11.23.12

In Defense of Nurture: Jesse Prinz’s ‘Beyond Human Nature’

Team Nurture has a compelling new book making the case against nature. Robert Herritt on the flaws of pop-science books, from Jonah Lehrer to Malcolm Gladwell—and a nature-vs.-nurture book done right.

You might call it the neuro-backlash. At first, the new class of pop-science tomes that emerged in the last decade seemed fun and provocative, with startling take-home messages about psychology, neuroscience, and economics that promised to empower us by pithily decoding the inner workings of human life. Their stark white covers and cheeky titles (often of the one-word variety) signaled that something head-turning and abstract was contained within their covers. And their effect could be measured in our new vocabulary of buzz words, as we began to describe a 21st century of Tipping Points and Black Swans, fMRIs and mirror neurons.

But it was really only a matter of time before we started to turn against these epiphany-delivery devices. This summer’s episode over the work of former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer only accelerated this shift in opinion. The discovery that, in writing his celebrated books and magazine pieces on neuroscience, Lehrer had been a bit too careless with his facts, quotes, arguments, and conclusions (yes, those old things) gave way to cries that “the culture of TED” and the new status of science journalists as gurus were to blame.

Truth is, this trend was due to run out of steam, whether Lehrer misquoted Bob Dylan or Moses. As many have noticed, the worst products of the Gladwell era always came off as simplistic yarns, more concerned with trademark-able theses and colorful anecdotes than with uncovering anything true. Even some of the best of these books—and there are certainly many worthwhile titles among them—have begun to seem boilerplate, repetitive.

With any luck, the widespread reevaluation of this particular style of ideas journalism will lead to more books like Jesse Prinz’s Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind. It’s clear that Prinz, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the City University of New York, isn’t angling for corporate speaking work. He’s trying to leave his mark on one of the oldest debates in the world: the question of nature vs. nurture.

That is, are human beings the product of innate features endowed at birth (nature)? Or are our personalities, biases, and abilities formed mainly through experience (nurture)?

Obviously it’s a bit of both. But where Steven Pinker’s influential 2002 book The Blank Slate provided a compelling defense for Team Nature, Prinz identifies as an unabashed “nurturist.” As such, he is committed to demonstrating that, while “biological explanations can contribute to psychology ... in many cases, we have more to gain from looking at other influences.” Put another way, our interactions with our environment—our upbringing, early experiences, culture—have a lot more to do with the way we think, learn language, acquire knowledge, choose sexual partners, and make moral judgments than anything that is hardwired into us.

It’s a bold position, and one with real implications for such big-ticket issues as the influence of genetics on intelligence and the effect of biology on gender inequality.

And while his stance might not seem as sexy as the inspirational fare we have come to expect from popular cognitive science books of recent years, in today’s academy, it is a minority view—and in some instances a downright heretical one.

Take the debate about language. For years, the field of linguistics has been heavily influenced by Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. Kids might learn a particular language from experience, the Chomskyans have it, but they are drawing on a set of preprogrammed grammatical rules that we are all born with. It’s the reason why, even at a very young age, we are able to create an impressive array of unique, grammatically correct sentences. It’s also the ultimate naturist hypothesis.

Prinz takes us through the research, painstakingly examining the logic behind the conclusions of Chomsky and his supporters, and suggesting a different explanation. He defends a lesser-known theory that “children might learn language statistically, by unconsciously tabulating the patterns in the sentences they hear and using these to generalize to new cases.”

Instead of going for the hard sell, Prinz admits that all he hopes to do is raise the possibility that this alternative theory might be true. It’s an argumentative tactic he uses throughout the book. Far from making his work seem unacceptably speculative, it actually lends it an air of gravitas. It takes a mature thinker to go to pains to explain that a theory on offer is “a mere possibility.”

Similarly, when discussing our ability to think in abstract terms, he notes that “the stories I’ve been telling about how people understand abstract concepts are both speculative and incomplete.”

And so, whether or not you find Prinz’s arguments convincing, the book should be seen as a notable example of science writing done right. Before discussing the role of genes in the manifestation of different traits, for instance, Prinz spends several pages explaining what genes are, how they work, and how we should think about them. “[W]hat genes really code for is amino acids, so it should raise eyebrows when someone says there is a gene for a psychological trait.”

We also get a useful walk through intellectual history as he shows how the nature/nurture pendulum has swung back and forth over thousands of years, and how Prinz’s particular approach to these issues is directly descendant from the Scottish philosopher David Hume.

Although the author may have a stake in winning the argument, he’s generous when it comes to providing evidence for the opposing side, making sure that readers will finish the book with a more thorough understanding of some of the major debates in contemporary cognitive science.

Throughout, Prinz displays a philosopher’s ability to parse arguments, evaluate competing hypotheses, call out logical fallacies, and, perhaps most admirably, avoid overstatement. Reiterating his thesis at one point, Prinz writes that “It is common practice to explain human capacities by appeal to nature rather than nurture.” The next sentence is a study in restraint: “Sometimes this is a mistake.”

Prinz’s penchant for intellectual honesty makes the book short on “holy cow” moments or insights you can use around the house. He isn’t likely to change the way you make financial decisions or vote. But so what? Beyond Human Nature succeeds by delivering serious arguments that challenge the reader without seeming dense or highfalutin. 

It is, in other words, a nutritious meal at a moment when so much science writing has made us sick with empty calories.