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Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior: Book Review

Are we pre-programmed by our genes? Do humans have innate behaviors? What exactly do we mean by "instinct?" When we bandy about such familiar terms as "instinct," "innate" and "inherited behaviors" are we saying anything meaningful, or are we merely using vague catchphrases that only give a false semblance of understanding? In his book, "Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior," Blumberg challenges the popular wisdom and simplistic notions of nativists and evolutionary psychologists that we are born with instinctive knowledge about the world. Blumberg develops his case against nativism in an incisive and cogent way,revealing how much of the research in the fields of developmental psychology, ethology and evolutionary psychology has been an imbroglio of false assumptions, naive explanations, illogic, and high sounding language, much of it lacking substance. Drawing on eye opening research in animal and human behavior, Blumberg exposes the failings of the nativists and evolutionary psychologists in their search for innate behaviors and neural modules. Blumberg takes us beyond the trappings of language to the intriguing complexity of behavior development and non-genetic modes of inheritance. He shows the falsity of simplistic causal notions such as genes being "programmed for" or "controlling" behavior. He rightly recognizes the wall of opposition he is up against, since the nativist view is a popular sell--we are enamored by easily digested explanations of how our genes determine who we are, our traits, our ability to reason, and our use of language. Blumberg does not deny that natural selection can impact on our genes. but what he demonstrates is that the processes are more involved and bidirectional than the naive conception of organisms as having genes "for" complex behaviors like, for example, a sharp memory or being a good typist. As Blumberg clearly states:

inheritance does not necessarily implicate genes, and it certainly does not imply genetic determination (unless all one means by this is that genes are somehow involved, which is trivially true of every behavioral trait).

I am sure Blumberg's ideas will fly over the heads of most nativists emotionally attached to their ideas, but his call for more stringent scientific research and analysis, and his invitation to a deeper appreciation of the complexity of the intersecting events between genes and behavior will be of interest to those who value clear thinking and good science. Every student in psychology and biology, indeed in any discipline, could benefit from this book, for it reveals how easily we can be mesmerized by ideas.

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