NOVEMBER 25, 2002
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
(Viking, 509 pp., $27.95)
When the hoary old question of nature versus nurture comes around, sides form quickly. And as Leavis once remarked, whenever this is so, we can suspect that the differences have little to do with thinking. Still, the question certainly obsesses thinkers, and it crops up in various terminologies and under various rubrics: human essence versus historical accident, intrinsic nature versus social construction, nativism versus empiricism. In the ancient world, the nativist Plato held that we come into the world equipped with knowledge obtained in a previous life, while the empiricist Aristotle denied it. In our own time, Chomsky has revived the nativist doctrine that our capacity for language is innate, and some ultras have even held that our whole conceptual repertoire is innate. We did not ever have to learn anything. We had only to let loose what we already have.
There is a standard move--call it the demon move--in such a debate. First we establish our own reasonable credentials. We, the good guys, are not taken in by the labels. We recognize, of course, that any human being is the result of both nature and nurture. There is the biological or genetic endowment and there is the environment in which the biological or genetic endowment gets expressed. We good guys understand that it is meaningless to ask whether iron rusts because of the nature of iron or because of the environment in which the iron is put. We know that the rusting requires both. It is the deluded others, the bad guys, who forget entirely about one or the other of these components.
So if you wish to demonize theorists on the nature side, present them as genetic determinists who hold that there is no more to growing up than following a formula written in the genes. These dangerous fools think that iron is programmed to rust wherever you put it, as if oxygen and moisture had nothing to do with it. And if you are demonizing theorists on the nurture side, then portray them as holding that human beings have no characteristics at all except those that are inscribed by environment and culture. These dangerous fools think that the chemical nature of iron has nothing to do with whether it rusts. (There is also a second-order, or meta-demonizing, move to make. Not only have the dangerous fools got themselves into an extreme position, they also have the gall to paint people like us as extreme. They are not only blind to their own extremism, they are also blind to our moderation. The things they call us! They must be doubly demonic.)
The irony is that, having satisfactorily trashed the other side, people tend not to stay in the reasonable middle that they claim to occupy. The fig leaf of moderation is very quickly discarded. Just as in football a defeat for one side is a victory for the other, and in politics a defeat for the left is a victory for the right, so here a defeat of the others is a victory for whichever extreme appealed in the first place. We want simplicity, and our binary thinking is not hospitable to compromise or to pluralism. George W. Bush can woo the people by saying that you are with us or you are against us. He cannot do so by saying that you are with us or against us or somewhere in between. It appears that only fitfully and with effort can we keep it in our heads that iron rusts owing to a number of factors. In our hearts, we are pulled one way or the other.
This is certainly so with the debate about human nature. The dichotomy between nature and nurture rapidly acquires political and emotional implications. To put it crudely, the right likes genes and the left likes culture, although there are cross-currents even in this scheme. (Chomsky is a left-wing nativist.) But the natural thought is that if, say, crime is scripted in the genes, then there is no reason on that score to work for the equality of wealth and the eradication of poverty, because you will get crime anyhow. If mad jealousy or rape is an evolved strategy for unsuccessful males, then there is no reason to promote an atmosphere of respect for women, because you will get mad jealousy or rape anyhow. Steven Pinker insists that politics needs first and foremost a view of human nature, since only unrealistic politics will be the consequence of unrealistic views.
Pinker presents himself as entirely reasonable, naturally; and for large parts of his book he succeeds in being so. He is certainly a skillful expositor and a persuasive writer. He is intelligent and humane. There is a lot to be learned from The Blank Slate. Pinker seems to know everything (the bibliography runs to nearly thirty pages of very small print). He certainly has opinions about everything, and the answers to all the questions. The panache and the promise are intoxicating. It is difficult to talk with perfect certainty of human nature, but where Shakespeare and Proust could only crawl, Pinker gallops. He is the noisy prophet of a new world in which a confluence of sciences finally delivers us the truth about ourselves.
