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  • Writer's pictureArnold Schroder

#59: Revolutionary Biology pt. 1: Nature vs. Nurture vs. Synthesis

(03/06/2023) Nature vs. nurture thinking simply makes no sense: an entity can only respond to its environment via evolved capacities. Nonetheless, this binary reasoning is persistently attractive to the human mind, and is present in the theoretical foundations of all the major political tendencies. In this episode, we explore the harm to our politics caused by an inability to reason about biology, and the many forms our confusion takes, particularly focusing on the eternally recurrent assumption that the more unvarying a behavior is, the more “biological” it is. We examine the Cold War ideological conflicts that pushed theorists on both sides of nature-nurture controversies to rigid—and not infrequently absurd—extremes, and see how phenotypic plasticity is reasserting itself in biology after decades of suppression, replacing outdated forms of evolutionary theory that involve genes “for” behaviors and ignore the means by which traits develop.


Bibliography for episode 59:


Aczel, A. D. (2000) The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity. Washington Square Press.


Boesch, C. (2009) The Real Chimpanzee: Sex Strategies in the Forest. Cambridge University Press.


Bookchin, M. (1984) Nature, first and second. In: Biehl, J. The Murray Bookchin Reader. Black Rose Books.


Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.


Dingemanse, N. J. (2010) Behavioural reaction norms: animal personality meets individual plasticity. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25(2):81-89


Gilbert, S. F. and Epel, D. (2015) Ecological Developmental Biology: The Environmental Regulation of Development, Health, and Evolution. 2nd edition. Sinauer Associates.

Goodall, J. (1986) Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Harvard University Press.


Gosling, S. D. & John, O. P. (1999) Personality dimensions in nonhuman animals: A cross-species review. Current Directions in Psychological Science 8(3):69-75.


Hare, B., Wobber, V., & Wrangham, R. (2012) The self-domestication hypothesis: evolution of bonobo psychology is due to selection against aggression. Animal Behaviour 83:573-85.


Hare, B. and Woods, V. (2020) Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity. Random House.


Lorenz, K. (1954) Psychology and phylogeny. In: Lorenz, K. (1971) Studies in Animal And Human Behaviour vol. 2. Harvard University Press.


Marshall, P. (1992) Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Harper Perennial.


Sapolsky, R. M. & Share, L. J. (2004) A Pacific Culture among wild baboons: Its emergence and transmission.PLoS Biology2(4):0534-41. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020106


Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992) The Psychological Foundations of Culture. In: Barkow, J., Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J., eds. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford University Press.


Tuschman, A. (2013) Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us. Prometheus Books.


West Eberhard, M. J. (2003) Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. Oxford University Press.


West Eberhard, M. J. (2005) Developmental plasticity and the origin of species differences. PNAS102:6543-6549. DOI: 10.1073?pnas.0501844102


Wrangham, R. W. (2019). Hypotheses for the evolution of reduced reactive aggression in the context of human self-domestication. Frontiers in Psychology 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01914


Reuters photo of Kamunyak, a lioness

who adopted calves of a prey species.


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Simon Parent
Simon Parent
Apr 01, 2023

Amazing episode. It really reframes our current "stories" about society. Your 2050 serie inform a bit on the frame you want instead, though I should revisit your earlier episodes to see if you fleshed it out.

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