March 31, 2022

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How Culture and Experience
Shape the Human Mind

by Jessie J. Prinz.
W. W. Norton, 2012
(i-xii, 402 pages)

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    Quote = "Jesse Prinz reveals how the cultures we live in --- not biology --- determine how we think and feel. He examines all aspects of our behavior, looking at everything from our intellects and emotions, to love and sex, morality and even madness." (From publisher's blurb)

    Quote = "This book seeks to go beyond traditional debates of nature and nurture. He is not interested in finding universal laws but, rather, in understanding, explaining and celebrating our differences. Each proceeding section contains two chapters. In addition to learned and inherited behaviors, topics include genomes, gender, extremes of emotion, and cannibalism." (From publisher's blurb)

    Quote = "Above all, just how malleable are we? Prinz shows that the vast diversity of our behavior is not engrained. He picks up where biological explanations leave off. He tells us the human story." (From publisher's blurb)
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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages

PREFACE (ix-xii)




3) GET SMART (52-80)


4) WHAT BABIES KNOW (83-114)

5) SENSIBLE IDEAS (115-134)


6) THE GIFT OF THE GAB (137-169)

7) WORDS AND WORLDS (170-190)


8) THE TAO OF THOUGHT (193-212)







13) IN BED WITH DARWIN (330-363)

AFTERWORD (365-368)

NOTES (369-387)

INDEX (389-402)
    Evolutionary Psychology
    Love (See also Sex)
    Nature vs. Nurture
    Psychiatric disorders
    Sex (see also Love)
    Unconscious processes

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR = Jesse J. Prinz is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He lives in New York.

SUMMARY = In this provocative, revelatory tour de force, Jesse Prinz reveals how the cultures we live in --- not biology --- determine how we think and feel. He examines all aspects of our behavior, looking at everything from our intellects and emotions, to love and sex, morality and even madness.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = This book seeks to go beyond traditional debates of nature and nurture. He is not interested in finding universal laws but, rather, in understanding, explaining and celebrating our differences.

Each proceeding section contains two chapters. In addition to learned and inherited behaviors, topics include genomes, gender, extremes of emotion, and cannibalism.

Why do people raised in Western countries tend to see the trees before the forest, while people from East Asia see the forest before the trees? Why, in South East Asia, is there a common form of mental illness, unheard of in the West, in which people go into a trance-like state after being startled? Compared to Northerners, why are people in the American South more than twice as likely to kill someone over an argument? And, above all, just how malleable are we?

Prinz shows that the vast diversity of our behavior is not engrained. He picks up where biological explanations leave off. He tells us the human story.

A preface, afterword, section of notes, and an index are included. Annotation – distributed by Syndetic Solutions.

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LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = In 1999, Scientific American published an article suggesting it was time to abandon the nature-versus-nurture debate and integrate many new theories of human behavior, including ones that emphasize developmental, genetic, evolutionary, and cultural factors. Yet the debate continues, and here Prinz (philosophy, CUNY Graduate Center; The Conscious Brain: How Attention Engenders Experience) posits that each individual is a product of multiple influences, but that cultural psychology plays a far greater role in human development than has been understood.

The chapters explore the basic areas of human behavior that have previously featured in this debate, including IQ, so-called innate knowledge, language, thinking, feelings, gender issues, and values. The author believes that biology does affect behavior, but that the contributions are modest in comparison with the impact of our social environments, particularly social conformity.

While Prinz admits that some areas need further study, he is adamant that science must move beyond genetics and evolution and explore cultural history to better understand human behavior. VERDICT This is a good history and overview of the issues involved in the nature-nurture debate with a convincing argument about where the conversation should go in the future. Strongly recommended, especially for larger public libraries and university libraries. – Mary E. Jones, Los Angeles P.L.

BOOKLIST REVIEW = *Starred Review* Why do Ashkenazi Jews score high on IQ tests? Why do boys excel at work requiring spatial reasoning while girls shine in tasks demanding verbal acuity? Such questions have long sparked debates between theorists who believe that nature encoded in DNA determines our human characteristics and theorists who insist that it is actually the nurture that culture provides that shapes our identity.

