A spirited nurturist polemic.



Cognitive Science editorial board member Prinz (Philosophy/City Univ. of New York; The Emotional Construction of Morals, 2008, etc.) tackles an age-old debate, making an argument for “the primacy of nurture over nature.”

The question has been endlessly debated: How much of man’s behavior is innate and genetically determined, and how much is affected by environment and experience? Thinkers who study such matters, including psychologists and philosophers, largely fall somewhere in the middle: “Between the poles of nature and nurture, there is a vast spectrum of possible positions,” writes the author. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still lively debate, and Prinz makes clear that he stands on the far end of the nurturist side of the spectrum. Much as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (2002) presented a sweeping naturist viewpoint, Prinz makes arguments in favor of “a fairly thoroughgoing nurturism.” He seeks to dismantle the widely held notion that language, personality traits, moral values and other complex aspects of human behavior are determined largely by biology. Taking issue with the concept of genetic determinism, he stresses that environmental factors play a much bigger role in, for example, alcoholic behavior or IQ scores, than genes do. Throughout, he cites numerous studies and colorful examples to support his views. While Prinz’s passion for his subject is evident, and his positions well-researched, his prose can be a bit dry and repetitive at times. However, he presents some compelling arguments, and he is unafraid to take on popular beliefs to make his points—as when he challenges the idea of an innate human capacity for learning language or argues that depression has a large cultural component.

A spirited nurturist polemic.

Pub Date: Nov. 19, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-06175-8

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should...


Greene (The 33 Strategies of War, 2007, etc.) believes that genius can be learned if we pay attention and reject social conformity.

The author suggests that our emergence as a species with stereoscopic, frontal vision and sophisticated hand-eye coordination gave us an advantage over earlier humans and primates because it allowed us to contemplate a situation and ponder alternatives for action. This, along with the advantages conferred by mirror neurons, which allow us to intuit what others may be thinking, contributed to our ability to learn, pass on inventions to future generations and improve our problem-solving ability. Throughout most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, and our brains are engineered accordingly. The author has a jaundiced view of our modern technological society, which, he writes, encourages quick, rash judgments. We fail to spend the time needed to develop thorough mastery of a subject. Greene writes that every human is “born unique,” with specific potential that we can develop if we listen to our inner voice. He offers many interesting but tendentious examples to illustrate his theory, including Einstein, Darwin, Mozart and Temple Grandin. In the case of Darwin, Greene ignores the formative intellectual influences that shaped his thought, including the discovery of geological evolution with which he was familiar before his famous voyage. The author uses Grandin's struggle to overcome autistic social handicaps as a model for the necessity for everyone to create a deceptive social mask.

Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should beware of the author's quirky, sometimes misleading brush-stroke characterizations.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02496-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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