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Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind Hardcover – October 24, 2005
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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."
Top customer reviews
The book is well written and has many vivid examples of how people stereotype and why those stereotypes are not reliable guides for rational human behavior. Although he occasionally dives into brain architecture and evolutionary theory, it is not too overwhelming for the intelligent lay reader (that all important Human Kind). The topic is very important, considering that issues of race, gender, religious conflict, and injustice based on economic class dominate our political scene. This book helps the reader get a better scientific footing on the psychological basis of those issues.
By exploring how our human minds--and by extension our brains--process group identity, the author is in an area that has been popular lately due in part to Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works." This research area is called the modular theory of the mind, pioneered by people such as Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky. However, Berreby is wary of Pinker's complete programme. He explicitly criticizes Pinker. Never in this book does Berreby refer to a brain "module." Instead, he refers to the mind's code for processing human kind thinking, called kind-sight. To this reader, it amounts to the same thing. A module is a module. Berreby does make the point at length that there is no single chunk of brain that does all human kind code processing. (But, then, I don't think Pinker ever claimed that, either.)
Berreby does show that the human kind code is automatic, unconscious, and hardwired into the developing brain. This to me qualifies his theory as in the tradition of the modular theory of the mind.
Berreby also holds evolutionary theory at arm's length. He is wary of strict reductionism from social structures to selfish genes. He seems uncomfortable with Williams and Dawkins and their insistence that the selfish gene is the final arbiter of evolution. He shows that some of the assumptions of this camp are inseparable from the assumptions of "race realists" such as Rushton. This wariness leads to an excellent exploration of the nature of science and "levels of analysis." He describes the "selfish gene" camp and the "plurality of mechanisms" camp as two competing social groups that use stereotypes and intergroup hostility as part of their own human kind thinking. Clearly, he doesn't want to be a blind follower of either camp.
Nevertheless, it is obvious that he does consider the faculty for kind-sight to be an evolved and distinct mental structure. To that extent, he is, whether he admits it or not, an Evolutionary Psychologist (or Evo Psycho as he mentions in the book).
Berreby rejects what he sees as Pinker's pessimism about the human kind faculty. He ends to book with a hopeful gesture that we can take control of our own destiny by rationally controlling our irrational kind-sight faculty. But he admits that the faculty that propels us to reach the ideals of our human kinds is inseparable from the faculty that can lead to genocide. So I am not convinced that Berreby's conclusion should lead to optimism. Pinker's outlook was really not that much more pessimistic. All in all, they amount to nearly the same outlook.
Berreby is critical of thinkers who use this capacity within human nature for group violence to claim that human nature is evil. He expressedly does not want the evil potential for kind-sight to be used to bolster a theologically Christian worldview. But in the end, his conclusions do not eliminate that line of argument. So long as humans have an irrational kind-sight, which is built-in, we will be fully capable of prejudice and evil, and that capacity cannot be eliminated by any kind of socialization. The hope that everyone will rationally control their prejudices over the long-term is contradicted by human history. He leaves us with an unattainable ideal. Perhaps he gives us the ideal in the hopes of improving the actual, but his finale is more hopeful than plausible.
The reason is as simple as it is preventable - the author (or more likely the publisher) has completely failed to provide usable citations for the book.
Most books use one of two citation schemes. Either a bibliography, with all citations listed by author and publication date; or endnotes where a number in the chapter links to the citation at the end of the book. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
However, this book uses a new scheme for `references'. No source material is cited in the chapter. Instead, if you turn to the end of the book, you'll find a page reference and short quote from that page, followed by citations. This is, quite simply maddening.
The only way to read this is to read the chapter, then flip back and forth between the page and the note until you find the sentence, then interpret the sentence in light of the note. I've never seen a system like this, and with any luck, I never will again.
That said, the book is probably fine for non-serious study. If you simply want a readable book to introduce you to this kind of sociology, it's probably decent. However if you're a serious scholar looking for books on this subject, I suggest you keep looking.
As I said, I have not read the whole book - it may be well written and informative. But without an effective system to allow additional study of the original source material, it's useless for me. Assuming it's well written, I'd suggestion the following ratings:
0 for serious study
5 for casual readers
My rating of 3 is a compromise between the two.
In addition to being overly broad and unfocused, at times Berreby is simply wrong. On page 36 he refers to the "flawed" research on similarity and interpersonal attraction, suggesting that people may join a group and then begin to act like them. This may well be true (due to various social influence effects), but the observation that people seek out similar others is one of the most robust and replicated findings in social psychology. Berreby is a little too eager to prove his point, and this leads him to distort and go beyond the evidence throughout the book.
I don't want to be completely negative in this review. Certainly, Berreby is a competent writer, and to some extent, this book fills an important niche. Still, I wish he had gone about it in a different way. There is plenty of good research on group relations that he ignores. His neuroscience approach is clever, but ultimately futile as an explanation.
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