Enter Prinz as a philosopher decidedly committed to the nurture side of this controversy. Updating arguments that Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin made in Not in Our Genes (1984), Prinz resists the view that the 20th century's scientific map of the human genome provides a definitive explanation of all human action or thought. For instance, he counters Chomsky's biologically oriented theory that babies are born neurologically primed with an innate grammar, adducing evidence that babies may learn language by applying culturally informed "inferential strategies."

Against the claim of evolutionary psychologists that "natural selection" has inscribed the same six basic emotions in all humans, Prinz argues that cultural diversity modifies the emotional spectrum considerably from one society to another. And against Darwinian justifications of male promiscuity and female chastity, Prinz connects the dots in sexual behavior with nonbiological economic and social logic. A stimulating contribution to a perennial debate. – Christensen, Bryce – distributed by Syndetic Solutions.

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[1] From start to finish this book is a fine, balanced, enormously learned and informative blast on the trumpet of common sense and humane understanding. – New Statesman

[2] Challenges the tenets of modern evolutionary psychology. – Wall Street Journal

[3] Science writing done right. – Daily Beast

[4] Sophisticated but accessible reading for the Pinker/Damasio/Dennett set. – Library Journal

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[1] Nature v. Nurture = For the most part persuasive, although at times difficult to follow. The first chapter on why overemphasizing the role of genes could lead us astray as a society is important. The book details the history of Social Darwinism and the assumptions in the past (some not so distant) as to the role of inheritance vs. culture. The discussion of the intelligence of men vs. women with regard to the sciences is absorbing, It was the most controversial subject in the 1990s.

[2] Amazon Customer - Fabulous = A very interesting, accessible and pertinent read.

[3] Simon Lab - Culture and experience matters, not only biological determinism = Sure, we are a product of biology, but we are also a product of culture and experience. There is indeed something more than genetics and evolution. And we have heard far to little about this in recent years.

So, this is long overdue, and is a very compelling book. We get "the other side." The book provides a lot of information about how culture and history turn us into the people we are. The story takes us from babies dressed up in pink or in blue, and being treated by parents accordingly, to the morality of hunter gatherer societies vs. agricultural societies. Where is it moral to be a cannibal? And, where can you have slaves?

Language is what allows us to talk about the these things. And Prinz makes a good case for statistical learning as the basis of language in contrast to an innate language module. It convinced me!

There is a lot less innate than we usually think, and a lot more learned than we usually think. I take a lot of the critique of this book to be about where nature starts and nurture takes over, and I think this book finds a much better balance than we see in most books on the subject.

[4] T E 23 - Astonishingly Bad = Who knew that a book this bad could make it into print. And its not self-published, but is actually published by Penguin Books, a famous and prestigious publisher. Here are the top 5 reasons I think it is bad:

1. Lack of immediate support for important "facts" presented. In the first chapter Prinz takes aim at naturists by citing the psychological impact of cultural differences, and the malleability of the mind. He gives three examples of supporting phenomena for each one. Now, I would think that when an author cites phenomena that are important to his essential thesis, that this would be an important place to state in effect - "I am not just saying this, we know it because _________________." But he does not do this.

Although it is picked up later in the book, it would be very helpful to say, "as discussed in Chapter 3" so the reader knows it is coming and can even flip to that part, to get an early validation. In general, there is a lack of citations to sources. Many pages of assertions go by with not even a footnote.

2. It is a book aimed at the misconceptions of literalist idiots. No, there is not a significant contingent of people who believe that there is literally a warrior gene. People, in general, understand that genetic variation only gives some predisposition, but is not entirely determinative of any behavioral trait.

3. Although some interesting studies are cited, they are generally not unexpected. The studies showing the effect of language on the ability to distinguish colors are interesting, but so what? There is really not that great of a point developed from them by Prinz. Contrast this book with The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt, where in virtually every page cleverly designed and executed studies are cited that yield unexpected and thought provoking results. Fascinating theories are developed and discussed. Not so here.

4. The author makes idiotic statements, for example: "If two individuals score 103 and 115 on an IQ test, the spread between them is 12 points on the test, but there is also an overlap of 103 points." The scale is designed with 100 (the base) as the average with every 10 (or maybe 15) points representing a standard deviation. So to speak of an overlap of 103 points is just pure idiocy. The selection of 100 as representing the average score was purely arbitrary. Those who originated the scale could have just as easily made the base zero (although negative IQs might have really hurt the feelings of low scorers) or a million, or -3, which would have given an overlap of 3, or a 1,000,003 or zero, with equal legitimacy.

