By Michael Washburn, AM’02, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Jason Smith

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.”
—Jesse Prinz, PhD'97

Editor’s note: This story is excerpted from the May/June 2014 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.

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.” 

Going Beyond Human Nature

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 email, “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.”