Nature, nurture and liberal values

Prospect Magazine

Nature, nurture and liberal values


Biology determines our behaviour more than it suits many to acknowledge. But people—and politics and morality—cannot be described just by neural impulses

Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz (Allen Lane, £22)
Incognito by David Eagleman (Canongate, £20)
You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity by Susan Greenfield (Notting Hill Editions, £10)

Human beings are diverse and live in diverse ways. Should we accept that we are diverse by nature, having followed separate evolutionary paths? Or should we suppose that we share our biological inheritance, but develop differently according to environment and culture? Over recent years scientific research has reshaped this familiar “nature-nurture” debate, which remains central to our understanding of human nature and morality.

For much of the 20th century social scientists held that human life is a single biological phenomenon, which flows through the channels made by culture, so as to acquire separate and often mutually inaccessible forms. Each society passes on the culture that defines it, much as it passes on its language. And the most important aspects of culture—religion, rites of passage and law—both unify the people who adhere to them and divide those people from everyone else. Such was implied by what John Tooby and Leda Cosmides called the “standard social science model,” made fundamental to anthropology by Franz Boas and to sociology by Émile Durkheim.

More recently evolutionary psychologists have begun to question that approach. Although you can explain the culture of a tribe as an inherited possession, they suggested, this does not explain how culture came to be in the first place. What is it that endows culture with its stability and function? In response to that question the opinion began to grow that culture does not provide the ultimate explanation of any significant human trait, not even the trait of cultural diversity. It is not simply that there are extraordinary constants among cultures: gender roles, incest taboos, festivals, warfare, religious beliefs, moral scruples, aesthetic interests. Culture is also a part of human nature: it is our way of being. We do not live in herds or packs; our hierarchies are not based merely on strength or sexual dominance. We relate to one another through language, morality and law; we sing, dance and worship together, and spend as much time in festivals and storytelling as in seeking our food. Our hierarchies involve offices, responsibilities, gift-giving and ceremonial recognition. Our meals are shared, and food for us is not merely nourishment but an occasion for hospitality, affection and dressing up. All these things are comprehended in the idea of culture—and culture, so understood, is observed in all and only human communities. Why is this?

The answer given by evolutionary psychologists is that culture is an adaptation, which exists because it conferred a reproductive advantage on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to this view many of the diverse customs that the standard social science model attributes to nurture are local variations of attributes acquired 70 or more millennia ago, during the Pleistocene age, and now (like other evolutionary adaptations) “hard-wired in the brain.” But if this is so, cultural characteristics may not be as plastic as the social scientists suggest. There are features of the human condition, such as gender roles, that people have believed to be cultural and therefore changeable. But if culture is an aspect of nature, “cultural” does not mean “changeable.” Maybe these controversial features of human culture are part of the genetic endowment of human kind.

This new way of thinking gained support from the evolutionary theory of morality. Defenders of nurture suppose morality to be an acquired characteristic, passed on by customs, laws and punishments in which a society asserts its rights over its members. However, with the development of genetics, a new perspective opens. “Altruism” begins to look like a genetic “strategy,” which confers a reproductive advantage on the genes that produce it. In the competition for scarce resources, the genetically altruistic are able to call others to their aid, through networks of co-operation that are withheld from the genetically selfish, who are thereby eliminated from the game.

If this is so, it is argued, then morality is not an acquired but an inherited characteristic. Any competitor species that failed to develop innate moral feelings would by now have died out. And what is true of morality might be true of many other human characteristics that have previously been attributed to nurture: language, art, music, religion, warfare, the local variants of which are far less significant than their common structure.

I don’t say that view of morality is right, though it has been defended by a wide variety of thinkers, from the biologist John Maynard Smith (its original proponent) via the political scientist Robert Axelrod to such popularisers as Matt Ridley and Richard Dawkins. But even if morality is a partly acquired characteristic that varies from place to place and time to time, it might still rest on innate foundations, which govern its principal contours.

Noam Chomsky’s speculative linguistics has proved enormously important in this debate, since language is at the root of culture in all its manifestations: it is a paradigm case of a social activity that entirely changes the relationships, capacities, knowledge and the world of those who engage in it. Yet there could be no explanation of language that regarded it merely as a socially transmitted trait, with no deeper roots in biology. The rapid acquisition of language by children, at the same rate in every part of the globe, and on the same paucity of information from the surroundings, suggests that there is an innate universal grammar, to which each child attaches the fragmentary words and phrases that strike his ear, to generate new and intelligible utterances of his own. What Steven Pinker has called the “language instinct” is implanted by evolution, which endows each child with mental competences that are common to our species.