5. There is a pattern in the book, to attack studies that show that it is nature, more than nurture, to account for observed human differences. But what would be far more interesting would be studies showing unexpected and unusual effects of nurture. Nurture has all along been the default explanation for behavioral differences and for differences in human achievement. The importance of education is emphasized very frequently in our society.

We expect that one is conservative or liberal due to one's life experiences, collection of influences and, yes, self interest. Of course this is true. Coming from a supportive and loving family helps one to succeed. This is what we all believe. Now a study showing that a loving and supportive environment could change human attributes commonly taken to be genetic, such as height, or hair color, or eye color would be unexpected and really fascinating.

In short, what is missing is the positive case for nurture, where there are proponents for nature's influence, rather than only an attack on the reasoning and conclusions of the proponent of nature. It is not enough to make a case that they are wrong or that alternative explanations exist for any particular observed phenomenon. The author should have to explain why he thinks that it is nurture that plays the greater role.

[5] Vive Tejuja - To enter the throes of human behavior = Why do people from one culture think and see things differently from another? Why do they almost feel and also emote differently in some situations? There are so many instances when people from a different race or culture act and think differently and yet while most of us question the differences, there are times when thoughts regarding those do not cross our mind. The differences also stem from the nurture or the nature angle, which there have long gone been debates about in our world.

The book that I have finished reading also talks of the way we view our world and how and why do we do what we do. The book completely left me astounded by the end of the read. It gave me more perspective to the human condition and what impact places and upbringing have on behavior and what surrounds us have on our way of thinking and behavior.

Prinz asks if the idea of human nature has any place in the sciences and the book tries to unearth or discover that very thought. The argumentation is strong in most places and weak in others, which I ignored, because the overall book appealed to me.

The book is divided into six parts and each part focuses on the idea of where the following come from: Feelings, Values, Traits, Knowledge, Language, and Thinking. While the book is great overall, the reader cannot start reading the book from any part. The vast diversity of behavior is explored in great depth in this book with a lot of relevant instances, which both astound and amuse.

The conclusions for each argument are valid and rolled out well with no vagueness.

There are times when I do not read non-fiction because I cannot make sense of some of it and then there are times when such a book comes along my way that makes me want to read more on these lines and the topic. There is a lot to garner and take away from this book, both individually and from a societal perspective. It is amazing how the author wove the concept of nature vs. nurture so brilliantly around the premise of this book. I would recommend this book to those who want to know more about this topic, if they can keep up with the slow pace of the book.

[6] SP Mead - A mildly interesting book on nature vs nurture = This is an effort to explore the problem of human nature from a philosophical point of view. The author offers an interesting and occasionally engaging discussion on how, as a social animal, we exist outside or 'beyond' nature. Or, how we construct our own nature based upon our own thoughts and actions.

The book concerns the nature vs nurture debate, and it sides with the importance of nurture. I am inclined to agree... but I think that the role of society, and in turn the way society is made and remade, needed to be explored much more thoroughly. As it is, major contributors to knowledge are omitted. For instance, the ideas of Karl Marx, who said a great deal about these issues, are not looked at. These are several such omissions.

It is as if the author had only a partial knowledge of the subject matter, or perhaps he refused — for ideological reasons — to refer to certain works. Overall, a fascinating book. But it is not a significant addition to the debate.

[7] markr - Fascinating account of why we are the way we are = This is a very enjoyable and informative account of the factors which shape human beings. The book deals with the debate about whether nature or nurture is the more important in determining the kind of people we become. Through wide ranging analyses of research into genetics, including the development of the human genome, of cultures across time, and of socialization in a wide range of communities and national groups, Prinz concludes that nurture is the predominant factor.

This is a scholarly work, which is highly enjoyable for the general reader. I recommend it. But I must admit I found the early chapters, in which Prinz systematically refutes studies which purport to show that nature and evolution are the only, or most, important determinants, to be quite heavy going.

The book came alive in the last two thirds, when many examples of how culture is so significant are given. In these chapters the author deals a with wide range of cultural factors including language, and how this can effect the way we think and perceive; emotions, and how they are displayed; love, and what drives sexual preference; and taboos, including why they have been formed; and the effects of these factors on individuals and societies.

