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3.0 out of 5 stars The First Chapter is the Book, October 2, 2011
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This review is from: The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life (Hardcover)
Baumeister writes that his "initial project was to provide a summary and overview of human nature, based on current lab findings in social psychology." After a year of hard work, he finished a draft of the book, and realized that it had no central theme, but rather was a compendium of scattered observations and partial, unintegrated, insights. Of course this is not surprising because the field of social psychology is just that---a bunch of unintegrated insights drawn together by insufferable pseudo-generalizations. Then, says Baumeister, "one day, sitting by a rooftop pool...I began to think that the giant mass of information really did seem to be ready for integrative explanation. The human psyche...was designed for something very specific. Inner processes serve interpersonal functions. What goes on inside the person is there to facilitate the types of relationships we have." (p. viii) He goes on to say "Nature built us for culture. The human psyche is thus designed by natural selection to enable us to belong to a culture."

Baumeister was chagrined to discover that this synthesizing theme would require a whole year of rewriting, "which involved a growing struggle with my own impatience," he writes. A whole year? A year is a very short time to deal with such a big theme, especially since the idea itself is quite foreign to traditional social psychology. Unfortunately, Baumeister's impatience shows. Except for the first chapter, the book is filled with vapid and off-hand observations well known to all and hardly reflecting "current lab findings" in any serious way. Here is a typical, randomly chosen quote from the chapter How People Act and React: "In terms of money, rationality means doing what is best for the self in the long run." (p.326) This of course is just false. It is rational to give to charity, to contribute to the struggle for democracy, civil liberties, and racial equality, to vote, and to reject positive offers in an ultimatum game. Baumeister continues: "Economic incentives do generally have a significant impact on human behavior. Economists often take this as a sign that people are generally rational." The mind boggles at the banal superficiality of this statement, at its lack of references, and its ignorance of truly key considerations in the question of human rationality. He goes on to say "It would be an overstatement to say that people are always rational, but it is hard to dispute that basic economic rationality does succeed as a general principle for explaining and prediction (and controlling) a great deal of human behavior." The book is full of such superficial and unsupported pseudo-reasoning.

Baumeister's first chapter, by contrast, is a gentle, insightful, and nicely written introduction to the theory of cultural evolution and gene-culture coevolution, although the author appears not to have read some of the important contributions to the field (where are E. O. Wilson, Marcus Feldman, Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Robin Dunbar, and William Durham, among others). Similarly, Baumeister does not refer to the extremely important literature on niche construction, of which gene-culture coevolution is a special case (see the works of John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, and Marcus Feldman). Finally, Baumeister's careful discussion of the meaning of `culture' does not recognize that human culture is a form of epistatic cross-generational transmission, and hence that culture is information the same way that genes are information. For a short introduction to this way of thinking (the only correct way of thinking, in my humble estimation) see my paper "Gene-culture Coevolution and the Nature of Human Sociality", Proceedings of the Royal Society B 366 (2011):878-888.

As a result of his not having read the relevant literature, Baumeister does not have a secure handle on the application of gene-culture coevolution to the nature of human sociality, which probably accounts for the superficiality of the remainder of the book.
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