If we follow the evolutionary biologists, therefore, we may find ourselves pushed towards accepting that traits often attributed to culture may be part of our genetic inheritance, and therefore not as changeable as many might have hoped: gender differences, intelligence, belligerence, and so on through all the characteristics that people have wished, for whatever reason, to rescue from destiny and refashion as choice. But to speculate freely about such matters is dangerous. The once respectable subject of eugenics was so discredited by Nazism that “don’t enter” is now written across its door. The distinguished biologist James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, was run out of the academy in 2007 for having publicly suggested (admittedly in less than scientific language) that sub-Saharan Africans are genetically disposed to have lower IQs than westerners, while the economist Larry Summers suffered a similar fate for claiming that the brains of women at the top end are less suited than those of men to the study of the hard sciences. In America it is widely assumed that socially significant differences between ethnic groups and sexes are the result of social factors, and in particular of “discrimination” directed against the groups that seem to do less well. This assumption is not the conclusion of a reasoned social science but the foundation of an optimistic worldview, to disturb which is to threaten the whole community that has been built on it. On the other hand, as Galileo in comparable circumstances didn’t quite say, it ain’t necessarily so.


We find ourselves, therefore, in the middle of another tense debate, in which it is not religion, but liberal values, which seem to be challenged by the theory of evolution. It is against this background that the philosopher Jesse Prinz has entered the fray, with a big book arguing that there is “little reason to think that biology has a major impact in accounting for human differences.” He patiently examines the arguments given for attributing this or that trait to genetic inheritance, and tries to show either that the research is methodologically flawed, or that the conclusion is not supported by it. I say “patiently,” though I should also add that, when it comes to discussing IQ and sexual differentiation, Prinz intemperately dismisses those like Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein and Larry Summers who have not been persuaded by the liberal consensus.

Prinz believes that our cognitive powers are awakened only when they have experience on which to get to work. Infants learn to divide the world into kinds by extrapolating from what they feel, hear and see. There are no innate classifications, and no roles or relationships that are not in some sense and to some measure socially constructed. Prinz attacks Chomsky’s claim that there is a universal grammar and dismisses the theory held by Jerry Fodor and others that our mental processes are conducted in a shared “language of thought.” Silent thinking, for Prinz, involves the use of images, which have their source in individual experience, while language is picked up by a spontaneous statistical analysis from which a child derives the rules of grammar. Prinz even goes a little way towards resuscitating the notorious Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which the structure of a person’s language determines the contours of his world. “Language,” he writes, “is an invention, not an instinct… If language teaches us about who we are, the lesson is that we are fundamentally flexible.” Prinz goes on to argue that gender difference is to a great extent acquired, that the distinction between individualists and collectivists is cultural rather than biological, and that emotions are socially constructed from raw material that is innate only because it belongs to basic bodily processes and gut reactions.

All that is argued boldly and with much support from the literature of experimental psychology. But I could not help feeling that it falls short of its target. In The Blank Slate (2002) Steven Pinker assembled the evidence for the conclusion that our fundamental capacities are implanted by evolution and malleable only in those matters in which malleability would confer a reproductive advantage. His argument was meticulous and serious, and the weight of scientific evidence impossible to deny. In this or that particular the science might be faulted or revised, but the broad case is surely compelling. Consider, for example, the division of roles everywhere to be observed between men and women. There is a powerful reason to think that this is rooted in a deeper division of biological labour, selected in the harsh conditions that threatened our ancestors with extinction. For human beings manifest neoteny, the trait of giving birth to helpless large-brained offspring, who can look after themselves only after ten years of nurture and nowadays not even then. Neoteny is a huge evolutionary advantage; but it is purchased at an equally huge biological cost. A species whose young are as vulnerable as human children needs both organised defence and serious home building if it is to reproduce itself. And on those granite foundations has been built the romantic castle of sexual difference.

But there is another reason for being dissatisfied with Prinz’s approach. When the idea of cultural diversity first took root in the German Enlightenment it was associated with the study of the myths, customs and artworks of antiquity, with the exploration of the religions of the east and with visits to the tribal cultures of Africa and America. A kind of imperial reverence for those things animated the minds of those who studied them, and it was with a hint of regret that the early anthropologists recorded the rapid collapse of local cultures under the withering eye of their researches. Prinz belongs to another mindset—one that can be observed in some of the disciples of Boas. He does not have much sympathy for any culture other than the one in which he is immersed—the liberal egalitarian culture of the American academy, which holds that sexual roles are socially constructed, that sexual morality is exhausted by the requirement of consent, and that all “disadvantage” is down to environmental factors which we can collaborate to overcome. He would perhaps deny that this is a culture, rather than a set of rationally held beliefs. But the whole tendency of his argument is to suggest that we can and should live in the way that he lives, not endowing our differences with the status of natural barriers or God-given paths, but opening ourselves to a kind of “soft diversity,” in which human possibilities flourish in a condition of mutual acceptance.

