HIST 460/560, Winter 2007
Reading and Discussion Questions, Week 1
Steven Pinker, “Why Nature and Nurture Won’t Go Away”
1. Pinker claims that denials of human nature were especially common
during the twentieth century. Why? Do you believe that nature and history
are alternative explanations of the human experience, as the quote from
Ortega y Gasset on p. 5 suggests?
2. Why does Pinker use the term “blank slate” to refer to
the position on nature and nurture he hopes to demolish? What does this
image evoke for you?
3. According to Pinker, the new sciences of brain and behavior have made
ideas such as the “blank slate” untenable. What evidence does
he offer? What do you think of it?
4. What does Pinker have to say about 1) the existence of universal truths
about human beings, and 2) the existence of differences between groups
5. Why does Pinker believe we live in political and moral fear of human
nature and heredity? Do you agree?
6. Pinker uses the term “holistic interactionism” on p. 7.
What does he mean by it? What does he think about it?
7. Postmodernism and social constructionism are two intellectual forces
that Pinker identifies with the belief that nature cannot provide any
meaningful insight into the human experience. He claims they are dominant
in academic life, particularly in the humanities, but also in the social
and natural sciences. Do you agree that ideas drawn from evolutionary
theory or genetic science are “an unmentionable taboo” in
discussions of human commonality and difference?
8. What examples does Pinker offer to suggest that taking human nature
seriously and humane social change are compatible?
9. Equating “nature” with genes is inadequate. Why? Common
definitions of “nurture” as also inadequate. Why?
10. Pinker writes that behavioral geneticists who study twins and adoptees
have recently corrected one of the biggest errors of twentieth-century
psychology? What was the error and how has it been fixed?
11. Why is it so surprising and unsettling that shared environment (such
as the one that siblings have in common) has little or no impact on personality
or intelligence? Does your experience confirm Pinker’s argument
that parental influence is extremely limited and that peer influence might
be much more consequential? Do you think that socialization is something
that children accomplish mostly by themselves?
12. What example does Pinker use to argue that some part of human variance
is entirely unpredictable?
13. Pinker’s conclusion is that the “everything-affects-everything”
position on nature and nurture is both dogmatic and wrong. What do you
Louis Menand, “What Comes Naturally”
1. “The question isn’t whether there is a biological basis
for human nature. We’re organisms through and through; biology goes,
as they say, all the way down.” “Every aspect of life has
a biological foundation in exactly the same sense, which is that unless
it was biologically possible it wouldn’t exist. After that, its
up for grabs.” Why do you think Menand’s critique of Pinker
includes statements like these?
2. Menand’s position is that the new sciences of brain and behavior
(represented by Pinker) are ways of scientifically validating historically
recent cultural and political views. Do you agree? Does that mean that
science is just another custom or prejudice and not a privileged form
3. Do you think Menand represents the postmodern denial of human nature
that Pinker attacks? Why or why not?
4. Why does Menand object to the five-factor model of personality that
psychologists calls FFM?
5. Menand argues that “science cannot comprehend what it cannot
measure.” Why is this significant?
6. What problem does Menand identify with the statistical averages and
norms that emerge from scientific studies?
7. Why are the new sciences of human nature useless when it comes to
understanding aesthetic experience?
8. What is your response to Menand’s conclusion that human nature
“is a magic wand that people wave over the practices they approve