In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought / Edition 1

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1972, and a past president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, Carl Degler is one of America's most eminent living historians. He is also one of the most versatile. In a forty year career, he has written brilliantly on race (Neither Black Nor White, which won the Pulitzer Prize), women's studies (At Odds, which Betty Friedan called "a stunning book"), Southern history, the New Deal, and many other subjects. Now, in The Search for Human Nature, Degler turns to perhaps his largest subject yet, a sweeping history of the impact of Darwinism (and biological research) on our understanding of human nature, providing a fascinating overview of the social sciences in the last one hundred years.
The idea of a biological root to human nature was almost universally accepted at the turn of the century, Degler points out, then all but vanished from social thought only to reappear in the last four decades. Degler traces the early history of this idea, from Darwin's argument that human nature, our moral and emotional life, evolved from animals just as our human shape did, to William James's emphasis on instinct in human behavior (then seen as a fundamental insight of psychology). We also see the many applications of biology, from racism, sexism, and Social Darwinism to the rise of Intelligence Testing, the Eugenics movement, and the practice of involuntary sterilization of criminals (a public policy pioneered in America, which had sterilization laws 25 years before Nazi Germany--one such law was upheld by Oliver Wendell Holmes's Supreme Court). Degler then examines the work of those who denied any role for biology, who thought culture shaped human nature, a group ranging from Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead, to John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. Equally important, he examines the forces behind this fundamental shift in a scientific paradigm, arguing that ideological reasons--especially the struggle against racism and sexism in America--led to this change in scientific thinking. Finally, Degler considers the revival of Darwinism, led first by ethologists such as Karl von Frisch, Nikolaas Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Jane Goodall--who revealed clear parallels between animal and human behavior--and followed in varying degrees by such figures as Melvin Konner, Alice Rossi, Jerome Kagen, and Edward O. Wilson as well as others in anthropology, political science, and economics.
What kind of animal is Homo sapiens and how did we come to be this way? In this wide ranging history, Carl Degler traces our attempts over the last century to answer these questions. In doing so, he has produced a volume that will fascinate anyone curious about the nature of human beings.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Just the type of book I have been looking for that deals with ideas in U.S. history I do not think I have seen other books on this."-Donna D. King, Virginia State University

"Wonderfully written....This immensely informative and detailed history of social thought...provides a challenging perspective on what it is (or what people have thought it is) to be human."--Kirkus Reviews

"Degler has produced a brilliant synthesis of our national preoccupation with the nature of human beings and what that has meant in our democracy."--Los Angeles Times

"A scholarly, dispassionate, historical examination of the nature vs. nurture controversy....Wide-ranging."--Publishers Weekly

"Masterful....Impressive intellectual history....[Degler] makes his case forcefully and articulately."--The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195077070
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/5/1992
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 8.94 (w) x 5.88 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:

Carl N. Degler is Margaret Byrne Professor of American History Emeritus at Stanford University.

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Table of Contents

I. Biology Acknowledged
1. Invoking the Darwinian Imperative 3
2. Beyond the Darwinian Imperative 32
II. The Sovereignty of Culture
3. Laying the Foundation 59
4. In the Wake of Boas 84
5. Does Sex Tell Us Anything? 105
6. Decoupling Behavior from Nature 139
7. Decoupling Intelligence from Race 167
8. Why Did Culture Triumph? 187
III. Remembering Darwin
9. Biology Redivivus 215
10. The Case of the Origin of the Incest Taboo 245
11. The Uses of Biology 270
12. Biology and the Nature of Females 293
13. The Uses and Misuses of Evolutionary Theory in Social Science 310
Epilogue: Beyond Social Science 329
Notes 351
Index 385
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2007

    A reviewer

    A great contribution to the evolution of the nature versus nurture debate, this book traces the history of the effect of Darwin's ideas on our view of human nature, through much of the 20th century. In doing so, Degler describes some unpleasant aspects of Darwin's ideas and writings that can really only be described as racist and sexist, and I'll spare you the details. For the most part, this is simply a very well written historical account of the social aspects of Darwinian thought, that objectively describes the main ideas of the prominent thinkers, including John Searle, who have contributed to the debate. A lot of emphasis is placed on the relationship between man and the so-called lower animals. Not written with an axe to grind, it's a pleasure to read. Incidentally, Steven Pinker has recently put in his two cents with The Blank Slate.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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