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.)
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