Students of rhetoric will also admire his mastery of the demon move. As is clear from the book's title, it is the nurture side of the debate that is Pinker's demon. He hails from the citadel of nativism, the linguistics and philosophy departments at MIT. The enemy is empiricism, and the blank slate of the title is the "tabula rasa" or white paper to which John Locke famously compared the human mind. The doctrine of the blank slate is taken to deny that we have a nature at all. The blank slate is the universal human endowment, which waits passively to be written on by experience and environment. It has no nature; or, to put it another way, nothing in its nature determines the upshot when experience does its work. It is the clay waiting for the sculptor to form it, and the sculptor can make anything at all of it. It is this model of the mind, and its political and practical implications, that are Pinker's targets.
We might feel some disquiet about Pinker's polemic when we remember that Locke himself held no such view and intended no such view by his famous analogy. He is perfectly happy with the idea that the nature of the slate or the paper may determine what can be written on it. As a good Christian, Locke believed that an "all-wise Maker" grants us a very definite constitution, enabling us to know what we need to know and not much more. We can know what matters to us and know how to do what is good for us. But Locke also believes in our fallen nature, and he is constantly harping on "the narrow measure of our capacities" and the ways in which we are not fit for various kinds of understanding, whereas better-endowed creatures, such as angels, might be. Locke, in other words, thought that basic powers and limitations of our human nature determine the scope and the limits of our understanding. You cannot think that if you also deny that we have a human nature at all.
Locke wanted only to deny innate ideas and innate knowledge, not innate powers or tendencies, nor innate limitations, nor innate cognitive and emotional capacities. This may sound like a mere historical quibble, but it arouses a powerful doubt about Pinker's diagnosis of modernity. If Locke did not hold the doctrine of the blank slate, then Leibniz and Hume and Kant, not to mention the massed ranks of churchmen declaiming about human depravity and the Freudians declaiming about the nature of men and women, most certainly did not hold it either. And then its status as a central and unsalutary determinant of modern thought looks a little shaky.
Yet Pinker insists that the doctrine of the blank slate is one of a trio of views that have dominated modern life, wreaking havoc in education, politics, and culture generally. Skipping for a moment, the third member of Pinker's malign trinity is Cartesian dualism: the notorious separation of mind and body expressed most decisively for the modern era by Descartes. This doctrine, which has become known in our time as "the ghost in the machine," strictly separates the mind or soul from the body. By doing so, it takes the soul outside the sphere of mechanical or scientific explanation. It splits the world of the mind from the world of science. It is often supposed to protect our cherished free will. Pinker thinks that this bad idea has obstructed the emergence of a genuine science of the mind, which is still struggling to emerge from its oppression. Here he is on stronger ground, since Cartesian dualism has surely influenced many people and goes on doing so. It is the philosophy that makes the survival of the soul after bodily death intelligible. It is also a philosophy that makes downward causation from mind to body impossible to understand, enabling the cruder kind of theorist to deny that it happens.; "... human beings are naturally unselfish and peaceful and happy, and that our greed and violence and misery are entirely the products of culture or civilization.... "
The second member of Pinker's unholy trinity is in some ways the most interesting. It is Rousseau's doctrine of the noble savage, or the view that human beings are naturally unselfish and peaceful and happy, and that our greed and violence and misery are entirely the products of culture or civilization. Early in the book Pinker writes:
Nobody can fail to recognize the influence of the doctrine of the Noble Savage in contemporary consciousness. We see it in the current respect for all things natural (natural foods, natural medicines, natural childbirth) and the distrust of the man-made, the unfashionability of authoritarian styles of childrearing and education, and the understanding of social problems as repairable defects in our institutions rather than as tragedies inherent to the human condition.
