Gesell eventually deemphasized eugenic ideas in his later work.

The purpose of this paper is to enlarge upon the historical context within which notions of eugenics entered into Arnold Gesell’s (1880-1961) maturational model of human development.

Taking as its cue a paper by Weizmann (1988), which outlines the appearance of eugenic sympathies in Gesell’s work, the present undertaking endeavours to explore and expand upon the historical backdrop which served as fertile ground for Gesell’s model of human development, and his ideas in developmental psychology, biology and eugenics.

Starting with a summary of Gesell’s theory of development (Gesell, 1929b; 1946; Ames, 1989), this paper points to the influences both intellectual and collegial that entered into Gesell’s thinking. Attention then focusses on the fundamental ideas embodied in the eugenics movement, followed by a discussion on the manner in which eugenic ideas were expressed in the study of the psychology of individual differences. Next, consideration is given to developments within behavioural psychology which offered an alternative to biological determinism. Finally, the role of anthropology as a direct challenge to the eugenics movement and its ideas complete the historical picture. As the aforementioned historical backdrop unfolds, Gesell’s position in relation to the eugenics movement is discussed.


According to Weizmann, Gesell was “one of the most important figures in the history of child development” (1988, p. 1). As an academic and researcher for nearly 50 years at the Yale Clinic of Child Development, from 1911 to 1948 (Miles, 1964), and a popularizer in the field of infant and child development, even Time Magazine sought to lionize him for his scientific and practical contributions (1940, p. 67). Time said, “Dr. Gesell charted away like a Columbus” and “many a modern theory about child upbringing … is based on his findings”. He was the best known “baby doctor” in the 1940s and Dr. Spock, the renowned pediatrician, came under his influence and sway (Cairns, 1983; Salkind, 1985; Ames, 1989). The behaviour norms he and his collaborators developed (e.g., Gesell & Armatruda, 1941) are so complete by even today’s standards, that they “still serve as a primary source of information for pediatricians and psychologists” (Crain, 1985, p. 15). Confident in Gesell’s stature as a scientist of the child, Gross (1963) observed, “Dr. Gesell will go down in medical history as the individual who rescued ‘child development’ from the limbo of empty abstractions” (p. 179).

Gesell was guided by a maturational conception of development. “Growth”, he said, “is a process so intricate and so sensitive that there must be powerful stabilizing factors, intrinsic rather than extrinsic, which preserve the balance of the total pattern and the direction of the growth trend. Maturation is … a name for this regulatory mechanism” (Gesell, 1933, p. 232). As for the influence of exogenous factors (e.g., environment) on development, Gesell (1929a) commented that they “may play a screening or selective role determining which of competing potencies are to be realized … but the basic mechanism of realization is one of maturation…” (p. 658).

In his studies of infants and young children, Gesell charted the sequence of growth (1928), established norms (Gesell & Ilg, 1943), and postulated a number of explanatory principles of development (Gesell, 1946). His emphasis on the relationship of biological maturation to psychological development represented a position he actively promoted and shared with a number of influential psychologists, including G. Stanley Hall, Henry Goddard, Lewis Terman, and Robert Yerkes, all of whom were colleagues and friends, and, with the exclusion of Hall, were active eugenicists (Kamin, 1974; Cravens, 1978; Gould, 1981; Weizmann, 1988). In light of this like-mindedness, “it is not terribly surprising that Gesell should develop eugenic sympathies” (Weizmann, 1988, p. 3) as well, in keeping with the strong biological emphasis shared by those with whom he studied and worked.

An early publication (Gesell, 1913), which will be commented upon more fully later in this paper, testifies to the aforementioned “sympathies”. In it Gesell reports the results of his investigation of 220 families, or “one thousand souls”, residing in a small Mid-Western town. The investigation’s manifest purpose was “to appraise and classify the families of our Village … with reference to certain … characteristics” (Gesell, 1913, p. 12). These “characteristics”, ranging from ‘feeble-mindedness, insanity, alcoholism, epilepsy, criminality, eccentricity, and tuberculosis’, were surveyed and largely attributed to hereditary influence: “About 80 per cent of all cases of feeble-mindedness are due to neuropathic heredity” (p. 12).

The analysis of the data led Gesell to construct a “Eugenic Map of The Village of a Thousand Souls”. Gesell discovered that a “total of 37 families out of 220” showed some form of feeble-mindedness, “a proportion of 16 per cent” (p. 12). Gesell reasoned that in order to bring about “village reform”, and by implication, in a more general and wider sense, achieve progress for the race of mankind as a whole, it would be necessary to produce a “gradual lifting of the level of hereditary mediocrity” (p. 15). Gesell asks the reader to consider the following: “Is it possible to improve the human stock that lives in villages?” (p. 11). In other words, how is this “gradual lifting” to be achieved? Gesell concurs with Karl Pearson (1857-1930), the biostatistician, first Galton Professor of Eugenics at the University of London, and “one of the pioneers of the eugenic movement” that the “production of (certain) types”, Gesell continues, “can be brought under the partial control of man, whose evolution is becoming more and more conscious” (Gesell, p. 15). “This is precisely”, Pearson reports, “what is done by the breeder in selecting and isolating a stock until it is established” (quoted in Gesell, 1913, p. 15). It is here that we can appreciate the suggestion that eugenics is an instrument of race or “stock” improvement, confidently upheld by Pearson and reasonably advanced by Gesell as a consideration for achieving this “gradual lifting of hereditary mediocrity”. It is as if “The Village of a Thousand Souls” served as a model for the personal and social ills, hereditarily determined, that beset society as a whole. These ills could be reliably surveyed and at least addressed by what eugenics, Gesell said, had to offer as “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding” (1913, p. 11). Gesell’s definition of eugenics is in keeping with the spirit of the movement outlined by Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), who coined the term in 1883 to denote the “science” of improving human stock by giving “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable” (quoted in Kelves, 1984, p. 51). Thus, Gesell did not find the idea, at least, of improving the human condition by eugenic means particularly extreme or preposterous.

In essence, Gesell proposed an embryological model for all aspects of human growth–structural, physiological, behavioural, and psychological–which are obedient to universal laws of developmental morphology (Gesell, 1954). It is endogenous factors which determine the basic differentiation and patterning of development in both their normal and sub-normal (e.g., feeble-mindedness) manifestations, and it is these intrinsic regulatory factors that correspond to “ancestral genes” which reflect the evolutionary adaptive achievements of the race (Gesell, 1933). As for the role of the environment on development, Gesell (1934) said: “Environmental factors support, inflect and modify, but do not generate the progressions of development” (p. 295). The “progressions of development” are regulated and determined by the maturation process.

Overall, Gesell continues to be of considerable historical importance in contemporary treatments of history (e.g., Cairns, 1983) and theories (e.g., Lerner, 1986) of developmental psychology for at least three major reasons. First, his approach was consistent with assumptions of organicism in that it focused on the biological, maturational, growth like aspects of psychological development. Gesell (1928) and Gesell and Thompson (1929c) argued for the predominance of heredity (nature), in the 1920s, when the heredity-environment (nature-nurture) issue was actively debated. Second, Gesell, who was a thorough methodologist, was an assiduous observer of change patterns, and thus a prodigious contributor of normative growth tables and descriptions. Third, as a methodologist, he made at least two lasting contributions: (a) he was an early and active proponent of the use of “cinema records” in the study of children, and (b) he was an advocate of twin studies disentangling the influences of nature and nurture (e.g., Gesell and Thompson, 1929c). However, although Gesell realized the value of twin studies as a way of addressing the roles of heredity and environment on development, he remained “doubtful whether the basic … qualities of infants can be measurably altered by environmental influences” (1928, p. 372). In an early study, Gesell compared the performance of identical twins, one trained and the other not, in “stair-climbing and cube behaviour”. Results revealed that although training can sometimes cause behaviour to appear slightly sooner than it might have appeared without such training, the performance of the untrained twin when presented with the same task, after a few weeks of growing, equalled that of the twin trained early. This finding was used as support for nature transcending nurture in determining behaviour (Gesell & Thompson, 1929c).


Probably the clearest and earliest expression of the role of biology in psychological development to which Gesell was exposed was in the biogenetic theory of G.S. Hall (1844-1924). Hall was Gesell’s mentor and friend; he received his Ph.D. in 1906 under Hall at Clark (Gesell, 1952). He was the first president of the American Psychological Association (1892), and of Clark University (1888), a leading institution for the study of child and adolescent psychology. He contributed one of the earliest papers on child psychology (1833), and also wrote the first text on adolescence; a two volume work entitled “Adolescence” in 1904 (Ross, 1972).

