Aug 16, 2012

Beyond Human Nature by Jesse J. Prinz

Beyond Human Nature by Jesse J. Prinz

Arguing for the primacy of nurture over nature will be the burden of this book. In this climate, nurturism may seem like a radical position. With the Human Genome Project and modern neuroscience, we are learning new facts every day about biological factors that contribute to behaviour. Nurturists are often depicted as opponents of science, and all too often, the nurturist perspective is most vocally championed by postmodernists and cultural theorists who are sceptical of all efforts to scientifically investigate the human mind. My view is that science offers resounding support for the nurturist perspective. Nothing about our current knowledge of the brain, genes or psychology should lead us to think naturists will win any of the battles I have been describing.
If, like me, you were troubled by the race essentialism that sometimes accompanied Olympics commentary over the course of the past few weeks, then Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape Our Lives is the book for you. If you found the arguments about the relationship between slavery and the speed of athletes of West African descent plausible (they do seem so at first glance; that’s why they gain popularity), then all the more reason to read it.

Jesse J. Prinz begins by explaining the current state of the nature-nurture debate: calling it that is a bit of a misnomer, because nobody nowadays really believes in a hard and uncompromising version of either hypothesis. It’s not a matter of whether humans spring out fully formed or are born as blank slates; it’s a matter of which factor you emphasise. But that doesn’t make the difference trivial. Prinz is, as he tells us, a nurturist, but it’s important to understand what exactly this position entails:
I will not argue that biology is irrelevant to human behaviour. That would be ridiculous. We need very sophisticated biological resources to be as flexible as we are. Nature and nurture conspire together. One must keep both in view. But, if we are interested in an understanding of human behaviour, then nurture is especially important. The nurturist perspective has been underrepresented in scientific publishing. Books that focus on biological contributions to behaviour greatly outnumber books that look at human psychology from a cross-cultural perspective, and only a tiny fraction of articles published in psychology journals take culture into consideration. If publishing patterns are any indication, both professional and lay readers are captivated by the idea that what we do can be explained in biological terms. But in focusing on these biological reductions, readers are missing out on some of the most fascinating, surprising and illuminating facts about human behaviour.
The tendency these days is to emphasise nature, and this shapes attitudes towards human potential and definitions of what we consider “natural” and “normal”. There’s no escaping the fact that the topic is politically charged, or that naturism (even if distinct from absolute biological determinism in today’s most popular versions) has troubling implications: it prescribes a rigid social hierarchy based on unchangeable aptitudes.
Naturism is not just misleading; it is potentially dangerous. It has been used to keep various groups down, and it vastly underestimates human potential. When we assume that human nature is biologically fixed, we tend to regard people with different attitudes and capacities as inalterably different. We also tend to treat differences as pathologies. We regard people who think differently than we do as defective. We marginalize groups within our borders and we regard the behaviour of foreigners as unnatural or even subhuman.
I find these political implications well worth discussing, but first and foremost there’s the fact that naturism is factually incorrect. And that’s what the subject matter of Beyond Human Nature really is. Prinz demonstrates that naturism is not an inconvenient truth that we should try to hide because it could be misused politically, but rather the result of dubious science and the misinterpretation of existing data. Of course, politics play a role in this: science doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and the biases and blind spots scientists bring to their research are influenced by the cultural and political climate.

Having said that, Beyond Human Nature is very much a science book, and I love it for that. The scientific method is executed by human beings and therefore not infallible, but it’s a valuable tool for making sense of the world. I think science is awesome, and it always seemed to me that the best response to its shortcomings is to do better rather than to reject it altogether. Throughout this book, Prinz takes a rigorous look at what the evidence for and against the primacy of nature and/or nurture tells us. If you’ve read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, the structure is somewhat similar: he goes over the existing research, reexamines the data, suggests alternative conclusions, and points towards other studies that contradict some of the main staples of naturism. The range of topics covered, however, is much wider: there’s intelligence (and let me just say that although I’ve known this since my days as a psychology undergraduate almost a decade ago, I was staggered anew that The Bell Curve is from 1994 rather than 1904), object recognition, language, abstract thinking, emotions, mental health, sexuality, moral values, and so on. All of these are shaped by culture. As Prinz repeatedly emphasises, this doesn’t mean they exist independently from biology, but it does mean that they’re infinitely flexible and that there isn’t a single “natural” or inevitable way for human beings to experience any of them.

