The Zygotic-Chaotic Theory


By: Cameron A. Straughan

Student Number: 205 337 985

Course Code: ED/EDUC 3310


As described in Santrock (2007), adolescence can not be considered a series of independent life stages. It is part of a developmental continuum. Furthermore, G. Stanley Hall described adolescence as a period of “storm-and-stress” (Santrock, 2007). While both ideas could be applied to adolescent development, they could also be applied to the theories swirling around adolescents. In other words, there is no single correct theory to describe adolescent development. In fact, many theories can work in concert – a continuum of theories. Upon reflection, the flurry of theories swirling around adolescents could be termed “storm and stress”. At times, it’s difficult to see through the chaos. This “chaos”, coupled with the idea of continuous development, leads us to the Zygotic-Chaotic Theory.


The Zygotic-Chaotic Theory states that adolescent development begins at the zygote and extends until age twenty two – an approximate endpoint suggested by Santrock (2007). In between those points, development is impacted by a potentially infinite number of interconnected, random factors. There are so many possible random variables, each impacting one another, that only the application of chaos theory can make sense of it. Thus, the Zygotic-Chaotic Theory.


This theory is not a predictive model of adolescent behaviour. That is not possible, although some theorists (and adults in general) may wish otherwise. This theory can be used to help determine causative and correlative factors. It is a robust theory, since it does not focus on a certain period of adolescent development, it acknowledges many interconnecting factors, and it takes into account a variety of theories.


The foundation of the Zygotic-Chaotic Theory is the zygote – within the womb environment. Many researchers have suggested the importance of the womb environment on the child’s future adolescent development. The zygote, in particular, is impacted by nature – genes from each parent – and nurture – the mother’s womb. There are a variety of ways a pregnant woman could alter the womb environment, and in turn affect the development of the child – for better or worst. For example, diet, smoking, drinking, or exercising. The womb is the only stage in the adolescent development continuum in which scientific evidence can be (relatively) easily obtained and then correlated with later behaviour and development (e.g., amniocentesis, sonograms, genetic analysis, and measuring hormone levels). Researchers have looked at specific examples of the zygotic stage’s impact on later development.


For example, on an episode of 60 Minutes, researchers compared nine-year-old identical twin boys – one with “gender nonconformity” (feminine), the other “gender conformity” (masculine) (Finkelstein, 2006). In general, some researchers believe that hormone levels in the womb can determine if a male child will become homosexual later in life (Finkelstein, 2006). The episode demonstrated that homosexuality is not solely genetic (nature) since identical twins have the same genes. Thus, the womb environment must somehow be a determinant – even though identical twins share the same womb. According to the 60 Minutes episode, psychologists used to believe homosexuality was caused by nurture (i.e., overbearing mothers and distant fathers) (Finkelstein, 2006); however, it could be due to another form of nurture – the impact of the womb environment on zygotic development. Similarly, the womb environment may impact other aspects of future adolescent development – not just sexuality. For example, the importance of birth order on many aspects of adolescent behaviour has been emphasized (Santrock, 2007). Along these lines, the 60 Minutes program mentioned that the more older brothers a man has, the greater that man’s chance of being gay; this was connected with hormone levels in the womb (Finkelstein, 2006).


Cohen and Sweigart’s (2001) film Sex: Unknown also described a delicate balance of hormones in the womb that could impact sexuality, regardless of genetics. Essentially, the womb environment can change the gender of a developing zygote (Cohen and Sweigart, 2001). The film goes on to support nature and nurture within the womb as the major gender determinants versus post-parturition nurture. In the film, post-parturition nurture was supported erroneously by John Money, who thought infants were “blank slates / gender neutral”, thus his flawed theory that a boy could be raised as a girl with no developmental problems.


Clearly, the womb is an environment that actively impacts zygotic development, which in turn could impact adolescent development. The womb is isolated from the infinite environmental factors that affect adolescents in the outside world. Thus, by studying the womb, researchers could make some predictions and collect data to suggest causative agents for later developmental issues. For example, the effects of genetic defects, birth order, the mother’s diet, and hormone levels on later development. However, once the child is born, the chaos of the outside world comes into play.


