The best books on nature versus nurture

5 authors have picked their favorite books about nature versus nurture and why they recommend each book.

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The Blank Slate

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

First published 20 years ago by one of our best science writers, this book shattered the blank slate myth which dominated thinking at that time. The Blank Slate is a landmark against which I hope you will see how far we have come in recognizing the importance of genetics in psychology. The 2002 edition is still an excellent read but I recommend the updated 2016 edition with its new Afterword.


Who am I?

During my undergraduate studies in psychology, we were never exposed to genetics. In 1970, I began graduate training in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, which was one of the few universities that had a course about genetics in psychology. The course floored me, and I knew right away that I wanted to study genetic influences in psychology. At that time, psychology was generally hostile to the notion of genetic influence. Now, 50 years later, most psychologists recognize the importance of genetics. The DNA revolution is changing everything by making it possible to predict psychological traits using DNA alone. 


I wrote...

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are

By Robert Plomin,

Book cover of Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are

What is my book about?

What made you the way you are? – your personality, your mental health, and your cognitive abilities. Professor Plomin’s book, Blueprint, is the culmination of his 45 years of research trying to understand the genetic and environmental influences that make us different, our nature and nurture. He is one of the world's top behavioral geneticists who offers a unique, insider's view of the exciting synergies that came from combining genetics and psychology.

In Blueprint, he concludes that inherited DNA differences are the major systematic force, the blueprint, that makes us who we are as individuals. The power to read our DNA blueprint will transform science, society, and how we understand ourselves.

From Neurons to Neighborhoods

By Deborah A. Phillips (editor), Jack P. Shonkoff (editor),

Book cover of From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development

What are the biggest impacts on a child’s development? This book takes a close look at both nature (genetics) and nurture (the environment). I find that this book is an informative review of what we have learned about early brain development. The influence of experience and culture on the developing child is looked at through the development of the brain. After reading this book, you will have a renewed understanding of just how critical the early years of child development are. It is easy to see that this is a time of extraordinary growth and change and your role as a parent or educator takes significant meaning and implications.

Who am I?

My passion has always been caring for and educating young children. I spent over 20 years in the classroom as a child care professional and much of that time was with toddlers. I discovered that the stereotype of the terrible twos was truly misguided. I chose books that will shed new light on why toddlers behave the way that they do. These books will show the reader what an important time this is in a child’s growth and learning. I believe that these books will help convince you that toddlers are not terrible; they are terrific!


I wrote...

365 Toddler Activities That Inspire Creativity: Games, Projects, and Pastimes That Encourage a Child's Learning and Imagination

By Joni Levine,

Book cover of 365 Toddler Activities That Inspire Creativity: Games, Projects, and Pastimes That Encourage a Child's Learning and Imagination

What is my book about?

With 365 Toddler Activities That Inspire Creativity, you can spark your child's creativity and maximize his or her potential every day of the year. Written by an experienced child-care expert, you will find hundreds of entertaining toddler activities, songs, games, and art projects that stimulate cognitive development and encourage inventiveness. You and your toddler will enjoy playtime with age-appropriate activities like: magic sun prints, treasure chest, sprout in a bag rainbow toast, fishing in the tub, all-about-me book, and so many more!

Featuring everything from outdoor activities to rainy-day fun, 365 Toddler Activities That Inspire Creativity provides hours of creative toddler play!

They F*** You Up

By Oliver James,

Book cover of They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life

It is easy especially when young to assume that families are somewhat neutral or generally nurturing. We make our own way through the world and our background is only of some relevance. Oliver James shows how the environment in which we emerge affects every aspect of how we live. But while this is both a self-help book and psychological treatise, James also provides amazing case studies from the celebrity world, including a detailed and uncompromising analysis of how the royal family ended up being so cold-hearted.


Who am I?

“The truth is exactly the opposite of the words” - I just noticed on my door, I still have an old sticker that bears those words.  I guess, I’ve tended to find that common-sense assumptions about major things – politics, religion, war, love, good and evil, relationships, and so on – are simply not accurate and more the results of lazy thinking, ignorance, politics, or ideology. I did a PhD in propaganda, which led me to an eclectic freelance career investigating conspiracy theories, making documentaries, writing novels, doing stand-up comedy, and suchlike – so I have a background in engaging big and crazy ideas.


