(Illustration by Anne Faith Nicholls)

On human nurture

Philosopher Jesse Prinz, PhD’97, trains a skeptical eye on biological accounts of our behavior, beliefs, and emotions.

Jesse Prinz, PhD’97, is onstage at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, insisting that everyone in the room smile. Prinz shares the stage with award-winning actor Liev Schreiber as part of Happy Talk, the Rubin’s series of public conversations pairing celebrities with experts to explore happiness. At Prinz’s insistence, Schreiber forces a grin too.

Doesn’t that feel good?” Prinz asks.

“No,” Schreiber deadpans.

Throughout the event Schreiber has played foil to Prinz, distinguished professor of philosophy and director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Prinz’s request that everyone adopt rictal grins casts doubt on what we think of as the relationship of emotions and their expression.

Several studies indicate that the act of smiling elevates one’s happiness—if you smile, the feeling will follow. Schreiber’s knee-jerk negative response is somewhat typical when it comes to the insights that stud Prinz’s work, which challenges some of our most deeply held preconceptions. Happiness, per se, isn’t a primary focus for Prinz. His 2004 book, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (Oxford University Press), follows William James in arguing that emotions are perceptions of bodily responses to cues in our environment, which they follow rather than precede. And he’s interested in the notion that emotions are more relational and social than we tend to think; in the same conversation he cited a study of gold-medal winning Olympic athletes. Coming down the tunnel on the way to receive their medals, most of them, though presumably happy, weren’t smiling until they emerged and saw the crowd. “A smile,” Prinz says, “is a communicative act.”

His adopt-a-smile demonstration’s reversal of causality is showmanship, of course, but much of Prinz’s work overturns conventional thinking about how our minds and the world interact. Elemental questions—many to do with how emotions, morals, and culture are linked—constitute the spine of his work.

Emotions, for instance, are commonly considered innate, hard-wired components of our evolution. “We even talk about the ‘reptilian brain,’” Prinz says. “We think about emotions as driven by a limbic system that we share with some of the simplest multicell creatures on Earth.” He rejects that as too simplistic. “To think about evolution as simply building new floors on an infrastructure, on a building that’s already set at its foundations, is biologically implausible.”

Prinz’s work, which one of his CUNY colleagues applauds as “intellectually promiscuous,” draws on philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, experimental psychology, and other disciplines to explore the ways humans have moved beyond that reptilian origin. Prinz has written a lot, all of it united by an uncompromising empiricism—his position that our diverse sensory and cultural experience, varying from person to person and place to place, is the ultimate foundation for our concepts, conjectures, and knowledge. “The study of the human mind,” he has written, “is fundamentally the study of place.” In other words, nurture over nature. “The headline news in telling our story,” he says, “is in telling the story of learning and change.”

It’s a wet and miserable day. Prinz is in a café on University Place, a brief thoroughfare running from Union to Washington Squares in Manhattan, near the home he shares with his wife, artist Rachel Bernstein. The café bustles with students milling about between classes at nearby NYU. After he orders tea the young barista with vibrant, entirely unnatural orange hair compliments Prinz’s hair—a vibrant, entirely unnatural blue, kind of a Booberry hue. When asked, Prinz says his hair is for fun. Says it’s because his wife won’t let him have a beard. But for a philosopher who works on the contingency of emotion and perception, it’s a whimsical jab at preconception too.

“I began really as a disciple of British empiricism,” Prinz says, espresso machine frothing in the background. His primary intellectual antecedent and inspiration is David Hume, a towering figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. For Prinz, one of Hume’s most persuasive arguments is that core human values are something we construct in society—“something that we need to invent as opposed to thinking of it as something that’s handed down by theological dictate,” he says.

Prinz never suggests that genetic and biological considerations should be absent, but cautions against overreliance on such explanations. Near the end of his least technical book, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind (W. W. Norton, 2012), he writes, “Every cultural trait is really a biocultural trait—every trait that we acquire through learning involves an interaction between biology and the environment.” But in chapters on human intelligence, language, gender, and more, Prinz makes the case that culture’s influence dwarfs that of biology.

Culture, history, and experience form the environment that, for Prinz, shapes what we become. He contends that those external factors determine everything about us—everything, down to such biological fundamentals as fear. “I think everything I do is an entry into the nature-nurture debate,” he says. “More specifically, I’m interested in nurture. I think human behavior is interesting precisely because it’s so plastic.”