The conclusions reached are balanced. They show that nature and nurture are both important and suggest lines of further enquiry. It was a highly enjoyable book, which would have been a five star review except for the academic approach in the early chapters.

[8] Dr. Glockenspiel - Why empiricism is good science = The book offers a counterweight to the "genetic causation" that pervades many books, articles, and science oriented talks nowadays, while also showing that cultural psychology (which dates from Tomasello's book, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition) and the empiricist view of the human mind. Both make for a good alternative theory.

Jesse puts much of the intensely debated cases under closer scrutiny (IQ and the bell curve, racial and sexual differences in intellectual skills, language impact upon thought, mental illness). He shows how the naturist side, allowing genes to account for the evidence, often rests on bad science: neglecting environmental impacts on development; ignoring disparities in outcomes; and standards of living, and the like.

This work shines in honesty, rigor, and intellectual breadth - going from a thorough critique of the language of thought, to the experimental supports given to the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, to the holistic vs individualistic cultures' framing of perceptions and information processing... And lot more.

A good part of the book is showing how the empiricist's view of the mind, as being made of associations between mental images (copies of sensory experiences) and emotions, fare better than its rival in accounting for abstract ideas, for the productivity of thought, and for its overall context-sensitivity and dependence. A return to empiricism is also a way to stress how cautiously we should be in terms of hypothesis and explanations building: if one trait can be shown to be un-teachable and un-learnable; and if the proper environment to learn the trait from experience and from teaching can be shown to be lacking or non-existent, than that trait should be viewed as innate. But it is clear, when reading the works criticized by Prinz (on moral belief, naive physics and emotions among other things), that genetic causation/necessity/sufficiency claims are straightforward and easy going as far as the un-learnability condition are concerned.

Of special interest is the way empiricism fosters a careful analysis of basic emotions (Ekman's Big Six), once taken as universal, analysis that unravel how these, given their cultural variability, are likely to be grounded on the associations of simpler, more primitive effects. The book is a pretty good, enjoyable and thoughtful work.

[9] MK - Fresh praise for the brain = I don't often write reviews. The reason is that I am very lazy, and usually other people have already written what I wanted to say. But now I have two motives to write a review anyway: I have just finished to read the best book I have read for a long time – and then I only find a single review here, and I profoundly disagree.

The book is about two scientific positions that exist since the times of the old Greeks, often reduced to the ‘nature-nurture' issue. Emotions, language, traits and values — are they part of human nature, genetically determined and hard-wired in our brains, or are they the product of culture? Of course, neither nature nor culture can exist completely without the other, but how great a part each plays has been and is still the point of many academic debates.

Prinz states early on, that he is on the side of culture, so the reader knows what to expect. If you have been a naturist so far, see if he can convince you. If you are a nurturist, see if his arguments are similar to yours. And if you never thought about the issue, then prepare for a roller coaster ride of ideas and reasoning!

Prinz structures each chapter around a question (e. g. "Where does thinking come from?"), and answers it first by summarizing the arguments of the naturist side. Then he takes them apart, step-by-step. He points at flaws in research methods, logical problems, over-interpretation of results and offers alternative explanations. To underpin his arguments, he quotes about 250 scientific studies from psychology, philosophy, sociology and anthropology, but he gathers these in form of end notes at the end of the book, which makes the text easier to read than a traditional psychological text (which quotes the names of the researcher in parentheses in the text).

Sometimes he also speculates, but when he does he tells you, and as the speculations agree with the quoted research results, he thus shows that there are alternative ways to interpret the data, so more and cleverer research is needed.

Reading original research is often hard for an outsider. Each discipline has more or less developed their own lingo (one reason why they don't collaborate interdisciplinary). However, Prinz has succeeded well in translating the different dialects into normal English. His choice of examples and titles is often witty. And no matter what side one is on: there is some gymnastics for the brain in following his dialectic argumentation, and more than once I had to revise my own convictions several times within minutes! The book was utterly exciting.

The only criticism I have is that Prinz obviously fell for one of Chomsky's ideas. Otherwise, I cannot understand why he did not cite Skinner's Verbal Behavior in the language chapter. Also I think adding some dynamic system thinking, which appears also in developmental psychology, could have improved his arguments.

So I highly recommend this book for everybody who likes an intellectual challenge. And I do not care what hair color Prinz has!

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