Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 517-521
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojpp) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2013.34074
Open Access 517
The Nature-Nurture Problem Revisited. Some Epistemological
Topics in Contemporary Human Sciences
Nesna University College, Nesna, Norway
Email: arnulfk@ hin esn a.no
Received April 5th, 2013; revised May 5th, 2013; a c c e p ted May 12th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Arnulf Kolstad. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attri-
bution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Humans are from nature biological organisms who become cultural individuals. An essential task for psy-
chology is to clarify the inter-functionality between biology and culture and how higher psychological
functions are created when culture “creeps inside” and establishes new human nature in the mind and the
brain. Knowledge of the ways in which genes and the environment interact to affect maturation of the
brain has changed our understanding of the relationship between nature and nurture, between biology and
culture. Hereditary or genetic outfitting unfolds in concert with the environment from the time of concep-
tion and during pregnancy. The dynamic interplay between gene action and the environment continues
through life. The human mind is a conscious mind developed with cultural tools like language and able to
subjugate the non-conscious instinctive and lower psychological “mind” functions. These lower functions
are part of the non-volatile mind developing to something else when combined with the higher and cul-
tural mind functions. The psyche is a functional system which acquires a socio-historical character in the
transition from the animal organism to the human organism for each individual during the ontogenesis.
Keywords: Biology; Culture; Lower Psychological Functions; Higher Psychological Functions;
The relative weight assigned to nature versus nurture in dif-
ferent historical eras has varied. There are historical periods and
recent traditions in psychology in which there was no place for
any interaction, as if biology and culture were independent
entities in terms of human development. The misleading char-
acter of such a dichotomous formulation has come to be recog-
nized (Jahoda, 2002). The former sharp distinction between
biology and culture is giving way to the recognition of their
interrelationship, though its exact nature is still to be discussed
and revealed. The inseparability of the two aspects and how we
should understand human development as a result of their mu-
tual interdependences, inspired by cultural-historical psychol-
ogy is one topic considered in this article.
Biology and Culture
Traditionally, biology and culture have been two distant
research areas with different traditions and methods, rooted in
different theoretical frames of reference. Culture was often seen
as too complex to be studied in the nomological way by “hard”
psychological methods (Kornadt, 2002). The term culture refers
to human traditions and a stored meaning system analyzed and
understood by qualitative methods inspired by hermeneutic and
humanistic traditions. In contrast, biology is a “hard”, quan-
titative natural science.
Most professionals today will claim that culture and biology
are related to one another. But how this relation or inter-func-
tionality happens and what are the characteristics are still con-
troversial and not disclosed in detail in mainstream psychology.
Most often the interaction is described as a general principle or
as a postulate. Joan G. Miller’s describes for instance individu-
als as simultaneously biological and cultural beings and the two
levels as “intertwined and mutually influential” (Miller, 2002: p.
Greenfield (2002) argues that there are different relations
between cultural environment and biological nature in human
development 1) Culture reinforces biology; 2) Culture appro
priates biology; 3) Culture and biology are mutually adapted for
survival; 4) Culture selects from biology (the biological sub-
strate provides the foundation for more than one capacity and
the environment can reinforce one capacity more than another,
for instance individualism more than interdependence); 5) Cul-
ture respects biology (Culture has sets of artefacts and practices
that respect and stimulate sensitive times of cognitive and neu-
ral development); 6) Culture shapes and actualizes biological
potential. These relations constitute ways in which culture and
biology define and influence each other in development. These
relationships make it clear that it is much too simplistic to think
of biology on the inside and culture on the outside. The impor-
tance of the external culture depends on the internal biological
capacity and the culture creep inside and establishes new hu-
man “nature” in the mind and the brain (Kolstad, 2012).
The past 30 years have seen unprecedented progress in un-
derstanding how the brain develops and, in particular, the
changes in both its circuitry and neurochemistry that occur
during development (Kolstad, 2013). Knowledge of the ways in
which genes and the environment interact to affect maturation
of the brain has changed our understanding of the relationship
between nature and nurture, between biology and culture.