He conceived Beyond Human Nature, in part, as a response to Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works (W. W. Norton, 1999), one of the more influential examples of what Prinz terms a “cultural syndrome which might be called biocentrism.” The biocentric view, he says, “is to say when we encounter human behavior our first line of explanation should be ‘it’s in the genes, it’s in our evolutionary history, it’s fixed in us,’ as opposed to a more culturally oriented view.”

The notion Prinz opposes has a lot of intellectual traction in the popular imagination. Books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Harper Collins, 1992) sell in the millions. Genetic explanations are applied to more and newer aspects of human behavior. In a New York Times column last year, “Are Our Political Beliefs Coded in Our DNA?,” Thomas Edsall explored genopolitics, an ascendant area of study trying to tease out biological underpinnings of our political beliefs, and the Atlantic published an online adaptation from Avi Tuschman’s touted book on similar questions, Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us (Prometheus Books, 2013). Prinz’s contrary position can provoke controversy.

“Jesse’s a smart guy,” Pinker wrote in an e-mail, “and his arguments for influences of culture are intelligent and have to be taken seriously, but I think his view of the ‘broader cultural syndrome’ is exactly backwards.”

Pinker, the Johnstone Family professor in Harvard’s psychology department, continued, “By far the dominant cultural syndrome is that children are blank slates and that culture and parenting inscribe it,” and he noted that concept’s own acceptance in the cultural mainstream. “You’ll read hundreds of articles on economic inequality in the Times, the New Yorker, and so on, and never will there be even a mention of the possibility that smarter, more ambitious, or more disciplined people might be more successful.” Contra Prinz, Pinker concluded, “I think it’s Jesse who’s defending the broad cultural syndrome.”

In response Prinz hits a more moderated note, saying, “I think the truth is there are two broad syndromes, and that is partially why we have a nature-nurture debate.” But genetic, biological, and evolutionary explanations of behavior attract enormous interest, and “many more books have been published by popular presses defending evolutionary psychology than defending cross-cultural psychology.”

The influence of “nurture” on a wide range of human behavior and pathology, Prinz believes, awaits empirical proof. “My bet is that, when it comes to violence, addiction, IQ, many psychiatric disorders, and values, we will find that culture has a significantly bigger impact,” he says. “But there are traits for which the relative contributions of nature and nurture are less well understood (such as personality), and much science is still needed to establish exactly how culture impacts behavior when it does.”

A survival emotion like fear, for example, has deep biological roots long proven to prompt the fight, flight, or freeze responses in humans and animals alike. But, Prinz points out, the cultural context influences how humans express it. In ancient Rome, where one of the cardinal virtues was heroism in the face of mortal danger, the embodiment of fear was quite different. For a Roman citizen the idea that you would flee or freeze, he says, is ludicrous. “We can see how an emotion that’s really deeply rooted in our biology could immediately give rise to a very different action.”

Prinz modeled his first three books, conceived as a trilogy, on Hume’s work. Furnishing the Mind: Concepts and Their Perceptual Basis (MIT Press, 2002) argued that all human concepts are grounded in the particularity of experience. Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion turned to emotions, asserting that they are formed through perception of bodily states triggered by cues in the world around us—literally feelings rather than thoughts or assessments. The final book in Prinz’s Hume trilogy, The Emotional Construction of Morals (Oxford University Press, 2007), argues that moral judgments are based on emotional responses that are in turn shaped by culture and can vary from culture to culture and from individual to individual. Prinz intended the book to remind “my conversation group”—analytic ethicists and cognitive science readers—“that history matters.”

Prinz jokes that these books were “plagiarism of Hume,” but each brought together disparate contemporary disciplines. “Few moral philosophers seek the foundation of their approach in neighbor disciplines,” wrote a reviewer of The Emotional Construction of Morals, and fewer still “do so in such a truly empiricist manner: drawing on the best available evidence provided by the social sciences.” Bringing together social psychology, brain imaging, anthropology, and, of course, philosophy, Prinz built a case for a kind of moral relativism, based on the claim that values stem from emotions and that emotions result from powerful cultural variables.

