- Hardcover: 576 pages
- Publisher: Island Press; First Edition edition (August 1, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 155963779X
- ISBN-13: 978-1559637794
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,145,128 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect First Edition Edition
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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.
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Top Customer Reviews
Ehrlich then goes on to explain all these concepts in detail with easily understood supporting evidence, arguments, and theories. From genes, to religion, to cultures, our complex human natures are unraveled and put before us to see and recognize as the wonder they are. Evolution of the human species is explained in the timeframe and the manner supported by the best scientific evidence of the day. Yet, the wonder and mystery of sentient beings is not in any way denigrated. This is definitely a book to read, and perhaps the only one those of us not in the sciences needs to read for some time to come.
If you have pondered the different roles of genes and the environment, if you are intrigued by the origin and development of cultures, if you encountered too many glib comments about "survival of the fittest" and want to understand the true depth of the concept as it applies to humans, read this book. You'll come away with so much more than you expected.
But, I did buy the book because of the cover, its purported title and his proposed thesis. Ehrlich contends that term “human nature” and the idea(s) behind it “embodies the erroneous notion that people possess a common set of rigid, genetically specified behavioral predilections that are unlikely to be altered by circumstances” (ix). Ok – not a bad thesis. I was thinking there would be some discussion of what a “human nature” *is* - i.e. – at least some basic rudimentary philosophical ideas, his defense of his position and whatever else he threw in there
However, there’s really not much of that in the book. At the very least I expected some defense of the naturalist’s position on personhood and human nature(s). Instead, I was disappointed that the naturalistic position of personhood (although there seems to be some philosophical waffling later on in the last two chapters or so) is simply assumed from the first page. As Ehrlich notes that biological and social scientists “have illuminated the behavioral flexibility we all possess” he further writes that, “I want to highlight human natures: the diverse and evolving behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes of Homo sapiens and the evolved physical structures that govern, support, and participate in our unique mental functioning” (ix).
My initial question was what it meant, on Ehrlich’s view, to be human at all? Do humans possess non-physical properties? If so, are these non-physical properties the things that differentiate human natures? If not, mustn’t the difference in human natures be some physical basis? He says, “it’s far more fruitful to consider not one human nature but many” (ix). Fruitful for what? He never fully answer this to my satisfaction.
The meat of the work is that Ehrlich seems to think if we can figure out our natures we can fix some of the problems of humanity. He writes, “If we really want to know who we are and how we can solve the problems humanity faces, we must try to understand not just human natures as they are today but also their origins” (x).
Ehrlich does have another purpose in writing the book. That purpose is to sow the seeds of doubt in his friends in the science world who happen to be determinists (cf. x). Ehrlich’s second purpose takes up more of the book than the first, which is good or bad depending on what you were hoping to get out of it.
The rest of the book, however, was rather disappointing. It’s overly long, wordy, and the ridiculous amount of Ehrlich’s own writings within
his footnotes are tedious at best and overly redundant at worst. The notes are necessary at times, but he oftentimes dives in and out of his own personal experiences and also makes rambling political or religious statements. The reader should expect (if he or she plans on reading the footnotes as well) to put a bookmark in the back and prepare to flip back and forth every thirty seconds or so. I eventually had to circle each note number on the pages that had a potentially relevant footnote that looked interesting.
Anyway, why I was disappointed in the book is that most of the book is just storytelling. Because Ehrlich believes that solving the world’s problems and understanding human nature(s) requires going back to how life evolved, he feels the need to literally tell the story of how human life began and how it has evolved through the centuries and years. And so a majority of the book is Ehrlich telling the story, or myth, so to speak. I use the term ‘myth’ not pejoratively, but only to say that much of what Ehrlich and other evolutionary naturalists suppose about how various things like religion and culture evolved are pure speculation. At the same time, I’m not arguing that some of their arguments don’t make sense or that they’re entirely unreasonable, but I find that myth-making is what they often find themselves engaged in.