Beyond Human Nature devotes a lot of time to deconstructing the logical inconsistencies of evolutionary psychology, which had me cheering enthusiastically along the way. It also deals with race and gender in some detail, since these are categories of identity that are repeatedly essentialised. The race (and gender) just-so stories that gain cultural prominence often mask social inequalities we’d rather not confront. But as Prinz reminds us, race is not a biologically meaningful category:
There are no human breeds or races. The categories by which we divide people into ‘racial groups’ have little or no meaning biologically. For one thing, there is a vastly more biological variation within racial groups than between them, whereas biologically defined categories tend to have greater internal uniformity. The features we use to classify people racially are often superficial, and do not correlate with deeper biological similarities.
When it comes to gender, he debunks what I call (after the brilliant Cordelia Fine) Equality 2.0: the notion that men and women are wired differently, but these differences need not translate into inequalities if only we each stick to what we’re best suited for. And yet even this strategy repeatedly fails to translate into any actual superior material gains. The current conventional wisdom is that women are better at anything to do language, and yet look at the yearly VIDA count; look at the gender proportions when it comes to leadership roles and other influential positions in prestigious universities worldwide, even in areas where there are more women. As Prinz puts it,
For all the rhetoric about women being better than men in some cognitive domains, there is little evidence that their superior aptitude ever affords greater opportunities for women than for men. Up until very recently, men have dominated in all areas of the academy. We mustn’t forget that, one hundred years ago, there were virtually no women teaching in universities. It would have been absurd to think this was due to differences in cognitive styles. Women just weren’t given the opportunity. The current numbers suggest that there has been exponential progress in women’s educational equity, but they also suggest that discrimination remains a serious problem.
Another common and dangerous idea Beyond Human Nature challenges is that “hardwired” can be used interchangeably with “natural” and “cultural” with “artificial”. Culture is not a thin veneer hiding our true animal natures; it’s something that plays a role in building who we are alongside our biology. Prinz brilliantly concludes with the following:
There is no sharp contrast between nature and nurture. Nurture depends on nature, and nature exists in the service of nurture. This means we must give up on approaches to social science that try to articulate how humans act or think by nature. Nature alone determines no pattern of behaviour. Rather, the investigation of our natural constitution should be directed at explaining human plasticity. We can call that the study of human nature, but the label is misleading. It carries with it the dubious idea that there is a natural way for human beings to be. This is not the case. By nature, we transcend nature.
You might remember that a few months ago I reviewed Agustín Fuentes’ Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You, a more introductory book that covers similar ground. Prinz’s take on the topic delves deeper and would therefore make a perfect follow-up read. But both are excellent books, and hopefully only the beginning of a much needed backlash against the dominance of naturism in the stories we tell to explain who we are.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Ana, what a brilliant review about a very important topic!
    I didn't really follow the olympics, but I sometimes heard people discussing black athletes, making arguments that surely echoe those of plantation owners about the qualities of their slaves.
    Needless to say, this book goes on my wishlist.

  2. Thank you. I want to read this now. And also, Ana, you pick the most interesting books, always.

    It is interesting to me that you quote your previous review at the end of this one, as I remember going on and on about my sister in a comment there. Ad chance would have it, I spent yesterday going through another few arguments with my sister that just oozes essentialism on her side. When I told her I was annoyed by someone I met over the weekend who called girls at a certain campings slutty, and said the guys were good looking "and simply couldn't help themselves" --> hence, the large number of morning after pills necessary. She said that I couldn't deny it's in the nature of boys to want sex and to go and get it more so than girls.. I kind of.. didn't know how to respond. She also continued to tell my me research is not scientific (we use the overarching word like the german wissenschaft, not the word science <--> humanities which implies a definite divide) becuse "I use no hypothesis which I test". I could go on and on about how I feel this is not necessarily true, and that observations are never 100% "objective", even if with that, like you said, I don't discount science. But anyway, I wanted to thank you for another wonderful quote:

    "Of course, politics play a role in this: science doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and the biases and blind spots scientists bring to their research are influenced by the cultural and political climate."

    Now, I should really get on that list of books you have secretly composed by all these reviews about essentialism, race, and gender. Yay.

  3. Luckily I haven't heard that argument over here regarding slavery and the speed of athletes. I'm imagining how it must go and wincing.

    I've always assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that one of the reasons that African athletes, especially in the long distance events, perform better is because a lot of them were born and grow up at altitude, which gives a huge advantage. And also that culturally they still run a lot more while growing up that in many western countries.

    But I never thought of bringing slavery into the argument.

  4. This article was fascinating on several levels, and I think that had I heard Olympic commentary of the type that you mentioned, I would have been shocked, angry and mutinous. I don't have a lot to offer in the erudite and brilliant vein that you so expertly harness in this review, but suffice to say, I need to read this book!