Hall saw development from a nativistic point of view, and Gesell followed the general developmental orientation he espoused (Dixon & Lerner, 1992). He, like Gesell (1939), was profoundly impressed by Darwin’s evolutionary theory and he elaborated upon its psychological implications. The result was the fashioning of Darwin’s concept of biological evolution into a psychological theory of recapitulation. In this theory, Hall (1904) stated that the experiential history of the human species had become part of the genetic structure of each individual. Thus the individual organism, during its development, passes through (recapitulates) stages that correspond to those that occurred during the evolutionary history of mankind. The individual relives, according to Hall, the development of the human race from early animal-like primitivism, through a period of savagery, to the more recent civilized ways of life which characterize maturity (Hall, 1904). Hall’s application of evolutionary theory to areas outside of biology, that is to psychology and pedagogy, was characteristic of a more general trend to apply biological doctrine to problems in social philosophy (Spencer, 1881), sociology (Spencer, 1895) and child development (Baldwin, 1895). Hall actually prided himself on being the “Darwin of the mind” (White, 1968). For Gesell (1952), “G. Stanley Hall was the acknowledged genius of the group at Clark” and “Although the term genius is often overused” Gesell remarked, “we can safely apply it to his (Hall’s) intellect … he was a naturalist Darwin of the mind, whose outlook embraced the total phylum, and lifted psychology above the sterilities of excessive analysis and pedantry” (p. 126-127).


The motif of recapitulation is not, however, one that is exclusive to developmental theory. It may be noted that Hall, in his enthusiasm to translate Darwin’s phylogenetic evolutionary principles into conceptions relevant to psychology, was adapting ideas derived from the embryologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). According to the “fundamental biogenetic law”, as advanced by Haeckel (1874), and adapted by other late nineteenth-century evolutionary thinkers (e.g., Herbert Spencer, 1861; Friedrich Engles, 1876, in 1954; Millicent W. Shinn, 1900) to education, politics and child study, an embryo’s ontogenetic progression mirrored the phylogenetic history–the evolution-of the species. Thus, when one looks at the changes characterizing an individual member of a species as it progresses across its embryological period, one sees a recapitulation of the evolutionary changes the species went through as a whole. In man, his overall development from fetus to adulthood (ontogeny), as this line of thinking suggests, provides a brief recapitulation of the entire history of the race (phylogeny). In short, Haeckel was one of the prominent proponents of the notion that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, an idea seized upon by Hall as we have noted, and applied to postnatal psychological development.

The idea of recapitulation that spilled forth from biology to developmental psychology can also be noted in the dynamic psychologies of Jung and Freud. Jung’s (1960) notion of the “collective unconscious”, or “racial memory”, is one such instance. According to Jung, this memory is comprised of memories “archetypes” from our human ancestral past. These archetypes provide the basis for images that Jung believed are universally experienced and inherited, and which reappear (in a recapitulatory fashion) in the collective unconscious of succeeding generations. Jung (1911-12, Collected Works, 5) applied his notion of “archetypes” to the realm of psychopathology where, in accordance with his theoretical scheme, activation of the collective unconscious is achieved through psychical regressions during adulthood. Such regressions were thought to play a major role in mental disorders such as dementia praecox. It is the individual’s inability to assimilate the contents of this collective unconscious, Jung insisted, that lead to psychoneurosis through a “splitting of the mind” (1911-1912, p. 158, p. 408).

Beyond the realm of psychopathology, however, Jung strongly supported recapitulationism as it applied to the state of the developing child’s mind: “the state of infantile thinking in the child’s psychic life … is nothing but a re-echo of the prehistoric and ancient” (1916, pp. 27-28). Years later, long after biologists had abandoned the bio-genetic law, Jung continued to reaffirm his support with the following: “Childhood, however, is a state of the past. Just as the developing embryo recapitulates, in a sense, our phylogenetic history, so the child-psyche relives ‘the lesson of earlier humanity’ as Nietzsche called it.” (1943, in 1954, p. 134).

Turning now to examples of Freud’s application of recapitulation theory to his brand of psychodynamic psychology, we may note his endorsement of the former in such seminal works as Totem and Taboo (1913), and Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis (1916). In Totem and Taboo, Freud tries to reconstruct human history from a central clue provided by the Oedipus complex. Freud reasoned that the urge to parricide, as revealed in the universality of the Oedipus complex, must reflect an actual event among ancestral adults. Hence, the sons of an ancestral clan must once have killed their father in order to gain access to women that were hoarded by the father. The sons, so consumed with guilt for this deed of parricide, renounced sexual contact with the women of the clan and identified their slain father with an animal, a totem, that must be worshipped and not harmed. It is these two prohibitions, not to kill the totem and not to have sexual relations with a woman of the same totem, Freud said, that “coincide in their content with the two crimes of Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother … (and) … with the two primal wishes of children, (along with) … insufficient repression or … reawakening … which forms the nucleus of … every neuroses”. (1913, in 1950, p. 132). In short, Freud advances, in Totem and Taboo, the idea “that the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Oedipus complex. This is in complete agreement with the psychoanalytic finding that the same complex constitutes the nucleus of all neuroses…” (1913, in 1950, p. 156-167).

In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916), Freud continues to expound upon the doctrine of recapitulation. He said, “Each individual … recapitulates in an abbreviated form the entire development of the human race” and “ontogenesis may be regarded as a recapitulation of phylogenesis…” (1916, in 1961, p. 199). The psychology of the developing individual, in its social, emotional, and mental manifestations, represents for Freud, a reenactment or repetition of earlier phylogenetic stages of human history. Libido and ego, two central constructs in Freud’s conception of personality, are at “bottom heritages, abbreviated recapitulations of the development which all mankind has passed through from its primaeval days…” (1916, in McCormick, 1973, p. 8). For Freud, “The phylogenetic disposition (could) be seen at work behind the ontogenetic process” (from the 1914 preface to the third edition of the Three Essays on The Theory of Sexuality, 1905, p.xvi) in both normal and abnormal manifestations of personality. As Groffman (1970) has observed of Freud’s theory of personality, it is “basically a theory of the development of the libido, which he (Freud) attempted to explain in terms of both a phylogenetic and ontogenetic process” (p. 61).

Similarly, Piaget has suggested a recapitulation-like notion in psychological development. Unlike Jung and Freud, however, who apply this notion to the area of personality, Piaget relates it instead to the intellectual sphere. Accordingly, each generation of maturing children comes to understand the laws of physical nature in a manner analogous to that noted among the early scientists who discovered these laws. Thus, “the elimination of realism, of substantialism, of dynamism, the growth of relativism, etc., all these evolutionary laws … appear to be common both to the development of the child and to that of scientific thought.” (Piaget, 1960, p. 240).

It was Piaget’s interests in the nature and development of knowledge in young children, or genetic epistemology, that led him to relate stages of knowledge development in the single individual to a comparable developmental process in society as a whole. Knowledge undergoes, as this reasoning proceeds, a long period of evolution in the individual and society. Using the historic-critical method, which consists of an analysis of collective thought over a period of time, Piaget (1950) suggested a parallel between the individual acquisition of knowledge and the development of collective knowledge. He was able to postulate that ontogenesis, or individual development, frequently patterns or recapitulates sociogenesis, or collective development. Piaget upholds the notion of parallels between ontogeny and phylogeny. He says: “The fundamental hypothesis of genetic epistemology is that there is a parallelism between the progress made in the logical and rational organization of knowledge and the corresponding formative psychological processes” of the individual (1969, p. 4).

Piaget’s endorsement of recapitulation theory and his fondness for drawing parallels between the child’s acquisition of knowledge and the history of Western science is in keeping with the tradition established by early developmentalists (such as Hall) who drew upon the principles and concepts of evolutionary biology and applied the latter to an understanding of both individual and society alike.

From the foregoing, it can be seen that the notion of recapitulation is not one that is restricted to Hall’s bio-psychological theory of development, and by extension to Gesell’s views, but appears in other psychologies as diverse as those of Jung and Freud in their explication of a psychoanalytic psychology of personality, and in Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory. This application of biological conceptions (e.g., recapitulationism) of species development to the developmental psychologies of infants and young children is in accord with an overall naturalistic approach in late 19th century thinking linking evolutionary biology to the social and behavioural sciences. As White (1968) has observed: “Within 50 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origins of the Species in 1859, the theory of evolution has crystallized its influence upon developmental psychology not once but several times. As often happens with a broad and powerful theory,different people took different messages from evolutionism…” (p. 187).

