A grab-bag, pop-psych look at cultural determinism and its discontents.
People are different. Cultures are different. But within those truisms lies a potentially discomfiting question that Markus (Behavioral Sciences/Stanford Univ.) and science writer and cultural psychologist Conner ask at the beginning: “What kind of person will not just survive but thrive in the twenty-first century?” That depends, of course, on place, custom, economy, education and a host of other factors, not least among them culture. Culture—and anthropologists have counted at least 200 extended definitions of that elusive term—is the shell surrounding us human eggs, and, as the authors note, it is what allows so many whites to wear blinders that assure them that we live in a post-racial society while people of color know the truth to be very different. Culture, they assert rightly, has as much to do with who people are “as do the genes, neurons, and brain regions within their bodies.” And as to the clash of the title? The authors do not always have their eyes on this prize, but they address that large question, observing—and it’s always dangerous to generalize—that people raised under the banner of Socrates prize individualism, whereas people raised under that of Confucius tend to value the polity more than the individual members of it. The authors chew on some slippery but intriguing tidbits: Why are Californians thin and athletic, Midwesterners not so much? (Hint: It has to do with the stability of relationships.) The authors steer into murkier territory when art pretends to be science, as when they write up a score card for Barack Obama (“gets one point in the ‘Independent’ column for ‘Gender’ ”).
A tighter and better-organized argument would have helped, but the authors provide plenty of smart if debatable observations about who we are.