Cover: Killer Instinct: The Popular Science of Human Nature in Twentieth-Century America, from Harvard University PressCover: Killer Instinct in HARDCOVER

Killer Instinct

The Popular Science of Human Nature in Twentieth-Century America

Product Details

HARDCOVER

$45.00 • £39.95 • €40.95

ISBN 9780674983472

Publication Date: 10/26/2021

Text

368 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

20 photos

World

Add to Cart

Educators: Request an Exam Copy (Learn more)

Media Requests:

Related Subjects

A historian of science examines key public debates about the fundamental nature of humans to ask why a polarized discourse about nature versus nurture became so entrenched in the popular sciences of animal and human behavior.

Are humans innately aggressive or innately cooperative? In the 1960s, bestselling books enthralled American readers with the startling claim that humans possessed an instinct for violence inherited from primate ancestors. Critics responded that humans were inherently loving and altruistic. The resulting debate—fiercely contested and highly public—left a lasting impression on the popular science discourse surrounding what it means to be human.

Killer Instinct traces how Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and their followers drew on the sciences of animal behavior and paleoanthropology to argue that the aggression instinct drove human evolutionary progress. Their message, spread throughout popular media, brought pointed ripostes. Led by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, opponents presented a rival vision of human nature, equally based in biological evidence, that humans possessed inborn drives toward love and cooperation. Over the course of the debate, however, each side accused the other of holding an extremist position: that behavior was either determined entirely by genes or shaped solely by environment. Nadine Weidman shows that what started as a dispute over the innate tendencies of animals and humans transformed into an opposition between nature and nurture.

This polarized formulation proved powerful. When E. O. Wilson introduced his sociobiology in 1975, he tried to rise above the oppositional terms of the aggression debate. But the controversy over Wilson’s work—led by critics like the feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard—was ultimately absorbed back into the nature-versus-nurture formulation. Killer Instinct explores what happens and what gets lost when polemics dominate discussions of the science of human nature.

Recent News

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. A statement from HUP »

From Our Blog

Composite photograph showing (top) entrance to the Prudential Center in Boston and (bottom) an internal construction partition/wall printed with the words 'Opening Day 2023' and other decorative text

A New Chapter for Harvard Book Store

Starting in the summer of 2023, for the first time in almost thirty years, Harvard Book Store will have two locations: the flagship store in Harvard Square, and a large new store in the Prudential Center in Boston. For University Press Week we wanted to show some bookseller love, so we reached out to Rachel Cass, General Manager of the Harvard Book Store, to see what’s planned for their exciting new location