On human nurture
By Michael Washburn
Prinz never suggests that genetic and biological considerations should be absent, but cautions against overreliance on such explanations. Near the end of his least technical book, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind (W. W. Norton, 2012), he writes, “Every cultural trait is really a biocultural trait—every trait that we acquire through learning involves an interaction between biology and the environment.” But in chapters on human intelligence, language, gender, and more, Prinz makes the case that culture’s influence dwarfs that of biology.
Culture, history, and experience form the environment that, for Prinz, shapes what we become. He contends that those external factors determine everything about us—everything, down to such biological fundamentals as fear. “I think everything I do is an entry into the nature-nurture debate,” he says. “More specifically, I’m interested in nurture. I think human behavior is interesting precisely because it’s so plastic.”
He conceived Beyond Human Nature, in part, as a response to Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works (W. W. Norton, 1999), one of the more influential examples of what Prinz terms a “cultural syndrome which might be called biocentrism.” The biocentric view, he says, “is to say when we encounter human behavior our first line of explanation should be ‘it’s in the genes, it’s in our evolutionary history, it’s fixed in us,’ as opposed to a more culturally oriented view.”
The notion Prinz opposes has a lot of intellectual traction in the popular imagination. Books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Harper Collins, 1992) sell in the millions. Genetic explanations are applied to more and newer aspects of human behavior. In a New York Times column last year, “Are Our Political Beliefs Coded in Our DNA?,” Thomas Edsall explored genopolitics, an ascendant area of study trying to tease out biological underpinnings of our political beliefs, and the Atlantic published an online adaptation from Avi Tuschman’s touted book on similar questions, Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us (Prometheus Books, 2013). Prinz’s contrary position can provoke controversy.
“Jesse’s a smart guy,” Pinker wrote in an e-mail, “and his arguments for influences of culture are intelligent and have to be taken seriously, but I think his view of the ‘broader cultural syndrome’ is exactly backwards.”
Pinker, the Johnstone Family professor in Harvard’s psychology department, continued, “By far the dominant cultural syndrome is that children are blank slates and that culture and parenting inscribe it,” and he noted that concept’s own acceptance in the cultural mainstream. “You’ll read hundreds of articles on economic inequality in the Times, the New Yorker, and so on, and never will there be even a mention of the possibility that smarter, more ambitious, or more disciplined people might be more successful.” Contra Prinz, Pinker concluded, “I think it’s Jesse who’s defending the broad cultural syndrome.”
In response Prinz hits a more moderated note, saying, “I think the truth is there are two broad syndromes, and that is partially why we have a nature-nurture debate.”
More fundamentally, we have a nature-nurture debate because the influence of nature v. nurture on various phenomenon is a highly worthy subject for us to debate. Both nature and nurture are important and disentangling their effects is challenging.
But genetic, biological, and evolutionary explanations of behavior attract enormous interest, and “many more books have been published by popular presses defending evolutionary psychology than defending cross-cultural psychology.”
A franker response would be that Prinz is gunning for Pinker not because Pinker represents the conventional wisdom (he doesn't) but because Pinker is the top gun at present, so he's a worthy challenge to try to take down. If you can out-argue Pinker, you've really done something.
Similarly, I'd rather out-argue Jared Diamond than T-N Coates or Michael Lewis than Malcolm Gladwell.
A general problem for the smarter defenders of the academic conventional wisdom like Prinz is that his allies don't want to give up their assumption that their Nurture side has a higher average IQ than the Nature side. So, Prinz has a hard time coming out and say, "Look, most of the brainpower and good ideas lately have been on the Nature side, so I'm trying to up the game of the Nurture side."
The influence of “nurture” on a wide range of human behavior and pathology, Prinz believes, awaits empirical proof. “My bet is that, when it comes to violence, addiction, IQ, many psychiatric disorders, and values, we will find that culture has a significantly bigger impact,” he says. “But there are traits for which the relative contributions of nature and nurture are less well understood (such as personality), and much science is still needed to establish exactly how culture impacts behavior when it does.”
A survival emotion like fear, for example, has deep biological roots long proven to prompt the fight, flight, or freeze responses in humans and animals alike. But, Prinz points out, the cultural context influences how humans express it. In ancient Rome, where one of the cardinal virtues was heroism in the face of mortal danger, the embodiment of fear was quite different. For a Roman citizen the idea that you would flee or freeze, he says, is ludicrous. “We can see how an emotion that’s really deeply rooted in our biology could immediately give rise to a very different action.”
But of course the Romans remain famous for how unusual they were at overcoming their fears to allow them to be successful at organized violence. To win as many battles as the Romans did, they invested enormously in training to overcome natural flee or freeze responses to danger, as well as the opposite responses such as out-of-control rage that made tactical control difficult. (The Spartans were a similar and even more extreme famous example of nurture in action.)
This hardly means that Nurture was unimportant. After all, the Romans conquered much of the world. It just means that the discussion will go on. Occasionally, we might even move from thesis and antithesis to synthesis in some areas.