Being human involves, at least for me, pondering about what it means to be human. A sentiment I often invoke when thinking about the human condition is that “human” as a singular does not make any sense. A single human does not exist. By this I do not mean that we could not end up in a desolate place, entirely on our own, rather that what and who we are is predicated on who we have interacted throughout our life. That sentiment is true for everyone alive and everyone who came before us.
Language is for talking with others; reading others emotions off their posture and facial expression is for assessing and understanding others; gesturing is silent language, conveying subtle (or not so subtle) messages to others; feeling one with others only works if there are actually others; morality is quite superfluous when you are all on yourself; and, last but not least, writing and reading were invented for conveying information and thoughts to others.
One of the questions that play into the human condition is the origins of these unique human capabilities and how they have been shaped during our evolutionary voyage. And when we talk about evolution, the question is of course how these capabilities are relayed from one generation to the next. There are in principle two extreme stances that define the landscape of this discussion. On the one hand, it is argued that our unique capabilities, such as the ability to learn a language, are passed from one generation to the next through our genes. After all, dogs living in the same household as toddlers do not learn to speak, while most toddlers eventually do. This is referred to as the nature position. On the other hand, it is argued that everything that makes us unique as human and as an individual is passed on through society, i.e. culture. For instance, it is argued that whether you fancy the opposite sex or your own sex is entirely a question of culture, not of nature. This is called the nurture position.
It would be hard to find a pure proponent for any of these two stances in contemporary academic discourse. What one finds instead is proponents that put the main weight either on the nature side or the nurture side. A prominent proponent for the biological inheritance of human trades is Steven Pinker, while a very active proponent of the nurture stance is Jesse Prinz. While listening to a charming podcast produced by the Rationally-Speaking crew I learned that Prinz had collected his arguments for the nurture perspective in a book, and since I had already read Steven Pinker’s book on this topic, it felt quite natural to also read Prinz’s book, which he gave the title Beyond Human Nature.
In this blog post I quickly summarise the content of the book, before talking about what I liked, whether I find Prinz’s arguments convincing, and what shortcomings I found in his book.
Jesse Prinz’s mission with this book is twofold. First, he provides arguments for why an argument from nature does not explain and does not do justice to the many unique capabilities of humans. Second, he provides arguments -and even (tentative) explanations- for how the same features can be explained from nurture. It is important to stress that he is not a “nurture fundamentalist,” rather he accepts that there has to be some basic, biological fabric that we inherit through our genes. For instance, instead of a language instinct, as promoted by Pinker, Prinz presumes basic statistical inference mechanisms, which, together with our pronounced short-time memory, are the bedrocks of our ability to learn languages.
In five consecutive parts of the book, containing two chapters each, Prinz covers a wide array human capabilities. He starts with aetiological questions (“Where Do Traits Come From?”, “Where Does Knowledge Come From?”), touches on our basic capabilities and features (“Where Does Language Come From?”, “Where Do Feelings Come From?”) before finally focusing on the origin of our values (“Fear and Loathing in Micronesia”, “In Bed With Darwin”).
Since gender differences are part and parcel of an explanation from nature, Prinz also analyses of how much water gender arguments carry. One example is his extensive discussion on gender and geometry.
What I liked about the book
First of all, the book is perspicuous and written in a witty style (I chuckled quite often while perusing the chapters). Second, I found his criticism of the “naturist” arguments often very careful, thorough, and quite convincing. For instance, his discussion of the alleged inheritance of traits and the pertinent evidence provided by “naturists” is the best I have seen so far. Also, his discussion of the heritability of IQ neatly dismantles heritage and race arguments, and it even unmasks IQ for the culturally biased concept it actually is. Further more, as a true academic, he provides many references to the relevant research, some of which I already have used in another blog post.
Overall, I found this book a refreshing contribution to the sometimes rather infested nurture-versus-nature debate and it also nicely contrasts many of the arguments in Pinker’s book. I highly recommend to read both in tandem.
After having accoladed Beyond Human Nature, let me finish my mini-review with discussing two aspects that irked me. One is of technical nature, while the other concerns the sometimes rather lacking integrity of Prinz’s arguments.
First, while Prinz generally does a decent job at backing his arguments with (scientific) references, I found many passages in the book where the lack of such references is rather annoying. The below photograph provides an example for such a passage in the book.
I assume that this book was not peer-reviewed, but even then I expect more from an academic. How am I supposed to double-check his arguments against the secondary literature? Also, one of the main perks I expect from academic non-fiction books is a comprehensive selection of the relevant scientific literature, which I can use for my research and for adding meat to my blog posts.
My second criticism weighs somewhat heavier. As I outlined above, Prinz’s general argument is based on the following pattern. (a) show that “naturistic'” arguments do not cut the mustard and (b) provide a coherent “nurturistic” explanation of the same phenomenon. However, he often fails to describe a mechanism by which the phenomenon to be explained can be cause by nurture. Without providing a mechanism, he actually does not provide a valid “nurturist” explanation, rather he only illuminates the “nurturistic” position and maybe makes it somewhat plausible. However, not everything that is plausible is also real. In the instances where he actually does not propose any “nurturistic” mechanism, his line of arguing boarders on being fallacious (false dichotomy): the “naturist” argument is wrong, therefore, by default, the “nurturistic” position must be right. Let me illustrate this problem with an example. In chapter eleven he discusses whether mental illnesses actually are illnesses in a truly biological sense, such as, for instance, a virus infection, or whether mental illnesses are rather cultural constructs. One of the major arguments he provides for the cultural-construct hypothesis is that other cultures do have mental illnesses that we do not have in the west. One of the illnesses is the fear of limb shrinkage, which has been reported in east and south-east Asia. While I agree that explaining geographic variations of mental illnesses based on inheritance is challenging at best and rather not convincing, and while I agree that this kind of mental illness seems to correlate with culture, this does not imply that nurture is the only explanation for the observed pattern of mental illnesses. What about, for instance, environmental factors, such as climate, food toxins, etc.? Unless Prinz suggests a testable mechanism for how mental illnesses are created through culture, his argument is not a slam dunk at all.
Prinz often provides very valid arguments against a naturist explanation of human properties, but he often also fails to provide testable mechanisms of how the same property is supposedly generated through nurture. But even when taking this shortcoming of the book into consideration, it remains a worthwhile book engaging. Enjoy!