It may be that this is the direction in which we are moving. But for all he says to the contrary it could be that there are obstacles to progress that are fixed in our nature and not to be changed by social adjustment. We are familiar with the feminist charge that women come out worse in maths tests because of unconscious discrimination, stereotyping and other factors that allegedly sap their confidence—an argument that, in the eyes of its proponents, was further proved by Larry Summers’s foolhardy attempt to question it. But does anyone believe that men are ten times as likely to end up in prison as women because of unconscious discrimination or stereotyping? Of course not. We recognise that men are by nature more aggressive and more inclined to settle disputes by violence. And no educated person is likely to dispute the fact that this difference between men and women is genetic. The real question is how far does this kind of genetic influence extend? Susan Greenfield refers to recent brain-imaging research by Ryota Kanai and others at UCL which purportedly suggests that students with conservative political attitudes tend to have larger than normal amygdalae, while among those of liberal persuasion it is the anterior cingulate cortex that stands out. Could this be the proof of WS Gilbert’s proposition, that “Every child who is born alive / Is either a little liberal / Or a little conservative”?

Those speculations bring us to another and far more serious obstacle to the humane understanding of our condition than the one that troubles Prinz. Advances in neuroscience are beginning to suggest that, while the brain is malleable and adaptable, it comes with its own inherent restraints, and with connections that have been wired without our knowledge and definitely without our consent. Hence processes in the brain can affect our decision-making without our being able to counter them. When in 1966 Charles Whitman, a man of previously good character, killed 13 people and wounded 32 more, shooting from the top of the University Tower in Austin Texas, he had already indicated that he felt something was not quite right in his head. After he was shot by a police marksman, an autopsy revealed a small tumour pressing on the amygdala, which neuroscience regards as the seat of the gut reactions through which we protect our space. So was Whitman to blame for what he did? And if not, does this provide me, after decades of reproach for my conservative opinions, with the “amygdala excuse,” just like Whitman?

Taking off from the Whitman case David Eagleman argues that we should revise our sense of legal and moral responsibility, so as to recognise that most of what we do and feel arises from processes over which we have no control. The brain moves incognito beneath our conscious deliberations, like a great ocean liner on the deck of which we walk up and down, imagining that we move it with our feet. Offering his own version of the Freudian story, in the luminous prose for which he is rightly esteemed, Eagleman argues that most of what we do is more influenced by unconscious than by conscious processes, and that concepts like responsibility and freedom cannot survive intact from the advances of neuroscience. Whether it is nature or nurture that wired up the brain, the wiring is for the most part none of our doing, and nothing for which we can be praised or blamed.

Eagleman is too subtle a thinker, and too responsible a person, to draw quite that conclusion. He wants to revise our concept of responsibility so that his kind of responsibility is still contained in it. My brief response, however, is to suggest that he has misdescribed the problem. The picture that he gives, of the fragile “I” riding the elephant of grey matter while pretending to be in charge of it, misrepresents the nature of self-reference. The word “I” does not refer to some conscious “part” of the person, the rest of which is a passive and hidden “it.” The “I” is one term of the I-You relation, which is a relation of accountability in which the whole person is involved. To use the first-person pronoun is to present myself for judgement. It is to take responsibility for a host of changes in the world, and in particular for those for which you can reasonably call me to account by asking “why?” This question is the foundation of a co-operative enterprise, in which we elicit from each other the reasons, meanings and choices that make us intelligible. Understanding the logic of the question “why?” is a task that has been addressed by several recent philosophers—Elizabeth Anscombe, Stephen Darwall, Sebastian Rödl and others. It is the question that underlies the concept of responsibility in the common law. And philosophers have done much to show that the dialogue through which we establish and broker our responsibilities is well founded and not necessarily vulnerable to disruption by our newfound knowledge of the brain.

This point suggests how Prinz might have put philosophy to work on behalf of his conclusions. The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us. From Kant and Hegel to Wittgenstein and Husserl there have been attempts to give a philosophy of the human condition that stands apart from biological science without opposing it. But those attempts are either not noticed or given short shrift in Prinz’s argument which, by attempting to fight the biological sciences on their own ground, is condemned to a losing wicket.

We are human beings, certainly. But we are also persons. Human beings form a biological kind, and it is for science to describe that kind. Probably it will do so in the way that the evolutionary psychologists propose. But persons do not form a biological kind, or any other sort of natural kind. The concept of the person is shaped in another way, not by our attempt to explain things but by our attempt to understand, to interact, to hold to account, to relate. The “why?” of personal understanding is not the “why?” of scientific inference. And it is answered by conceptualising the world under the aspect of freedom and choice. People do what they do because of events in their brains. But when the brain is normal they also act for reasons, knowing what they are doing, and making themselves answerable for it.

