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4.1 out of 5 stars
Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect
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on October 21, 2002
Paul Erlich is usually introduced as the author of "The Population Bomb", so it's not unreasonable to look back for a moment at that book- and Erlich's intellectual history- in considering this new book. Back in the 1960s Erlich was a mainstay of the popular media- sort of a Carl Sagan of population- and a regular guest on the Tonight Show, where he spelled out his apocalyptic vision.
"The Population Bomb" was a polemic that dictated a series of prescriptions for society, without which we were racing headlong to all sorts of disasters, notable shrtages of all strategic resources, massive starvation involving millions of people, food riots that destroyed governments and the downfall of western society as we knew it. This was prophisized to happen in the 1970s, and as most of us recall, none of it happened. He went on to predict that *billions* would die of starvation in the 1980s. Erlich also made a famous bet with economist Julian Simon,in which Simon challanged Erlich to pick 5 commodities that he felt would go up in price because of shortages. Erlich took the bet, and all five fell drastically in price.
In fact, nothing that Erlich prophasized ever happened. Erlich's predictions had little to do with science and much do do with ad-hoc justifications for his political prescriptions. Now Erlich has jumped onto the nature/nurture bandwagon, which has generated a lot of renewed interest in recent years owing to some major breakthroughs in the understanding of, and potential control over, the genetic makeup of humans. And once again, Erlich sees a lot of reasons we should follow his particular social agenda.
There's nothing particularly new or original in the discussion of nature and nurture in this book, which isn't surprising as Erlich has never done any research in this area. Most of the book is a fairly elementary rehash of the last twenty years of genetic research. Unfortunately it's not a terribly good one. His understanding of issues like human language is elementary at best. Even as science continues to discover just how much of our nature and our biology is, in fact, genetically determined, Erlich's position is that the contribution of genes to behavior is all but trivial, and that leads into the real intent of this book, which is to say his prescription for how society should be run. And not surprisingly, it's the same prescription he was making in the 1960s.
Erlich's problem is that he wants to be a social philosopher. He longs to dictate his notion of an ideal society- but he doesn't have any good social arguments. Instead he gives us specious arguments rooted in questionable scientific interpretations. The result is a poor introduction to either the nature-nurture debate or social philosophy.
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