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On Our Minds

How Evolutionary Psychology Is Reshaping the Nature versus Nurture Debate

Eric M. Gander

Publication Year: 2003

There is no question more fundamental to human existence than that posed by the nature-versus-nurture debate. For much of the past century, it was widely believed that there was no essential human nature and that people could be educated or socialized to thrive in almost any imaginable culture. Today, that orthodoxy is being directly and forcefully challenged by a new science of the mind: evolutionary psychology. Like the theory of evolution itself, the implications of evolutionary psychology are provocative and unsettling. Rather than viewing the human mind as a mysterious black box or a blank slate, evolutionary psychologists see it as a physical organ that has evolved to process certain types of information in certain ways that enables us to thrive only in certain types of cultures. In On Our Minds, Eric M. Gander examines all sides of the public debate between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. Paying particularly close attention to the popular science writings of Steven Pinker, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Jay Gould, Gander traces the history of the controversy, succinctly summarizes the claims and theories of the evolutionary psychologists, dissects the various arguments deployed by each side, and considers in detail the far-reaching ramifications—social, cultural, and political—of this debate. Gander's lucid and highly readable account concludes that evolutionary psychology now holds the potential to answer our oldest and most profound moral and philosophical questions, fundamentally changing our self–perception as a species.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Cover, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Contents

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: ‘‘This Changes Everything’’

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pp. 1-16

Since turning thirty, I have been a committed ‘‘conservative’’ in at least one respect. I hold fast to the maxim that, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This is not always a popular, or even a very American, idea. On the contrary, there are many who will tell you that one or another invention, idea, or world-historical event changes everything. ...

Part One: The Evolution of a Controversy

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Chapter One: Stephen Jay Gould Historicizes Science

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pp. 19-30

Evolutionary psychology is a real science. At least, that is what its proponents claim. But evolutionary psychology just is not theoretical physics or organic chemistry. It may be true to say that its methods are those of the natural sciences, but it is difficult to say that evolutionary psychology’s object of study is merely the natural world. ...

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Chapter Two: Richard Herrnstein Stirs Up Controversy at Harvard Yard

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pp. 31-55

Less than two months before The Bell Curve was published in October of 1994, one of its coauthors, Richard Herrnstein, died. Herrnstein was thus spared the ordeal of having to endure the firestorm of controversy that he helped to create with that book. But Herrnstein was no stranger to controversy. ...

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Chapter Three: Edward O. Wilson Brings More Controversy to the Yard

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pp. 56-75

What Shakespeare said of mortals may be true of books as well. ‘‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.’’ When in 1975 the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, the book’s author, Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard zoology professor, ...

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Chapter Four: Richard Lewontin and His Colleagues Demur

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pp. 76-94

A short nine years after E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Ronald Reagan won reelection to the presidency by the second largest electoral margin in the history of twentieth-century American presidential politics.1 The year was 1984 and even a casual observer of the American scene at the time ...

Part Two: The Blind Watchmaker Meets the Scatterbrained Computer Programmer

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Chapter Five: Nature’s ‘‘Very Special Way’’

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pp. 97-115

The title of this part of the book layers multiple allusions. Let me begin by trying to unpack some of those allusions. The blind watchmaker appears as the title character of a 1986 book by Richard Dawkins.1 Significantly, the subtitle of Dawkins’s book is ‘‘Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.’’ ...

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Chapter Six: What Is the Mind?

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pp. 116-131

Richard Dawkins’s general argument in The Blind Watchmaker is that evolution through natural selection can account for all life on the planet earth, from tulips to (now extinct) pterodactyls. Additionally, Dawkins argues that natural selection is the only scientific way of accounting for all of the various complex organs with which these life-forms come equipped. ...

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Chapter Seven: The Challenges of Reverse Engineering

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pp. 132-152

Rhinoceroses have a big horn at the end of their noses. That may be their most distinctive feature. But they also have thick, coarse, wrinkly hides. How did the rhinoceros get his skin? An author with a Nobel Prize (in literature) provided the following explanation about one hundred years ago: ...

Part Three: The Nature of Human Cultures

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Chapter Eight: The Benefits of Hardwiring

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pp. 155-173

Of all the claims made by evolutionary psychologists, by far the most contentious involves the assertion that the various mental modules that come as standard equipment on all normal human minds are inborn or innate. In the language of computer engineering this amounts to the claim that mental modules are hardwired into us, ...

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Chapter Nine: What Cultures Can the Mind Run?

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pp. 174-195

Culture is a notoriously difficult term to define. Part of the problem is that, to many who write about it, culture is everything and everywhere. It defines who we are, but in the process defies definition itself. Thus those who would speak of it must fall back on explicit metaphors. Consider the following description of culture, offered by Clifford Geertz, ...

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Chapter Ten: The Evolutionary Psychology of ‘‘Little House on the Prairie’’

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pp. 196-223

From 1974 to 1983, millions of American families turned on their television sets every week to watch the Ingalls family struggle with life on the nineteenth-century American prairie. Indeed, during its nine-season run the show ‘‘Little House on the Prairie’’ became one of the highest rated dramas on television. ...

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Conclusion: Brave New World Revisited–Again

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pp. 224-236

The public discussion and debate surrounding evolutionary psychology—and, more generally, the return of human nature—has only just begun. But wherever and whenever such discussions take place—in the mass media, in popularscience books, in the academy, at scholarly and governmental conferences— the fundamental issues addressed ...

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Afterword: Writing on The Blank Slate

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pp. 237-250

Just after this book went to press, Steven Pinker published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.1 I strongly suspect that one of Pinker’s principal motivations for writing his new book was to correct what he sees as often robust misunderstandings (both scientific and political) regarding evolutionary psychology. ...

Notes

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pp. 251-278

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Acknowledgments

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pp. 279-282

Every intelligent person who writes on the nature-versus-nurture debate understands that all humans are, of course, the unique products of their genes and their environments. I like to think that I got the best of both nature and nurture. My father, a mathematician by training, and my mother, a sociologist, ...

Index

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pp. 283-293


E-ISBN-13: 9780801881381
E-ISBN-10: 0801881382
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801873874
Print-ISBN-10: 0801873878

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2003