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Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect [Hardcover]

Paul R. Ehrlich
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

It's common to blame "human nature" for some of the unpleasant facts of life--road rage, say, or murder, or war. The problem with this convenient out, argues the distinguished scientist Paul Ehrlich, is that there really is no single human nature. Humans, it's true, share a common genetic code with remarkably few large-scale differences (if all but native Africans disappeared from the planet, he notes, "humanity would still retain somewhat more than 90 percent of its genetic variability"); and evolution has endowed us with capabilities shared by no other species. But for all that, he adds, our separation into haves and have-nots, weak and strong, and other such categories is more often than not a product of cultural evolution, a process far more complex than the mere mutation and adaptation of a few genes. And, in any event, those genes "do not shout commands to us about our behavior," Ehrlich says. "At the very most, they whisper suggestions."

In this wide-ranging survey of what it is that has made and that continues to make us human, Ehrlich touches on a number of themes--among them, his recurrent observation that science has taught us little about how genes influence human behavior. (Instead, he notes wryly, "science tells us that we are creatures of accident clinging to a ball of mud hurtling aimlessly through space. This is not a notion to warm hearts or rouse multitudes.") He urges that scientists take a larger, interdisciplinary view that looks beyond mere genetics to the larger forces that shape our lives, a view for which Human Natures makes a handy, and highly accessible, primer. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Most people know Ehrlich as the environmentalist who brought the world's attention to the overpopulation problem in the 1960s. But this Stanford biologist has also enjoyed a long, eminent career exploring evolution. In his new book, he combines his scientific research and environmental concerns into an enlightening narrative of humanity's evolution. Ehrlich surveys the most important research on the origin and rise of hominids and current ideas about the ascent of language and consciousness. He accepts that we are the products of evolution, but he finds the current trends of evolutionary psychology and genetic determinism to be hopelessly simplistic. Instead, Ehrlich shows how genes, culture and the environment together create a complexity that, he says, science still barely grasps. The 100,000 or so genes in human DNA, he contends, could never determine the 100 trillion connections between the neurons in our brains. Evolution may shape our brains generically, but the culture and environment in which we grow up control its fine details. Moving into the more recent past, Ehrlich charts how cultural (rather than biological) evolution has created civilizations, and how it has later destroyed many of them. Finally, he shows how an understanding of human evolution can inform our ethics and our decisions about how to run our societies. It shows, for instance, that under their skin, all humans are practically identical genetically speaking; we cannot pretend that race has any biological significance. We still have a long way to go from an evolutionary point of view: our ancestors spent millions of years living in small groups and dealing with the immediate struggle of finding food, and we have not yet adapted to the globalized society or such problems as human-created climate change. Although Jared Diamond and others have plowed this ground before, Ehrlich's book is so well researched and so elegantly presented that it stands as one of the best introductions to human evolution in recent memory. And that along with Ehrlich's name recognition should help this break out from the usual. science audience. 20,000 first printing; 8-city author tour; national radio interviews; national print advertising.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Ehrlich (biological sciences, Stanford; The Population Bomb) has written a very informative book on the human animal that emphasizes the essential framework of organic evolution. He focuses on the survival value of bipedality, intelligence, language, and technology for the emergence of our species and its success. His analysis also points out the roles that art, violence, sexual behavior, and the coming of civilization have played in the biocultural evolution of humankind. "All of our natures are a product of our histories, biological and cultural," Ehrlich claims. But he stresses that the complexity, flexibility, and diversity of human natures cannot be explained primarily in terms of genetic inheritance. Scrutinizing gene-culture interactions, his study points out that there are not enough genes to account for the range of human natures. Consequently, the powerful influences of society and the environment on the formation of human natures must also be considered. Glaringly absent is a critical analysis of the unfortunate threat that some religions present by rejecting the fact of evolution, ignoring the overpopulation problem, and dismissing outright an evaluation of both social issues and human values within a naturalistic outlook. Even so, Human Natures is an important contribution to an evolutionary understanding of and appreciation for our species in terms of science and reason. Recommended for all academic science collections.DH. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Scientific American

The idea that human nature is a unitary, unchanging thing, Ehrlich says, "has become a major roadblock to understanding ourselves." And so he argues for the concept of human natures, plural. "The universals that bind people together at any point in our evolution are covered in the word human. The word natures emphasizes the differences that give us our individuality, our cultural variety, and our potential for future genetic and--especially--cultural evolution." To understand the concept, Ehrlich writes, one must trace the course of human evolution. And that is what he does, emphasizing human cultural evolution, "the super-rapid kind of evolution in which our species excels." With the result that the nature of a great musician is not identical with that of a fine soccer player and the nature of an inner-city gang member differs from that of a child raised in an affluent suburb. "We need to learn how to direct that cultural process in ways more beneficial for the human future," he says. Ehrlich, professor of population studies and of biological sciences at Stanford University, has an extraordinary range of interests and mines a rich lode of knowledge in laying out his argument.

EDITORS OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

Review

"Well resaecrhed and...elegantly presented."Publishers Weekly(starred review)

"I doubt whether anyone will write as good a book of this sort on [human evolution] for another two or three decades." Sicence

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. His books include the bestselling The Population Bomb, and he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of numerous international honors. Ehrlich lives in Stanford, California.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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