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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 531-533 ( 28 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/quartz.html

Book Review

Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are 
by Steven R. Quartz and Terrence J. Sejnowski 
(2002). HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-688-16218-5

Reviewed by Sue McHale, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK.

This is an ambitious book, which attempts to avoid the restraints of discipline and scientific niches to examine human behaviour by making connections across discipline boundaries. Presenting a ‘science of the soul’, which these authors christen ‘cultural biology’. I recall, early in my career, arguing with a distinguished cognitive psychology professor that the most interesting discoveries in the science of the mind would be made at the edge of boundaries – the one I was arguing for at the time was biology and psychology. He did not agree. Quartz & Sejnowski’s thesis relating to ‘cultural biology’ should inform him and others that the riches accruing from this approach are greater than I dreamed of, and the boundaries more overlapping.

The beginning of the twenty-first century is a timely point to review our knowledge of the brain, the final frontier. The author’s analogy is one of many twentieth century cultural images - from Star Trek to Starbucks - which illustrate the central tenet of the book. This tenet is: that the unfolding of the human genome can not fully elaborate on human behaviour because we don’t live in a social vacuum. The development of brain and behaviour depends crucially on interactions with human culture. This interaction is not simply one of a balance between nature and nurture but a rich and complex synergy. The range of ideas relating to brain structure, neurotransmission and brain development are well formulated and cogently argued in a highly readable form – and the analogies help. You can’t help feeling that the authors had a lot of fun writing the book.

The opening chapters set the scene for a ‘science of the soul’ and act in a manner similar to a neural net, raising the reader’s consciousness to relevant human experience. Further chapters explore the ideas that link brain development and cultural influences, development of structure, function and emotions, culminating in an understanding of who we are. The synthesis they weave together draws on diverse fields from computational modelling through brain imaging, cognitive psychology, social psychology to evolutionary biology. Essentially their thesis is a plea for a new behaviourism, one with the black box fleshed out. In plotting their course through the various facets of human experience the book contains a rich and varied diet that includes an interesting and unlikely discussion on attachment theory that centres on the role of altruism, pets and healthy old age. The final chapters of the book become much darker. Quartz and Sejnowski make valiant attempts to critically evaluate the global culture the US has thrust on the world, but it is far too comfortable from their side of the fence to do much more than a spot of navel gazing. Despite this, there are good discussions on complex human capacities such as intelligence, aggression and happiness. These range from the factors that lead humans to commit acts of aggression to how to maintain good cognitive functioning well into old age. The final chapter on happiness contains an excellent discussion on the desocialising aspects of TV, the Internet and the role of globalisation in the pursuit of unhappiness.

Liars Lovers and Heroes provides a wealth of ideas and some interesting perspectives on fundamental human experiences but it left me immensely dissatisfied. To use one of their own analogies – the book was like drinking coffee out of a paper cup. When I look closely at Chapter 5, which deals with my own area of research examining the relationship between dopamine and higher cognitive functioning, I find the focus of research presented is US biased with little mention of the excellent work being conducted in Europe. So - no real mention of the work being done by Frith to integrate disordered thought in schizophrenia within a theoretical framework, which incorporates neural imaging, cognitive psychology and behaviourism. Trevor Robbins and his colleagues in Cambridge get a passing nod for their work relating to dopamine function. But no real discussion of their attempts to integrate cognition and biology by incorporating Norman and Shallice’s model of the Supervisory Attentional System (SAS) into theoretical models of schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. Coupled with novel and lateral approaches to model the role of stress and social factors on the subsequent development of brain dopamine systems. Quartz and Sejnowski would and should approve of these approaches.

The problem with Liars Lovers and Heroes is that these authors find themselves in the United States, and in California to boot - one of the richest few thousand square miles in the world. Their cultural perspective on the way the world is shaped is not mine. In some ways it is not surprising that the authors should be proponents of what they are expounding. Their scientific views are shaped and moulded by the culture they find themselves in, and that is US culture. There is little evidence in the book of examining alternative viewpoints to the current US driven hegemony. Their thesis is, at heart, distinctly European, strongly grounded in Aristotle’s notions of eudaimonia taken in its broadest definition as the pursuit of happiness rooted in social engagement and civic functioning. Somehow this has been transmuted in American culture into the ‘pursuit of happiness’. The authors realise this. Yet human experience has always consisted of a tension between rationalism and faith. Religious experience or self-transcendence is fundamental to almost all cultures. Quartz & Sejnowski sidestep explanations of religiosity by subsuming them under Maslow’s theories relating to self-actualisation. This is avoiding the issue. The Islamic philosopher, Ibn-Rushd, writing in twelfth century Spain combined Aristotelianism and religion. It should be noted that during that period Jewish, Islamic and Christian cultures flourished alongside each other – at least in Spain. Any biological understanding of human experience that professes to incorporate culture must incorporate diverse philosophical perspectives from neoplatonic ideas of the union of thought and feeling to existentialism. For example, critical social psychology in the UK owes much to the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein and incorporates a ‘turn to language’ as outlined in Potter and Wetherell’s book Discourse and Social Psychology. Brain studies relating to language should be able to encompass a social constructionist perspective.

In outlining ‘cultural biology’, the authors have provided good definitions of biology that draw on several biological perspectives. The same cannot be said for the cultural component of their theory. This becomes apparent in attempts to provide explanations for attacks on the World Trade Centre and Washington in September 2001, using the construct of the US focussed ‘cultural biology’ they have argued for all along. The explanations appear somewhat simplistic and could equally be applied to exponents of US foreign policy. Religion, politics and culture act synergistically to motivate human experience in many ways. If ‘cultural biology’ is to provide a useful framework for understanding how we become who we are then we need a better definition of culture, and the ways in which culture motivates behaviour, for the theory to be useful.

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© Sue McHale.


McHale, S. L. (2002). Review of Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are by Steven R. Quartz and Terrence J. Sejnowski. Human Nature Review. 2: 531-533.

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