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Are humans, as are other animals, born with predispositions to
behave in specific ways in specific situations? Or are we a "chosen
species", born tabula rasa, with relative freedom
to shape our destinies, without any preconfigured limitations?
For decades -- centuries if you see this in the context of the
broader question of determinism vs. free will -- this issue has
been a source of great noise and commotion among academics and
philosophers (and theologians). But editor Harvey Whitehouse insists
that the present collection of chapters is not just another attempt
to negotiate a tête-à-tête in the related so-called
nature-nurture controversy. All of the present book's authors
accept as given (to varying degrees) the position that biology
and genetics are important factors in human cognitive and behavioral
development. Whitehouse explains that instead it is the form
and the significance of this genetic contribution that
is debated in the present volume.
Whitehead notes, for example, "[A] central question is whether
distinct computational capacities are genetically specified .
. . or whether our task is to account for the evolution of rather
more undifferentiated, general-purpose cognitive equipment"
(p. 2). (This echoes a parallel question debated among intelligence
researchers -- are mental abilities specialized or do they instead
derive from a g factor, a general cognitive capacity?)
However, as Whitehouse goes on to explain, "the root of the
[present] debate . . . [is] about the way in which multidisciplinary
research, and interdisciplinary cross-fertilization, should proceed"
(p. 3). According to Whitehouse, the authors of the first section
of this book feel that research and theorizing about the biological
roots of social-cultural phenomena can proceed independently of
research on the strictly cultural aspects of such tendencies,
a position with which the authors included in the book's second
section appear to disagree.
Even after this explanation of the nature of the dispute, however,
its exact parameters and points of contention continued to elude
me. Each of the six chapters is quite interesting in itself, though
they seemed to me only tangentially connected. After reflecting
on it, I concluded that this book's intended connecting theme
was probably the issue of how evolved adaptations result in tendencies
to form social affiliations which then extend outward to produce
what we (euphemistically) call culture. Each of the authors clearly
had an opinion about what is the most important aspect of this
issue, as well as specialized interests for which this book provided
Among the issues considered by one or more authors in this collection
are some that generalists will find especially interesting. One
example, modularity, is broached even in the first chapter
by Sperber. This is a current, fascinating, easy-to-grasp, but
deceptively important question: do humans possess task-specific
"mental modules" that result in behaviors (either mental
or action-based) that are activated by environmental or situational
demands? Sperber's chapter about this question is quite readable
Another issue that general readers will find interesting is that
the work of Piaget and other developmentalists is being seriously
reviewed, perhaps for the first time in five or six decades. Most
of those in psychology or related fields will have learned by
heart the Piagetian developmental sequence, the stages of cognitive
development. Who would have thought these would ever be seriously
challenged? (Of course, the jury is still out, so Piaget may be
In summary, due to its at-times relentless use of technical language
and the subtlety of its thrust, this book will appeal most to
academics and specialists, but in fact holds plenty that would
interest the general reader who is interested in evolutionary
psychology and culture.
© 2001 Keith S. Harris
Keith Harris, Ph.D.,
is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral
Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests
include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy
research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and
the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.
This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001
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