I wrote...

Union Jackboot: What Your Media and Professors Don't Tell You about British Foreign Policy

By Tj Coles, Matthew Alford,

Book cover of Union Jackboot: What Your Media and Professors Don't Tell You about British Foreign Policy

What is my book about?

In this controversial new book, Matt Alford (Reel Power) asks T.J. Coles (Britain’s Secret Wars) a series of penetrating questions about Britain’s global role in the age of Russia, Brexit, and Trump. How much influence does Britain really have in the world? Why do we sell arms to everyone under the sun? Why are we sponsoring genocide in Burma?

Coles drops one truth bomb after another on a range of topics, including ‘free trade’, modern slavery, the benefits system, Jeremy Corbyn, anti-Semitism, and the global reptilian conspiracy (which Coles audaciously denies!). Backed-up with over 200 scholarly footnotes, Coles applies razor-sharp logic to some of the most pressing questions of our times: how to spot propaganda, how to dissect it, and where to find truth in the era of fake news and top-down disinformation.

Defenders of the Truth

By Ullica. Segerstrale,

Book cover of Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

The theory of evolution touches us in a way other scientific theories do not. It deals directly with who we are and where we come from. But how exactly? The Selfish Gene came out only a year after E.O. Wilson’s Socbiology and both books helped ignite an ill-tempered debate over this question. Ullica Segerstråle's book is a comprehensive history of this particularly intense disagreement and is full of personal anecdotes and insights from all the major players. 


Who am I?

I’m an evolutionary biologist and a Wenner-Gren Fellow at the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University, Sweden. My research focuses on the biology of genetic conflicts and what they can tell us about the evolution of conflict and cooperation more generally. I develop population genetic theory and perform comparative analyses to ask how and why such conflicts occur and how they fit into models of social evolution. I also work on the foundations of the so-called gene’s-eye view of evolution, also known as selfish gene theory. I studied at Edinburgh and Toronto and was a postdoc at Cornell and Harvard.


I wrote...

The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

By J. Arvid Ågren,

Book cover of The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

What is my book about?

Few phrases in biology have caught the imagination of professionals and laypeople alike the way Richard Dawkins's ‘selfish gene’ has done, and it changed how both groups thought about evolution. The debate over the value of taking a gene’s-eye view of evolution has raged for over half a century and it pitted 20th-century Darwinian heavyweights such as John Maynard Smith and W.D. Hamilton against Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould in the pages of Nature as well as those of The New York Review of Books. My book is about that debate and I explore the origins and developments of the gene's-eye view: what it is, where it came from, how it changed, and why it still evokes such strong emotions. 

The Nurture Assumption

By Judith Rich Harris,

Book cover of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

In recent years, my work is increasingly concerned with the interface between child development and evolutionary biology. The Nurture Assumption is a challenging book that’s attracted praise and vilification in equal measure. Judith Rich Harris argues that ‘parenting’ is less influential in children’s emotional and social development than is currently assumed and I think that’s well worth thinking about. The love and care of adults are obviously of immense importance, but children bring their own strengths into the world, not least their inborn drive to learn through play.


Who am I?

As a primary head teacher, then literacy consultant, I wrote many books about education but at the age of 50 I changed tack. A meeting with a researcher who’d discovered an alarming decline in young children’s listening skills led to eight years’ research on the effects of modern lifestyles on children’s development. It involved many interviews with experts on diet, sleep, play, language, family life, childcare, education, screen-time, marketing influences and parenting styles – and a great deal of reading. By the time Toxic Childhood was first published in 2006 I’d realised that, in a 21st century culture, society should be paying far more attention to child development, especially in the early years. I hope to go on spreading that message until my dying breath.


I wrote...

Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It

By Sue Palmer,

Book cover of Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It

What is my book about?

What’s happening to childhood today? Why does one child in five now suffer from mental health problems or behavioural and learning difficulties? How has the rapid rise of digital media impacted children’s lives?

