College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3
Reviews Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Steven Pinker
New York: Viking, 2002

Reviewed by Howard Doughty

I hesitate to stand athwart a Pinker in full spate. The author is, like Louis B. Mayer, Joni Mitchell and Jim Carrey, a genius better appreciated and better rewarded in the US than in his native land. Originally from Montréal, he is well-dressed, witty and very, very handsome. He is also a "charismatic lecturer." Time magazine has called him an "evolutionary pop star." The London Times says that he is a "world-class cognitive psychologist" who happens simultaneously to be a "stud-muffin of science." He has six best-selling books to his credit. He has won fame at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has recently moved down the street to Harvard. His chosen field is the study of the human mind.

Even if he were not a poster boy for academic overachievers, it requires more apparent impudence than demonstrable intelligence to dip a symbolic toe in the maelström of scientific controversy that centres Steve Pinker's current professional life.

Educators in the social sciences, the humanities and the numerous domains of practical and vocational learning seldom see the natural sciences close up. Sometimes their impression of physicists, chemists, biologists and the like are akin to those held by much of the general public. They swallow the story that "real science" is somehow exempt from the quarrels and bickering, the egotism and careerism, and especially the "politics" that seems inherent elsewhere in postsecondary education. Objectivity and the dispassionate pursuit of truth are among the essential elements of what is advertised as the "scientific method" and it is widely believed that all worthy scientists embrace them. If disagreement exists, it can be resolved in a telescope, a test tube or a Petri dish. Alas, to quote the title of a book by one of Steve Pinker's main adversaries, Richard Lewontin: It Ain't Necessarily So.

Steve Pinker is an evolutionary biologist who believes firmly that the "mind" (whatever it is) is a product, like any part of our physical anatomy, of a process of biological evolution. He cheerfully eliminates the need for God, the soul, independent human consciousness, the existence of the "self," and so on, from any description or explanation of what a human being ultimately is. By holding such positions, Pinker could already be assured of attracting his share of antagonists among liberal humanists, social and cultural determinists, "people of faith," and a host of others. In terms of the hoary old dichotomy between "nature and nurture," Pinker's position is perfectly clear: he is a "radical adaptationist." He believes firmly in an inherited human nature that is shared within our species and trumps cultural variation as description and explanation of human thought and action every time.

The Blank Slate purports to take the argument about "how the mind works" (the title of a previous Pinker best-seller) and what comprises human nature to a new level, or at least into fresh territory. We have known all along that Pinker believes in an innate human nature. What sets this book apart is the roughness of his attack on his intellectual foes and the breadth of the issues that he seeks to subsume under genetic determinism. Also apparent is Pinker's deft sense of humour, his winning personality and his doubtlessly humane sensibilities. His main task, it seems, is to move from his scientific position of strength to political and cultural matters with the intent of demonstrating that atheistic, soulless, scientific determinism which disdains the independence of human decision making and cultural choice is actually compatible with humane social practice. He doesn't do a bad job—up to a point.

He asserts that, for the past few centuries, we have been in thrall to a set of assumptions that make us putty (his phrase is "silly putty") in the hands of society. Our social environment, we believe, can lead us to any degradation (he does not shy away from moral terms like "evil," though he does not embrace religious words like "sin"). This refusal to be realistic gets us into all sorts of trouble, not least when well-meaning (or malevolent) demagogues and social engineers try to teach us what is best for us (and them).

The focus of his argument is not, of course, liberal theists, diverse existentialists and garden variety secular humanists. These are people who tend to share a commitment to the almost infinite malleability of the human mind (the blank slate), the myth of innocence (bad behaviour is a product of a bad environment) and what Arthur Koestler famously called "the ghost in the machine" (a soul, spirit or at least a unique individual consciousness that makes choices free of biology). Pinker, for all that his beaming smile betokens a natural (surely not a cultivated) charm, does not suffer fools.

The real objects of his scorn are often biologists, even committed Darwinian biologists, who nonetheless bootleg intellectual justification to the "other side." He sees serious moral problems for those without the wit or the courage to face up to the fact of our heritable biological nature and who constitute the real danger.

Those who endorse the blank slate, he insists, are part of a perilous tradition that includes among its exemplars the likes of Rousseau (the myth of the Edenic Noble Savage, corrupted by civilization) and Marx (the utopian fantasist) who seek to mold society into the shape their ideologies presumptively deem to be best for all. Neither our alleged innocence (as individuals at birth, as societies in the "state of nature") nor our alleged capacity to achieve genuine humanity (when "real history" begins, a day or two "after the revolution") are, to Pinker, anything other than illusions, and treacherous ones at that.