Following Hall, Gesell also regarded Darwin’s epoch making evolutionary theory as leading to the revolutionary concept that individual development retraces the progress of the species as a whole. Gesell observed that “the human infant as the current custodian of that (creative) process revives in telescoped compression its immemorial creativity. He acts like a creator because he is basically a re-creator of what happened long ago. He is … a rehearser” (Gesell & Ilg, 1943, p. 14). For Gesell the infant “is not only a specific embodiment of a future adult; he is a genetic embodiment of the venerable past of the human race. He represents a vast cloud of ancestral witnesses compacted into a single individuality. He is the inheritor of the ages” (1943, p. 13). In his description of the infant’s emergent development from birth to the end of the first year, Gesell (1951) applied a recapitulation conception to the sphere of motor development: “In a short year he (the infant) retraces in telescope time the evolutionary ascent of man”. Because phylogenetic genes by definition have a species-wide distribution and are usually potent in their effects (Ausubel & Sullivan, 1970), Gesell (1929b) theorized that developmental sequences are relatively invariable in all areas of growth, evolve more or less spontaneously and inevitably, and show basic uniformities even in strikingly different cultural settings. Like Hall, he taught that certain undesirable stages in behavioural development, for example, were inevitable by virtue of the child’s phylogenetic inheritance, and could be handled best by allowing them spontaneously to run their natural course (Gesell & Ilg, 1943).


According to Gould (1981), “recapitulation ranks among the most influential ideas of the late nineteenth-century science” (p. 114). It appears to have dominated the work of several disciplines to which Gesell had been exposed in his own studies, including embryology, comparative morphology, and most certainly the evolutionary psychology of G. S. Hall. Recapitulation also provided an “irresistible criterion for any scientist who wanted to rank human groups as higher and lower”, observes Gould (1981, p. 115). Hall’s adherence to this line of thinking appears in the following comment: “Most savages in most respects are children, or, because of sexual maturity, more properly, adolescents of adult size” (1904, vol. 2, p. 649). Thus, the adults of inferior groups are like the children of superior groups. If savages are like the children of superior groups, who are the inferior and superior groups which form the basis of these comparisons? According to Cope (1887), an early evolutionist and paleontologist who elucidated the mechanism of recapitulation, there are four groups of lower human forms: nonwhite races, all women, southern as opposed to northern European whites, and lower classes within superior races. Cope’s views are not an isolated instance of recapitulation theory being applied to racial and group hierarchies. Rather, such views were characteristic of those who applied recapitulation theory, and evolutionary theory in general, beyond the biological realm. As Gould (1977) noted, “We grasp the importance of recapitulation only when we understand that it served as an organizing idea for generations of work in comparative embryology, physiology, and morphology” (p. 116). And further, Gould observes, “Recapitulation intruded itself into every subject that offered even the remotest possibility of a connection between children of ‘higher’ races and the persistent habits of adult ‘savages'” (1977, p. 117).

Given that recapitulation theory was such a pervasive idea, and along with eugenic science, captured the minds of many in the biological, behavioural, and social sciences, it is understandable that Gesell utilized both recapitulation theory in his developmental theorizing (e.g., 1943; 1951), as well as eugenic theory in his apportioning causal significance to heredity in the production of mental defect (e.g., feeble-mindedness), and eugenic proscription in his recommendations for treatment (e.g., 1913). The ideas of ranking groups as higher and lower in terms of personal functioning (e.g., intelligence), and the segregation of those deemed inferior from the mainstream of community are clearly evident in Gesell’s following comment:

Only the rankest pessimists and believers in noninterference will condone the increase of feeble-mindedness and insanity which is occurring everywhere in the villages of the land. We need not wait for the perfection of the infant science of eugenics–before proceeding upon a course of supervision and segregation which will prevent the horrible renewal of this defective protoplasm that is contaminating the stream of village life” (1913, p. 15).

That the legacy of recapitulation theory, eugenic science and their implications is still with us, is demonstrated by more recent attempts to rank human racial groups on a ladder of development. Thus, Rushton (1991) has defined a hierarchy of racial evolutionary progress, in which Mongoloids are the most advanced, Negroids less so, and Caucasoids intermediate between the two. Recent critiques of Rushton’s position can be found in Zeigler et al., (1989) and Weizmann et al., (1990).


It seems evident from the foregoing that Gesell’s developmental psychology was very much influenced by Hall’s views, and that Gesell, says Ross (1972), Hall’s biographer, carried “the most direct line of influence that out-lived Hall into the new era of substantial study of child development” (p. 355). Further, borrowing generously, as Hall, Freud, Jung, and Piaget did, from Darwinian evolutionary biology, encouraged within the behavioural and social sciences the development of a biologically based child psychology to which Gesell was exposed in his own studies, and to which he contributed as a professional in the field. Gesell reveals his feeling for both Hall and Darwin in the following laudatory comment: “The greatest modern student of the child is G. Stanley Hall. When the history of science is seriously recorded, his name will be linked with that of Charles Darwin. Both are large-visioned interpreters of nature… Darwin applied his genius to the great genetic problems of biology. Hall is the Darwin of Psychology” (Gesell, 1912, p. 20).

Gesell’s interests in child psychology were shaped, as we see, not only by his academic studies and his close relationship to Hall, both mentor and friend, but also by his close association with two of Hall’s prominent students, Lewis Terman (1877-1956) and Henry Goddard (1866-1957), during his formative years as student and professional in the field. Gesell received practical support and employment from these two psychologists. Terman arranged, in 1906, a teaching position for Gesell at the Los Angeles State Normal School, and from 1911-1915 Goddard arranged for him to instruct teachers of the retarded during the summer periods (Gesell, 1952). Gesell said of Terman’s 1906 offer: “The double lure of California and my friendship for Terman sufficed to bring me West; It was a happy association” (p. 127). Gesell continues, “I had known Terman at Clark when he was in his path-breaking study of Genius and Stupidity, a study which retains the momentum … to this day” (1952, pp. 127-128). Regards Goddard, Gesell said, he “was greatly impressed by the … sincerity of the work at Vineland, both in its scientific and humanitarian aspects”. He continues, “In (the) years (1911-1915), Goddard and I worked together directing the New York University summer school for the training of special class teachers of backward and defective pupils” (1952, p. 128).

It was during the years between 1911-1915 that Gesell attended medical school and completed his degree from the School of Medicine at Yale University in 1915. It was also during this time frame that Gesell worked with Goddard and developed an overt interest in defect and retardation. Gesell credits his earlier 1909 visit to Vineland, and the subsequent work with Goddard, as marking “the beginning of my lifelong interest in backward and defective children” (1952, p. 128). Gesell’s first mention of defect and retardation, in print, appeared in 1913 in a study entitled “Village of a Thousand Souls” (referred to earlier in this paper, p. 5-7). At the time of publication Gesell was in the employ of Goddard at Vineland. Also at this time, Goddard was conducting his pioneering research into feeble-mindedness. In 1912, Goddard published a book entitled The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-mindedness. “This book”, says one historian of psychology, “quickly became a psychological best-seller, and effectively helped shape a new public appreciation for mental testing and eugenics” (Fancher, 1985, p. 108). Gesell was obviously impressed by Goddard’s work, for he cites the latter’s research in his own 1913 publication, as an example of how “Feeble-mindedness tends to be (hereditarily) transmissible” illustrating the “bad branch of the Kallikak family” (p. 13). Just as Goddard upheld the position that feeble-mindedness was the result of ‘hereditary taint’, that mental deficiency was inherited, that these unfortunate Kallikaks were so crippled by their inferior heredity that they could not tell right from wrong, so too Gesell, in his own work, maintained that “The solemnfactors of heredity must … be respected” and “in spite of … environmental advantages, 26 per cent of a series of 220 local families” in his study “show the taint of either insanity or feeble-mindedness” (1913, p. 15).

Gesell’s 1913 study of feeble-mindedness continued in the tradition established by Goddard in his 1912 treatise on the “Kallikak Family”. The question that arises from these studies is: What is to be done with the feeble-minded? The answer is that some form of eugenic program must be put in place. Goddard continues: “If both parents are feeble-minded all the children will be feeble-minded. It is obvious that such matings should not be allowed … that no feeble-minded person should ever be allowed to marry or to become a parent … and … if this rule is to be carried out the intelligent part of society must enforce it” (1914, p. 561). Gesell concurs, based on his studies of the feeble-minded, that “a course of supervision and segregation … will prevent the horrible renewal of this defective protoplasm that is contaminating the stream of … life” (1913, p. 15). Concerns over “contaminating the stream of … life” were not exclusive to Gesell’s thinking alone. Three years earlier, Charles B. Davenport, a noted geneticist and eugenics enthusiast, published his 1911 book Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. In it he declared an urgent need to set forth the “way to secure sound progeny” and “annihilate the hideous serpent of hopelessly vicious protoplasm”. One could say that Gesell shared with others of his time the view that eugenics was a way to solve social problems arising out of improper and uncontrolled breeding.