This does not mean that we should ignore what goes on in the brain. In her lively monograph Susan Greenfield emphasises that our brains are plastic and can be influenced in ways that pose a risk to our moral development. Prinz’s defence of nurture against nature may look like a defence of human freedom. But nurture can as easily destroy freedom as enhance it. We can bring up children on passive and addictive entertainments that stultify their engagement with the real world and rewire the neural networks on which their moral development depends. The short-term pursuit of gratification can drive out the long-term sense of responsible agency. Moreover, if children learn to store their memory in computers and their social life in portable gadgets, then gradually both memory and friendship will wither, to linger on only as futile ghosts haunting the digital archives.

I sympathise with those worries. But it does not change the position that a philosopher should adopt. Greenfield’s argument suggests that there is a kind of human development that prepares us, at the neurological level, for the exercise of responsible choice. If we bring up our children correctly, not spoiling them or rewiring their brains through roomfuls of digital gadgetry, the sense of responsibility will emerge. They will enter fully into the world of I and You, become free agents and moral beings, and learn to live as they should, not as animals, but as persons.

Allow children to interact with real people, therefore, and the grammar of first-person accountability will emerge of its own accord. Undeniably, once it is there, the I-to-you relation adds a reproductive advantage, just as do mathematical competence, scientific knowledge and (perhaps) musical talent. But the theory of adaptation tells us as little about the meaning of “I” as it tells us about the validity of mathematics, the nature of scientific method or the value of music. To describe human traits as adaptations is not to say how we understand them. Even if we accept the claims of evolutionary psychology, therefore, the mystery of the human condition remains. This mystery is captured in a single question: how can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?

The February issue of Prospect is now on newsstands. Find your nearest retailer here


Freud: the last great Enlightenment thinker Sigmund Freud is out of fashion. The reason? His heroic refusal to flatter humankind, says John Gray

The great divide: Cinema, literature and other aspects of western culture are increasingly open to Asian influence. Not so western philosophy, which remains almost entirely sealed off from eastern traditions. Why?

Richard Rorty – He was arguably the most influential philosopher of his time: an American who argued against truth, reason and science. Yet his radicalism turns out to be oddly disarming, writes Simon Blackburn

  1. January 27, 2012


    I fear that Roger Scruton has misunderstood the term neoteny; it is not “the trait of giving birth to helpless large-brained offspring, who can look after themselves only after ten years” but the attainment of sexual maturity in an immature or larval animal. The textbook example is the axolotl, a breeding but immature salamander.

    Humans have been described as neotenous apes in that adult humans share features with juvenile apes.

  2. January 30, 2012

    C. Dukes

    Being is real, all being, but as Heidegger asserted, being has an ontological/transcendent existence,that is revealed to human consideration when forms of being emerge and are noticed by beings in the ways beings know, including human beings.
    These observable, knowable ontic relations exist as infinite possibilities, and each human being or any being, encounters those realities in ways specific to their nature. Among other things,this means each human being’s interaction with reality is unique, although there may be great similarities and sharing in the ontic dimension.
    The ontological nature of our being, likely, may only be approached speculatively via various forms of thought (because we do not know and cannot know what being is going to produce next), while the ontic relations can be studied relying on scientific methods, which can only make propositions or hypotheses about these ontic relations.
    There are things we cannot know about the ontological nature of all being; there are things available for knowing, which we are ignorant of; and there are everyday things we experience and deal with every day, whether these things are voluntarily accepted or involuntarily imposed upon us–like sneezing or the need to breath to live.
    Indeed, it is a great–the greatest–of mysteries, a question for all time.

  3. January 30, 2012


    Delusions Of Gender.

  4. January 30, 2012


    “But does anyone believe that men are ten times as likely to end up in prison as women because of unconscious discrimination or stereotyping? Of course not. We recognise that men are by nature more aggressive and more inclined to settle disputes by violence.”

    Women are less aggressive? Have you met a woman? Women are less likely to brawl on the streets for the same reason women are less likely to throw a ball properly: because of acquired cultural behaviours.

    Why is a poor man more inclined to rob a bank using a firearm than a wall street trader? Because he has more aggressive genes?

  5. January 30, 2012

    John Borstlap

    An exact, scientific examination of the material presence of a piece of classical music may reveal it’s constituents and it’s ‘working’ on a material level: the notes and the way they are produced, including a close sociological and anthropological examination of the cultural context in which the piece was written and since has been performed. And yet, nothing will have been said about the nature of the piece itself, what it’s meaning is as experienced by the listener, because that is not of a material nature. I think this is, metaphorically, what Scruton means in this article. The decisive factor that makes us human, conscious beings, is not material and thus not biological. This has been sensed for thousands of years by the human species, hardwired or not, and been given the names of ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’.

