Beyond Human Nature

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Jesse Prinz discusses how nurture can supplement and supplant nature, allowing us to be influenced by experience and culture rather than just by our DNA. Drawing on cutting-edge research in neuroscience, psychology, and anthropology in his book Beyond Human Nature, Prinz shows that we can’t always blame mental illness or addiction on our genes, and that societal factors shape gender differences in cognitive ability and sexual behavior.


Jesse Prinz

Comments [15]

candid_observer from Massachusetts

Why do philosophers on subjects like this seem to get just about everything wrong?

As one example, consider his argument that DNA can't play a major role in various psychological (cognitive and emotional) traits, because DNA can't encode the many synaptic connections in the human brain. But what scientist believes that such traits, particularly the most basic ones, are, at the fundamental level, to be so explained? With mood disorders, for example, it's well recognized that neurotransmitter levels play a central role in their etiology. Are we to believe that those levels can't be importantly under the control of DNA, disposing some individuals far more than others to such a disorder?

Likewise, there is simply no reason in the world to believe that general cognitive ability -- which we commonly refer to intelligence -- may not derive from basic mechanisms and structures in the human brain. Indeed, researchers at UCLA are now exploring this very possibility and starting to uncover important relations between IQ and gray matter in the brain. Are we to believe that the tendency to have one sort of mechanism or structure rather than another can't be subject to DNA?

Frankly, only deep ignorance of the relevant subject matter would explain the sort of explanation Prinz offers here.

In general, Prinz makes sure he characterizes every last point in such a way that it maximizes political correctness rather than truth.

If this is what philosophers do, who needs philosophers?

Jan. 14 2013 01:29 PM
Daniel Kroner from Silver Spring, MD

Listening to this interview prompted me to write on the subject a bit. The simple fact is that the debate of nature vs nurture is a silly one and the more recent trend of accepting that both are important and then proceeding to argue which is more important or influential is equally silly. Biology determines a potential range for a specific trait and then environmental influences determine where in that range the individual is going to fall. Some traits have huge ranges and some have small ranges.

You can read more of my thoughts on this here if you are interested:

Jan. 11 2013 04:02 PM
Sam Fohrman from NYC

I have a greater respect for Leonard after hearing today's show, he never sounds like he is reading any scripted words - but after AM's obvious stiff reading today, it's clear there is written script, especially the questions.

Jan. 11 2013 02:39 PM
Megan Anderson from Piscataway, NJ

Jesse Prinz fails to express on the show that all behavior is based on biology. All experiences come through our "biology" and in turn shape our "biology". Even the expression of your genes can be altered based on experience through manipulation of our biology. I would also like to point out that it was dangerous to suggest that animals are not like humans. First, breeding over very long periods for certain behaviors whether it be in dogs or laboratory animals does suggests that biology does have a very important role to play. You wouldn't see that in humans because we would never breed humans like that. Also, humans are not the only organisms to learn and pass onexperience-type information from generation to generation. Most animals do. I see rats do it in my laboratory. It just is not in the same way (i.e. complex verbal language) as Mr. Prinz is talking about with humans. Also, I think it is too simplistic to consider "nature versus nurture" in this dualistic way. Experience and biology are one in the same. We experience things because our biology is allowing us to and that experience then in turn shapes our biology which influences our behavior/personality.

Jan. 10 2013 01:40 PM

Alicia Menendez is terrific! Great host in many ways -- smart, great conversationalist, warm, funny, fully present. Give her her own show!!

Jan. 10 2013 12:47 PM
Mike from New York

Here's a well written critique of the book which gets at just what my thoughts are after listening to the interview:

Jan. 10 2013 12:41 PM
E from Nyc

I want to believe this more than you know but you should read DESPERATE LOVE by an adoptive father ( this is just one of MANY examples.). Please read it. Please address it. I want to be convinced you're right. Please convince me.

Jan. 10 2013 12:39 PM
Mike from New York

This is a false dichotomy based on an outdated model for viewing human biology and behavior. The same biological predispositions which helped us get sugar (in a sugar barren environment) in history, in the present with the surplus of sugar it leads to obesity. That's both nature and nurture.

I think Jesse is too taken by the structural similarity to rationalism/empiricism and nature/nurture to throw it out.

Jan. 10 2013 12:34 PM
Wayne Johnson Ph.D. from Bk

Dogs didn't start World War 11 or the Holocaust, or the War in Iraq. The Professor is far too kind to Humans who are the most violent creatures on the planet.

Jan. 10 2013 12:31 PM
Dan from Chelsea New York

We're on the verge of a biological revolution where we will be able to choose our own gene/personality profiles. Is this a case where we will be literally more like how animals such as dogs and mice are bred?

Jan. 10 2013 12:31 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Is there any research on people without brains, like National Rifle Association board members and Senators from Texas?

Jan. 10 2013 12:25 PM
Dan Kaplan from park slope

What would the author have to say about the behavioral predisposition of dog breeds? we have bred behaviors into different dogs, over the centuries, demonstrating that some could have more honed instincts for attacking, protecting, sniffing drugs, retrieving animals, being docile on laps, and comforting ill people. How does that not demonstrate a large amount of genetic influence on our behavior?

Jan. 10 2013 12:20 PM
John A

On Willpower (that which trumps pure Nature):
"Those that think they can and those that think they can't, are both right." -- credited to H.Ford

Jan. 10 2013 12:20 PM
raspberrysoup from New York

Why does Alicia keep saying "verse" instead of "versus"? I've heard this used as a verb by teenagers (e.g. Our team is going to verse the 10th graders) but do people actually say "nature verse nuture" now?

Jan. 10 2013 12:15 PM
John A

To say Nature can't be trumped by Nurture (or, simply, Culture) has been a path to incredible laziness in culture. Moral Hazards indeed.

Jan. 10 2013 12:12 PM

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