Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


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 and individuals?

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 think?

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 of knowledge?

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 of.”