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The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Behavior Unique

The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Behavior Unique

by Arthur W. Staats

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What makes us human? In recent decades, researchers have focused on innate tendencies and inherited traits as explanations for human behavior, especially in light of groundbreaking human genome research. The author thinks this trend is misleading. As he shows in great detail in this engaging, thought-provoking, and highly informative book, what makes our species


What makes us human? In recent decades, researchers have focused on innate tendencies and inherited traits as explanations for human behavior, especially in light of groundbreaking human genome research. The author thinks this trend is misleading. As he shows in great detail in this engaging, thought-provoking, and highly informative book, what makes our species unique is our marvelous ability to learn, which is an ability that no other primate possesses.

In his exploration of human progress, the author reveals that the immensity of human learning has not been fully understood or examined. Evolution has endowed us with extremely versatile bodies and a brain comprised of one hundred billion neurons, which makes us especially suited for a wide range of sophisticated learning. Already in childhood, human beings begin learning complex repertoires—language, sports, value systems, music, science, rules of behavior, and many other aspects of culture. These repertoires build on one another in special ways, and our brains develop in response to the learning experiences we receive from those around us and from what we read and hear and see. When humans gather in society, the cumulative effect of building learning upon learning is enormous.

The author presents a new way of understanding humanness—in the behavioral nature of the human body, in the unique human way of learning, in child development, in personality, and in abnormal behavior. With all this, and his years of basic and applied research, he develops a new theory of human evolution and a new vision of the human being. This book offers up a unified concept that not only provides new ways of understanding human behavior and solving human problems but also lays the foundations for opening new areas of science.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Eminent behavioral psychologist Staats distills 50 years of research and discoveries into this passionate and persuasive argument for a revision of what he calls The Great Scientific Error—namely that science, in its effort to explain humanity's progress, has privileged biology and notions of innateness over humans' ability to learn. Staats fine-tunes this revision by explaining that the brain is a "mechanism that performs the learning responsible for behavior," but is not "the cause of behavior." In his attempts to defend this paradigm of learning, Staats takes on many popularly held scientific beliefs. In the realm of psychopathology, for example, he attacks the idea that a dyslexic child's brain is "defective," positing instead that the child has simply not had a "successful reading learning experience." Staats goes on to compellingly argue that the advent of language—a learned and consensual system of knowledge—marked the point where "what was learned took the determining role" in humanity's evolution, given that a people's "language repertoire" would enable hard-won lessons to be transferred to subsequent generations. Staats ends by encouraging further research on this "new paradigm," wherein a simplistic divide like that between nature and nurture would finally be cast off for a more nuanced appraisal of what constitutes "humanness." (May)
From the Publisher
"The nature-nurture debate represents one of the fundamental questions in the field of psychology: Is human behavior wired into our genes or are we shaped by our learning histories and situational pressures? In recent years, advances in evolutionary theories, genomics, and neuroscience have focused considerable attention on ‘nature.’ In lucid and accessible prose, Arthur W. Staats makes the case for ‘nurture,’ arguing that human uniqueness derives from our capacity to learn. Not everyone will agree with Staats’s conclusions, but all will find that his book represents a significant and compelling contribution to a critical debate."
-Peter Salovey, Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology, Yale University

"Staats has thrown down a challenge to the currently fashionable biological and genetic determinism. Here he places our breathtaking capacity to learn front and center in theunderstanding of human nature in his forcefully argued account."
-Frank Farley, PhD, Professor, Temple University, Philadelphia; former president, American Psychological Association; former president, American Educational Research Association

"In this exciting book, Staats challenges the biological focus that has come to dominate the study of human behavior and makes a compelling case for the central role of humankind’s inimitable learning ability in making us the unique species we have become. The importance of this insight cannot be overestimated. It creates the basis for a new paradigm, providing a new way of conceptualizing human nature and a framework for uniting many disparate fields of study and applications of scientific knowledge with real-world social and behavioral problems. The implications for the future development of the science of human nature are profound."
-Karl Minke, Long-term department chair and associate professor (retired), Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Library Journal
The human brain contains 100 billion neurons, and each of these neurons has anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 synapses. So begins Staats's (psychology, emeritus, Univ. of Hawaii, Manoa; Behavior and Personality: Psychological Behaviorism) treatise on the tremendous human potential to learn. Staats takes to task what he calls "The Great Scientific Error"—the belief that human personality, intelligence, and abnormal behavior are all genetically determined. In contrast, he insists that people evolve by learning. According to Staats, this idea is as revolutionary as Kepler's laws of motion—one that will in the future shape everything from child psychology to the clinical treatment of psychological disorders. VERDICT Staats combines history and science to make his case, which, while compelling, may deter some readers with its academic language. Even so, he incorporates enough personal narrative and case studies to reach even lay readers who are interested in human psychology and scientific theory.—Talea Anderson, Ellensburg, WA

