Customer Review

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb book!, February 11, 2010
This review is from: Us and Them: The Science of Identity (Paperback)
Let me begin by stating the obvious: David Berreby is a journalist. This is both good and bad for him. It is good because first and foremost he is a writer; which simply means that he knows how to write well, keep pace, extract the useful information and boil down the discussion because he has no "horse in the race." But, this leads to the bad; he is not an authority on the subject. Now, as someone who understands what an "appeal to authority" is, this doesn't pose a problem.

With that aside, I think this a terrific book. I read it about ten months ago and didn't think it was all that great; however, I re-skimmed it and began to realize just how useful it is. Berreby begins in earnest with a discussion of what exactly a tribe of people, or "human-kind" is and how the concept has been used in the past. Notable mentions go to David Hume, Sir Francis Galton and Ludwig Wittgenstein; their names pop-up continuously throughout the book. The general point of the book is to demonstrate that "tribes" are a construct, or belief, that rely heavily on folk-psychology with effects that range from pointless to extremely harmful. For example, and in reference to homosexuals, let me quote Berreby, "As I've mentioned, human kinds are real in just the way that money is real. If enough people believe in a kind of person, that kind will take its place among the realities of life. Yes, it's a mental process, not ultimate reality, that makes us believe nowadays that gay people are a human kind with a common outlook and culture, while left-handers are not." The same argument is made for race, nationality and ethnicity, amongst others. The point Berreby is making here is that belief creates reality (too a certain extent), not the otherway around. The debate is between Essentialist's and Anti-essentialist's.

The next major issue is centered around a kind of Mind/ Body and Nature/ Nurture discussion. Those mentioned are big names like Steven Pinker, V.S. Ramachandran, Antonio Damasio, Marvin Minsky, Jerry Fodor, David Rosenhan, Temple Grandin, Oliver Sacks and Simon Baron-Cohen, to name of a few. I think it is in this discussion that Berreby does a very fine job of defining the Mind/ Body and Nature/ Nurture issue.

The last major issue is centered around the modern 'Levels of Selection' problem (although Berreby doesn't call it this) in relation to evolution. Some big names mentioned in this discussion are Stephen Jay Gould, David Sloan Wilson, Ernst Mayr, Richard Lewontin and John Tooby set against neo-Darwinians like E.O. Wilson, Robert Wright, Richard Dawkins, along with "race-realists" like Vincent Sarich, Frank Miele (Race: The Reality of Human Differences) and J. Philippe Rushton (Race, Evolution, and Behavior : A Life History Perspective (2nd Special Abridged Edition)). Here again, Berreby does an excellent job defining the issues. Here is one last quote that concludes the book: "The moral of the story, I think, is simple: the code is in your head, where you make and remake your version, every day. Human nature shaped that power, with its special opportunities and vulnerabilities, but it's you who weild it. Your human-kind code makes nothing happen, for good or ill, unless you choose to act. Ethnic tensions, religious strife, political conflict, clan rivalries, and the like have never harmed anyone and never will. People do the harm." On the main, this is a really good book and I recommend it without hesitation.

I am supplying a list of books that I think are related and helpful in this discussion, if this book looks appealing to you: Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials), No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology, Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind, Human Nature: Fact And Fiction - Literature, Science And Human Nature, Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things.
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