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on 16 October 2002
Robert Winston's "Human Instinct" provides an in depth overview of a vast area of knowledge - survival, sexual drive, competition, aggression, altruism and our need for something more, perhaps the divine. Right from the start of this book I was impressed. Unlike other "popular science" books on similar subjects, such as Dawkins' "Selfish Gene", Winston never gives us so much detail or specialisation that we lose sight of the topic's wider relevance and interest. He assumes no scientific foreknowledge, but without being oversimplistic. The book offers a gestalt of multiple fields, ranging from the development of the brain and our, often unconscious, methods of choosing a mate, to a well thought out reconciliation of religion and science. While presenting a personal take on the latter, the book as a whole answers essential questions factually, and in an engaging manner. As ever, Winston's distinctive style means that we can never become bored. He draws on his own and common experiences to make the book's content accessible. While we may not initially see how Marc Quinn's sculpture, Indiana Jones and lonely hearts columns have a place in a book of this kind, they offer assurance that our ancient instincts are at the root of more of our twentieth-century lives than we realise. The least scientific reader will be surprised to find this a real page-turner (and I should know, as a history student whose scientific knowledge is limited to his GCSEs). I particularly like Winstons' knack of mentioning a subject we may well know about, like the "Pavlov's dog" phenomenon, but then offering a much fuller picture than that we are familiar with. He explains the individual stages of the experiment and lets us realise for ourselves what its implications were. Other experiments add to the good humoured tone of the book; infants and toddlers were left unwashed and wore the same t-shirt for days. This demonstrated how babies have developed smells that manipulate their fathers into standing by their offspring. We are also offered a graph of Winston's testosterone levels during the England-Argentina World cup match (his testosterone level doubled when Beckham scored his famous penalty!) Winston doesn't state the facts, he explains how the discoveries were made. We see how man has gradually built up a bigger picture and can share some of the excitement felt by those making the finds. This is a really unmissable book for everyone who wishes to complete the inevitable gaps in their everyday knowledge. You'll be shocked by how much of it you refer back to in conversation!
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on 4 March 2017
Excellent book
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on 10 October 2014
Okay
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on 3 January 2005
Rarely do you pick up a book which answers so many questions that were at the front of your brain, but never actually articulated. From why men are bigger than women, to the reason for the size of our willies and onto the deeper aspects of emotion, thinking and behaviour this is a stunningly thought-provoking book written in a warm, engaging, humerous and enlightening style. At times I adored Winston's analysis, only to rage at a later assertion. Fantastic! The conversations and arguments I have had on the back of this book make it an absolutely outstanding purchase. And from my own perspective, I now never tire of telling people that if you are not an evolutionary psychologist, then you are not a psychologist at all. Buy it - it's magnificent!
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This is another clear and entertaining book from Robert Winston. Sadly it has many anecdotes and information from his other book 'The Human Mind' in addition to much information from Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene' (which I have to say is a better starting point if this kind of thing interests you). Saying that, if you haven't read either of those books, this will both inform and entertain you. It has Winstons usual conversational style of writing and many insightful moments as you progress through the book. Overall not a bad introduction to popular science or human instinct, but nothing original for those who've read more on this topic.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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on 20 March 2008
Robert Wintson explores the characteristics of human instincts. The human species' inquisitive, altruistic, moral, violent, sexual and spiritual nature are all examined. Are these properties nature or nurture? He is usually examing the former and does this by presenting various scientific hypotheisis and theories which usually involve experimental observations of our cousins in the animal kingdom and are based on our genetic similarities we have with them.

Along the way, we are bombarded with interesting and thought provoking facts. Here's just a sample:

1. Chimpanzees' fear of snakes only manifests if they see other chimps' fear of snakes. However if chimps are tricked so that they think other chimps are afraid of flowers, they don't pick this fear. This suggests chimps have some pre-programmed fear specifically of snakes that has to be activated.
2. Double blind experiments show that men can subconciously detect the odour of baby sweat and have a preference for it.
3. Studies on the MHC gene on mice and humans (the Hutterian Brethen were examined) indicate that mice and people choose partners if they have a different immune system.
4. Most bird species pair up in monagonmous relationships for breeding. Most mammals do not. Only about 5% of mammals do. This includes Gibbons.
5. Galton, Darwin's cousin, was founder of the eugenics movement in 1883.
6. There was pyschiatric hypotheisis that suggested some people had a genetic diposition to be violent (Goodwin).
7. The black window female eats the male during mating.
8. Turner's Syndrome afflicts 1 in 2,000 girls. They are missing an X chromosone and can have masculine characteristics.
9. Vampire bats regurgitate some of their own meals for other bats should they need it - but only if the recognise the bats as friends. This is known as delayed altruism.
10. Zeebras and Giraffes team up and help each other from predators. This is known as cross species altruism. Some ants and aphids also exhibit this.
11. There is a study (Dunbar) which suggests a relationship between the size of neo-cortex in a species and its natural group size. The estimated natural group size of humans is to be 125-150.