Here we may feel another stirring of discomfort. For the passage and its tone of certainty nicely illustrate the way the demon move works. On the face of it, the features of contemporary thought that Pinker here highlights admit of much more nuanced and sensible explanations than any simple doctrine of the noble savage. Perhaps we like natural foods because artificial foods taste so ghastly by comparison, as anyone returning to the United States from almost anywhere else will testify. Perhaps we like natural medicines because we mistrust the influence of the drug companies on what are presented as results in pharmacology. Perhaps we like natural childbirth (unless things go wrong) because we think that in this area, at least, evolution might have resulted in something fairly optimal, or perhaps we have a parent (like my own daughter) who strongly resents being forced to take unpleasant and dangerous drugs like pethidine by a profession bent on making things easy for itself. Perhaps we dislike authoritarian styles of childrearing not because we think children are naturally saintly, but because we have learned to doubt whether violence is the best way to eradicate violence. And perhaps it is our policy to think of social problems as repairable because sometimes there is just a chance that they are, and if there is, then hand-wringing over their tragic inevitability will not find the repair. Or perhaps we are just more careful about inferring tragic inevitability from science. To avoid such a mistake it is good to remember examples such as this. Our susceptibility to cholera is a result of our genome, but the repair lies outside, in the public-health provision of clean water.
In other words, right from the start there is a question mark over Pinker's historical method. It may be that an extreme view, the doctrine of the noble savage, has influenced some people at some times; but few parents retain the belief that their infants are angels for very long, and the ruthless European extermination of indigenous peoples everywhere scarcely testifies to a general belief in their superior nobility. A more detailed history, either of parenting or of colonialism, would uncover a whole tapestry of shifting and conflicting attitudes. So we ought to worry about the ease with which Pinker conjures his demons.
This is especially so given that the doctrine of the blank slate is inconsistent with the doctrine of the noble savage. The latter talks of innate tendencies to peace, happiness, and altruism, whereas the former denies innate tendencies at all. Can people really have held both? Pinker notices the problem, but he minimizes it on the grounds that if you think there is nothing there to begin with, then at least you think there is nothing harmful there, and that is halfway to accommodating the idea of innate purity and nobility. Maybe, but the association remains imperfect, and the more we test it, the harder it is to see modern life as really dominated by Pinker's diabolical trinity. Pinker does cite, very effectively, some hair-raising blank-slate claims, especially from the behaviorists J.B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, who claimed to be able to turn anyone into anything with sufficient conditioning. But then these behaviorist advertisings had nothing whatever to do with belief in the noble savage or in free will--with both of which they fit badly.
Still, it is not for its cultural history that people are buying Pinker's book in alarming numbers, but for the promise of a new synthesis, a science of the mind that finally tells us who we are, what is possible for us, how our politics should be organized, how people should be brought up, what to expect of ethics--in short, how to live. In the old days, philosophers, dramatists, historians, anthropologists, writers, and poets monopolized these subjects. Now behavioral economists, biologists, cognitive scientists, evolutionary theorists, and neurophysiologists occupy the territory. A brave new dawn is upon us.
If we imagine a scale from zero (genes have nothing to do with human nature) to ten (culture has nothing to do with human nature), I should guess that Pinker scores about nine. He holds, for example, that the way children turn out is almost wholly unaffected by how their parents bring them up. This is mostly certified by studies of identical twins reared apart, although here he does not refer to Cyril Burt, the British psychologist who wrecked the education system on the basis of such evidence, having made it all up.
Actually, there is a whole lot more to worry about with twins studies. Their results are expressed in terms of the heritability of properties, or the proportion of variance supposedly due to genetic factors. There is already a serious question mark here, since by the time of birth the twins' genes have been expressing themselves in an identical environment for nine months, and the extra delay before separation and its extent are confounding factors (many "separated" twins are brought up within the extended family). The results of this research have included such gems as the belief in the heritability of milk and soda intake (high) or of fruit juice and diet soda intake (not so high). What is not usually stressed, and is not stressed in Pinker's book, is that any measure of heritability is highly contextual. In a world of clones, the heritability of properties is zero; in a world of absolute sameness of environment, it goes to 100 percent. That is, if iron is put in a uniform environment, differences of rust are 100 percent due to differences of composition, but if identical samples of iron are put in a variety of environments, differences of rust are 100 percent due to environment. Heritability also has little or nothing to do with the malleability of the trait in question. In Swedish twins studies, heritability estimates for regular tobacco use were given as three times as great for men as for women, but for women they also ranged from zero to 60 percent in three different age cohorts, presumably because of changing cultural pressures on female smoking.
