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Five Books on Nature, Nurture, and Culture

Summary:
Human behavior reflects nature, nurture, and culture.  By nature I mean general traits that we inherit as a species and individual traits that are present at birth.  By nurture, I mean the efforts of parents and educators to shape our behavior.  By culture, I mean the knowledge, tastes, customs, norms, and tools that we absorb by interacting with others directly or indirectly. In chronological order, here are five relevant books… 1- The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris.  She provides a wide range of evidence that shows that the effects of nurture are much weaker than most people would like to believe.  Her findings and analysis produced surprise–and some dismay–in many quarters. 2- The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker.  Subtitled “The Modern Denial of Human

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Human behavior reflects nature, nurture, and culture.  By nature I mean general traits that we inherit as a species and individual traits that are present at birth.  By nurture, I mean the efforts of parents and educators to shape our behavior.  By culture, I mean the knowledge, tastes, customs, norms, and tools that we absorb by interacting with others directly or indirectly.

In chronological order, here are five relevant books…

1- The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris.  She provides a wide range of evidence that shows that the effects of nurture are much weaker than most people would like to believe.  Her findings and analysis produced surprise–and some dismay–in many quarters.

2- The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker.  Subtitled “The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” this book argues that nature is more important than what many people would like to believe.  On p. 73:

“This book is based on the estimation that whatever the exact picture turns out to be, a universal complex human nature will be part of it.  I think we have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch. . .”

The book is notable for the range of opposing viewpoints–philosophical and scientific–with which he wrestles.

3- The Secret of Our Success, by Joseph Henrich.  He argues that our individual first-hand knowledge pales in comparison with our cultural learning.  As I wrote in an essay,

“Henrich points out many ways in which humans have evolved to transmit and receive information from one another. We have an aptitude for language and for imitation. We have an instinct for identifying prestigious individuals to copy and learn from. Cultural norms can also be selected by evolution, without our necessarily being consciously aware of how they promote our welfare.”

4- Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, by Kevin N. Laland.  I came away from this book impressed by the significance for humans of our capabilities, strategies, and technologies for copying one another.  As with Henrich, the book tends to enhance one’s estimates of the importance of culture.  I reviewed Laland’s book here at Econlib.

5- Innate: How the Wiring of our Brains Shapes Who We Are, by Kevin Mitchell.  Using twin studies and similar research, we can attribute some fraction of the differences in behavioral traits across individuals to genetics.  The remainder we often casually attribute to the environment, by which we typically mean nurture and culture.  But Mitchell points out that a lot of differentiation takes place in the womb, as the process of gestation creates variation in fetal brain development.  So my reading of his book is that the environment, including nurture, plays less of a role than people would assume.  This may help account for Harris’ findings.


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