In Search of Human Nature

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Are differences in group human behavior the result of biology or culture? Can these differences be eliminated through education or changes in the social environment, or are behavioral variations forever bound up in our genes? Does the level of sophistication of an ethnic group at a given time provide any insight into its potential to achieve a higher level of technological or cultural sophistication? This book is a study of the shifting attitudes of American social scientists—anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists, sociologists—toward these questions. These are questions that in the past have been cast in terms of nature versus nurture, the existence of innate racial characteristics or gender distinctions, or racial superiority.

Degler begins with Darwin’s own publications and the theories of the Social Darwinists of the late nineteenth century and ends with the work of the sociobiologists of the 1980’s. In a generally chronological discussion, he documents the widespread acceptance of biological explanations at the beginning of the twentieth century, the triumph of the cultural explanations prior to World War II, and the subsequent rising interest in biological explanations. He concludes with a brief discussion of the state of research in the mid-1980’s and the rise of theories that have lessened or eliminated the distinctions between humans and animals. His focus is primarily on issues of race—especially black- white—and gender. Chapters are organized around themes rather than time periods.

Degler relies primarily on the published scientific literature, although he occasionally cites popular literature written by scientists. Only rarely does he use an unpublished letter for information. He is presenting the public debate. If his social scientists held private beliefs different from their public pronouncements, Degler is unconcerned.

“Darwinism” is Degler’s catchphrase for any theory that argued that all of human nature, including morality and emotions, evolved in the same manner as did physical characteristics. Such theories saw human culture as the result of innate or (once genes were discovered) genetic influences. Changes could occur only slowly, on a Darwinian time scale. As in evolutionary biology in general, Darwin serves as a symbol or shorthand for a general type of orientation, whatever the nature of the connection—or lack of one—between a specific theory and the details of Darwin’s thought. The “revival” in the book’s subtitle is of evolutionary biological explanations, not of Darwin’s nineteenth century theory of human evolution.

Central to Degler’s examination is the work of Franz Boas. He presents Boas as a radical thinker who worked tirelessly to eliminate the perception that social differences were the result of, or linked to, physical differences. Boas argued that social or cultural dissimilarities were the result of the different histories of human groups, not of dissimilar biologies. Savages were not intellectually inferior to those living in civilizations with advanced technology; they had simply not utilized their potential to its fullest. In making such arguments, Boas flew in the face of accepted scientific and social doctrine in the United States in the late nineteenth century. A German Jew who immigrated to the United States because of the anti-Semitism of his homeland, Boas brought to his anthropological research a belief in equal opportunity. He challenged the racism of his profession and his adopted country. In doing so, he was not arguing for cultural relativism. He accepted a hierarchy of cultures, with white, Euroamerican culture as the highest. He saw no reason, however, why African Americans and other groups could...

(The entire section is 1530 words.)