Pinker is not aware of the health warnings attached to this kind of research, or he chooses not to mention them. Anyhow, he thinks that violence in America is not to be approached in terms of media violence, childhood abuse, guns, discrimination, poverty, divorce, alcohol, drugs, or indeed anything except Hobbes's view of the inevitable nature of human aggression. He writes as if any explanation of human phenomena that invokes culture is loosely and mischievously positing a "superorganism" or a free-floating "cloud" lying above and beyond the individual.
Pinker believes that anybody who scores around five on my scale is in the grip of his demon myths, and really scores zero. So he routinely sets tests for those on the other side and parades their inability to meet them, without revisiting the question of whether his side can meet them. Thus he makes much of the fact that if exposure to the media were implicated in violence, we might expect Canada's homicide rate to be about the same as that of the United States, while in fact it runs at about one-quarter. But Pinker is silent about the fact that if nothing but a shared Hobbesian human nature were the explanation, then we would also expect an identical homicide rate. (To be fair, in a different part of the book Pinker does mention an explanation of the difference in the different history of expansion of the two nations--a geographical and cultural explanation that leaves you wondering about the efficacy of his otherwise cherished biological explanation.) There is also a rather startling absence of countervailing evidence, such as the recent surgeon general's report about media violence, or the well-known meta-study of studies of violence by Haejung Paik and George Comstock, which found in 1994 that media violence affects young people's chance of being violent about as much as smoking affects people's chance of getting lung cancer.
In sum, Pinker is an unblushing proponent of "evolutionary psychology," the descendant of sociobiology that has swept campuses and bookstores for the last decade or so. The building blocks of this addition to science are well known. At its simplest, we find some allegedly common human trait, and we explain why we have it by imagining how a propensity to it might have been beneficial in the Flintstone world, or in the Pleistocene conditions in which apes evolved into humans. Suppose, for instance, a finding that women typically prefer richer and taller men. We take such a fact, or factoid, and then hypothesize that this preference is an adaptation in the biologist's sense: it contributed to increased reproductive success. That is, there is some mechanism (at its simplest, a gene or two) that increases the probability of that preference, and women who have it reproduce more successfully than women who do not. Their mates' riches enable their children to survive in greater numbers, and their mates' height makes them better hunters (ignore the fact that they are presumably worse gatherers). Women without the gene gradually lose out. Only those with it produced lineages descending as far as the present.
Such stories go nicely with other views about the mind. One is the doctrine of the "modular mind," often known as the Swiss-army-knife picture of the mind. The mind is not one huge general-purpose information processor, but an agglomeration of modules specifically dedicated to particular tasks. It is not so much one tool as a commonwealth of little tools. So Pinker likes to talk of a faculty such as sympathy or of a propensity to aggression as switches and knobs that can be turned on or off, or set at one level or another.; "From Augustine onward, generations of churchmen have wished that this were so, but it isn't."
Pinker rightly notices that if we go in for these stories, we must be extremely careful to distinguish our overt psychologies--which he calls proximate mechanisms--from their underlying evolutionary function. I can illustrate this little trick with the juicy case of sexual desire. The evolutionary rationale is reproduction. But the overt objects of desire need have nothing whatever to do with that rationale: just think of the huge variety of non-reproductive sexual pleasures to which people are so irresistibly drawn, and the precautions that they take in order to avoid reproduction. People want sex without wanting to reproduce, and for that matter they sometimes want to reproduce without wanting sex. We should also notice that the example puts a question mark in front of the idea of a single human nature, since the overt objects of desire are so extraordinarily various. Indeed, evolutionary stories about psychology should embrace this, since evolution can happen only where variation exists and selection works on it, which fits badly with the generally monolithic ambition of finding one "real" human nature within.