  6. January 30, 2012

    Renaissance Nerd

    We all know we have free will, it’s a common sense, in the Scottish Englightenment construction. It’s completely obvious, because most of human history is made up of endless attempts to deny its existence, including many present day religions, philosophies and lines of scientific enquiry. We don’t want to be free, because that makes us responsible for our actions, and most human being use their belief systems and worldviews to figure out some way to blame somebody else. It might be anything from ‘it’s society’s fault’ to ‘the fates have decreed’ to ‘rape is instinctive,’ but they’re all the same thing at root. The idea that the person can be reduced to a set of biological imperatives that make free will just an illusion is a new and creative way of arguing the same tird point, and at heart we all know ‘instinctively’ that it’s false. Witness the carefully CHOSEN words to make the argument. Same goes for Chomsky’s magic grammar. We choose our words, learn to use them expressively, persuasively, to buy and sell things that have no utility whatsoever and communicate things that have no existence in the physical world. While I have little patience with most of Robert Howard’s philosophical penchants, he put some very pithy words into Conan’s mouth on occasion: “Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

  7. January 30, 2012


    This displayed outright contempt for all other species is the standard display of hubris by humans unfamiliar with animals. In general even the briefest glance at current and historical humans gives them little basic justification for deciding to secede from animal life. Many dogs, cats, seagulls, rats and other creatures that I have encountered and known well have complex personalities very little basically different from many of the humans I have come in contact with. They may not be linguistically as articulate but the difference beyond that is, at best, marginal.

  8. January 30, 2012


    Word salad.

  9. January 30, 2012


    Roger Scruton asks: “What is it that endows culture with its stability and function?”

    Culture is not endowed with anything. People are endowed with culture and people give culture meaning. This is the point of evolutionary psychology. Humans evolved culture over millions of years in pace with our neuro physiology. Those humans who could bond together tighter, differentiate their kin (ie painted faces, tribal songs, dress codes, religious memes), and pool resources amongst themselves survived. Isolated, culturally defeciant groups lost. That is the cause (and the effect) of the myriad of cultures humankind has produced over millenia.

    As to whether morality or ethics can or cannot be explained wholly by biology, consider this: Without biology, there can be no morality.

    To even talk about morality is to accept that the person talking is concerned with the well-being of life. Rocks have no morality. Swirling nebulae have no morality. The sun has no morality, although the life dependent on the sun does. Biology is a pre-condition to have morality.

    I read a lot of socio-psycho babble in this paper. To ask, “how can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?” is to divide definitions unnecessarily. All people are animals, though not all animals are people. Congrats on passing syllogisms 101. Mr. Scruton is still left holding the empty bag of his thesis because he cannot (or will not?) accept that humans are animals, that animals are biological, and that all biology on earth follows evolutionary adaptation.

  10. January 30, 2012


    People cannot be defined at all just by neural impulses because our souls are so much more. Satan desires our souls. Satan hates you and he wants you to hate me and if that happens his mission is accomplished. We will never see a machine that evaluates the soul in our age, either, by the way. Who we really are comes from the heart – not the mind.

    The problem with mankind is not that we are all different because we are all alike. None seek after God. There are none that are righteous, no, not one. All have gone astray. There are none that understand. Mankind has become altogether unprofitable. Maybe you don’t like that but if you also don’t believe it you haven’t read today’s newspapers.

    Today the Lord is calling you. If you have stumbled across this comment and you still reject Jesus Christ you have read fatal information. You can never stand in the presence of God and say you did not know that you had to be saved. You will go to (and if you are honest with yourself you will admit you are already in) a spiritual prison – on death row in 24/7 lockdown. Satan is coming down the tier, taking you out one by one and killing you. Your future is an eternal black hole. Believe today in Christ Jesus and you shall be saved.

  11. January 31, 2012


    Why is it that the nature versus nurture debate is fought between purely cultural proponents and purely biological proponents? There is an incredible range of social scientific work that points to factors other than these two which nevertheless affect human behavior in deep and empirically verified ways. Do we believe “that men are ten times as likely to end up in prison as women because of unconscious discrimination or stereotyping?” No. But might there be institutional, political, economic, or social factors which are more plausible than either culture or genetics? Yes.

    Beyond that, there are two major issues with this debate. First, for whatever reason, biology is equated with “immutability”. That of course is far from the case. Across generations, genotypes and phenotypes change, and we have no reason to privilege behavioral continuity any more than physical continuity. That is, behaviors could potentially change (according to evolutionary principles) just as much as physical attributes.