A prolific academic philosopher, Prinz publishes like a machine: five books, with one more in press and at least two more somewhere between gestation and contract, as well as more than 100 articles. He’s only 43. And he takes his ideas straight to the public at events such as the one at the Rubin, in writing for Psychology Today and other popular outlets, on public radio talk shows, and on forums such as the online Bloggingheads.tv. Earlier this year he appeared in a CBS Sunday Morning story on doodling, which he endorsed as an “attentional sweet spot.”

Public engagement has become a necessary, and natural, complement to his academic pursuits. “Once you start to think about us as socially shaped,” he says, “you start to look at social inequalities as having a cultural origin.” For him, that led to trying to identify the factors contributing to such inequities and how they might be changed. “And I think that that led to a realization that my own sort of political views, which had operated very independently of my scholarly views, were actually in complete alignment with my scholarship. And then with that realization, I came to feel that I should, and maybe other philosophers should, spend a lot more time trying to share philosophy with the world.”

The Graduate Center sits diagonally across from the Empire State Building, on the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. From the first decade of the 20th century until 1989, 365 Fifth Avenue served as the flagship location of the B. Altman department store chain. The stately building, a kind of neo-Italian Renaissance structure, looks over tourists as they make their way to the Empire State Building. The interior isn’t what it used to be; it’s now a rather disorienting warren of nearly identical corridors.

All of the action happens in the small offices throughout the building, most no larger than monks’ cells. Prinz’s cell clearly reflects his interests. There are books and computers, both a laptop and a desktop, but there’s also a brain in a jar. Not a real brain, but an anatomically correct plastic rendering. Behind his chair a four-foot-tall pencil and pen rest against the wall. A large portrait of Hume presides over the room, and the ceaseless murmur of 35th Street, five floors below, filters through the walls and window.

“Art was something I loved more than anything,” Prinz says about his decision to pursue philosophy. In high school his line was “philosophy is my blood, but art is the heart that pumps it.” Art suffused Prinz’s youth. His mother worked at a New York gallery, and she helped make prints with artists such as Andy Warhol and Jim Dine. Chuck Close wrote a high school letter of recommendation for Prinz. During the ’70s his mother cofounded Think Big!, a company that took its inspiration from Warhol’s pop art impulse. The company mass-produced large versions of everyday items and sold them as sculpture, including the massive pen and pencil in his office. Prinz’s father started his career as a rabbi deeply engaged in the civil rights struggle in Newark, but after the late-’60s rash of assassinations, he went to work for a commercial art firm.

Lately art has come to the fore again for Prinz. His next book, Works of Wonder: A Theory of Art (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), extends his thought on concepts, emotions, and morality to art and how we respond to it. In a way he sees the move from morality to art, in particular, as a logical next step, with morality best understood as an essentially aesthetic response to the world—groundwork he laid in The Emotional Construction of Morals. Building on Hume, that book identified moral judgments as emotional responses of approbation or disapprobation shaped by culture. In the realm of art, wonder is the emotion Prinz finds pivotal. In the wonder art provokes, he believes, the interaction “between mind and the world is brought into central focus.”

This is a major transition for him. Coming from the British empiricist tradition, one of his default presumptions was that there is an objective world that imposes itself on the human senses. His recent attention to wonder, and the link it provides between emotion and aesthetic appreciation, is changing that. “I now think of perception as projection,” he says. “Perception isn’t simply a passive act of picking up a ready-made world. Perception is an imposition. Perception is surgical.”

This is obvious when discussing beauty, less so when discussing morality. It is perhaps least intuitive when we talk about scientific categories—the subject of the book he plans to write after Works of Wonder. Scientific categories and taxonomies may be descriptive of a hard and fast reality, but they are at root human-constructed metaphors that help us comprehend the material world. And “once you see that everything is a projection of the human mind in that way, you basically recognize that the aesthetic is fundamental.”

Given Prinz’s belief that we construct our lives from experiences, we’re all artists, and the world’s the canvas. “If you’re looking for a foundational metaphor, a starting place in understanding the world, it shouldn’t be science, where science is understood as this objective pursuit of getting reality as it is,” Prinz says. “It should be art.”

Michael Washburn, AM’02, is the interim director of the Office of Public Programs at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He writes about books and culture for the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Globe, and other publications. His Twitter handle is @WhaleLines.