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The Debated MindReview - The Debated Mind
Evolutionary Psychology Versus Ethnography
by Harvey Whitehouse (editor)
Berg, 2001
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D.
Oct 16th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)

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 an outlet.

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 and thought-provoking.

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 vindicated.)

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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