    Second, a founding concern in social (and other) science is that there is no causation without variation. If an explanatory factor displays no variation, then it cannot explain why something does change. For the present context, men and women have different sized gametes, and this is often considered to be the basis of different gender roles. But this fact doesn’t change at all. How then can we explain the presence of matriarchal societies like the Khasis, or Tibetans who show stronger signs of polyandry (having multiple husbands) rather than polygyny (having multiple wives – which contradicts many arguments in sociobiology)? One-to-one correlations between a purported cause and effect don’t lead to causal explanations. We simply don’t have enough variation to make any kind of judgment.

  12. January 31, 2012


    We recognise that men are by nature more aggressive and more inclined to settle disputes by violence. And no educated person is likely to dispute the fact that this difference between men and women is genetic.\n
    I am educated and I dispute the fact that this difference between men and women is genetic. It is merely difficult to assemble a control group of men who have been subjected to no masculinist conditioning whatsoever.

  13. February 1, 2012


    We have become somewhat trapped by ideology.

    We start with a concept, based on observation and perhaps inner feelings, distill it into language, and then use this language as the rule against which we judge everything around us. And whatever does not match that rule is judged as deficient.

    But concepts don’t distill well into language, then using that distilled rule to judge other widely varied circumstances which roughly match the rule, we finally come up with something gone wildly out of shape. (hence the bizarre term ‘legal theory’ which often means stretching a rule by trick of language to apply to a situation with very little similarity to it’s origins.

    People have painted themselves into ideological corners, where an inconvenient fact could cause the whole stack of beliefs and rules to collapse. Hence the resistance to the obvious (to most everyone) that humans are not all identical, and some are a lot cleverer than others. If people had just stayed with ‘equality under the law’ instead of expecting equal outcomes all through society, this tension would not exist as it does.

    This ritualization of rule occurs in law, in politics, in law, and philosophy. And it allows people to wall themselves off psychologically, instead of looking outside their safe little world.

  14. February 1, 2012


    I might also comment that Larry Summer’s comment was even more sensible that described here, it should have been non controversial.

    What he observed was that given the well established fact that the male IQ bell curve is a bit wider than the female one. Based on that fact alone, it would be perfectly normal to expect the extreme high edge (as well as the extreme low edge) to have a disproportionate number of males. But ideology (as mentioned in my previous comment) resists that conclusion. Since ideology declares it wrong, then it must be wrong regardless of the facts.

  15. February 9, 2012

    John Maguire

    Apothegm says: “I am educated and I dispute the fact that this difference between men and women is genetic. It is merely difficult to assemble a control group of men who have been subjected to no masculinist conditioning whatsoever.”

    Apothegm may have some education, but she should not consider herself fully educated on this subject until she reads the books of Frans de Waal, including “Our Inner Ape.”

    Her statement that it’s impossible to assemble a control group of men who have had no “masculinist” conditioning is a an empty tautology. It’s impossible after all to conceive of any human being existing who has had no human (masculinist, feminist or whatever) conditioning.

    If Apothegm really wants evidence on the issue of the genetic components of the violent settling of differnences–wants it without any tainting from human culture–then she needs to go look at our nearest genetic relatives who are outside human culture. There she will find evidence in apes and chimps. Franz De Wall is a top primatologist, and he says, in various places in his book (which you can find in the index–I just now looked at it) that males and females in the ape and chimp world settle differences very differently. The males are violent, the females not. This cannot be a side effect of human culture and conditioning, since these close relatives are not humans.

  16. February 9, 2012


    Scruton makes a rather large reasoning blunder:

    “But does anyone believe that men are ten times as likely to end up in prison as women because of unconscious discrimination or stereotyping? Of course not. We recognise that men are by nature more aggressive and more inclined to settle disputes by violence.”

    The reality is far more unclear than the misleading argument given above. It does not follow from the fact that men are ten times more likely than women to go to prison that men are more violent. The vast majority of crimes which people are imprisoned for are non violent drug offenses. Men are far more likely to not only be drug users but, more relevantly, drug dealers.

    Additionally, domestic violence is also a major cause of imprisonment but women are slightly more likely to be domestic physical batterers than men (as hard as that is at first to accept, it’s a fact) and yet men are FAR more likely to go to prison for domestic battery than women.

    Another common cause of imprisonment is drinking and driving. Men, again, are far more likely to drink and drive than women.

    Women are often just as likely as men to support aggressive military action by their government or by their religion as men are.

    Men are indeed, more likely than women to commit violent crimes such as murder, rape and assaults on strangers but the picture is not as black and white as Scruton suggests with his prison example. It is not clear at all why this is. Some of it may be due to physical strength (assaults by men are more serious) and some may be due to culture (men are expected and pressured by society to resolve conflicts through violence and use more violent means such as weapons). Some may even be due to the “justice” system’s harsher treatment of males.