It is essential to understand the interweaving of genetic and
environmental influences as they affect both brain and mind. It
is time for a new appreciation of the coactivity of nature and
nurture in human psychological development. Hereditary or
genetic outfitting unfolds in concert with the environment from
the time of conception and during pregnancy. The dynamic
interplay between gene action and the environment continues
Recent work on epigenesis suggests that it is not genes alone,
but it is intricate interactions between genetic potentials and
environments that ultimately give concrete shapes to human
brain, consciousness and behavior (Kitayama & Park, 2010).
Epigenesis is a term in biology that implies development of an
organism that unfolds through neuro-chemical mechanisms of
cell differentiations. Given its biological origin it should not
come as any surprise that epigenesis was long assumed to be
under genetic control (Kitayama & Park 2010). Importantly,
however, a number of recent studies (e.g. Suomi, 1999; Gunnar
et al., 2001; Meaney & Szyf, 2005; Lee et al., 2006) have de-
monstrated how experience (which becomes patterned by cul-
ture in human societies) “gets under the skin” during the devel-
opmental process to influence the genetic expressions and the
structure and function of the brain as well as consciousness and
behavior (Kitayama & Park, 2010). Interactions between genes
(and corresponding instinctive and temperamental dispositions)
and culture have therefore received intensive research effort in
the recent years (Aron et al., 2010; Kim & Drolet, 2009; Niko-
laidis & Gray, 2010). It would seem likely that various genetic
polymorphisms that are unevenly distributed across cultures
interact with local ecological environments (e.g. population
density) and cultural practices (e.g. parenting and dominant
social norms) to yield some of the cultural variations in psy-
chological functions and underlying brain pathways (Chiao and
Blizinsky, 2009). Thus, hidden “behind” the cultural variations
in mentality and associated brain pathways there might be an
important set of mechanisms by which culture/ecology and
genetics bi-directionally influence one another over time.
On the basis of recent research and empirical findings in
cultural psychology, cognitive psychology and neurosciences, it
is good reasons for claiming that higher psychological func-
tions develop from a biological basis and that the mind and
brain changes owing to mental and physical activity. The higher
psychological functions are humanly constructed when indi-
viduals participate in social interaction and communicate by
language in a specific culture. The development of higher psy-
chological functions as well as the development of the brain (its
function and structure), cannot be explained without focusing
on human activity and communication and how culture and
biology interact in the process of development.
Undoubtedly there is an inborn capacity to react with specific
emotions and instinctive behavior. The first accumulated ex-
periences activate and deactivate the emotion and form the
biologically based crystallization points for further motive de-
velopment. But this is not a uni-linear process based on one
genetic factor. It is the product of internal interaction of many
neurochemical processes and feedback loops. “The caregiver,
in turn, acts accordingly to his/her enduring habits and motives,
which are based on biology and experiences, and which again,
are shaped by (culture-bound) understanding of the actual situa-
tional context” (Kornadt, 2002: p. 208).
There are still disputes on the functioning of the cognitive
system and how it is actually installed in the physical nervous
system and the rules of operation of the nervous system that are
responsible for cognitive and psychological traits, characteris-
tics and function. According to Ira Black at the Department of
Neuroscience and Cell Biology, at Robert Wood Johnson Medi-
cal School, the environment does not “program” the nervous
system. Rather, the environment selects among potentials for
characteristics and processes already present in the system
thereby eliciting change. The external world triggers the poten-
tial for change that is already built into the system (Black,
The Lower and the Higher Psychological
The distinction between “lower” or natural psychological
functions and “higher” or cultural functions is essential for
describing the development of human psychology. The lower
functions are biological mechanisms, such as the blind reac-
tions to stimuli that we see in all animals. They do not involve
conscious experience. Over time, these lower functions are
transformed, and are controlled by higher “cultural” functions
(Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, 1994). There are important
distinctions between the lower or elementary functions and
higher psychological functions. The latter develop from the
former and at the same time change the lower ones to some-
thing different, absorbing them into new functions by the prin-
ciple of developing inter-functionality. The elementary func-
tions do not disappear but are changed (and usually reduced in
importance) when combined with cultural components in the
human mind and brain.