Pinker can be admirably clear about these things, but he falters when it comes to their applications. Consider one of the poster children of evolutionary psychology, the robust finding by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson that stepchildren are more at risk from parental abuse than natural children. Pinker writes:
Daly and Wilson had originally examined the abuse statistics to test a prediction from evolutionary psychology. Parental love is selected over evolutionary time because it compels parents to protect and nurture their children, who are likely to carry the genes giving rise to parental love. In any species in which someone else's offspring are likely to enter the family circle, selection will favor a tendency to prefer one's own, because in the cold reckoning of natural selection an investment in the unrelated children would go to waste. A parent's patience will tend to run out with stepchildren more quickly than with biological children, and in extreme cases this can lead to abuse.
Well, maybe. Actually, it is not clear that evolutionary psychology predicts good fathers at all: back in the Pleistocene, gadabout cads presumably fathered more offspring than stay-at-home dads. I seem to recall that Wilma Flintstone was a jealous and possessive wife. But in any event, we might agree that if Abel and Bertha have a child, and then Abel disappears and Chuck hooks up with Bertha, it seems plausible that Chuck should care less for the child than for one that he himself had fathered with Bertha. This is what the statistics bear out. But now we may reflect that if Abel and Bertha bought a dog or a sofa, and then Abel disappeared and Chuck hooked up with Bertha, it seems equally plausible that Chuck should care less for the step-dog or the step-sofa than if he had bought them together with Bertha. My bet would be that an incomer's abuse of step-dogs and step-sofas is worse than abuse of dogs and sofas couples buy together. Conversely, when the genetic link is absent but the togetherness is present, as when couples decide together to adopt children, parental love seems to function perfectly well: at least Pinker does not suggest otherwise. Normal people take pleasure in the doings of children in general. The mothers at a play group do not typically snarl at one another's children for being genetic competitors to their own.
The point is not that parental love is anything other than an adaptation: such a notion is absurd. The point is that its strength and its direction can be quite independent of any belief in a genetic link with the object of love. It may be that, as Pinker says, in the cold reckoning of natural selection Chuck's investment in his adopted offspring goes to waste. How fortunate, then, that Chuck's own reckoning is not that one. Indeed, if Chuck is anything like a good parent, he will not be thinking in terms of investment and return at all. Supposing that Chuck's reckoning has to be that of natural selection is no better than supposing that the strength and the direction of sexual desire are proportionate to the expectation of reproductive results. From Augustine onward, generations of churchmen have wished that this were so, but it isn't.
Once we become properly alert to the huge distance between our overt psychologies and the evolutionary rationales that can be offered to explain them, the messianic promise of evolutionary psychology in general, and of The Blank Slate in particular, begins to look awfully thin. Pinker says--and I am sure that he is right--that some faculties, or modules, incline us to greed, lust, malice, envy, anger, and aggression; and others incline us to sympathy, foresight, self-respect, and desire for the good opinion of others; and then we can exchange information with others, and personal and social change can come about when we do. But suddenly the notion of a faculty or module starts to evaporate. The Swiss army knife may have a corkscrew that works however blunt the knife is. But if there is one thing that is clear about our psychologies, it is that the functioning of one module can affect the delivery of another module. Our tendency to anger is suppressed by our prudence. Even at the sensory level, how we smell something is affected by what we are told it is. In the right social climate, our greed is checked by our desire for the esteem of our fellows. We imitate and respond and adapt ourselves to the expectations of others. And this leaves scope, to put it mildly, for culture and ethics. It means we will no longer respond in the same way. We will no longer be made angry by what might have made us angry in a different milieu, or desire what we would have desired, or envy what we would have envied.