    I am rather agnostic about the claims of innate gender differences in violence as I am about the differences in innate ability between men and women in “hard sciences” but when you look at the overall picture it is not as obvious as Scruton makes it out to be.

  17. February 12, 2012


    History is written by the winners. Men have been the winners in the UK since the Romans stripped the natives of arms after Boudicca nearly wiped them out, when the bulk of the Roman army were off failing to defeat the egalitarian Welsh.

    Language reinforces status issues which are defined in laws. Stop allowing derogatory stereotyping of women the way it has been banned for racial and disability stereotyping, and people will stop, if they are going to be arrested for it. Morality is best when it is underpinned by empathy. If people are encouraged to view others as lesser for reasons of wealth or occupation then morality is limited in its application.

    Every culture has its morality defined to ensure the balance of power remains with the status quo.

    • July 2, 2012


      perhaps our journey is all about increasing our consciousness. When we become aware then the question of asking for revelation does not arise. Our faith, in whatever, give us direction. We chose the faith which suits us. How do we decide?
      is there such a thing as life purpose and soul development.

  18. February 12, 2012


    Men are 10 times as likely to end up in prison as women because men have 10 times the testosterone level of women. The highest rates of violent crime are for men aged 15 to 25 when their testosterone levels peak. The testosterone-aggression relationship is present in other species too, obviously – which is why a steer is far less dangerous than a bull. On the other hand, aggression is a potential rather than a trait, and requires circumstances to set it off.

  19. March 7, 2012


    I think the melodramatic example of Charles Whitman’s tumor-induced murderous rampage actually works against Scruton’s thesis. Sure, the poor guy had no control over it, but I think the tumor is an example of ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’. What if it was a Gulf War veteran serial killer with shrapnel lodged in his amygdale instead? The shrapnel would essentially play the same role as Whitman’s tumor. It would be an outside environmental force interacting with “inherent” human nature. But nothing about the shrapnel is “inherent” in any way (except maybe the changes it triggers off in the brain). The tumor only seems like ‘nature’ because on the face of it, cancerous growths are biological phenomena and therefore a part of our evolutionary heritage. Yet it is really an illustration of the fragility of evolution’s best laid “plans” or “designs”. Evolution can’t and doesn’t anticipate every single contingency that can ever happen. Its products, i.e. our bodies and minds, react and adapt rather than strictly follow an exhaustive script of instructions or programming. Our minds may be beholden to biological events that happen deep inside our heads, which are in turn determined by our evolutionary history, but that doesn’t mean how they play out is etched in stone. What if it were not shrapnel, but a Japanese housewife brainwashed by a charismatic cult leader to kill people (getting closer to culture)? What’s more, the mere fact that we are aware of these genetic dispositions means we can come up with ways to counteract, subvert and rein them in, e.g. through culture. What if Whitman’s home doctor found out about his diseased amygdale? That knowledge alone would open up the possibility that steps be taken to avoid the inevitable. And thanks to the work of evo-psychs, we do have that self-awareness today. An operation to remove the tumor, or a regime of mood-altering drugs, would count as ‘nurture’, a cultural force or ‘outside’ environmental intervention, i.e. in opposition to what is “inherent” and already there in Whitman’s human biology or “design”. In fact, Scruton concedes as much in his final paragraph, stressing how we should choose not to bring up our kids by immersing them in digital gadgetry. If that’s not ‘nurture’, what is? So we know men are more genetically disposed to end up in prison (big surprise there), but the question is, do we just sit on my asses and lament our evolutionary inheritance, or should we do something about it as a society? Scruton faults Prinz for saying that we should. To use the analogy of a DIY computer kit, all the ‘nurture’ side is saying is that there is more than one possible way of assembling the computer. I doubt they are saying that there is NO underlying wiring scheme AT ALL, and we are free to connect the parts in any willy nilly way we want like lego bricks. Prinz’s problem is with the argument that the kit is “hard-wired”, i.e. the connections are all acid-etched into the motherboard and our choices in maybe building a Unix machine instead of an Apple II is hopelessly restricted. That’s the more radical and suspicious claim about ‘human nature’ the evo-psychs seem to be making, who acquire their bragging rights from claiming to be able to explain how “human nature” came to be. A more interesting question than untestable origin stories that inflate the self-esteem of theorists would be, “so that’s the way things are, but what can we do about it, if we can at all?” Scruton is saying, don’t even try.

    And I’m amused by Scruton’s objection to the common sense, rather uncrazy idea that “the distinction between individualists and collectivists is cultural rather than biological”. I’m a Chinese Singaporean. Are you saying that I’m biologically predisposed to be collectivist? The authoritarian Chinese Communist Party of China would love to hear that line of reasoning, that Chinese non-comformists like Ai Weiwei are freaks of nature, like two-headed lambs.