The fears surrounding concern over the disposition of the feeble-minded are echoed, this time, by a colleague, friend, and previous employer of Gesell, in the person of Lewis Terman. Terman maintained that: “The feeble-minded, in the sense of social incompetents, are by definition a burden rather than an asset, not only economically but still more because of their tendencies to become delinquent or criminal …. The only effective way to deal with the hopelessly feeble-minded is by permanent custodial care” (1919, p. 132-133). One wonders who is echoing who, for Gesell said just three years earlier: “Psychologically, feeble-mindedness is a condition of permanent, incurable mental retardation” and “Sociologically, (it) is a condition of … mental incompetence … which makes it impossible for the individual to get along in the world on equal terms with his normal fellows” (1913, p. 12). In the sense to which feeble-mindedness is conceived by Terman and Gesell, both would agree that “permanent custodial care” is one way of dealing with the feeble-minded. Further, Gesell, like Terman, recognizes the “burden” which the feeble-minded are to society. Thus it is useful, in the sociological sense, Gesell says, of recognizing various levels of intelligence because, and here Gesell concurs with Goddard (1919), that “The truest democracy is an institution for the feeble-minded, and it is an aristocracy,–a rule by the best,” (quoted in Gesell, 1920c, p. 131).

The fusion of psychology and politics, expressed in Gesell’s quote of Goddard, is not an isolated sentiment, but rather one shared by those championing the cause of eugenics. Madison Grant, a lawyer, publicist of racist theories, and charter member of the Galton Society in New York (Cravens, 1978), in his The Passing of the Great Race, fused politics, social theory, and eugenics by declaring that in a democracy the conduct of public affairs, if left unchecked, will ultimately be carried out by the incompetent. He suggested a return to aristocracy. “True aristocracy” he claimed “is government by the wisest and best, always a small minority in (the) population” (1916, p. 7). The aristocracy is naturally comprised of those that are the fittest and well beyond the ‘hereditary mediocrity’ of which the majority of the masses are composed.


Gesell professed a “lifelong interest in backward and defective children” (1952, p. 128). This interest produced several publications dealing with exceptional children during his formative years, 1913 to 1926 (e.g., Gesell, 1913; 1917-18; 1920a; 1920b; 1920c; 1923; 1925), as a developmental psychologist and pediatrician. Yet, although he emphasized the hereditary basis of defect (e.g., 1913; 1920a) and the necessity of solutions to this growing problem, ranging from sterilization (e.g., 1913) to segregation (e.g., 1913; 1923) in keeping with his eugenic sympathies, his views on the respective roles of heredity and environment on defect, and solutions to the problem, began to change. As early as 1918, although he emphasizes hereditary determination of feeblemindedness, Gesell recommends special educational consideration be given to defective children and intelligence tests should be carried out in order to make the best possible plans for these children. Gesell continues: “Not many years ago institutional segregation was regarded as the (italics Gesell) solution for the problem of feeble-mindedness … We are gradually coming to a more reasonable and a more humane point of view” (1921, p. 321). In 1919 Gesell reports on a follow-up study of mentally deficient children, a number of whom were working, as in a farm or factory environment. Gesell noted that many “high-grade feeble-minded pupils succeed after a fashion on leaving school. Sometimes no doubt their vocational success is much more marked than their school success”. In 1921, writing about the problems of “subnormal youth”, Gesell says, “Just as the special class has proved … it is possible to maintain defectives in a public school, so it is now clear that by a similar approach we can solve the problem of community control of wage-earning defectives” (p. 320).

It is evident from the foregoing that not only has Gesell modified his stance on treatment, from sterilization and segregation (e.g., 1913), to special education and vocational arrangements (e.g., 1918; 1919), he also acknowledges the “Accumulating evidence that the Moron, and even the high-grade imbecile, do not completely fail in ordinary life under favourable conditions…” (1921, p. 321). This suggests that he advocates the creation of special conditions outside of institutions for education and employment. Thus, the “moron makes a failure of his life only when he is not given a suitable opportunity, within his limitations, to make good” (1923, p. 4). Creating favourable environmental conditions to make adjustment to the normal, extra-institutional, environment possible for exceptional individuals further implies that Gesell acknowledges the role of environment in the management of the exceptional and paves the way for a modified stance on the heredity-environment issue. For example, in 1929, Gesell has this to say about the environment: “It is doubtful whether the basic … qualities of infants can be measurably altered by environmental influences” (p. 372). Yet, as noted above, his views on the causes and management of the feeble-minded began to change as early as 1918. It was not until 1930, however, in a major statement of his maturation thesis, that he offered the following: “… there is a profound interdependence between ‘heredity’ and ‘environment’ in the control of development” (p. 295). By 1933 Gesell says: “I think the concept of maturation should not be used to set environment and the intrinsic factors too much in contradistinction” (p. 77). In 1934 he notes that “There is a very reciprocal interrelationship between heredity and environment” (p. 293).

From the foregoing, it appears that Gesell’s views on eugenics, the causes and management of exceptional individuals (feeble-minded), the roles of heredity and environment on both deviant and normal development, underwent considerable change. What were the forces that eventually influenced Gesell to modify his thinking from an exclusively biologically oriented approach to one which included the “interdependence” of heredity and environment? Did Gesell’s later views on the roles of heredity and environment, maturation and learning, signal that he went beyond the early influences of his mentor and colleagues, all of whom had an initial and marked impact on both his thinking and his early employ in the field of developmental pediatrics and psychology? Did this shift in emphasis, although holding to the maturational conception of development, produce a concomitant change in his thinking about eugenics?

In attempting to address the above questions, attention will be turned to the status of the biological, behavioural, and social sciences in the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Attention will focus first and briefly on the development of eugenics within the context of evolutionary biology. Second, the application of eugenics doctrine to psychology between 1900 to 1930 is reviewed. Third, the challenge to eugenic ideas brought forward by cultural anthropology during the first quarter of the 20th century completes the historical picture.

It will be recalled that during the period between 1900 and 1915 Gesell completed studies in psychology and medicine, leading to the Ph.D. and M.D., respectively. Further, his work in the areas of pediatrics and psychology between 1905 and 1925 took place at a time when the eugenics movement was gaining ground in both England and the United States (Kelves, 1984), was entering into psychological thinking in the U.S. (Kamin, 1974), and would subsequently be challenged by certain sectors within the social and behavioural sciences (e.g., cultural anthropology; Freeman, 1983). It is conjectured that developments in and challenges to eugenics may have had an impact on Gesell’s thinking during this period; initially, in the form of eugenic sympathies, and later as abandonment of these sympathies.


Let us begin with the emergence of eugenics in the last quarter of the 19th century. Although Francis Galton (1822-1911) coined the term “eugenics”, meaning “good in birth” or “noble in heredity”, in 1883, his first major treatise on this subject, “Hereditary Genius”, was published almost fifteen years earlier (1869, in 1972). Inspired by the publication in 1859 of “The Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, by his cousin Charles Darwin, Galton’s mission was to apply the Darwinian theory of evolution to the study of the hereditary basis of complex physical and psychological characteristics such as intelligence. Armed with the new biology and a genius for the creative use of numbers, “a pioneer of modern statistics” (Gould, 1981), Galton advocated the improvement of the race by the regulation of marriage and family according to the “hereditary endowment of parents” (1865). Galton’s hopes and enthusiasm for eugenics is exclaimed in the following: “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create” (1865, p. 165).

Commenting on Galton’s designs for race improvement, Kelves (1984) observes that Galton’s optimism centered around the idea of accelerating the evolutionary process through controlled and planned breeding practices. In this way, Galton envisioned raising man from a lowly estate by breeding out his vestigial barbarism, and thereby bringing about the biological destiny of man in accord with advanced moral ideas. In Hereditary Talent and Character, Galton offered the following: “Let us then, give reins to our fancy, and imagine a Utopia … in which a system of competitive examinations … had been so developed as to embrace every important quality of mind and body, and where a considerable sum was allotted to the endowment of such marriages as promised to yield children who would grow into eminent servants of the State” (1865, p. 165).

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Galton championed his eugenics program with considerable fervor, so that by 1905, through a research fellowship he endowed, he was able to have eugenics recognized by the University of London. In 1907 the Eugenics Education Society was established to popularize the results and methods of eugenics (Freeman, 1983, p. 15). Upon Galton’s death in 1911, University College received forty-five thousand pounds to provide some fifteen hundred pounds a year for the establishment of a Galton Eugenics Professorship. Karl Pearson, Galton’s friend, collaborator in science, promulgator of Galtonian eugenics, and ultimately Galton’s biographer, in accordance with Galton’s wish, became the first to assume the professorship in eugenics (Kelves, 1984).

Pearson was an accomplished mathematician, statistician, and man of science, elected to the Royal Society and honoured by this fraternity in 1898 with its Darwin Medal (Pearson, 1938). He was committed to the doctrine of biological determinism and to the study and promotion of eugenics for race improvement. Like Galton, he believed that nature has primacy over nurture, and of this there can be no doubt. He thought “it quite safe to say” that the influence of the environment was “not one fifth that of heredity, quite possibly not one tenth of it” (Pearson, 1910, in 1913, p. 27). As early as 1873, it was Galton’s fixed belief that “when nature and nurture compete for supremacy on equal terms” (p. 116) it is always nature that proves the stronger. During the years following, Pearson promoted Galton’s formula, “nature not nurture”. This formula, according to the anthropologist Lowie (1920), became the “cornerstone of Galton’s biological philosophy”, (p. 92) and the basic doctrine of the eugenics movement.