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What Makes Human Nature Unique

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Arthur W. Staats
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-597-2

Chapter One


Once obscure, the word paradigm was made a catchy concept a few decades ago by Thomas Kuhn (1962). There was even a New Yorker cartoon with a beggar asking a potential client, "Can you paradigm?" in place of the Depression-era original "Can you spare a dime?" Kuhn's definition bedazzled the history of science and philosophy of science worlds. Science wasn't just the objective search for truth via fact and theory. Scientific paradigms consisted of much more—methodology, beliefs, convictions, technology, and problems to be solved. Paradigms garnered adamant loyalty. A new paradigm—like Einstein's initially was—couldn't expect an open-armed reception. It had to scratch and fight for acceptance through obstacles of disbelief. For scientists, contrary to popular belief, exhibit human motivations that interfere with that legendary objectivity of their stereotype (Toulmin 1972).

Scientific paradigms—despite their glamorous fruits of problem solution, application, and research creativity—may also contain errors large and costly, to society as well as science. Although improving on the previous paradigm, a new one generally has its own problems and limitations. When those problems are fundamental or extensive enough, and this becomes recognized, another paradigm may be put forth that better deals with the field—abandoning unproductive endeavors, indicating important problems, and projecting new avenues of application and research. Its arrival produces a period of doubt and struggle with the old paradigm, a scientific revolution that may culminate with the acceptance of the new paradigm. This then becomes the primary framework that generates the normal science activities that elaborate its expectations and produce its advances.

A paradigm exists with respect to human behavior and human nature. It is not clean-cut, systematically constructed like advanced theories, but rather is composed of many poorly articulated bits and pieces. The paradigm consists of a mix. If a history of the paradigm existed, it would show that it began long ago, with animistic belief that everything from atolls to zebras contained spirits that determined their nature and behaviors. Volcanoes erupt and oceans storm when their spirits become angry. A human behaves badly when his or her spirit is evil or when an evil spirit invades him or her. As animistic beliefs advanced in many steps to yield modern religions, the spirit concept for humans became the soul. When the search for knowledge brought forth various science endeavors and then science fields, including an interest in human actions, the concept of the soul morphed into the concept of the mind, as well as the personality, the brain, and other internal causal processes or structures. The name psychology literally means the study of the mind, the Greek term psyche meaning either "soul" or "mind."

A theory of human behavior and human nature exists in the common language that we all learn. We can see elements of the common conception of human behavior and human nature in religious and literary writing, as in the Bible and Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, in descriptions of types of human behavior and their causes. We can see that people behave peculiarly, destructively, because of a mental disease. We can see numberless explanations of behavior—behaviors occur because of inner states such as intelligence, anxiety, honesty, ambition, laziness, greed, and cruelty. Those trait concepts and many others are the conceptual tools by which people explain their own behaviors and the behaviors of others. A child does well in school because she is intelligent, a boy picks on others because he is a cruel bully, and another works all the time because he has ambition. Why does an adult protect children? Human nature. Why have people gone to war throughout history? Human nature. What gave humans the nature that determines their behavior—God, Mother Nature, or genetic evolution? All of these concepts are used to explain human actions.

There are differences in people's complex sets of beliefs, so the paradigm varies for different people. But we all grew up absorbing the explanations of human behavior our language provides for us. That language is part of each of us, rock-hard belief, so natural it is not open to consideration, giving all of us a common core theory. We accept things that fit with these beliefs, and are poised to reject things that do not. That informal theory of human behavior and human nature functions covertly, not realized for what it is and what it does. It affects the beliefs, interpretations, and plans of scientists as well as of lay people, setting gross guidelines for what to study and how to do so. I call this paradigm "The Great Scientific Error" because although it serves many of our purposes—much better than the conceptions of bygone days—it contains profound error and misdirects us in many, costly ways. Billions-of-dollars ways.

This paradigm is implicit, unrealized, and should be brought to light systematically, described, made evident. With such an account it would be possible to consider and work on the paradigm, improve it, address its various problems, as well as understand the widespread effects it has on everyone. No books have been written to describe the Great Scientific Error paradigm. I have come to recognize the paradigm because my fifty-plus-year program of work has on so many fronts taken a contrary view. My aim in this book centers on presenting a new paradigm, so I cannot devote this book to the full consideration of the old paradigm that is needed. But I can introduce the Great Scientific Error and I can additionally flesh out that introduction here and throughout the book and thereby call for a more complete work.


