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Making Hay with Straw Men

John Dupré

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Steven Pinker. xviii + 509 pp. Viking, 2002. $27.95.

The nature/nurture controversy is perennially frustrating. Both parties to the debate, or at any rate their more clearheaded representatives, are completely committed to the view that humans develop as a consequence of countless interactions between their biological endowment and their environment. Yet each side portrays the other as benightedly monistic—as either thoroughgoing biological determinists or, in the phrase Steven Pinker adopts for the title of the present work, devotees of the blank slate. So we have two competing dichotomies—the reasonable interactionist versus the biological determinist, and the reasonable interactionist versus the blank slate. Dividing by the common term, we have the battle of the straw men. Of course, to present the debate in either of these ways is to determine its outcome, and the aim of Pinker's book is to convince us that reason lies with the enemies of the blank slate. For those readers like myself who start with the conviction that biological determinism is more of a threat to reason than is the blank slate, there is not much in this book that is likely to change minds.

Undoubtedly, there is a tendency to understate the role of biological factors in the development of the human mind. The classical behaviorists were perhaps most culpable in this regard, although there may also be such a tendency in the outer reaches of contemporary postmodernism. Pinker identifies two ideas that aid and abet this rejection of human nature: Descartes's ghost in the machine and Rousseau's noble savage. The former has certainly led some thinkers to see the mind as almost entirely unconstrained by its physical manifestation, and the myth of the noble savage has no doubt convinced some that only culture or society can possibly explain human nastiness.

However, Pinker's strategy of presenting himself as one of a beleaguered minority, confronting a hegemony of blank slates, ghosts in machines and noble savages, reduces these old warhorses to a trinity of straw men. In reality, although these traditions should certainly be rejected, they no longer inform the best thought of the schools Pinker inveighs against. As I have noted, what is needed, and quite widely perceived to be needed, is an attempt to address the interaction among biological, environmental and cultural factors in the development of human minds. The trouble with this prescription is just that an honest acceptance of the complexity of interacting factors in human psychology leads one largely to confessions of ignorance about human nature and human possibility. And, to be only mildly cynical, such confessions are no way to write best-selling books. Sadly, then, having dispatched his straw men, Pinker slides smoothly toward the simplistic position he staked out in How the Mind Works.

That book offers an egregious example of the development of the argument that if we decide that a given behavior would have been good for our ancestors in the Stone Age, then we must conclude that we almost certainly have evolved a tendency to produce it. I, and others, have said a good deal elsewhere about the inadequacy of this line of thought, and I shall not rehearse the arguments. Suffice it to say that Pinker continues here his pursuit of this unpromising project.

For example, Pinker quotes a remark by fellow evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson that "Any creature that is recognizably on track toward complete reproductive failure must somehow expend effort, often at risk of death, to try to improve its present life trajectory." Pinker infers that "Impoverished young men on this track are therefore likely to risk life and limb to improve their chances in the sweepstakes for status, wealth, and mates." Daly and Wilson's remark is highly problematic: Clearly there is no necessity—natural, logical or moral—involved, although certainly there may be an evolutionary tendency for organisms to evolve conditional strategies of the kind indicated. So to infer from their remark that a particular species (ours) has in fact evolved such a strategy, and that therefore reproductively unsuccessful young men are likely to exhibit such a strategy, is utterly ungrounded. All young men without reproductive success? Only impoverished ones? Homosexuals? Of course it is a well-known demographic fact that young men are more disposed to violence than are other segments of the population. But sweeping statements of evolutionary generality were not needed to discover this fact, nor do they do much to illuminate it.

More bizarre are Pinker's speculations about "folk" understandings across the intellectual map (folk physics, folk biology, folk psychology, folk economics and so on), which he thinks reflect innate mental structures. Even the poor old ghost in the machine turns out to be a central feature of innate psychology, a view that I should have thought difficult to reconcile with the complex status of this picture in the history of ideas. (Did Aristotle lack the relevant module, for instance, whereas Plato had more standard mental equipment?) And this is not harmlessly barmy. For example, Pinker attributes opposition to genetically modified foods to innate and intuitive essentialism. This provides an excuse—of which Pinker avails himself—for dismissing without any analysis, or enumeration even, the criticisms that have been made of these technologies.