A comparable zeal for the teachings of eugenicists characterized the movement in the United States. In 1906 the American Breeders Association set up a Committee on Eugenics, headed by a prominent biologist and chancellor of Stanford University, David S. Jordan. Charles Davenport, a leading enthusiast of eugenics and a geneticist became the secretary of the Committee (Haller, 1963; Cravens, 1978). In 1911 Davenport published, Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, and is said to have been as much a crusader about the necessity of race improvement as Galton himself (Freeman, 1983, p. 16). Indeed, by 1918, a number of biologically oriented activists in the United States, many of whom supported the eugenics movement from its earliest days, joined forces for the promotion of study of racial anthropology and the biology of physical and mental characteristics. The results of these activists’ efforts led to the founding of the Galton Society in 1918, with Davenport as its chairman. Accepting evolution by natural selection and Galton’s principle of the “like inheritance of mental and physical characteristics”, the members of this society were at variance with the notion that human behaviour could be explained in cultural terms (Cravens, 1978; Freeman, 1983).

It was not until the 1920s, however, that Gesell became involved with Davenport. Upon the latter’s request, Gesell analyzed and summarized psychological data ultimately reported in the Davenport and Steggerda (1929) study of race-mixing in Jamaica. He presented his results to the Galton Society in 1929 (Weizmann, 1988). The purpose of the Davenport and Steggerda study was to compare samples of “Blacks, Whites, and hybrids … also of several hundred children at all developmental levels. The studies are morphological, physiological, psychological, developmental and eugenical” (p. iv). Gesell analyzed and reported results from several categories, including: motor, language, adaptive, and personal-social performance (p. 424-425). Gesell found that the motor performance of non-White children “is very similar to that of … children studied by the Yale Psycho-Clinic” (Davenport & Steggerda, 1929, p. 424). Whereas language is average, adaptive behaviour “requiring memory and insight” is below level. “In the Personal-Social field”, Gesell continues, “there is conspicuous lack of training in bowel and bladder control, and the ability to inhibit acts is below average” (p. 425). The overall conclusions of the study as far as the psychological results are concerned, according to Davenport and Steggerda, were that Blacks were more musical and less intelligent than Whites (pp. 475-476). Gesell, on the other hand, erred on the side of caution, saying that developmental data were collected under less than ideal conditions. He continues, “It will be understood that the data did not permit of rigorous clinical and experimental control; and are reported as suggestive rather than conclusive” (Davenport & Steggerda, 1929, p. 424).

The reader may appreciate at this point that Gesell’s cautious interpretation of the developmental data in the Davenport and Steggerda study, along with his earlier comments on the “interdependence” between heredity and environment,reveals a more moderate position on nature and nurture, and less than enthusiastic support for interpretations of developmental data on racial differences within a eugenic framework. It appears that Gesell was “uncomfortable with Davenport’s sweeping characterizations of racial differences” (Weizmann, 1988, p. 6).

THE HEREDITARIAN THEORY OF INTELLIGENCE Having reviewed Gesell’s association with Davenport’s eugenic research, his changing stance on the nature-nurture issue, and his eugenic posture on the analysis and solutions to problems of the feeble-minded, let us turn to the manner in which eugenics became associated with the study of individual differences in the psychologies of Terman and Goddard. In this way it is possible to gauge the extent to which eugenic thinking entered into psychology in the first third of the 20th century. This would be the very time frame during which Gesell evolved from student to researcher and practitioner in the fields of developmental psychology and pediatrics, having developed during these years “an early and very strong concern” with problems of mental defects (Ames, 1989, p. 17), and by Gesell’s own admission a “lifelong interest in backward and defective children” (1952, p. 128).

It will be recalled that Gesell formed a close association with Terman, first at Clark University (circa 1903) when Terman “was engaged in his path-breaking study of Genius and Stupidity”, and then as employee-colleague at the Los Angeles State Normal School in 1906, when “his (Terman’s) interest in Binet and the measurement of intelligence was gathering strength, and came to notable fulfilment at Stanford University” (Gesell, 1952, pp. 127-128). As for Goddard, Gesell visited Vineland in 1909 and “spent a few profitable weeks at the… Training school, … impressed by the … sincerity of the work at Vineland, both in its scientific and humanitarian aspects” (Gesell, 1952, p. 128). Gesell continues, “In later years (1911-15), Goddard and I worked together directing … the training of special class teachers of backward and defective pupils”, and it was at this time that Gesell developed his lifelong interest in atypical children (1952, p. 128).

It will be recalled that Goddard was research psychologist on staff of the New Jersey Training school for the Feebleminded, in Vineland, New Jersey. He became interested in the Binet-Simon intelligence scale as an instrument to measure the abilities of the school’s inmates,and was the first popularizer of this scale in America. “It remains”, he said, with the vigor of a crusader in 1917, “for someone to determine the nature of the feeble-mindedness and complete the theory of the intelligence quotient” (1917a, p. 31). He set out to be that someone by conducting an ambitious testing program, regarding his scores as measures of a single, innate entity known as intelligence. Binet refused to define his scores as “intelligence”, recognizing the fallacy of reification of intelligence as a single, measurable entity. “The scale”, Binet observed in 1905, “properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured” (p. 40). Binet, it seems, was too good a theoretician to become victim of an error that John Stuart Mill had identified as the belief “that whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own” (quoted in Gould, 1981, p. 151). Not only did Binet decline to label IQ as inborn intelligence, he also refused to regard it as a general device for ranking all pupils according to mental worth. Both Goddard, and later Terman, “perverted Binet’s intention and invented the hereditarian theory of IQ. They reified Binet’s scores and took them as measures of an entity called intelligence” (Gould, 1981, p. 157).

Once Goddard discovered a measure of intelligence, he then went about identifying the feeble-minded and the moron; the latter, he believed, needed to be especially identified. “The idiot is not our greatest problem”, he stated in 1912, “He is indeed loathsome … Nevertheless, he lives a life and is done. He does not continue the race with a line of children like himself… It is the moron type that makes for us our great problem” (pp. 101-102). Thus, the moron was considered a threat to racial health because he ranks highest among the undesirable and might, if not identified, be allowed to flourish and propagate. Gesell concurs: “Few things transmit themselves as inevitably as feeblemindedness, and the feeble-minded have much larger families than normally prudent parents” (1913, p. 12). How to deal with the potential menace to the race offered by the unchecked perpetuation of the moron? Goddard did not oppose sterilization, but he regarded it as impractical because of traditional sensibilities of a society not yet wholly rational to prevent widespread mayhem. Similarly, Gesell felt that sterilization had “only an extremely limited scope of application”, and that “supervision and segregation” might be a better way of preventing conception (1923). In a similar fashion, Goddard (1912) proposed “colonization” of the moron and other undesirables in institutions like his own Vineland. Only in this way could the reproduction of morons be curtailed. It was just one more step from not allowing native morons to breed to keeping out foreign ones (Gould, 1981).

After 1910 the eugenics movement became increasingly concerned with immigration restriction. Goddard and associates descended upon Ellis Island in 1912 “to observe conditions and offer any suggestions as to what might be done to secure a more thorough examination of immigrants for the purpose of detecting mental defective” (Goddard, 1917b, p. 243). Binet’s tests revealed the following results for various immigrant groups: 83 percent of Jews, 80 percent of the Hungarians, 79 percent of the Italians, and 87 percent of the Russians were feeble-minded, that is below age 12 on the Binet scale (Goddard, 1917b, p. 252).

Goddard was astounded by the results since they indicated in a somewhat graphic fashion that up to four-fifths of a nation were morons. Goddard then revised some tests, disposed of others and readjusted the norms. The results of these manipulations were somewhat more encouraging, however outcomes for immigrants from southern and middle Europe still proved disturbing. By 1917(b), Goddard was able to report that “the number of aliens deported because of feeblemindedness … increased approximately 350 percent in 1913 to 570 percent in 1914… This was due to the untiring efforts of the physicians who were inspired by the belief that mental tests could be used for the detection of feeble-minded aliens…” (p. 271).

However disturbing these results might be, they were further buttressed by the outcomes of the massive Army testing program initiated by Robert Yerkes in 1917. In a summation of sorts, in 1923, Yerkes insisted that the Army tests administered to upwards of 1.75 million men proved that races differed in innate intelligence. “Nordic” and “Alpine” races of Northwestern Europe were undeniably superior to “Mediterraneans” and nonwhites. He urged immigration restriction because the less gifted races were not as able to be good citizens. Yerkes concluded that all manner of crime, delinquency as well as educability were related to intellectual ability (Yerkes, 1923). These conclusions were supported by Yerkes’ colleagues, Goddard and Terman, both of whom in the spring and summer of 1917 worked with Yerkes to put the testing program in place. These three “major hereditarians of American psychometrics” were very much in agreement on the theory, testing, and measurement of hereditarian IQ, and on the necessity, in keeping with eugenic policy, in identifying undesirable elements within society (Gould, 1981).