  5. Bina: Aw, thank you so much! I hope you find the book as interesting as I did.

    Iris: I'm really glad you got Delusions of Gender from the library recently, because it might help you articulate things the next time something like they comes up in a discussion with your sister. I'm sorry, though - I know how frustrating conversations like that can be :\ As for her comments regarding your research, sigh. I think the problem in conversations like that is that people equate "scientific" with "of value". For example, if someone said the research I did last year didn't follow the exact same methodology the hard sciences follow and was therefore not scientific by that definition, and said this with no value judgement whatsoever, I'd just shrug and say "yeah, sure". But people don't understand that is done in historical research, the humanities and etc is valuable and useful even if it IS different. This reminds me that I need to get around to reading a book called What Science Can Offer the Humanities, which has been on my tbr pile for far too long.

    Fence: I haven't read enough about sports to know if there's support for your hypotheses, but neither goes against what Prinz says here. They're the result of cultural practices and of the physical environment where someone grows up affecting their abilities, and that definitely does happen. But it doesn't mean there's an essential and immutable difference between the athletes that grow up under those conditions and the rest of us (i.e., someone of a difference race who grew up in the same circumstances could potentially achieve the same).

    Zibilee: yes you do!

  6. Andreea
    I really can't understand why peopple, in spite of evidence, continue to believe in the primacy of nurture. Science is about finding out the ruth and not about creating arguments to support a fascinating fairy-tale that we would like to believe because it sounds good and politically correct.

  7. I love when you review books like this, Ana! I would never find them on my own, and it's a topic that I find endlessly interesting. Especially when they talk about Brain Research. :D

  8. As I was reading this, I thought it sounded similar to Delusions of Gender, and there you go comparing the two. As you know, I have a lot of strong feelings about topics like this and how people can make statements and not even NOTICE the unbelievable bias that is behind those. And then couching those misrepresentations in scientific fact, the way people do with gender, is really, really disturbing. I would like to *think* people are inherently less likely to do that with race as it's such a touchy topic, but apparently not...

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Ana, When I think of "nature vs. nurture," I'm usually viewing it through the lens of parenting. And I tend to tune it out, as in "been there, heard that." :)

    In some cases, "nurturism" has been very harmful to parents -- we parents don't need any more guilt and anxiety than we already have. :) One obvious example is the long-standing false belief that poor parenting causes autism and schizophrenia. I have a child on the autism spectrum, and 20 years ago I would have been told that I must have caused it by being a "refrigerator mother."

    I appreciated your post, looking at "nature vs. nurture" from a broader sociological standpoint, including important issues about race and gender. I am reminded of that awful book that got so much hype years ago (which I never read) The Bell Curve. It contended that people with high I.Q.s would comprise the new "upper class." It argued that intelligence is hard wired and even that some races are intrinsically more intelligent than others. That premise is repulsive in so many levels, I hardly know where to begin.

    It sounds like this author took a thoughtful, nuanced approach to a complicated topic. This kind of research and writing has the potential to elevate the discussion of these issues, I think. And that would be a very good thing.

  11. Anon: I have to ask, have you read this book? Because I'd definitely be interested in having a conversation with you about what the scientific evidence actually tells us if you had, but to make it worth our time I'd need a little more to start with than the same old boring clichés about what is "politically correct".

    Jenny: Aw, that's nice to hear :D Definitely lots of brain research in this one!

    Aarti: I think maybe people are a little more cautious with race these days, but really disturbing examples of essentialism still surface pretty frequently :\ I definitely think you'd find this book really interesting!

    Stephanie Ward: That's a great point - I do remember learning about Bruno Bettelheim's horrifying "refrigerator mother" theories, and they're an excellent example of how an emphasis on nurturism can also be misused. But I think you'd like Prinz' discussion of how cultural aspects play a role in mental health, because he definitely doesn't deny that there's a biological basis for many conditions. He also reminds us that there's much more to nurturing than parenting - parents are hugely important in their kid's lives, of course, but they're only a small part of an infinitely complex environment where many factors play a role. So even if something is the result of nurture, that doesn't at all mean it's all the parents' fault.

  12. I wonder how much of nature's current supremacy in the debate comes from a willingness to choose the easiest answer. It is an easy answer.

    But, I go by the maxim that "every complicated problem has a simple answer, and it's always wrong."

    I did read Delusions of Gender after reading your post about it, at least I think it was your post, it may have been on Shelf Love. So I think I'll see if this one is also at my library.

    Whatever your position on this issues, Delusions of Gender was an interesting read.

  13. This sounds like a really interesting book. I have Delusions of Gender on my Kindle, just need to get around to reading it. This is also now on my wish list :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.