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Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the…

Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect

by Paul R. Ehrlich

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One of the odder things about me is that I used to believe that dinosaurs still roamed the earth.

As in RIGHT NOW. And that there was a vast scientific conspiracy to keep this irrefutable fact under wraps.

This belief was essentially the outcome of two factors in my childhood/adolescence: 1) I was an extremely fundamentalist Christian. 2) I also had a burning interest in science. I wanted to know why things were the way they were.

These two factors aren't really mutually exclusive. In fact, I came upon many people in my congregation, and in similar congregations, who also nurtured an interest in science. A popular activity at church campouts were astronomy courses. Biology -- minus evolution, of course -- was a popular major choice among my churchgoing friends.

But, the fact is that "mainstream" or "secular" science doesn't really jibe with the literalist Christian worldview: astronomists eventually must deal with the Big Bang and biologists inevitably bump into Darwin.

Enter the various science workshops for fundamentalists, aimed at addressing those issues in a way that fits in with a literal-Biblical worldview. It was in one of these workshops that a "respected" scientist explained away dinosaur fossils and carbon-dating by telling us that there was scientific proof that dinosaurs still existed. In Sri Lanka.

By my sophomore year in college, though, I began to have doubts about my worldview. I was reading more than Christian fiction. I was taking biology courses from professors who were unapologetic about evolution -- unlike the biology teachers in high school, whose teachings on the subject were regulated. I couldn't study an "alternate" form of species biology any longer, and brought face to face with Darwin, I was finally convinced.

So began my fascination with evolution in general and human evolution in particular. I've become quite a connoisseur of the genre. Paul Ehrlich's Human Natures: Genes, Cultures & The Human Prospect is so far my favorite book on this topic.

Ehrlich's book covers the standard genetic evolution of our species, but he does so while simultaneously examining our "cultural evolution": the distinctly human behaviors that also have affected our current biological and behavioral selves.

The result is a book that tells us humanity is not the sum result of its genes; instead, the decisions we make about how we relate to one another, how we organize ourselves, and how we go about living our lives have much more influence on the future of the species.

Ehrlich's book is very accessible for the novice scientist, without sacrificing hard facts and references. His interdisciplinary approach seems to me a far more accurate rendering of human nature than the many reductionist human evolution tomes out there -- and I've read and enjoyed plenty of those.

Ehrlich's theory is also so appealing for the optimistic view it has on humanity's future -- though we have made mistakes in the past, we are not beholden to these behaviors. We are not bound to pettiness, violence and waste because of unalterable genetics. Instead, we can make decisions to alter our future course.

Among the many human evolution primers out there, Ehrlich's narrative of humanity's journey is exceptionally written and researched, leaving the reader with the unshakable feeling that Ehrlich is certainly on to something. ( )
1 vote bookcrushblog | May 15, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0142000531, Paperback)

It's common to blame "human nature" for some of the unpleasant facts of life--road rage, say, or murder, or war. The problem with this convenient out, argues the distinguished scientist Paul Ehrlich, is that there really is no single human nature. Humans, it's true, share a common genetic code with remarkably few large-scale differences (if all but native Africans disappeared from the planet, he notes, "humanity would still retain somewhat more than 90 percent of its genetic variability"); and evolution has endowed us with capabilities shared by no other species. But for all that, he adds, our separation into haves and have-nots, weak and strong, and other such categories is more often than not a product of cultural evolution, a process far more complex than the mere mutation and adaptation of a few genes. And, in any event, those genes "do not shout commands to us about our behavior," Ehrlich says. "At the very most, they whisper suggestions."

In this wide-ranging survey of what it is that has made and that continues to make us human, Ehrlich touches on a number of themes--among them, his recurrent observation that science has taught us little about how genes influence human behavior. (Instead, he notes wryly, "science tells us that we are creatures of accident clinging to a ball of mud hurtling aimlessly through space. This is not a notion to warm hearts or rouse multitudes.") He urges that scientists take a larger, interdisciplinary view that looks beyond mere genetics to the larger forces that shape our lives, a view for which Human Natures makes a handy, and highly accessible, primer. --Gregory McNamee

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:04 -0400)

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"A hallmark of Human Natures in Paul Ehrlich's ability to convey lucidly that understanding in the course of presenting an engrossing history of our species. Using personal anecdote, vivid example, and stimulating narrative, he guides us through the thicket of controversies over what science can - and cannot - say about the influence of our evolutionary past on everything from race to religion, from sexual orientation to economic development."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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