Like his colleagues Goddard and Yerkes, Terman insisted on massive testing, and his adaptation of the Binet scales, later to be known as the Stanford-Binet, served as the “paradigm for virtually all the written versions that followed” (Gould, 1981, p. 176). Through massive testing Terman hoped to establish a gradation of innate ability that could sort children into their proper stations in life. To the question “What pupils shall be tested? The answer”, Terman replied, “is, all” (1923, p. 22). The ambition of Goddard, Terman and Yerkes for the promotion of test and measurement psychology during the period between 1912 to 1925, and its application to social, military, and education problems, reveals, in keeping with the theme of eugenics in matters psychological, the extent to which science, pseudo-science, and ideology complemented one another.

Although, as we have seen from the foregoing, eugenical ideas had influenced the field of individual differences psychology, two forces within the behavioural and social sciences, behavioural psychology as initially articulated by John B. Watson (1878-1958), and anthropology as espoused by Franz Boas (1858-1942), were already promoting the cause of “nurture”, in opposition to the extreme claims of biological determinism. Gesell was familiar with the nature-nurture debate as this debate intensified throughout the 1920s (e.g., 1926; 1929a), and had already begun to modify his views on the roles of heredity and environment on development (e.g., 1933; 1934), as well as the eugenical management of the feeble-minded (e.g., 1921; 1923).

During the period that Gesell was modifying his views on the heredity-environment issue, and eugenics, the forces of behaviourism and anthropology had gathered considerable momentum. Did these two forces contribute to Gesell’s shift in position? Or was it a coincidence, an historical accident, that as biological determinism and eugenics were being called into question, Gesell was revising his positions on both the role of heredity on psychological growth, and the application of eugenic solutions to the problems of atypical development? In order to respond to these questions, it is necessary to review developments within behavioural psychology and anthropology, noting the extent to which they complemented one another, and displaced the supremacy of hereditarian and eugenic ideas. In this review, then, it is possible to assess the extent to which Gesell’s views were influenced by these two developments within the behavioural and social sciences.


Give me a dozen healthy infants … and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll … take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist … regardless of his talents … abilities … and race of his ancestors. (Watson, 1925, p. 82).

Although this may be one of the most oft-cited comments by a psychologist in the literature, it certainly captures the assertive optimism of one who was as committed to environmental determinism as surely as Galton and his intellectual descendants were committed to a biological (eugenical) determinism. Watson’s pronouncement above has the fervor, as well, of a crusade in the manner of Galton. However, whereas Galton’s “Jehad” or Holy War as he called it (Freeman, 1983) was in the service of eugenics, Watson championed the role of environment, conditioning and training, as fundamental in the determination of human personality. On the whole, Watson’s behaviourism was in opposition to the mentalistic psychologies (e.g., structuralism and psycho-analysis) that had taken hold in America and Continental Europe, and by extension to theories of biological determinism. Watson argued that the goals of prediction and control of behaviour could only be achieved if psychology becomes an objective science of behaviour, and follows the example set by the physical sciences; becoming materialistic, mechanistic, deterministic, objective (Watson, 1919). To capture the flavour of the foregoing, one need only note what Watson had to say about psychoanalysis as an example of mentalistic psychology: It is “based largely upon religion, introspective psychology, and Voodooism” (1924, p. 18). As Heidbreder (1961) remarked of Watson’s behaviourist attitude: he believed that “to admit the mental into science is to open the door to the enemies of science–to subjectivism, supernaturalism, tendermindedness” (p. 235).

Watson’s intellectual descendants stressed the experimental analysis of children’s behavioural development, applying principles of learning derived from animal and human studies (e.g., Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears, 1939; Miller and Dollard, 1941; Bijou and Baer, 1961; Bandura and Walters, 1963; Bijou, 1979). Eventually, behaviourism’s appeal was so convincing and influential, that by the time E.C. Tolman delivered his presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1938, he could say with confidence, speaking for a whole generation of behavioural psychologists: “I believe that everything important in psychology … can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determiners of rat behaviour at a choice-point in a maze” (p. 34).

It might be noted at this point that Gesell was very aware of behaviourism’s stridency, and he rejected, initially, behaviouristic formulations that infants are basically alike at birth and that individual differences are due to early conditioning. In 1929, Gesell observed “The influence of conditioning on the human infant has been so forcibly asserted from the standpoint of behaviourism, that it may be desirable to examine the influence of sheer maturation on his pattern of behaviour” (1929b, p. 307). Although, as Ames (1989) commented, Gesell “with single minded persistence … pursued his course in the face of Watsonian behaviourism and the arguments of the many other schools of environmentalism…” (p.8), Gesell was influenced to develop a more moderate position on the matter of maturation and conditioning influences on development. We have already noted how, in 1930, Gesell was advancing the position “that there is a profound interdependence between ‘heredity’ and ‘environment’ in the control of development” (p. 295). His moderate and modified stance prevailed. In 1938, when psychologists Florence Goodenough and Lewis Terman wrote Gesell to argue for the necessity of a study for the National Society for the Study of Education yearbook of 1940, so that, as Terman put it, environmentalists would not “pack the Yearbook with evidence on one side”, Gesell answered that “… I am not much in the mood to stir up anything additional”. He told Goodenough further, that he and his associates “are trying to get away somewhat from a fixed dichotomy of Nature vs Nurture” (quoted in Cravens, 1978, p. 264).

By 1956, Gesell et al. reconciled the play of forces on development by declaring that two factors, in general, account for individual differences:

1. The genetic factors of individual constitution and innate maturation sequence (p. 22).

2. The environmental factors ranging from home, school to the total cultural setting. This latter process is called “acculturation” (p. 22).

Although Gesell never abandoned his maturation theory of development, not being terribly swayed “by the winds of change that swept psychology during his lifetime”, said biographer Ames (1989, p. 8), he did make the necessary theoretical adjustments that permitted a recognition of environmental influences, and the resulting interaction of heredity and environment on development. The view that maturation combined with learning and training as determinants of development became an acceptable alternative to an either/or posture on nature/nurture. Gesell continues, “Now the scientist would insist that growth is essentially lawful but also profoundly plastic. It is governed by certain limitations; but within those lawful limitations it is marvellously adaptive, and likewise lawfully responsive to both internal and external conditions” (1926, p. 395).

From the foregoing, it can be seen that Gesell was not impervious to the developments taking place outside his own particular field of interest. Behavioural psychology did have an impact on his own theoretical conceptions. Similarly, advances in anthropology made by an intellectual leader, Franz Boas and his students, in the early years of the 20th century, not only called into question eugenic ideas, but also challenged the nature over nurture position, and advanced the cause of nurture in this ongoing debate. On two fronts, then, the enshrined biological doctrine of “nature over nurture” was challenged, first as we have noted by behaviourism, and second to be discussed below, by Boasian anthropology.


Franz Boas has been described as “the builder and architect of modern anthropology”(Lesser, 1981, p. 3). He advanced, within anthropology, a position that was directly counter to hereditarian theory and eugenic doctrine (Boas, 1916). Briefly, his position has been called by Freeman (1983) and fellow anthropologists, the “Boasian paradigm” (p. 48). This paradigm attempted to explain human behaviour in purely cultural terms. For example, early in his anthropological investigations, Boas became convinced that people in general share a common humanity, and yet, the custom and character of a people are shaped by the physical and social environments to which they are exposed. In his studies of the Eskimo on Baffin Island during the 1880s, Boas recalled: “I had seen that they enjoyed their life, and a hard life, as we do … that, although the character of their life is so rude as to compare to civilized life, the Eskimo is a man as we are.” (in Herskovits, 1973, p. 1).

