Eprint note: this is the final submitted version; it hasn't been double-checked against the published version and there could be minor editorial discrepancies.

Moore, J. (1998). Joint review of The Biological Basis of Human Behavior (Sussman, 1997) and Human Nature: A Critical Reader (Betzig, 1997). Amer. Anthropol. 100: 802-804.

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The Biological Basis of Human Behavior. Robert W. Sussman, ed. Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 451 pp.

Human Nature: A Critical Reader. Laura Betzig, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 489 pp.

University of California at San Diego

I was pleased by the invitation to review two readers on "human nature" since I recently finished co-teaching a seminar by that title and was curious to see how others thought the topic should be approached. After reading these two books, I am having to re-think what the topic is.

To me, studying human nature boils down to examining the degree to which nature and nurture are involved in explaining selected Important Behaviors (is incest avoidance an instinct or a cultural rubicon? are sex differences biologically or culturally constructed?) as well as whether or not biology usefully informs us about philosophical Big Questions (are humans demonic, or good natured?). (For the record, my answer is an emphatic epigenetic "yes".)

With few exceptions, these questions are not addressed in either of these books.

While Sussman believes there is a human nature, his book addresses only what it is not. His introduction poses a series of questions ("Is infidelity programmed into our genes? ... Is violence part of the nature of men? ... Is sexual harassment by some men just the natural outcome of economic success or high social status?") to which his answer is a bold and unambiguous NO, offered "as an antidote" to Wright's The Moral Animal and Betzig's Human Nature (xii). Most of the book then trashes racism and biological determinism; the closest he comes to a positive stance concerning what human nature might be/contain is his coy question regarding Part V, on brains and hormones: "Ultimately, is this the area from which answers about human nature and human universals will come?" (xii). The aim of the book is to encourage reading "with a critical eye" (i.e., rejecting) "writers who believe that they have found simple and simplistic answers to these very complex problems;" no answers, simple or complex, are offered in their place.

Betzig is less reticent. "It's happened. We have finally figured out where we came from, why we're here, and who we are" [xi]. The volume is a collection of 18 "classic" papers (9 published between 1990-92) that played important roles in the Darwinian revolution that led to this epiphany; they all are drawn from the literature of empirical tests of sociobiological theories applied to humans. Betzig chose not to include papers from a cultural perspective because, as she mentions in a footnote, "I, personally, find `culture' unnecessary" (p. 17). Despite this bold manifesto, however, most of the chapters are not so much about human nature as they are analyses of humans as natural: the point of 13 of them can be reduced to `human behavior can be predicted successfully using natural selection theory' (eight study reproductive competition and mate choice); only a handful address puzzling problems about humans per se (e.g., menopause, or putatively modular features of the human psyche). That dowry payments are consistent with sex ratio allocation theory is an important insight, but represents only a facet of an aspect of "human nature."

Criteria for inclusion in Sussman's The Biological Basis of Human Behavior (henceforth, "Behavior") are unclear. For example, a review of Wright's The Moral Animal is credited to "David Tenenbaum (1994)"; it is brief, naive and clumsy--but basically favorable. Was it included to tar Wright's book by association? No source information is given, and the only David Tenenbaum I found in a search of the University of California online catalog seems to write about conservation and forestry; his other publications include "Sludge" and "Weeds from Hell" [Note: this chapter does not appear in the 1999 Second Edition]. "A Summary of the World" is a 1-page set of numbers based on the premise that world population = 100 ("70 would be nonwhite; 30 white"), utterly without attribution or date. About a third of the entries are from professional books or journals, the rest from sources such as Natural History, The New Republic, Newsweek etc. Of those with dates, about half were published since 1994; this is primarily a collection of recent popular and semipopular articles that link biological anthropology to the "real world".

Most articles in Behavior appear to have been selected to fill one of four functions: to provide information, serve as foil, mock a foil, and argue against a foil. The informational chapters are variable; there are 20 pages of details on primate taxonomy and evolution, but primate socioecology is reviewed in two that conclude "These theories [sexual selection, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, etc.] so far have not led to a better understanding of the relationships that might exist between ecology and social structure." The foil/mocking pairings are sometimes childish; e.g., Washburn & Lancaster's (1968) "Evolution of hunting" is paired with (and apparently dismissed by) a 1995 newspaper report of Newt Gingerich's view that military women don't belong in the trenches "because [only] males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes." If one seriously wanted to debate the role of hunting in human evolution, this is not the way to go. The foil/counter pairings perhaps could be seen as contrasting alternative views, but rarely is there any uncertainty as to with which article one is "supposed" to agree; for me, a result was real discomfort with those few ambiguous pieces. For example, in "TRB from Washington" Robert Wright castigates Senator Packwood for his philandering, but does it from an evolutionary psychology stance; if this volume is an antidote to Wright's work, am I supposed to conclude Packwood acted appropriately? or is Sussman agreeing with Wright's emphatic rejection of the naturalistic fallacy? I'll return to this below.

