Essay on genes and behavior prompts culture clash in academic journal

Advocates of genetic determinism square off against two prominent Stanford University scientists in a lively and surprisingly acerbic debate over ''nature vs. nurture'' in the February issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

The often contentious dialogue, which fills 20 pages of the journal, revolves around a controversial essay titled ''Genes and Cultures: What Creates Our Behavioral Phenome?'' by Stanford biologists Paul R. Ehrlich and Marcus W. Feldman.

''A central theme of the flood of literature in recent years in 'evolutionary psychology' and 'behavioral genetics' is that much or even most human behavior has been programmed into the human genome by natural selection,'' Ehrlich and Feldman wrote. ''We show that this conclusion is without basis.''

The authors go on to provide a detailed critique of genetic determinism - a point of view popularized in recent years by MIT psychologist Stephen Pinker and others. In response, the editors of Current Anthropology printed a series of pro-and-con commentaries by researchers from eight institutions in the United States, Germany, Canada and Great Britain.

Of spiders and snakes

Members of Stanford's Department of Biological Sciences faculty, Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies, and Feldman, the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, are considered pioneers in the fields of genetics and evolutionary biology. Ehrlich's latest book on the topic is Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect. Feldman is co-author of the textbook Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach.

In their Current Anthropology essay, the authors noted that the general tendency among evolutionary psychologists is ''vastly to overestimate how much of human behavior is primarily traceable to biological universals that are reflected in our genes. One reason for this overestimation is the ease with which a l

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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