The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique

Philip Lieberman, Author
Philip Lieberman. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (248p) ISBN 978-0-691-14858-8
Reviewed on: 02/04/2013
Release date: 04/01/2013
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Lieberman (Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution) pulls no punches in attacking what he perceives to be the flaws of evolutionary psychology in this imbalanced scientific treatise. He argues somewhat hyperbolically that under “a high-tech veneer... phrenology lives on today in studies that purport to identify the brain’s center of religious belief, pornography, and everything in between,” and he is equally forceful in debunking Chomsky’s notions that language is innate and that a hypothetical “language organ” might exist. His ability to marshal contemporary neuroscience to support his assertions is impressive, and his efforts to guide the field away from biological determinism (a “stew of invented genes”) are well-founded and important. He contends that we should instead focus on “understanding the interplay of culture and biology in shaping human behavior.” Unfortunately, Lieberman loses some credibility when he takes too literally Richard Dawkins’s concept of a “selfish gene”; equally troubling is the straw man Lieberman sets up to discredit Dawkins. Despite these missteps, his conclusion—what sets us apart from other primates is that our genes allow for cognitive flexibility and human creativity—is well worth considering. 12 line illus. (May)
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