His cudgel is taken up with allies such as pioneering sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett, who adhere to a strict adaptationist interpretation of Darwin and insist that it is the only interpretation that is both true to Darwin and to the empirical truth.

His antagonists (apart from early modern philosophers from René Descartes to John Locke) are social scientists such as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins and natural scientists such as Leon Kamin, Steven Rose and especially Stephen Jay Gould, from whom (posthumously) Pinker may soon take the wreath of the best-selling popularizer of science in North America.

Sahlins, for instance, attacked Wilson's "vulgar sociobiology" as "the explication of human social behavior as the expression of needs and drives of the human organism, such propensities having been constructed in human biology by biological evolution." This, Pinker dismisses as mere fear of "an incursion into his academic turf." It gets worse, of course. There is much name-calling. Dead horses are ferociously beaten and straw persons are unmercifully attacked. There are also faint echoes of McCarthyism (Gould and others are labeled Marxists despite a complete absence of evidence) and the opposition gives back as good as it gets. Despite Pinker's best efforts and excuses, an occasional anti-Semite and assorted racists inevitably find their unwelcome way into his camp. There are also special pleadings. The ad hominem arguments, the illogical tirades, the unprofessional rants that he and his colleagues have had to endure, Pinker complains, are all evidence that his "science" is not being challenged on empirical grounds; instead, the assaults are "political."

This is the stuff of the ongoing war, not between evolutionists and others, but among evolutionists. Put too simply, there are those who are prepared to accept a plurality of mechanisms through which evolution occurs (not the least of which is pure chance). They are inclined to think that evolution is not (or not always) a slow, methodical process of random mutation and natural selection. Change happens and is followed by periods of stability—Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge's theory of "punctuated equilibrium. Called "jerky evolution" propounded by jerks, their opposition retorts that not much has or needs to have been learned since Charles Lyall insisted, in the early nineteenth century, that the pattern of evolution was slow and methodical and Darwin agreed. Their intellectual descendents are unyielding gradualists and adaptationists who deny any mechanisms other than strict genetic change, as articulated in Dawkins' iconic volume The Selfish Gene (1976). Pinker's side currently seems to have the upper hand, as do their kin in anthropology who have been cheerfully dancing on the grave of Margaret Mead for decades, claiming that her apparently sloppy work in New Guinea in the late 1920s "proves" that culture does not determine human behaviour, biology does.

Like many of the claims made on both sides, this, of course, is nonsense. Even if all the nasty things people now say about Ms. Mead are true, all that is proven is that she got a lot of undeserved fame and influence. Then again, so have a lot of people.

So what? Why, I have heard it asked, care? If these educated and erudite experimenters and elucidators wish to behave like schoolyard bullies or members of the House of Commons during Question Period, why pay attention? As the sardonic old lady is said to have said in defence of non-voting: "Why bother? It only encourages them?" The answer is that it does matter … a lot. Apart from the intellectual curiosity this debate and debates of a similar sort about, for example, the origins of our species, of life and of the universe involve practical matters.

They should be obvious. Child-rearing practices, education, social and economic policies, organizational strategies and even (or especially) issues of domestic, street and international confrontation and violence cannot be ameliorated, much less resolved, if our fundamental assumptions about people are simply wrong. True, we can muddle along, as we have done in the past, but our muddling time may be up. Today's newspaper (and yesterday's and tomorrow's) speaks of war, pestilence, plague and famine. Our problems cannot be ignored for much longer without devastatingly pathological consequences. The social decisions we make, whether about youth crime, substance abuse, pedagogy, welfare, international AIDS and pre-emptive wars will reflect our fundamental assumptions about the nature of human beings or human society. No matter how unconscious people are of their "philosophical" beliefs nor how dismissive they are about those who bring up such questions, they will still tend to act in ways that are consistent with their elementary ideas. That is why the fights are important. It is necessary to know what we are doing, but it is even more important to know why we are doing it.

In Consilience (1998), Pinker's ally, the entomologist E. O. Wilson, makes his most audacious and ambitious statement to date. He takes the radical position that "there is intrinsically only one class of explanation." He makes the bold assertion that "all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics."

For twenty years, Stephen Jay Gould fought a cancer that doctors said would take his life in six months. Since his recent death has closed his part of the dialogue, the last word goes to Marshall Sahlins: "What is remarkable evolutionarily," he wrote to the Times Literary Supplement in reply to a very favourable review of The Blank Slate, "is not, for example, that all cultures have sex, but that all sex has culture … " Steve Pinker would not be impressed.

With thanks to Aidan Foster-Carter of West Yorkshire, U.K. for rhetorical assistance.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.

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