In this ground-breaking book, Sue Palmer presents up-to-date research on the toxic cocktail of factors affecting today’s children. She also provides sound advice on ‘detoxifying childhood’, including the vital importance of real food and real play for children’s development, why sleep is essential to learning – and how to ensure children get enough of it, childcare and education – what works best for different age groups, protecting children from aggressive marketing and excesses of celebrity culture, and the dangers (and benefits) of growing up in an unpredictable yet unavoidable digital age.

Cognitive Gadgets

By Cecilia Heyes,

Book cover of Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking

While ‘nature vs nurture’ is an unhelpful dichotomy, most psychologists still assume that our species’ unique cognitive abilities, from language to mindreading, are innate products of genetic evolution. Here Celia Heyes provides a counter-argument to this assumption, arguing instead that human cognition is often the product of cultural evolution. Something like language is therefore not an ‘instinct’ but rather a ‘cognitive gadget,’ akin to a technological gadget, transmitted culturally rather than genetically. This is one of those books that makes you rethink your assumptions, and whether you agree or not with its claims, you come out smarter at the end.


Who am I?

I am Professor of Cultural Evolution at the University of Exeter, UK. In my research I use lab experiments and theoretical models to understand how human culture evolves. Since my undergraduate psychology degree I have always been attracted to big ideas about how evolution has shaped human minds. Yet evolutionary psychology, with its stone age brains frozen in time, seemed unsatisfying. This led me to cultural evolution, with its grand idea that the same evolutionary process underlies both genetic and cultural change. Humans are not just products of countless generations of genetic evolution, but also of cultural evolution. This view of humanity is grander than any other I’ve come across.


I wrote...

Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

By Alex Mesoudi,

Book cover of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

What is my book about?

Charles Darwin revolutionised biology by showing how his theory of evolution can account for the stunning diversity and complexity of life on earth. Over the last few decades, a growing group of scholars have argued that the same theory of evolution can also explain the stunning diversity and complexity of human culture, encompassing languages, religion, technology, economic systems, art, literature, science, and more. Cultural Evolution provides an accessible overview of this burgeoning field, explaining what it means to say that culture ‘evolves,’ and how evolutionary tools developed in biology can illuminate problems that have long bedevilled the social sciences and humanities. It also argues that just as evolutionary theory united and synthesised the biological sciences, it can do the same for the social sciences.

Not in Our Genes

By Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, Leon J. Kamin

Book cover of Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature

A Marxist critique of evolutionary biology, authored by a geneticist, a neuroscientist, and a psychologist.  From a perspective about as far from the viewpoint of creationists as it is possible to get, these three scholars argue that the philosophical assumptions, methodology, and social organization of modern biology add up to a politically conservative conspiracy reinforcing capitalism, racism, classism, and misogyny. Although their attack is general, it is most specifically aimed at intelligence testing, which, they argue, is shoddy science in the service of racist ideology.


Who am I?

While growing up as a budding intellectual, two of my passions were social science (in other words, politics), and natural science, particularly biology. For decades, I thought of those as two unconnected fields of knowledge. I studied politics in my professional capacity as a government professor, and I read nature and wildlife studies as a hobby. Then, one day in 2000, I picked up a copy of a book by Stephen J. Gould, a Harvard paleontologist. It struck me that in every sentence he was combining science and politics. It was an on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. Since then, I have studied and written about the politics of evolution.  


I wrote...

Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

By David F. Prindle,

Book cover of Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

What is my book about?

Because of his lucid, accessible writing style, until his death in 2002 Gould was probably the best-known scientist in the country. But he was not only a scientist; he was a passionately committed Leftist activist who infused his scientific writings with political advocacy. I examine and evaluate the way Gould fought the "evolution wars" within the scientific community, while at the same time crusading against the creationist resurgence in American politics. I examine the way his magnetic writing style gave energy to his views, and how he managed to suggest that good science was good politics, and vice-versa. I also evaluate the evidence underlying his scientific claims, in order to decide whether his criticisms of orthodox Darwinism were convincing.

