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RS64 - Jesse Prinz on Looking Beyond Human Nature

Release date: July 1, 2012

Nature vs. Nurture? Massimo and Julia revive the age-old debate in this episode of Rationally Speaking, with special guest Jesse Prinz. Jesse is a professor of philosophy at CUNY and the author of several books, most recently "Beyond Human Nature." The trio debate Jesse's argument that human behavior is far more culturally determined than evolutionary psychologists would have you believe, and in the process explore the question of where morality comes from and how to distinguish between nature and nurture.

Jesse's pick: "Black God, White Devil"


When Is Film Art

Reader Comments (8)

Wow. I have got to listen to this episode again. It might be my favorite ever. Prinz stands in my mind with Joseph Heath and Cordelia Fine as some of the thinkers you've interviewed who seem very, well, trustworthy. I often encounter minds that are clearly magnitudes smarter than me but who don't seem to have enough critical thinking skills to be fully trustworthy. That is the most important lesson of critical thinking: intellect and reason are not only insufficient, but dangerous without critical reflection. The smarter you are, the better you will be at fooling yourself and others. I would say your podcast about Ancestor Simulations was just such an example. It is odd that in order to protect and promote Reason, you find yourself in a position of explaining just how ineffectual it can be. Reason is a precocious child who is easily kidnapped by the wrong motives.

Prinz, however, seems to be raising that kid well. In this one podcast, some of the nagging questions from my Philo101 days seem to be, if not answered, at least framed in such a way that an answer seems possible. Chomsky v Whorf, Nature v Nurture, Freud v Skinner, Dworkin v Limbaugh, Continental v Analytic, Popper v Feyerabend. But most importantly, a clear headed approach to a theory of mind is, in my opinion, the most pressing question of philosophy. I think the Demarcation Problem is actually a symptom of the paucity of a theory of mind. Science, I predict, will be a definable as the process by which mind is in the best possible relationship to its environment. So let's figure out what a mind is, and let's do it, not from the armchair, but from the lab.

July 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Shure

I am a bit disappointed in the way you keep portraying evolutionary psychology. You constantly decipt it in a very cartoonish way, that does not do justice to the field. There are many inaccuracies in these episode alone. For example, no evolutionary psychologist will claim that only nature matters or the biology is the most important factor in determeining one's behavior. Or no one will assert that males and females are completely different from one another. You also ignore the sophistication in the methods and theory that drives the field (and no, ev psych people do not just look to find arbitrart correlations between biological markers and behavior and claim that this is evolutionary). The description of Buss's studies on infedility were not very accurate, and only Julia raised the appropriate skeptisim regarding the counter examples. Also, there is indeed strong evidence that human are mostly monogamous creatures (serial or not), and there is strong evidence that men care much to know that they are the biological parents of a child.

You seem to agree that both nature and nurture matters in shaping human behaviors, but you only criticize ev psych for not taking into account culture (which isn't true as evolution can only work with specific environemntal input). It seems only fair to ask every social scientist who isn't an evolutionary psychologist for a possible evolutionary explanation to his or her finding, as both explanations could be valid (especially if you think that you cannot separate the two).

Why don't you invite a prominent evolutionary psychologist such as Steven Pinker or David Buss to your show to get a better perspective on the field? I am sure it will make for a fascinating show.

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGil

I am fairly sure Chomsky does not think the rule constructions are conscious... Saying that he does sounds like a pretty big distortion.

October 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlen

Definitely someone I'd like hearing from again. A topic could be: what limits are there actually to morality? What kind of ethical behaviour, purviews could we predict from a combination of culture + nature?

January 5, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterislandletters

Fascinating episode, especially the take on Chomsky. I'm a language acquisition specialist and I will definitely be recommending this to friends and colleagues. I've listened to most of your podcasts and continue to be impressed.

January 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTony Houston

I second Gil's suggestion that the show should have a prominent evolutionary psychologist on as a guest.

November 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMr. B.
Statistically, men do commit violent crime at a much higher rate than women.

Studies often find much higher levels of "Neuroticism" and "Hysteria" in women, but this likely occurs due to an error in the methodology of those studies. Whereas men frequently suppress their emotions, women tend to more freely express their emotions, and researchers confuse the mere expression of emotion with neurotic or hysterical thinking.

A strong evolutionary nature argument does exist for male sexual jealousy and prohibition of violence.

Hume actually did have a good argument for extending human benevolence to all of society. Humans have generally failed to live up to that standard, but we should keep trying.
January 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
The discussion was very interesting, and I was delighted to see that Julia was more critical this time when the claims were too strong. Jesse Prinz made some valid points on culture. However, he began with saying that there is no nature vs nurture and that it therefore is impossible to separate nature from nurture. But immediately he continues by making a big straw man out of David Buss his views(which he does not seem to hold if you have ever read his work and research) and then goes of by stating the strong position of nurture which in the beginning he said was irrational. This was once again pretty disappointing to hear. But besides this point the episode was very interesting.
July 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEmiel de Jonge

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