A given psychological function varies qualitatively according
to different stages of development. The different processes at
different stages of development impact fundamentally different
characteristics to function at various periods. Acknowledging
qualitative changes in memory, perception, emotion and moti-
vation over phylogenetic and ontogenetic development is cen-
tral to Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria’s thought, represent-
ing the cultural-historical approach in psychology. They state
that both phylogenetic and ontogenetic development involves
primordial characteristics becoming permeated by, subsumed
within, and tran sforme d by advanced feat ures. Prim ordial “lowe r”
characteristics do not retain their original nature and simply
coexist, side by side with advanced higher features. It is erro-
neous to generalize from animals to humans or from infants to
adults, because the primitive processes in animals have no ana-
log in human adults. Whatever functions they had in animals or
infants are completely altered as they become integrated into
higher processes. They lose their primitiveness and take on
social psychological features. Even psychobiological distur-
bances at different stages of psychological development will
have quite different consequences by virtue of the different
related functions in which they are embedded (Luria, 1966).
Higher psychological functions are new formations that de-
velop according to the principle of dialectical inter-functional-
ity, making new psychological functions from the contributing
biological and cultural elements. “Perception and memory,
imagination and thought, emotional experience and voluntary
action (cannot) be considered natural functions of nervous tis-
sue or simple properties of mental life. It is obvious that they
have a highly complex structure and that this structure has
(thereby) acquired new functional attributes peculiar to man”
(Luria, 1978: p. 275, in Vygotsky, 1978: p. 43).
The higher psychological functions are also restructuring the
brain, stimulating synaptic growth in the plastic brain in many
directions creating biological mediations of the brain with con-
sequences for the mind as well. The development of human
mind and brain due to cultural influence does not leave out
biological factors or disregard biological influences. Quite the
contrary; biological phenomena provide the framework for
mental phenomena but do not directly determine them. This
leaves psychological activity as something to be built up from,
rather than reduced to, a biological substratum. To be human
means to have surpassed a le vel of functioning that the biologi-
cal traits would otherwise dictate (Van der Veer & van Uzen-
doorn, 1985). The genetic or instinctive driving forces are
overruled by what is acquired during socialization in a particu-
lar culture. Cultural psychology is highlighting the role of cul-
tural meanings and practices in completing the psychological
functions and in effecting the form of basic psychological
processes (Miller, 2002).
The lower functions are biological mechanisms, such as
blind reactions to stimuli as we would see in all animals. The
elementary or lower functions do not involve conscious ex-
perience or cognitive processing of sense data. Over time, these
lower functions are transformed and concerted, and they are
dominated or controlled by higher “cultural” functions. The
(higher) psychological functions are sociocultural and historical
in origin. The structure of psychological activity, not just con-
tent but also the general forms, change in the course of histori-
cal and ontogenetic development. From a phylogenetic point of
view “Higher psychological functions (are) the product of the
historical development of humanity” (Vygotsky, 1998).
Hegel’s Dialectic and Inter-Functionality:
A Systemic Approach
The inter-functionality of lower and higher psychological
functions are related in a dialectical manner. With the appear-
ance of psychological functions of a higher order, the lower
functions are transformed, becoming elements of a new fusion
and being retained in a sublated form. The sublation can be
conceived in Hegelian fashion as a dialectical transformation.
“Lower” instincts and higher cognitive cerebral parts of the
brain and the mind create a new inter-functionality and are the
source of development of the “lower” instincts.
The interrelations between elementary functions and higher
functions are crucial for an understanding of human develop-
ment. The analysis of developmental processes allows us to
understand the interaction between biological predispositions
and environmental information with respect to the initiation of
culturally informed developmental pathways (Keller, 2002).
The biological heritage and the cultural present are components
of the same developmental processes.
The human mind is a conscious mind developed with cultural
tools like language and able to subjugate the non-conscious
instinctive and lower psychological “mind” functions. These
lower functions are part of the non-volatile mind developing to
something else when combined with the higher and cultural
mind functions. The scientific study of psychology faced the
task of overcoming the gap between the natural and the cultural,
and “had to transform the ancient conception of the mind in a
fundamental way, and to find an alternative to it” (Yaroshevsky,
1989: p. 18). The key concept of psychology was consciousness
and this concept was filled with a new content.