Behavior is idiosyncratic, but it does two important things well. First, it conveys the message that strict biological determinism is as wrong and dangerous in today's (apparently) sophisticated presentations as it was during the eugenics movement of the 1920s when arguments were (in hindsight) theoretically naive. This caution deserves to be included in any course on human nature (though 15 chapters is overkill). Second, the book is effective at forcing one to think critically about simplistic answers to complex problems, such as Sussman's "NO" to "Is violence part of the nature of men". While I like her politics a lot more, Tang-Martinez is as academically flawed in her criticism of sociobiology as Rushton is in his defense of Rushton; coming to grips with Schubert's bizarre arguments about proper analogies in hominid modeling is good for clarifying one's own thinking; the list goes on. Behavior is a flickering barrage of good and bad opinion and science. The message is that the details are overwhelming, data unclear, and the area in which we should be looking for answers--let alone the answers--about human nature remains elusive. Grappling with the contradictions of this dismal view is thought provoking; give grad students a week to read it through and then try to discover the bottom line in a marathon seminar. There are a handful of excellent papers that would be useful separately (Weizmann et al. tops my list; Wright's "Biology of violence" and Allen's discussion of the violence initiative are a good pairing; most of Part V), but as a "chapter/day and then quiz" reader, I can't recommend it.

Betzig's Human Nature: A Critical Reader ("Nature") is much easier to grasp as a book. It is divided into three sections, each introduced by a commissioned overview of the topic and the papers' contributions to it; each paper is followed by a short "if I had to do it over again" retrospective by the original authors. Whatever else one might say about the book, the concept is excellent and deserves emulation. The retrospectives vary in depth of thought, from fascinating personal reminiscence (Irons) to casual precis of a recent book (Buss); some fill in lacunae in the original work (Borgerhoff-Mulder) and others attempt to update the topic (Smith). Such variation is to be expected, especially with only a handful of years to cogitate for half the chapters. The overviews (almost exclusively by biologists) are excellent and the papers are a good representation of work in human behavioral ecology; for a class asking whether humans can be usefully studied as another primate species, this is the starting point. But the Big Questions are not confronted.

In terms of production, Behavior is a spiral-bound set of presumably scanned articles printed in standardized font and format; illustrations appear to be photocopies (a few figures that rely on color for comprehension are in trouble). Chapters from books that had collated references simply lack references. The original publication information is all in fine print at the front, with article title pages giving only author and title; it is important in undergraduate courses to convey the distinction between refereed articles and popular reporting, and this organization is poor on that account. Nature is much more polished in format. References are collated and original publication data appears with the articles (except for chapters 13, 16, & 31; oversights); this is a standard edited book that will last longer, both physically and conceptually.

Neither book really addresses the role of genes in human behavior. Behavior rightly condemns strict biological determinism, but looks tentatively to neuroendocrinology and neurobiology for answers; this amounts to saying "naive sociobiology is bad, but developmentally sophisticated sociobiology is OK". Is this news? Tang-Martinez approvingly cites Weinrich on the social construction of homosexuality, contrasting this with E. O. Wilson's universalistic version (p. 346). I found this delicious; Weinrich was a student of Wilson's and is as ardent a sociobiologist as I've ever met. One can be a sociobiologist without being a simple-minded determinist, and once this is accepted, Behavior loses most of its raison d'Étre as an "antidote"; the disease was real, but we are recovering and should be moving on. The authors in Nature, on the other hand, for the most part simply are not concerned with mechanisms; they examine the degree to which behavior is adaptive within a cultural setting, and few worry about how that comes to be (or what determines the particular cultural setting). That this lack of concern for mechanism can create trouble is clear (as emphasized in Behavior). That it is inevitably conceptually flawed, is not. Prior to the Modern Synthesis, Mendel and Darwin did pretty well by mapping out phenotypic patterns and not, initially, worrying too much about how they got there. Nature is a good reasonably current description of some patterns; Behavior is best at reminding us what can happen when people carelessly conflate pattern and explanation. For explicit discussion of how one actually should attempt to explain such patterns, see e.g. Weingart et al. (eds.) Human by Nature: Between Biology and the Social Sciences (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997).