From this somewhat moderate view of a common humanity, Boas’ conception of culture’s impact on personality became, in the extreme, a form of cultural determinism, similar in a sense to Watson’s extreme environmentalism. In 1934, for instance, citing the anthropological field work, which he strongly encouraged, of his former student, and devoted colleague, Margaret Mead with Samoan adolescent girls, Boas made clear his insistence on the impact of culture on personality. He said, “the study of cultural forms” had proven “genetic elements” to be “altogether irrelevant” in determining personality (Boas, 1934, p. 34). Mead’s earlier work involving the analysis of IQ scores of children of Italian immigrants to determine how much their IQ was dependent on whether English or Italian was the predominant language spoken at home, had also been suggested by Boas. Mead’s conclusion that “the home language was related to IQ level attained; the scores of those speaking Italian at home was lower”, fuelled Boas’ attack on the hereditarians and eugenicists. In a 1925 article, entitled “This Nordic Nonsense”, Boas referred to Mead’s findings, and he argued that lower IQ scores of immigrant groups could be explained by their lesser “degree of assimilation to American conditions, and particularly in regard to the acquisition of the English language”. This was a timely attack on those who considered IQ differences as reflecting racial differences that were hereditarily determined. Brigham (1923) had just published two years earlier his conclusions regarding the Army IQ tests. Brigham reported that “the army (IQ) tests indicate clearly the intellectual superiority of the Nordic race group”. Further, Brigham’s conclusions supplied the eugenicists with additional support for their continued campaign on immigration restriction. Eugenicists, says Cravens (1978), played a persuasive role in the enactment of one of the most ambitious programs of biological engineering put in place in the first quarter of the 20th century, the National Origins Act of 1924, which imposed immigration quotas based “squarely on eugenicists’ ideas of Nordic racial superiority and non-Aryan racial inferiority” (p. 53). Boas, as we see, responded to Brigham’s “superiority of the Nordic race group” finding, and to the alarming developments regards the immigration act, with his 1925 publication. Instead he offered a set of counter-results to that of Brigham’s and arguments to the contrary.

Boas’ challenge to the rising tide of eugenics during the first quarter of the 20th century may be said to have been formally stated in his presidential address to the American Folk-Lore Society, in 1900. Here, he argued for the recognition of culture as a construct to which the laws of biology did not apply. As it developed, the theme of cultural determinism was crystallized in his 1911 book The Mind of Primitive Man. Here, as Stocking (1968) has noted, the whole thrust of Boas’ thought was “to distinguish the concept of race and culture, to separate biological and cultural heredity, to focus attention on cultural heredity, to focus attention on cultural processes, to free the concept of culture from its heritage of evolutionary and racial assumptions, so that it could subsequently become … completely independent of biological determinism” (p. 264). As Boas’ criticism of eugenics mounted, “Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in (the) history” of anthropology (Gossett, 1963, p. 418), he recognized the need for scientific and detailed investigations of heredity and environmental conditions. He was well aware of current biogenetic theories of development, especially the one espoused by his former boss, G. Stanley Hall, who recruited Boas to his faculty at Clark University in the late 1880s. Hall’s thinking on matters psychological was very much in keeping with the prevailing Zeitgeist of Darwinizing psychology. In psychology, the trend toward biological determinism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as we know, found various outlets; in William McDougall’s instinct theory, in Freud’s emphasis on universal psychosexual stages in personality, and in Hall’s biogenetic theory of adolescence. In Hall’s psychology of adolescence, adolescent development was viewed as a period of “storm and stress”. The crises, turmoil, and conflict of adolescence were the inevitable effects of physical and sexual maturation, were natural and biologically determined (Hall, 1904). Over the years, however, Boas had disagreed with Hall and those that emphasized the role of “nature over nurture”. In contrast, Boas claimed that the social stimulus was infinitely more important than the biological mechanism.

Boas’ intellectual and theoretical challenge to biological determinism, which eventually led to the separation of cultural anthropology from biology, had never been empirically tested however. The testing ground for the validity of cultural determinism became adolescence, and specifically: whether adolescence, as Hall in his massive 1904 study of adolescence declared, proved a universal period of “storm and stress”, turmoil and crisis, biologically determined, or whether, as Boas maintained, a “negative instance” could be found to demonstrate that adolescence could be otherwise, perhaps a smooth, happy, carefree time, culturally determined. Margaret Mead (1901-1978), a doctoral student of Boas, conducted a field study in the South Seas to provide Boas with such a negative instance–a counterexample, in which adolescents did not categorically experience a crisis or storm and stress. Mead, in 1928, published the results of her field work in, Coming of Age in Samoa. She demonstrated to her, and Boas’ satisfaction, that human behaviour could be explained in exclusively cultural terms and adolescence was a period of life that was to be understood as influenced by social and cultural variables. According to Mead: “Adolescence represented no period of crisis or stress, but was instead an orderly developing of a set of slowly maturing interests and activities” (1928, in 1949, p. 95). She then concluded that “adolescence is not necessarily a time of stress and strain, but that cultural conditions make it so” (1928, in 1949, p. 137). These conclusions were exactly what Boas needed to bolster the validity of his brand of cultural determinism. In the foreword to her 1928 book, Boas applauded Mead: “The results of her painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilisation” (Boas, foreword, 1928). Overall, Mead’s findings and conclusions went far beyond Boas’ expectations and the discipline of cultural anthropology.

Coming of Age in Samoa became the most widely read anthropological work, and the Samoan researches became the earliest and most powerful demonstration of Boas’ theory of cultural relativism (Muuss, 1988). Although unchallenged for several decades, in 1983 Derek Freeman, a fellow anthropologist, critiqued Mead’s methodology and premises, and challenged the “myth making” at work in her treatise. However, the work of Mead, and a fellow colleague, Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), both trained and committed to Boas’ new anthropology, reinforced and elaborated Boas’ original theme, that the social stimulus is more powerful than the biological mechanism, throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1934, Benedict produced Patterns of Culture. This book joined Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa “as a cornerstone of 20th century teaching that culture is an important–indeed a crucial–determinant of human behaviour” (Torrey, 1992, p. 82). In her examination of three markedly different cultures–the Zuni of New Mexico, the Kakiutl Indians of British Columbia, and the Dobuans of Papua New Guinea, analyzing why these cultures are different, Benedict concluded: “Most people are shaped to the form of their culture… They are plastic to the moulding force of the society into which they are born” (1934, pp. 220-221). Echoing Boas, that the social stimulus is more important than the biological mechanism, Benedict continues: “…the biological bases of cultural behaviour in mankind are for the most part irrelevant” (1934, p. 206).

Boas, Mead, and Benedict formed a powerful alliance in their fight against the excesses of the hereditarians and the eugenicists. Anthropology became their foil to counter the claims of the opposition. As Benedict put it: “The fundamental question … to which the labours of anthropology are directed is in how far the forces at work in civilisation are cultural, and in how far organic or due to heredity; what is due to nurture, in the rhyming phrase, and what to nature” (1924, p. 118).

Although Boas’ theoretical position began as a reaction against the biologically based developmental, psychological, and psychiatric theories of that period, it went well beyond the borders of an academic debate. His position emphasized that the diversity of child rearing, family, and cultural patterns exerted an influence much greater than had been believed and therefore, a uniform, universal, biologically based human nature simply did not exist. Boas received support for these views from other scientists, such as T.H. Morgan (1916), a geneticist and co-discoverer of modern chromosome theory. Morgan argued that most human traits were not transmitted as simple Mendelian units, and human behaviour could not be reduced to mere biological traits. Man differed from other species in that he had a social inheritance, and it is this social inheritance that gets transmitted from one generation to the next and, in part, shapes the character of a people. The notion of social inheritance is conceptually similar to what Gesell, I believe, meant by “acculturation” (1956, p. 22); the impress of societal conditioning upon its members.

Thus, Boas did receive support for the view that group differences within and across cultures are not due to heredity, but rather, are due to the social fact that members of the same culture tend to share a distinctive and similar “culture” from birth onward, with its own language, childrearing patterns, and institutionalized values. Further, it was the convergence of views during this period of foment, as expressed in behavioural psychology with its emphasis on nurture, and in anthropology’s challenge of the simple and early hereditarian ideas of Galton and the eugenics movement, that led one observer to comment that by the 1930s the eugenics movement “lay in wreckage” (Haller, 1963, p. 94). An event of singular importance that contributed to the movement’s waning influence took place in January 1930 with the publication of Carl Brigham’s article in the Psychological Review. Brigham had been an enthusiastic supporter of eugenics, and his A Study of American Intelligence (1923) had been widely quoted for its conclusion that the army IQ tests revealed the intellectual superiority of the Nordic race. In an agonizing retraction of the 1923 findings, Brigham completely reversed himself in the 1930 article. He continues: “This review has summarized some of the more recent test findings which show that comparative studies of various national and racial groups may not be made with existing tests, and which show, in particular, that one of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies–the writer’s own–was without foundation” (p. 165). By the time the Third Congress of Eugenics was convened in 1932, the eugenics movement was becoming “anemic” (Torrey, 1992, p. 86).