Explanation of origin is central in a conception of human behavior and human nature, humanness. Before Charles Darwin, the dominant explanation of origin lay in the biblical account of God's creation of humans. Of course, that explanation of origin had many predecessors in the beliefs of many different peoples. A belief of an Australian Aborigine people had a beautiful simplicity: a pool exists of little fish, some of which are selected by spirits to become people. When a person dies he again becomes a little fish in that pool, waiting another turn.

Darwin's theory of evolution raised a fury by calling into question the truth of theological creationism. Various science-oriented thinkers, including Erasmus Darwin, previously had suggested an evolutionary process. The church successfully opposed such views, and they were believed by relatively few. Charles Darwin, however, shook that balance with his systematic collection of observations that confirmed evolution, and with his theory of natural selection. That provided the principles by which evolution took place, and his theory had the weight of demonstrable evidence. Darwin's evolution was translated into many languages and read by a wide audience, with a profound impact. Evolution—with its findings, scientific methods, theory, and productivity for many fields—constituted a new paradigm that challenged the old religious paradigm of divine creation. This development gives a good example of the paradigm clash; the new one is ensconced in science fields but the old one is still continuing in some religious circles.

The impact of Darwin's theory of evolution and Mendel's genetics provided the foundation for various sciences from biology to paleoanthropology, from psychology and the social sciences to the philosophy of science. Of special interest to the present book, this synthesis contributes heavily to traditional beliefs about humans, about origin, about what human nature is, and about why humans behave as they do. These developments enormously affected the human-behavior paradigm.

Given the proven value of the theory of evolution, wherein lies the Darwin fallacy? Interestingly, as tends to be the case with scientific theories, the power of a theory when it is true matches the power of the error it projects when it is in error. Darwin's theory did contain error, egregious error, and that has had great impact too. The following words of Darwin are simple and seemingly innocent, but, as with the iceberg, we must look for the much larger, lurking danger.

As man is a social animal, it is almost certain that he would inherit a tendency to be faithful to his comrades, and obedient to the leader of his tribe, for these qualities are common to most social animals. He would consequently possess some capacity for self-command. He would from an inherited tendency be willing to defend, in concert with others, his fellow-men; and be willing to aid them in any way.... (See Watson 2005, 689)

Such words are common in the belief of the society, that the causes of human behavior come from within, in biologically inherited traits of various kinds. What must be recognized is that being faithful, self-commanding, and obedient, along with defending and aiding fellow humans, describe behavioral traits. They are not physical traits like a bird's beak, a horse's hooves, or a human's hand. That lack of distinction is understandable; his beliefs regarding human behavior and human nature were like everyone else's, a pastiche of belief learned like everyone else in the acquisition of language. Of course he did not distinguish physical and behavioral traits; no one else did. In the religious paradigm, God created man physically and behaviorally. Darwin's lack of distinction between physical and behavioral traits of humans threw their explanation into the same mold. That was an enormous mistake, providing the foundation for expecting behavioral traits to be explained by the biological sciences, from genetics to neurology to paleoanthropology. The power and breadth of this conceptualization can't be overestimated.

No question, Darwin made a monumental study of the physical features of various species. He systematically worked out how physical traits possessed by some members of the species were selected because the traits aided survival and reproduction. Called natural selection, his work on this principle was scientifically impeccable—the hallmark of his theory was massive evidence. That same careful science analysis, however, was not extended to the evolution of human behavioral traits. He had no evidence of that, no evidence that "humans would from inherited tendency be willing to defend, in concert with others, his fellowmen; and be willing to aid them in any way" (Charles Darwin, quoted in Watson 2005, 689). Darwin said such things on simple assumption, following the beliefs of his culture, without any evidence, because he didn't distinguish between physical and behavioral traits.

Because of the power of his approach, that error continued with those who followed Darwin's evolution theory; after all, they also had the same language theory he did. His cousin, Sir Francis Galton, for example, interpreted intelligence as a trait that had evolved because it aided survival and reproduction. He attempted to prove intelligence was inherited by tracing the number of exceptionally able relatives in the families of geniuses. Ignoring the possible effects of the environment, wide individual and group differences in intelligence were interpreted as evidence that some groups of people had evolved more, or better, than others. One derivation of this view was that human intelligence could be maximized by eugenics, by selecting only intelligent people for reproduction. Such extensions helped fix the very strong belief in the biological explanation of intelligence.