  20. March 9, 2012


    And it’s funny how Scruton accuses Prinz of not having “much sympathy for any culture other than the one in which he is immersed—the liberal egalitarian culture of the American academy”, because precisely the same can be said of his ‘paradigm case’ of Chomsky and Pinker’s ‘speculative linguistics’. Chomsky thinks there’s a ‘language module’ in everyone’s brain, hard-wired into our genes, and claims there are features that are universal to ALL languages. Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf and Franz Boaz were the (alas now out of fashion, largely thanks to Chomsky) hands-on kind of linguists who actually ventured into the field to observe the incredible diversity of languages out there. Chomsky on the other hand wasn’t, he preferred to sit behind his tenured desk and construct elaborate mathematical models to ‘prove’ his pet theory. Chomsky based his claims on a very narrow selection of languages from the Western world. He saw no problems with this because his assumption was that language is universal, so all you need to do is to pick and deeply examine just one, any one, and all there is to know can be found in that one language, which in this case were the ones he was most familiar with: like English, German or Spanish (what some linguists today derisively call “WEIRD” languages: “Western Educated Industrialized Rich & Democratic”). Yet linguists today realize there is much more diversity in languages than Chomsky ever suspected. Out of the 6,000 or so languages extant today, linguists have trouble finding ANY features that are universal to all of them, so much so that linguists like Levinson call it “the myth of language universals”. Or even to outright denounce Chomsky’s approach as a form of pseudoscience, because any unforeseen features observed in newly discovered languages are simply added to the ever bloated list of so-called ‘language universals’. That’s to say, Chomsky’s hardwired ‘Universal Grammar’ is basically unfalsifiable. Geneticists are also expressing doubt that our genes can encoded such an enormous, detailed list of fleeting linguistic innovations; it feels too elaborate and redundant for the unforgiving logic of slow evolution.

    Yet in his seemingly fool-proof, rigged strategy of pitting of liberal values against the unassailable rationality of science, Scruton makes it seem like the science is settled (and on his side), when he says that Prinz is “condemned to a losing wicket”, “by attempting to fight the biological sciences on their own ground”, when it is in fact far from settled; e.g. conveniently ignoring the controversy surrounding Chomsky. Then he backpedals and says that it doesn’t really matter “whether those sciences can be refuted” or if “in this or that particular the science might be faulted or revised”. He also makes light of Prinz’s concern that “the research is methodologically flawed, or that the conclusion is not supported by it”, and brushes aside the fact that Prinz has uncovered “much support from the literature of experimental psychology”. That is, however much the science may flux, it seems Scruton is determined to stick to his pre-conceived conclusions, or in his own words, to “put philosophy to work on behalf of his conclusions”. He doesn’t offer any concrete, clear line of reasoning, only to mumble that “the broad case is surely compelling”.

    Scruton also has an irritating habit of resorting to ad hominem attacks rather than solid reason (e.g. derisively comparing Prinz to certain allegedly imperialistic “disciples of Boas”, i.e. Whorf. Which is strange since Whorf was known as a champion of the minority cultures he was studying, and Franz Boas was an activist scientist who spoke out against racial inequality toward African Americans). But that isn’t surprising given how he sees Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” as the last word in linguistics. In that book Pinker uses similar beside-the-point diversionary tactics, e.g. pointing out that Whorf used to be an insurance salesman, never went to university full-time and lacks the proper credentials, therefore we shouldn’t take his ideas seriously ( e.g. the “notorious” Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which is very much alive today in spite of Pinker’s hatchet job, was widely accepted by the academic community of his day, and is seeing something of a comeback amongst anthropologists, linguists, cultural neuroscientists and cognitive scientists recently, which in the first place became “notorious” mostly thanks to the commercial success of Pinker’s misleading pop-psychology bestseller).

  21. March 25, 2012

    Angela Chen

    Two thoughts: One is that nature tends toward entropy and variation while our culture and laws push for homogeneity and order. The second is that evolutionary biology can explain the origins of our behavioral adaptations but does not justify or condone them. Rather, it’s up to our own agency to decide whether to channel our energies toward enhancing or changing our propensities. Also useful to keep in mind that even modern human tendencies were evolved in adaptation to a Paleolithic environment existing millions of years ago which has recently changed without our having time to catch up – therefore we may be both physically and behaviorally maladapted to our habitat in many ways (eg. causing things like obesity, etc.).

  22. March 26, 2012


    “This mystery is captured in a single question: how can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?”

    Increasingly the neuroscientists are pushing for it to be understood as an animal. We’ve seen the first arguments from a nueuro-science perspective that free-will is an illusion and that people are not actually responsible for their actions.

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Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is a philosopher. His latest book is "Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England" (Atlantic) 

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