As far as Gesell being influenced by developments in anthropology, and accommodating its findings to his own work, it is safe to say that he was aware of Boas’ school of thought through “an interesting and substantive relationship (that) did develop between Dr. Gesell and Margaret Mead” (Ames, 1989, p. 271). Even though Gesell emphasized the role of maturation on the child, and Mead the importance of social conditioning, Mead was able to incorporate in her own work (e.g., 1947) the theories of Gesell (e.g., Gesell & Ilg, 1943). Mead, for example, found that the Gesell-Ilg approach to maturation had implications for the anthropologist. She says, “In selecting the Gesell-Ilg approach to the study of maturation (in differing cultural contexts)… I believe that certain of the concepts emerging from this approach may be of the very greatest importance to the field work … concerned with child development” (1947, p. 70). Mead believed that the Gesell-Ilg approach provided the anthropologist “with a model, a basic way of thinking about the maturation of the individual, in terms of which any given culture’s expectations and demands can be calibrated” (p. 71). Thus, the maturation of the individual may or may not be synchronized with a given culture’s expectations for the individual, and this could have consequences for personality formation. Mead continues, “… while children in all cultures learn to walk, the way they learn to walk and the time they learn to walk, in relation to their actual innate maturational capacity, may be very significant as a factor in personality formation” (1947, p. 72-73). She cites the circumstances of the Balinese child who is encouraged to walk early, as “creeping is abhorred”. As a result, the child has frequent experiences of loss of balance; and loss of balance is a “preoccupation of Balinese throughout their lives, playing a role in their rejection of alcohol, disorientation after travelling in motor cars, etc …” (p. 73). Additional concepts borrowed from Gesell’s theories, such as the spiral model of continuous growth that contain both upward and downward gradients (Gesell & Ilg, 1943), impressed Mead. She continues:

“As I came to understand the spiral concept of development, how it supplements the concepts of epigenesis of Erik Erikson and reorders many of the observations on children’s behaviour that had been classified as regression, and how the development of a series of spiral models would give us a device for examining cultural specializations in terms of the timing of learning, I felt that I had found something I had been looking for for the last ten years–a research device that would make it possible to explore the nexus between the rhythms of given temperaments and the way in which a culture institutionalizes these rhythms so that all individuals born within the culture … are also subjected to the same pattern of learning.” (Mead & Macgregor, 1951, p. 198).

This model, Mead argues, allows for the “systematic inclusion of repetitions of behaviour characteristic of previous stages, as part of growth, rather than as regression” (p. 73). This is in contrast to the psychiatric use of regression in which the “individual fails to conquer his reality problems on one level of maturity and so regresses to an earlier technique of adjustment…” (p. 73). Thus, the spiral model of development allows for regression as a normal and healthy return to previous levels before mastery of subsequent higher levels is achieved. In the psychiatric sense, Mead says, regression can also be studied and the “extent to which cultures institutionalize regression–lying in bed, being nursed and fed … in the case of illness or various life crises, and rites of passage” may be noted (p. 73). We may also, Mead continues, “with adequate psychiatric equipment study the types of regression which are characteristic of different cultural character structures” (p. 73).

Mead drew freely upon Gesell’s theories, and invited him and his staff to collaborate on the investigation which culminated in her book, Growth and Culture (Mead & Macgregor, 1951). In this book Mead compared the development of Balinese infants with the detailed norms established by Gesell for American infants. Although the Balinese infants develop in a manner very similar to that characteristic of American infants, one major difference noted was the unusual postural flexibility of the Balinese. In American infants there are many postures which could be assumed which simply are very seldom seen. This may account for the kind of dancing which comes easily to the Balinese, since these postures are natural to the Balinese, emphasized in the culture, and easily incorporated into their dancing (Mead & Macgregor, 1951).

We can certainly see the utility to which Gesell’s theories held promise for Mead’s anthropological concerns. To what extent did Gesell consciously apply Mead’s or any other variant of Boas’ anthropology to his own work? It appears that Mead borrowed liberally from Gesell. He, however, “did not find it useful”, says Gesell’s long-time collaborator and biographer Ames (1989) “in supplementing or supporting his own (work), and no references to her appear in his writings” (p. 271). Yet, in spite of the lack of overt acknowledgement of Mead’s work by Gesell, he did “collaborate” with Mead, and they did have, by virtue of a biographer’s estimation, “an interesting and substantive relationship” (Ames, 1989, p. 271). Mead continued her association with Gesell and his group throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In the mid-1950s “she generously agreed to become a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Gesell Institute” (Ames, 1989, p. 276). “She,” Ames continues, “added a good deal of liveliness to the Gesell Work and the Gesell Institute” (1989, p. 277).

Suffice it to say that in works such as Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (Gesell & Ilg, 1943), Gesell brought forward more of the spirit of interdependence of maturation and learning on development, quite possibly moved, in part, by the extra-theoretical influences from fields such as anthropology and his association with Mead. The influence of anthropology on his thinking is very much in evidence in this work, where Gesell acknowledges that the “relationships between a child and his culture are highly reciprocal” (Gesell & Ilg, 1943, p. x), and therefore maturation and cultural patterning combine in the determination of the child’s growth. In a similar vein, Gesell, although he pursued “with single-minded persistence”, in the face of Watsonian behaviourism, his insistence on the supremacy of his brand of maturationism over environmentalism, he was able to incorporate into his system of thinking by the 1930s, the interaction and not the opposition, of heredity and environment in the control of development. Further, as the rising tide of opposition to the eugenics movement became increasingly manifest by the 1930s, Gesell modified his stance on the treatment and management of problems of mental defect and deviation.

It is noteworthy, at this point, to turn to the observations of Torrey (1992) “on how closely events”, he says, “in 1930s Germany were associated with the American eugenics movement” (p. 90). The Germans, he continues, looked to America both to justify their sterilization laws, such as the one enacted in 1935–Law for Protection of German Blood and German Honor–one of the Nuremberg Laws–and for a model on which to base these laws. “By the time the German law had passed … the United States had carried out approximately 20,000 sterilizations, most of them involuntarily”, notes Torrey (1992, p. 89). Kelves (1985) concurs, and adds, that in the 1930s, “state sterilization authorities raided whole families of ‘misfit’ mountaineers…” (p. 164). Initially, American and German eugenicists embraced a common ideology; a foremost American eugenicist, Henry Osborn, a founding member of the Galton Society in 1918, made “an enthusiastic trip” to Nazi Germany, where he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Frankfurt in 1934 (Torrey, 1992). Madison Grant was honored by having his The Passing of the Great Race translated into German as early as 1925, and in 1932, Charles Davenport publicly defended the Nazi “cleansing process” to counteract the race-poisoning brought about by “corrupt blood” (Torrey, 1992, p. 91).

Whatever compatibilities existed between the American and German eugenics movement, it was the events during the 1930s and the rise of Hitler, that brought about the frightening political realities of the nature vs nurture debate, and applied eugenics science in general. As Hall (1941) observed at that time, “The controversy regarding nature vs nurture is being transformed into a conflict between rival social, political, and economic ideologies” (p. 909). It is in this context, of the above mentioned social and political realities, that Gesell, being “always politically liberal” (Weizmann, 1988, p. 7), may have begun to distance himself more strenuously from the pernicious implications of being an extreme naturist, and eugenics sympathizer. It will be recalled that Gesell turned down Terman’s request to do a study on the role of heredity on intellectual development for the 1940 issue of the National Society for the Study of Education yearbook. Further, Gesell relayed to Terman’s colleague, Florence Goodenough, that his (Gesell’s) associates “are trying to get away … from a fixed dichotomy of Nature vs Nurture” (Cravens, 1978, p. 264). It might be said that as Gesell modified his stance on the nature-nurture issue, and the use of eugenic measures for the management of those less than normally endowed, he began, in the 1930s, to “speak out more … on issues of social policy” (Weizmann, 1988, p. 7). By 1941, for example, he was calling on government to take on more responsibility for child care and parental education. Gesell continues:

For all infants and children preventive and curative medical services should be available… These services, financed through private resources … public funds include: The supervision of health and development of infant and child. Health instruction in school and health education of parents in methods of conserving both physical and mental health. Effective nutritional services. Mental health services. The foregoing recommendations were adopted by the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy (1940)… Physical welfare, mental health, and development become indivisible concepts, inseparable objectives. Optimal growth is the inclusive goal of child hygiene. (Gesell & Armatruda, 1941, p. 323).

It might be said that Gesell lived through several schools of psychology, from the time he received his Ph.D in 1906, until his retirement in the 1950s from the Institute of Child Studies he made famous and that bears his name. These schools included, structuralism, functionalism, behaviourism, Gestalt and psychoanalytic psychology. And, although he appeared at times to have been “remarkably unswayed by arguments of those who disagreed with him, or by the winds of change that swept psychology during his lifetime” (Ames, 1989, p. 8), he was not, I believe, impervious to developments within the behavioural and social sciences, nor to the eugenic issues that were unfolding on the larger political stage in America, and in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. He modified his position on nature vs nurture and advanced a spirit of interactionism in regards to the interplay of these two forces on growth. Finally, and ultimately, he disposed of the eugenic sympathies that characterized his early work.

Reprints requested by the readership should be sent to the author at Department of Psychology, Atkinson College, YorkUniversity.


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Copyright Canadian Psychological Association May 1995

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