That was not all. Various traits of behavior were analyzed in evolutionary terms, and a field of social Darwinism formed. It enjoyed a period of popularity, but social Darwinism did not lead anywhere, since it was comprised of "after-the-fact interpretation," assuming things that could not be proven or tested or used profitably. In science, developments that lead nowhere may be pursued for a time but will be abandoned eventually because support by evidence constitutes science's bottom line.

So social Darwinism faded away. But the underlying belief did not die; like a cat with nine lives, Darwin's view that human behavior traits are genetically evolved later gave rise to the field of sociobiology. For example, Edward O. Wilson—selected a while back as one of the small group of top scientists of the twentieth century—studied the behavior of ants as insects whose social behavior enables them to survive and procreate. His observations showed that soldier ants fight intruders into the nest, perhaps losing life in the process. He called the behavior "altruistic," a seemingly simple act of naming. Oops, error! "Altruism" is a human act. Calling the behavior of the ants altruistic equates it with the human behavior. That is sleight of hand that brings on a host of other beliefs. Is the behavior of an ant fighting and dying under attack by foreign ants to be considered the same as the altruism of a male passenger giving a woman his lifeboat seat on the Titanic? Are the two to be explained by the same genetically evolved trait? On consideration we might question that, and more generally the value of Wilson's equating of animal behavior to human behavior. Is it really productive to assume that human behavior traits have evolved in the way that animal behavior traits have?

Perhaps the answer to that question is there to see, for sociobiology really came to the same end as social Darwinism. After a run of a quarter century, it began fading away; sociobiology too hadn't been able to explain anything; it merely inferred, after the fact, evolutionary processes that could not be tested and proven. In 1997, the professional journal of the field dropped the title of Sociobiology and adopted that of Evolution of Human Behavior. This title, of course, shows that Darwin's position is still retained. It would have been constructive if it had been recognized that the field of sociobiology had failed along with its progenitor social Darwinism because both were built on Darwin's fallacy. Oh well.

The Selfish Gene

With that history of two burials—of social Darwinism and sociobiology—why would the underlying belief be resurrected again? The answer: because the underlying belief is strong in the culture everyone learns, so strong its failure under one rubric leaves room for its resurrection under a different name, inspiring renewed efforts. That present name is evolutionary psychology, and it proceeds with the usual verve and fanfare (see Workman and Reader 2004), adding conceptual elements and making analyses of new phenomena. For example, with more conceptual "sleight of hand" Richard Dawkins added the concept of the "selfish gene" to the theory of how behavior is passed on via evolution (1976). According to his theory, genes are selfishly motivated to reproduce themselves. Somehow, with a biological mechanism he does not indicate, the gene motivation he assumes determines the organism's behavior. That was why Wilson's soldier ant risked its life, because saving the nest and the queen means saving its own genes for reproduction. All kinds of behavior are supposedly "explained" by this motivation in evolutionary psychology (see Workman and Reader 2004). Popular as it is to many biological scientists—as indicated by various studies and articles that use the conception—it has no more explanatory power than the old "instinct of self-preservation," also popular as an "explanation" of behavior a century ago. Has anyone ever found a selfish gene in an ant, let alone in a human? Has anyone ever manipulated a selfish gene and changed any behavior thereby? By what mechanism would a gene activate behavior such that the gene's reproductive selfishness is fulfilled? Does the brain have neurons sensitive to gene motivations, whatever they are? Can those neurons, once activated, select the behaviors needed? To my knowledge, such mechanisms have never been found. Let's face it, without such evidence, the concept of the selfish gene is pure assumption and titillating speculation. When we ask "Where's the beef?" the evidence turns out to be like that of Wilson's "altruistic" ant soldiers, namely absent. Without such evidence, the conception is empty, leading nowhere in our understanding not only of ants but also of humans.


Excerpted from The MARVELOUS LEARNING ANIMAL by ARTHUR W. STAATS Copyright © 2012 by Arthur W. Staats. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Arthur W. Staats is professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Internationally known as an innovator, he is the inventor of the "time-out" concept that so many parents have used with their children as well as the creator of the token-reward system (token economy) to modify behavior patterns. In 2006, Child magazine recognized him as one of "20 People Who Changed Childhood." He is the author of six books, more than fifty chapters, and over eighty journal articles, among other publications.

From the Hardcover edition.

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