Adolescence is in itself chaotic. Most adolescents would agree that it is full of uncertainty. Despite all the theories of adolescent development – or perhaps because of all the competing theories – it is difficult to predict adolescent behaviour, let alone their development into adults. This implies that adolescent development is nonlinear. The relationship between adolescents and their environment is very complex and constantly changing. “Environment” would include the cultural context that both Bruner and Vygotsky considered an important part of adolescent cognitive development (Gough & Griffiths, 1994). With so many parameters, influences, and random variables, chaos theory could be applied to help explain adolescent behaviour. Chaos theory is defined as follows:


“Chaos theory describes the behavior of certain nonlinear dynamical systems that under certain conditions exhibit a phenomenon known as chaos. Among the characteristics of chaotic systems, described below, is the sensitivity to initial conditions (popularly referred to as the butterfly effect).” (Wikipedia, 2006)


In addition, Gollub and Solomon (1996) wrote:


“A chaotic system is defined as one that shows sensitivity to initial conditions. That is, any uncertainty in the initial state of the given system, no matter how small, will lead to rapidly growing errors in any effort to predict the future behavior …In other words, the system is chaotic. Its behavior can be predicted only if the initial conditions are known to an infinite degree of accuracy, which is impossible.” (Lorenzen, 2006)


Based on these two definitions, three themes appear that can be applied to adolescents – sensitivity to initial conditions, the impact of the “sensitivity” on later development (butterfly effect), and unpredictable behaviour.


As outlined throughout Santrock (2007), there are a wide variety of “initial conditions” that could impact adolescents. For example, peers, family relations, and genes (nature). These initial perturbations could lead to a “butterfly effect”. Wikipedia (2006) defines the butterfly effect as small variations in a dynamic system that may lead to large variations in long term system behaviour. Thus, perturbations could lead to heightened stress on the adolescent and impacts (positive or negative) on their development. Some perturbations, increased through time via the butterfly effect, could haunt an adolescent into adulthood. For example, the negative, cumulative effects of bullying (Santrock, 2007). Yet, it is almost impossible to predict the impact of these perturbations on an adolescent, since any change in the adolescent’s life could drastically change their long-term behavior (e.g., moving from one town to another, parents divorcing, puberty, the death of a peer ect.).


Amplifying this butterfly effect is the consensus that adolescence is generally a time of high stress and high drama (Santrock, 2007), thus creating the energy for a chaotic system – the “storm and stress”. With one event causing another, chaos theory is consistent with the continuous development theory outlined in Santrock (2007). Later life experiences would be unable to overcome early life experiences if one perturbation causes another – a cascading effect.


As noted in Rae (2006), chaos theorist Edward Norton Lorenz stated that it is impossible to predict the weather accurately. Thus, how can we predict the “storm and stress” of adolescents? Weather forecasting utilizes complex computer models. Perhaps a similar analysis should be applied to all the factors that affect adolescent development, but uncertainty would still exist. Yet, chaos theory implies that when you look over seemingly random events, patterns become evident. As stated by Rae (2006), “chaos theory” describes systems that are apparently disordered, but the theory is really about finding the underlying order in apparently random data. In the end, you need to consider the “big picture”. The same could be said of adolescent development and behaviour. Multiple viewpoints, theories, and datasets need to be considered before conclusions can be reached regarding adolescent behaviour and development.


When chaos theory is applied to look at the big picture, it takes into consideration the continuum of adolescent development. A piece can not be extracted and analyzed in isolation. Even if it was possible, that “piece” would still be impacted by several environmental factors swirling around the adolescent. If the environmental factors could be removed, the adolescent would be in a complete vacuum, which is totally unrealistic. The only place where a stage in adolescent development occurs within a somewhat controlled environment is the womb, which brings us full circle to the Zygotic-Chaotic Theory.


The Zygotic-Chaotic Theory suggests a continuum between zygotic development and adolescent development. This continuum traverses two environments – one more controlled (the womb) and one chaotic (the outside world). Both affect adolescent development. In this manner, the theory embraces the uncertainty inherent in adolescent development and tries to make sense of the complex environment swirling around adolescents. Ultimately, the Zygotic-Chaotic Theory has ramifications for teaching methodology. Teachers must be aware that their words and actions could cause a butterfly effect that may impact adolescent students for the rest of their lives.


Cohen, A. & Sweigart, S. Sex: Unknown. Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, 2001.


Finkelstein, S. 60 Minutes – Gay or Straight.? New York: CBS, 2006.


Gollub, J. & Solomon, T. (1996). Chaos Theory. In K. Anne Ranson (Ed.), Academic American Encyclopedia (Volume 4, pp. 282, 283). Danbury, CT: Grolier Incorporated.


Gough, R. & Griffiths, A. (1994). Science for Life: The Teaching of Science in Canadian Primary and Elementary Schools. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada.


Lorenzen, M. (2006). Chaos Theory and Education. Retrieved from the Web November 23, 2006. http://www.libraryreference.org/chaos.html.


Rae, G. (2006). Chaos Theory: A Brief Introduction. Retrieved from the Web November 23, 2006. http://www.imho.com/grae/chaos/chaos.html.


Santrock, J. W. (2007). Adolescence (11th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.


Wikipedia. (2006). Chaos Theory. Retrieved from the Web November 23, 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory.




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