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Peer review – Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape our Lives

The nature vs nurture dichotomy is wobbly and belongs in discussions from yesteryear. sparklemotion0

Welcome to Peer Review, a series in which we ask leading academics to review books written by people working in the same field.

Here Rob Brooks, Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of New South Wales, reviews Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape our Lives by Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor, City University of New York.

American philosopher Jesse Prinz admits he is dazzled by diversity. Both the diversity visible in a single place – such as a workplace cafeteria – and the even greater variation among places and cultures. And he has written a book about the forces he believes are most important in giving rise to this variation.

Early on in Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape our Lives, Prinz lays his cards on the table:

This book […] is, in part, a critique of approaches to oversell the role of biology, but my more central goal is to explore the rapidly flowering field of cultural psychology.

So far so good. As an introduction to cultural psychology, this is a fascinating and fast-paced book, laced with intriguing cross-cultural and experimental studies. As somebody who too often encounters the over-sold biological arguments that stress hard-wired proclivities and genetic imperatives, I think a book like this is worth a read as a useful antidote.

But an antidote to overblown and outdated biological determinism is all it can ever be. That’s because Prinz makes the central axis of his book the ancient dichotomy between nature and nurture, and then leaps firmly onto the “nurturist” side.

Early on, Prinz laments that “Everyone seems to think that nature and nurture constitute a false dichotomy” – a dichotomy propped up by the equally useless straw men of biological determinist “naturists” and blank-slate “nurturists”.

I count myself among the “everyone”, for whom the nature-nurture debate is over. Modern genomics, psychology, anthropology and even economics have moved beyond the need to back a winner in the two-horse race that pits biology against culture, genes against environment and adaptation against experience.

Twenty-first century science shows, in ever greater depth, that experience and culture shape our minds by altering the biological connectedness within our brains. And evolved networks of genes enable everything our bodies - including our brains - can do, in ways that reflect what made our ancestors successful.

Prinz gives a masterfully succinct - and fairly even-handed - introduction to the nature-nurture dichotomy. Later in the book, he grounds nature-nurture in the broader and longer-running philosophical scrap between rationalism (which emphasises innate knowledge) and empiricism (in which knowledge is based on experience).

These parts of the book make me want to recommend it widely - especially as an introduction.

But Prinz’s stated commitment to empiricism seem to come with a package-deal rejection of the possibility that we can learn anything interesting about human behaviour from studying genes or evolution.

Not, I must stress, because he doesn’t understand them. While he acknowledges the success of books such as Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture and Boyd and Richerson’s Not by Genes Alone in moving beyond nature-nurture, Prinz seems to think the dichotomy is too important to throw out. And thus he shoulders the burden of “arguing for the primacy of nurture over nature”.

Why this recidivist nurturism? Apart from his commitment to empiricism, I get the strong feeling Prinz is deeply uncomfortable with the possible political implications of an evolved human nature.

The second coming of cultural creationism?

Fundamentalist creationists are by no means the only ones who squirm at the idea human affairs are shaped by our squalid and brutish animal past.

The thoroughgoing nurturism of many social scientists - particularly those with deep commitments to Marxism and gender feminism - seems to originate from a suspicion that all evolutionary biologists are shills for imperialism and laissez-faire capitalism.

To admit to an interesting role for biology in shaping human nature or individual differences would be to succumb to “survival-of-the-fittest” social Darwinism.

Alfred Kroeber, probably the most influential American anthropologist of the 20th century, demanded as far back as 1915 that “heredity cannot be allowed to have acted any part in history”.

And for most of the intervening century, thinking retreated into ever more extreme versions of the primacy and infinite malleability of culture.

Belief in the ultimate primacy of nurture over nature can be so extreme as to earn the epithet “cultural creationist”, a tribe no less hopeful or deluded than the biblical literalists.

My impression is that Prinz isn’t a true cultural creationist. But he clearly gets queasy about the possible political implications of evolved sex or racial differences.

I’m left with the distinct feeling that the first draft of his book wasn’t polemical enough for his publishers and that he laid a harder lacquer of “nurture trumps nature” over what might have been a more nuanced book.

Prinz is at his best when explaining ideas, and at his worst when on the attack. He gives an excellent introductory explanation to the genetic concept of heritability (the proportion of variation in a trait due to genetic differences between individuals). But then he adjudicates the evidence for heritability of behaviour traits in a most unsatisfyingly one-eyed fashion.

“It’s really not surprising”, he argues, when discussing the Big Five Personality Traits, “that biology contributes to traits of this kind”. And then he works through a long list of quibbles about heritability - a measure whose limitations are well known - scoring each negative as a win for nurturism.

Prinz works a similar pattern of plays on knowledge, language, thinking, mathematics, emotions, insanity and values. In every case he introduces the ideas admirably, discusses a wealth of interesting experimental and correlative evidence and then takes an unnecessarily pro-nurturist slant.

It seems as if the idea that heredity might have played a role in history is too unpalatable to bear. Or perhaps it is too hideously complex to contemplate that the most interesting questions concerning human nature might consist in the complex but more-or-less predictable interactions between nurture and nature.

It might seem unfair to criticise an author for not writing a different book, but Beyond Human Nature seems to me a missed opportunity for a philosopher with Prinz’s talent for explaining and exploring complex ideas. Early on, he states:

“If we want to know why some people wage war and others aim for amity, it is not enough to know that both capacities exist within our species. We must understand the circumstances that make us peaceful or pugnacious”.

That’s exactly right! It isn’t enough to say we have the capacity for amity and for war. And historic approaches seem helplessly unable to anticipate when circumstances will lead to peace or to conflict.

But what if we could understand how circumstances unlock our biological potential for harmony or for discord? To do so, however, we would need to let go of the neat categories of nurture and nature and get our hands truly dirty understanding how they interact.

Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape our Lives by Jesse J. Prinz. (Allen Lane) is available now.

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