Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Chimp off the Old Block

A perennial debate in the social sciences is the one between naturists and nurturists. At the extremes of either group you find determinists, whether cultural (nurture is everything) or biological (nature is everything). In truth, few people have all ten toes in one camp or the other; for most, the argument is over how many digits to place in each. The mostly-nurturists argue that the human mind predominately is a blank slate that can be acculturated in almost any imaginable way; the mostly-naturists, many of them now calling themselves evolutionary psychologists, argue that hard-wired predispositions acquired during the course of our species’ evolution are at the bottom of human behavior. For more than half a century the mostly-nurturists have dominated academia; the mostly-naturists never went away entirely, however, and in the past decade they have come back forcefully, especially in the published literature.

In academic disputes, as in political ones, there is a tendency for people to pick a side and dig in, selectively accepting or rejecting information depending on whether or not it reinforces our own views. Yet, it is possible, though difficult, to resist the temptation to groupthink, and to evaluate evidence more openly. In her books I, Mammal and Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Dr. Loretta Breuning manages to do that.

Breuning makes wide allowance for nurture – and, more importantly, for deliberate modification of one’s own behavior – but within the context of an inherited mammalian brain. She notes in I, Mammal that humans share with other mammals any number of hard-wired needs, drives, preferences, and fears, to the extent that “the field notes of a primatologist are eerily similar to the lyrics of a country western song.” Yet, that biological framework allows for a huge range of learned individual behaviors. In I, Mammal and in Meet Your Happy Chemicals she identifies the neurochemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins) which motivate and reward us – or just keep us going – and the all-purpose stress chemical cortisol. She even informs us how to use them to lay down new neural patterns (and thereby acquire new, and presumably better, habits) over 45 days. She emphasizes that it is not physically possible to feel happy all the time, and that sometimes we are better off feeling bad for a while rather than trying to “correct” the feeling with interventions that may work in the short term (another snort of cocaine, as an extreme example) but which are ultimately self-destructive.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author last week – and walking away with two autographed books. Dr. Breuning’s blogs appear regularly in Psychology Today (, where I frequently leave online comments. Last weekend she was at Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick, NJ, doing some research on Robert Ardrey (best known for The Territorial Imperative). She e-mailed that she had some questions about what motivates people to belong to a third political party (as I had made it known I do), so we met for lunch at The Frog and Peach (yes, as in the classic Dudley Moore/Peter Cook skit). I hope my remarks on the subject were in some way helpful, but, either way – and whether by nature or by nurture – the company and the lunch were enjoyable.

I, Mammal and Meet Your Happy Chemicals are accessible and entertaining treatments of their subject matter. They and Breuning’s earlier book Greaseless: How to Thrive without Bribes in Developing Countries are available on Amazon.


  1. Love the picture, and thanks for the mini review. Sounds interesting.

    1. Fun stuff. Try the link to her Psychology Today blog for first-hand samples.