Rather surprisingly, Pinker ties views on nature and nurture directly to politics and explicitly connects his own innatist ideas to conservatism. I say this connection is surprising because, in common with many crusading evolutionary psychologists, Pinker chides his opponents for their failure to grasp the naturalistic fallacy. Historically, the naturalistic fallacy is the attempt to derive normative conclusions from statements of fact. A number of evolutionary psychologists, including Pinker, have come to use the expression to refer to the idea that whatever happens in nature is good. The problem is that whereas it is extremely doubtful whether in its original sense the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy at all, in its vulgarized sense it is certainly a fallacy, but not one many serious thinkers have been tempted to commit. At any rate, in its proper sense Pinker certainly does commit it, since he seems quite willing to present his conservatism as a natural consequence of a proper appreciation of human nature.

It would, I think, be an entirely salutary development if evolutionary psychologists were to acknowledge that views about human nature are likely to have ethical and political consequences. (Views about the biological basis of violence or rape, for instance, do have consequences for how we should think about these phenomena normatively, although certainly they are very unlikely to show that violence and rape are good.) It is to be hoped that such an acknowledgment would lead those who made it to recognize an onus of responsibility in promoting wholly speculative ideas apparently carrying the authority of science about such sensitive topics.

At this point in the book I was increasingly struck by resonances with the intellectual conservatism of science warriors such as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. Pinker's standard lists of blank-slaters (exponents of social constructionism, science studies, cultural studies, poststructuralism and the like) are eerily reminiscent of the singling out of enemies of science by Gross and Levitt and others. It would be a task beyond the present review to explore the connections, but the appeal to right-of-center middlebrow scientism is certainly similar and surely suggestive of a broader cultural tendency.

Perhaps the low point of the book comes near the end, with Pinker's reflections on modernist art. The problem with modernism, Pinker opines, is that we have evolved innate tastes for nice tunes and pretty pictures, and that modernism, not to mention postmodernism, fails to provide us with these things that we naturally crave. Here, I think, Pinker descends into self-parody. The notion that a century of the history of art will be much illuminated by reflections on the kinds of landscape that were found reassuring by cavemen does not, I think, merit detailed criticism. It is ironic that Pinker uses the biological inadequacy of modernism to account for falling university enrollments in the humanities. In the United Kingdom, English is by some way the most sought-after undergraduate subject, and universities are struggling to keep their science departments open in the face of disastrous declines in student interest. But that, I suppose, is merely a cultural difference.

Although no one will be surprised to hear at this point that I was irritated by this book, it is, of course, not without merits. Pinker has read widely and writes engagingly. He is at times entertaining, and on some topics he has interesting things to say. I enjoyed his presentation of the case that children are not much affected by their parents, for instance, although it puts rather more weight on personality testing than I would happily allow. Still, the thesis that children are interested in imitating their peers rather than their parents is plausible enough, if owing little or nothing to evolutionary psychology.

But overall the book is a paradigm of why this kind of popular science should have a bad name. Depressingly, and in contrast to the nuanced interactionism that provides the only way forward in this area, Pinker is a master of the simplistic dichotomy. Politics divides between the Utopian (bad) and the Tragic (good). We meet gender feminists (bad) and equity feminists (good). And underlying it all, we see biological determinists squaring off one more time against the blank-slaters. Perhaps even worse, extending the general thesis of the book far beyond those issues to which it has any relevance, Pinker passes up no opportunity to pontificate on whatever contentious and controversial issues come within his line of sight.

To end as I began, with the underlying philosophical issue, there is a real advantage to the positions that Pinker decries as blank slate theories. Once we accept, as we all should, interactionism between the biological and the environmental (especially the cultural), there is little hope that we will be able to characterize human nature in any fine detail. The ideal, perhaps, would be to describe the "norm of reaction" for human nature—to characterize human behavioral tendencies as a function of all the possible environments in which humans can develop. This is still, surely, an impossible task. It does point to something possible, however—namely, that we might explore the effects of changes in the sociocultural environment on the development of human nature. Of course, we should be mindful of our ignorance and even more mindful of the disastrous consequences of some earlier attempts to manipulate human nature. However, with such sensitivity, with appropriate imperatives of decency and respect toward the people whose lives one may be affecting, and with the sophisticated understanding of human nature that derives eclectically from history, literature, philosophy, science and experience rather than the crude reductionism of Pinker's "Darwinism," there is still the possibility that we may build better societies. Pinker's scientistic conservatism provides no reasons for abandoning such ambitions.

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