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Historian Degler examines nature versus nurture debate

STANFORD -- When Carl Degler said he was working on a book about how nature is making a comeback against nurture in the debate over what shapes human beings, acquaintances often would say, "That's unusual for you."

They were surprised, the Stanford University historian inferred, that someone identified closely with cultural explanations of human behavior would be turning to biological explanations.

In the preface to his new book, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought, Degler expresses some wonder of his own.

"The story I tell in these pages," he writes, "is how Americans like me, that is, students of human nature -- social scientists -- made the momentous shift from believing that biology explained some human actions to seeing culture or human experience -- history, if you will -- as the primary if not the sole source of the differential behavior of human beings."

Today, Degler writes, most people assume, "that culture has severed for good the linkage between human behavior and biology. The conviction is that human beings in their social behavior, alone among animals, have succeeded in escaping biology."

However, he continues, "biological explanations have begun to return to social science. This return of biology stems from several things, among which is a renewed recognition of the pertinence of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the apparent relevance of an explosion of knowledge about animal behavior to the search for human nature."

This "return of biology" does not mean the revival of repudiated ideas like racism or sexism, Degler said.

"Rather, the true aim of those social scientists who advocate a 'return' is to place, once again, the study of human nature within evolution, to ask how human beings fit into that framework which Darwin laid down over a century ago and which very few social scientists consciously repudiate -- except when the behavior of human beings is included in it," he writes.

Degler found that even dedicating the work to his first grandson raised the nature-nurture issue.

His planned dedication was to Eric Voorhees Degler, "in whom biology is predominating over culture." This, he thought, was a pretty obvious state of affairs for a newborn baby.

Degler's son and daughter-in-law, however, objected -- in what he saw as the epitome of the general reaction to biology.

"If you talk about someone being biological, it's down there on a low level of activity, even for a newborn," he said.

So the book is dedicated to Eric "on whom culture and biology are already working."

Issues of sex, race

Degler, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History emeritus, is best known for his work on the issues of race and sex in American life. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for his book, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. His other books include At Odds: Women and the Family in America From the Revolution to the Present.

His present work might seem a departure, he said, but in fact it also involves questions of race and sex.

Long active in the feminist movement, Degler said he had previously taken the position that culture alone determines behavioral differences between men and women.

Occasionally, he did express a few cautious doubts. In the 1970s, he recalled, at a conference on women's place in the economy, he asked one of his feminist colleagues if she thought that because women bear children, there might be something that also disposes them to be the rearers of children. Degler asked the question "very tentatively, because I thought I knew what the answer was going to be." And, sure enough, his colleague dismissed any suggestion of a natural link between bearing and raising children.

As a result of the research he did for In Search of Human Nature, Degler now believes that "it seems likely for evolutionary reasons that women are better prepared for childrearing than men." That does not mean that men cannot rear children, he added.

"But if one is asking where the natural tendency is most likely to fall, given what we know about the way in which other animals are geared to rear their offspring, women would be most likely to be the superior rearers."

Nevertheless, he said, despite all that can be learned by studying animal behavior, "it's important to recognize that we're all capable of being shaped by culture. What we're really talking about are degrees of control, rather than rigidly fixed programming."

Entertaining biological explanations for differences between the behavior of the sexes does not necessarily lead to a socially conservative position on the status of women, Degler said.

In his book, he cites feminist sociologist Alice Rossi who has argued that "men and women do not have to do the same things or be the same in order to be socially, economically, and politically equal. She regretted that the current tendency among many feminists was to confuse equality with identity and diversity with inequality."

He also writes about a number of other women, including anthropologist Margaret Mead and philosopher Mary Midgley, who "emphasized the differences between the sexes without believing that such an acknowledgment denigrated women's activities."

Degler said he thought it was important to make that point "because as long as people take the view that it must be socially conservative to recognize the role of biology, no one who is liberal is going to pay any attention" to that role.

In contrast to his ideas about differences between the sexes, Degler said he does not believe "biology tells us anything about race, largely because I don't know how to define race. Very few of the social scientists I've reported on use race as a category for talking about differences."

Background of book

Degler has long been interested in animal behavior studies, he said, but his actual work on this book began about a decade ago. He spent a year as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, pondering the relationship between animal and human behavior. Opposing camps had arisen over Edward Wilson's 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, particularly the last chapter on the relevance of animal ethology to the study of human behavior.

(Sociobiology, Degler said, is defined as the study of how biology shapes social behavior, that is, behavior among individual members of a species. It is accepted in the study of the social behavior of animals, he said, but becomes controversial when it is applied to human beings.)

After doing some thinking about the subject, Degler said, "I realized I wasn't in a position to take a stand defending sociobiology as it might be applied to human beings. I wasn't a biologist or an ethologist, yet at the same time I found it intellectually stimulating to see continuity between animal behavior and human behavior."


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