Another important aspect of the higher psychological func-
tions is their systemic character. They do not function sepa-
rately but form an articulate whole. Each of them can therefore
be scientifically explained only if the dynamics of its interrela-
tions with the other functions are considered. The study of the
psyche must therefore focus on the system of functions as a
whole rather than on one separate function tied to a separate
center in the brain. The psyche is a functional system that
should be grasped in its development, which acquires a socio-
historical character in the transition from the animal organism
to the human one and for each individual during the ontogene-
To understand for example memory as higher psychological
function we have to answer the following questions: What “po-
sition” memory has in a whole mind and how the memory
structure depends on other components of mind: perception,
thinking, planning, motivation, emotion? We also have to clar-
ify how the integrative process takes place in the brain and also
how the semiotic mind can “communicate” with the brain. To
understand the human mind, including memory, and the rela-
tionship between mind and brain, it is necessary to start with a
systemic approach rather than from elaborated but context-free
details. “Analytic” approaches have to be rejected as relatively
unproductive (Toomela, 2008). “The biological heritage and the
cultural present are components of the same developmental
processes. This view postulates ‘transactional relations’ be-
tween organism and environment, rejecting any simplistic de-
terminism” (Keller, 2002: p. 215).
Memory in humans has to be studied as something mediated
by language or signs, and different from non-semiotic, func-
tional systems memory in animals. The architecture of the cog-
nitive system the memory function included, and the brain,
changes fundamentally with the inclusion of symbols and lan-
Animals and Humans
There are qualitative differences between the psyche of man
and that of (other) animals. The key to man’s psychological
functions is cultural- and social-genesis, the transformation of
culture and social relations, through interiorization, into the
individual’s psychical acts and with language as a cultural and
psychological tool. We do not find this mechanism in animals
since they do not have the language tool and are not able to
think using a language and therefore develop mentally, in the
same way as humans. Language and thought have a particular
significance in humans. They constitute each other reciprocally
in an internal unity.” Language objectifies, completes, and in-
forms thought just as thinking creates language and produces its
meaning…the two processes manifest a unity but not an iden-
tity” (Vygotsky, 1987: p. 4). “Speech does not merely serve as
the expression of developed thought. Thought is reconstructed
as it is transformed into speech. It is not expressed, but com-
pleted in the word” (Vygotsky, 1987: p. 251). Thought devel-
opment is determined by language, i.e., by the linguistic tools
of thought and by the sociocultural experience. The child’s
Open Access 519
intellectual growth is contingent on his mastering of the social
means of thought, that is, language. How it develops is one of
the most complex problems in psychology. To solve this puzzle
mean to explain a vital psychological function in humans.
Biological instincts and drives determine animal behaviour in
natural environments. For humans the biological, elementary
and instinctive forces changes to a potentiating, energizing
function, they recede in the background and the higher psycho-
logical functions govern consciousness and behavior. Humans
do not have to obey the instincts or reflexes, but have the option
to do what they decide to do after reflecting on the alternatives.
No other species have this ability to the same degree. The
difference between Homo sapiens and other species in this
regard is not only a distinction in degree it is a distinction in
principle. To understand development of language in its rela-
tion to thought, consciousness and volatile behavior is essential.
The relation between thought and speech undergoes many
changes. Progress in speech and progress in thought are not
parallel. The meanings of words are not a constant. Words un-
dergo evolution especially during childhood but also in adult-
hood, and an important task is to describe and define the basic
steps in that evolution. For instance to uncover the singular way
in which the child’s “scientific” concepts develop, compared
with his/hers spontaneous concepts, and also formulate the laws
governing their development means to reveal human develop-
ment. To demonstrate the specific psychological nature and
linguistic function of written speech in its relation to thinking is
also an essential task together with clarifying the nature of inner
speech and its relation to thought.