The Whisperings Within

By David P. Barash,

Book cover of The Whisperings Within

In an easy, breezy style, Barash introduces you to sociobiology, the most mind-blowing perceptual lens since Charles Darwin’s 1857 introduction of evolution. Like Hawkins and Thomas, Barash reveals everything from the operation of genes to the culture of the Inuit in the impossible wastes of the arctic.  And he shows you, once again, how the findings of widely separated sciences fit into a spectacular big picture.


Who am I?

I’ve been called the Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and Freud of the 21st century by Britain’s Channel 4 TV and the next Stephen Hawking by Gear Magazine. My passion is flying over all the sciences, all of history, and a chunk of the arts and pulling it all together in a new big picture. I’ve called this approach Omnology, the aspiration to omniscience. Sounds crazy, right? But I’ve published scientific papers or lectured at scholarly conferences in twelve different scientific disciplines, from quantum physics and cosmology to evolutionary biology, psychology, information science, and astronautics. And I’ve been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and many more.


I wrote...

The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

By Howard Bloom,

Book cover of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

What is my book about?

The Lucifer Principle is a revolutionary work that explores the intricate relationships among genetics, human behavior, and culture to put forth the thesis that “evil” is a by-product of nature’s strategies for creation and that it is woven into our most basic biological fabric.

Sociobiology

By Edward O. Wilson,

Book cover of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

This is the book with which Wilson introduced sociobiology in 1975. It is encyclopedic and sometimes academic. But the big picture Wilson presents and the stories he turns to pixels in that panorama are astonishing. Wilson helps you see the connections between the social bonds that join you with the people you love and the way all of life works. And it’s not the tired old view of animals and humans in isolation.


Who am I?

I’ve been called the Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and Freud of the 21st century by Britain’s Channel 4 TV and the next Stephen Hawking by Gear Magazine. My passion is flying over all the sciences, all of history, and a chunk of the arts and pulling it all together in a new big picture. I’ve called this approach Omnology, the aspiration to omniscience. Sounds crazy, right? But I’ve published scientific papers or lectured at scholarly conferences in twelve different scientific disciplines, from quantum physics and cosmology to evolutionary biology, psychology, information science, and astronautics. And I’ve been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and many more.


I wrote...

The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

By Howard Bloom,

Book cover of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

What is my book about?

The Lucifer Principle is a revolutionary work that explores the intricate relationships among genetics, human behavior, and culture to put forth the thesis that “evil” is a by-product of nature’s strategies for creation and that it is woven into our most basic biological fabric.

Cycles of Contingency

By Susan Oyama (editor), Paul E. Griffiths (editor), Russell D. Gray (editor)

Book cover of Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution

If you are interested in the interplay of development and evolution, this collection of essays will introduce you to all the key concepts by many of the key thinkers. This is a collection for serious readers who want to appreciate the complexity underlying such concepts as instinct and heredity. Many of these essays are the classics in the field. My favorite? Daniel Lehrman’s takedown of Konrad Lorenz from 1953. That one essay alone, brimming with the passion of a young iconoclast, is worth the price of admission.


Who am I?

Even though I am a scientist who has written over 130 scientific articles, I have a longstanding passion for scientific books that are written for non-scientists. I love books about science, no matter how distant they are from my area of expertise. To me, the best science books convey the excitement of science and scientific thinking in an accessible manner, but without pandering or dumbing things down. My favorite books tackle big ideas and respect the reader’s intelligence. My choices here reflect my core interests in biology, evolution, and behavior—and the aesthetics of science, too. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.


I wrote...

Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution

By Mark S. Blumberg,

Book cover of Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution

What is my book about?

In most respects, Abigail and Brittany Hensel are normal American twins. Born and raised in a small town, they enjoy a close relationship, though each has her own tastes and personality. But the Hensels also share a body. Their two heads sit side-by-side on a single torso, with two arms and two legs. Abigail and Brittany, and others like them, open an extraordinary window onto human—and animal—development and evolution. 

In Freaks of Nature, Blumberg turns a scientist's eye on the oddities of nature, showing how a subject once relegated to the sideshow can help explain some of the deepest complexities of biology. What we need to understand, Blumberg argues, is that anomalies are the natural products of development, and it is through developmental mechanisms that evolution works. 

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