And that's just a sample! This book goes into detail on all the above and also has quite a large number of other interesting scientific findings.

Winston doesn't really go too much into detail with any philosophy. He does explain Hobbes' 'State of Nature' theory proposed in Levithian very well and he does reference Nietzches' "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" and Voltaire's "if God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent him" - but it's mainly Scientific findings he uses in this book.

Closer to the domain of pyschology - Winston gives an excellant explaination of Maynard Smith's game theory analysis. He also goes through classic pyschology problems such as the prisoners dilema, the ultimatum game and Wason selection task - which suggest we have an innate mechanism to detect cheaters. All well explained and interesting.

The style of writing is quite objective and matter of fact. He doesn't really go too much into his own opinions except when talking about his views on religion. It's mainly a book that is a bombardment of interesting facts and information all of which is quite readable.
There's no overall hypotheisis in this book which the author is trying to argue more just a summary of what Science has produced on matters pertaining to human instincts.

It's an interesting read. It's not complicated. You wouldn't need to be an expert to read this and if you have any sort of inquisitive nature, I'm sure you'll like it. If you are coming more from an academic angle you might some of it too simple.
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on 25 April 2003
This was certainly a fascinating book that provides great food for thought. Winston writes clearly and entertainingly on a number of issues that can only be immediately relevant to most readers. He does not assume scientific knowledge, and while this makes the book extremely accessible to the general reader, others may find it a little basic.
Each chapter covers one aspect of human behaviour and attempts to explain or link this behaviour with the evolutionary process. Winston discusses various theories and their pros and cons and presents a balanced overview of current thought.
I feel that the last chapter, however, was rather disorientating for the reader. I was expecting a similarly balanced and well argued discussion of moral and religious behaviour in human society. Instead of this I found a rather philosopical and non-scientific discussion which followed completely out of character with the rest of the book. While such discussions are of course always important, I did not feel that this was the appropriate platform and was that the evolutionary and genetic arguments for the successes and failures of organised religion were overlooked.
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on 13 February 2010
Professor Robert Winston is one of those inspiring individuals who shed light and understanding on life's complexities with a relaxed and easy style.

Winston takes us back to the evolution of our basic survival strategies on the savannah, presenting fascinating insights into the instincts that set us apart as the most successful mammal and explaining how those instincts are still just below the surface of modern behaviour.

Winston helps to rationalise everyday feelings, such as fear and stress, and links not so everyday occurrences, such as murder, back to survival instincts on the savannah that evolved over millions of years.

This book is an excellent read, scientifically accessible and full of objective commentary ; that is with the exception of the last chapter, which unfortunately strays from objectivity into religious commentary. The Author's personal commentary on his Jewish beliefs, while interesting, just doesn't fit with the objectivity that comprises the rest of the book.

Nevertheless, this book is well worth reading at least once, if not twice, as it contains a depth of understanding that deserves to be savoured and broadly a balanced perspective that will stand the test of time.
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on 14 December 2006
This is a fantastic book. The idea that humans adapted to life on the Savannah over a period of millions of years and will therefore be ill-equiped to handle city life is eloquently and simply put. I thorougly enjoyed this book and could not put it down. Together with 'The Naked Ape' I would go so far as to say we have a technical manual for human behaviour. Required reading for any inquisitive homo sapien.
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on 4 March 2011
Winston gives an account of the principles of, and some of the evidence for, evolutionary theories of basic emotions, mating choices, sexual selection, parent-child relationships, kin selection, aggression, altruism, and cheat detection.

He finishes with his own thoughts on spirituality, which to my mind was the weakest chapter.

Overall a perfectly readable introduction and overview of this compelling area of psychological research and thought.
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