Biological determinism or reductionism cannot explain hu-
man emotions and behaviour since all higher psychological
functions characterizing humans are culturally created. Hor-
mones are for instance involved in all kinds of love, but only as
energizing mechanisms, The behavior, thoughts, feelings, and
experiences of love is culturally determined and variable and
not biologically determined as in animals. Biology has lost its
determining function in human behavior, which is only “natu-
ral” given the unique cultural environment in which people live.
Culture determines the form, content, and conditions of behav-
ior. In contrast, the form, content, and conditions of animal
behavior are determined by natural, biochemical elements
(Ratner, 2011). Psychology involves and includes natural, bio-
logical processes, such as neuronal and hormonal activity, just
as it involves breathing air. Just as breathing air is a precondi-
tion of psychology which plays no specific determining role in
the form, content, mechanisms, and function of psychology,
however, so other natural biological processes play no specific
determining role either. Their role is analogous to that of
breathing. Without breathing, hormones, and the brain, psy-
chological activity would cease; however, with them it is only
potentiated, not determined (Ratner, 2011).
Culture determines the form, content, and conditions of be-
havior for humans. In contrast, the form, content, and condi-
tions of animal behavior are determined by natural, biological
elements. Elementary, natural mechanisms are antithetical to
cultural-psychological mechanisms and features. The driving
forces of biological evolution within the animal world lose their
decisive importance as soon as we pass on to the historical
development of man. New laws regulating the course of human
history which cover the entire process of the material and men-
tal development of human society now take their place (Vygot-
sky & Luria, 1930/1993).
The young child is a pre-cultural biological organism, which
becomes transformed by a series of cultural devices such as
language, signs and artefacts into a cultural being and thereby
acquires the higher psychological functions. In fact the accul-
turation starts before birth since culture is present at conception
and also in mothers’ practices, such as her feeding and rest
during pregnancy. As Michael Cole has said, the babies are
born bathed in amniotic fluid and in culture. At the same time
there is no clear dividing line between “natural” and “cult ural”,
especially with regard to the brain. Cultural differences are
persistent because our native culture is learned and fastened in
our brains. It becomes “second nature” seemingly as “natural”
as many of the instincts we were born with. We cannot distin-
guish our “second nature” from our “original nature” since the
neuroplastic brain, once rewired, develops a new nature, every
bit as biological as the original (Doidge, 2007), There is no
hardwired “nature” in the brain that last a lifetime. The distinc-
tion between nature and culture is not easy to draw on the psy-
chological level either, partly because the cultural becomes
natural in the brain’s structure, and the mind and brain is inter-
The tastes our culture creates—in foods, in type of family, in
love, in work—often seem “natural” and obvious, even though
they may be acquired tastes. Nonverbal communication—how
close we stand to other people, the rhythms and volume of our
speech, how long we wait before interrupting conversation—all
seem “natural” to us, because the behaviours are deeply wired
into the brain’s “new” nature. When we change cultures, how-
ever, we are shocked to learn that these customs, values and
attitudes are not natural at all but characterize a particular cul-
ture (Doidge, 2007).
From recent empirical research in cultural psychology and
cultural neuroscience we can conclude that all higher psycho-
logical phenomena, including perception, cognition, emotion,
memory, self-appraisal, motivation, etc. have a cultural charac-
ter. They are humanly constructed as individuals participate in
social interaction and employ cultural/psychological tools.
Brains and mind are shaped by experiences in the culture in
which humans develop and live. Culture becomes part of each
person’s nature, stored in their mind and brain. The (higher)
psychological functions are sociocultural and historical in ori-
gin. The higher-order functions became a possibility since
natural evolution made thinking and language appropriation
possible, and because we established human cultures which
developed higher psychological functions in each individual in
whatever culture they were born into (Fiske et al., 1998). When
human beings participate in social interactions and employ
tools, for instance language and other cultural signs, they de-
velop, construct and create their higher psychological functions,
ways of thinking, feeling, remembering, their sensation values,
attitudes and perception. These functions are not natural or
inborn processes in human adults as they are in animals and
human neonates. Culture is a “symbolic medium for human
development and participation in this medium is necessary for
the emergence of all higher-order psychological processes”
Humans are at the same time biological organisms from na-
Open Access 521
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