From Publishers Weekly
With this impressively well-researched work, Berreby attempts to apply the tools of science to an impossibly large question: what is it about the human mind that makes us believe in categories like race, gender and ethnicity? Spanning countless disciplines, Berreby draws on a staggering variety of sources, from St. Paul's epistles and the philosophical essays of David Hume to the evolutionary theory of Stephen Jay Gould and the evolutionary psychology of Cosmides and Tooby. Yet, structurally, the text feels rather scattered. It moves breathlessly from one citation or example to another without any clear indication of where it's headed or what the overall point is; often, it reads less like a deliberately argued work than a collection of anecdotes, musings and insights. Fortunately, Berreby, who has written for various publications including the New York Times
and the New Republic
, has a casual and conversational style that makes even his most complicated points straightforward and commonsensical: at the most scientific moments, such as his thoughtful explanation of the physical effects of stress and stigma on the brain, Berreby still requires no specialized knowledge from the reader. And he illustrates other points, like the role food plays in the perception of difference, with revealing and amusing examples. The book may not break any new intellectual ground, but it does offer an entertaining survey of a vast, and vastly important, topic of study. (Oct. 24)
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From Scientific American
Each of us has experienced a feeling of kinship with someone who shares a love of chocolate, a passion for foreign films, or perhaps an affinity for a person with the same skin color or ethnic identity. We might also feel alienated from someone with the same qualities if he or she belongs to a "group" we do not like.
But what exactly is this seemingly natural tendency to sort others into "kinds"? This question forms the core of Us and Them, which explores the conscious and unconscious ways in which people classify one anotherand more importantwhy. How humans can use this propensity constructively, rather than destructively, remains a central issue of our time, argues David Berreby, a veteran science journalist. Although this penchant may be hardwired into our brains, ultimately we choose how to live. Religious strife, political conflict and clan rivalries boil down to individual behavior.
Berreby says the sciences of brain and mind offer "a new way to look at love of country, at culture, at religion (and at hatred too)." Researchers are starting to understand "how and why people think and feel in tribes, and why all of us are capable of both tribal good and tribal evil." Advances are allowing scientists to grapple with such questions as "Why cant we all get along?" Berreby investigates the social, psychological and neurological mechanisms that move humans to categorize. For example, he considers how codes in the nervous system predispose us to organize perceptions, including ones that help us feel how other people feel. Sciences assault on our beliefs about race, religion and nationalism has shown that even much of "common sense" is both blind and cruel. Berreby reminds us that not long ago North Americans held by common sense that slavery was natural, women should not vote and only heterosexuals deserved respect. "Good riddance to all that," he says. Still, attitudes die hard. "A white person and a black person in todays New York City can agree over coffee that race is all in your mind," Berreby contends. "But when they leave Starbucks and raise their hands to hail a taxi, the white person is more likely to get a cab. In that moment, race is as real as gravity."
Given our drive to categorize, Berreby reflects thoughtfully on how to do so responsibly. "The Us-Them code does not own you," he concludes. "You own it."