So, the first few chapters gives an introduction and lesson on genes, their impact on human nature(s), and why Ehrlich doesn’t think this entails determinism. He enlists the idea of cultural evolution to explain the how and why of how human life has evolved while the bulk of the book consists of this myth making. The last two chapters actually tackle something most relevant to his book – the question of the nature of ethics and finally he trolls on about his environmentalism. I would recommend skipping the last chapter, but hey – that’s just me.
My three-star rating consists of a nonchalant “meh” to this book. If you’ve never read anything on the subjects mentioned it might be interesting. Other than that, it’s just not that impressive. Normally, I am inclined to one-star anything that is associated with Paul Ehrlich, but this one is definitely better than a one-star rating. A five-star rating? Not even close, imho.
I do have a lot of disagreements with Ehrlich. I’m only going to mention two (one of them I’ve already touched upon). First, I know *why* scientists always have to talk about ethics in books concerning their worldview – it’s due to the fact that ethics is such a huge part of life for everyone that to ignore it in a book like this would leave a huge hole. The problem is that Ehrlich simply isn’t qualified to give any detailed picture on the nature of ethics and how people should live their lives. And yet, that’s virtually the underlying theme of the book. Remember, that second purpose that says we have to fix all of the world’s problems? In other words, the whole thrust of the book is ethical, and yet Ehrlich isn’t qualified to give any serious opinion on how I should live my life. This flabbergasts me because I’m always seeing or reading scientists pointing their finger at people who have made scientific statements with which they disagree because they aren't scientists. It’s definitely quite a blind spot and one worth mentioning.
One example will suffice: Ehrlich waffles in and out of the book breaking what some have called the naturalistic fallacy – reasoning from what *is* to an *ought*. Now, Ehrlich does know about this fallacy and does say in the end of the book that we can’t conclude any ethical principles based upon what *is* the case (cf. 309). However, the entire thrust of the book argues otherwise! On pages 3-4 he writes, “A study of evolution does much more than show how we are connected to our roots or explain why people rule Earth—it explains why it would be wise to limit our intake of beef Wellington, stop judging people by their skin color, concern ourselves about global warming, and reconsider giving our children antibiotics at the first sign of a sore throat.” But of course, this is already presupposing some form of the good beforehand! There are no ethical conclusions that one can come to simply based upon the story of evolution that Ehrlich mentions. The naturalistic fallacy is also implicit in his second purpose of the book, where he thinks that we can solve all of the world’s problems if we simply look back to how the human species began. And yet, of course this says nothing about how we are to live now. It might tell us how to survive – but it doesn’t tell us that survival is some ethical principle, nor does it tell me that I am obligated to think survival is in any way, shape or form good in itself! And yet, he also claims he is a relativistic utilitarian (425)! How someone can be a utilitarian without knowing what the *good* is to determine what is the *greater* good, I will never know.
My other complaint is that he never really fulfills the purpose of stating what a human ‘nature’ *is*. There’s never a working definition that he lays out with which to argue for or against one of his main theses. He seems to flounder with ideas of differing natures based on how one culture reacts to some type of cultural macroevolution. So, one culture reacts to some type of cultural force and another culture acts another way and bada bing bada boom, two human natures! As he says, “I think that singular usage leads us astray. To give a rough analogy, human nature is to human natures as canyon is to canyons. We would never discuss the characteristics of canyon. Although all canyons share certain attributes, we always use the plural form of the word when talking about them in general” (12). So, I’m still unsure why there is such a thing as one human nature at all (as in one person has one human nature). Wouldn’t it be better argued that there are as many different natures as there are people? I mean, a canyon has no real “nature” – in the usual sense of the term – abstract, non-physical. So, is there really any human nature for any singular individual? Ehrlich would have us believe we’re only playing word games and the problem is only more compounded when he asserts that he is somewhat of a monist (cf. 422 – although I’m not sure he’s fully aware of monism’s implications).
So, we’re left with what naturalism really offers us – an incomplete picture of the world that in its final analysis is in many ways clueless about who we are as human beings. The picture is even more clouded by the inability to paint a cohesive and reasonable system of ethics while living a life and writing books based upon how people should live their lives! And, while some of the book might be interesting, its fundamental theses, like the rest of Ehrlich’s books and assertions, are failures. So, three stars is generous.
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