In his less doctrinaire moods, Pinker does not deny this. He quotes with approval Peter Singer's image of the expanding circle, whereby our concerns can come to embrace not only ourselves but also our family, tribe, class, nation, race, humanity, and eventually animals or even plants. The circle of our concerns can widen, and indeed has done so: "once the sympathy knob is in place, having evolved to enjoy the benefits of cooperation and exchange, it can be cranked up by new kinds of information that other folks are similar to oneself. " This sounds about right to me, apart from the mixed metaphor. And apart from the lingering sense that the "benefits of cooperation and exchange" taint the purity of our concern for others, even at our best--which, to flog the horse once more, is like supposing that even sodomites and foot fetishists are secretly trying to reproduce.
It sounds, then, as though there remains plenty of room for education and culture, conceived of as natural devices for turning up the good knobs and turning down the bad ones. We would look to the inherited experience of history, or to the experience of parents and educators, to find out how to replace competition with cooperation, aggression with peaceability. We would try to think seriously about why the homicide rate in Canada is one-quarter that in the United States, and we would welcome narratives from historians or anthropologists telling us of similar variations. We would applaud the way in which peaceful Scandinavians have descended from bloodthirsty Vikings (Pinker's example), and we would hope to reproduce whatever factors enabled this to happen. But biological theory cannot provide the answers, or the descendants would resemble the ancestors, since evolution has had too little time to work.
We might try saying that the Scandinavians and their ancestors share a psychology. They both seek to maximize their utility. Homo economicus is each of us, a simple fellow, always and only asking: what's in it for me? The environment is relevant insofar as it means that sometimes peace might be the answer and sometimes violence. Our human natures are not so much a blank slate as a slate with a single scratch on it. Pinker does not really believe this, and after all it would mean that blank-slate theorists were very nearly right. But neither is he prepared to avoid it by conceding the vast variety of psychologies that history parades before us, and by celebrating the cultural transformations that give us some control over them. He insists on a one-way street: culture is the product of individual psychologies. You should not explain individual psychologies by reference to culture. We need to see "culture as a product of human desires rather than as a shaper of them."
This is a very surprising ideology for a professional linguist, and so far as I can make out Pinker does nothing to defend it. Faced with the question, "Do we explain language in terms of individual language speakers, or individual language speakers by reference to language?", the only possible answer seems to be that the traffic flows two ways. We learn at our mothers' knees, and when our generation grows up we transmit what we learned, modified by us individually and collectively, onward to the next generation. The English language is a cultural resource, and there is nothing unscientific about invoking facts about it to explain facts about individuals. The trick is to remember that facts about culture are not facts about some cloudy super- organism, some transcendental spirit of the age hovering around in hyperspace. They are summaries of facts about ourselves and our interactions. What they summarize is the very, very important part of our environment that concerns our interactions with other people. Those interactions shape the way we speak, but also the way we hope and fear and take pride and feel shame. They summarize what we imitate and emulate and eventually what we grow to be.
So the Viking has ambitions, fears, conceptions of esteem, pride, and honor, all of which he gets from his culture and which determine his bloodthirstiness. All of these are lacking in his pacific descendants, while other values have been put in their place. In other words, their psychologies are indeed different, and the interesting thing for politicians, educators, and parents is the question of how those differences came about and how the progress that they represent can be cemented and duplicated. That is what culture is. Explaining the Scandinavian progress by reference to culture is just as proper as explaining my accent by reference to the prevailing sound of English where I grew up. The Viking is bloodthirsty because he lives in a bloodthirsty culture. And the culture is bloodthirsty because of the people in it. You can have both, and there are no demons anywhere.
Once we get past the demonizing and the dogma, and take proper notice of the space between overt psychology and evolutionary rationale for it, and lose any phobia of cultural phenomena, what is left? There are plenty of sensible and plausible observations about human beings in Pinker's book. But it is not clear that any of them is particularly new: Hobbes and Adam Smith give us more than anybody else, and their insights have stood the test of time, unlike some more recent work. Consider again the example of media violence. Here it seems that psychologists cannot speak with one voice about its effects. But worse than that, much worse, they cannot even speak with one voice about what psychological studies find about its effects. That is, the meta-studies that Pinker cites flatly disagree with the meta-studies that I mentioned earlier. If this is the state of play, we do well to plead the privilege of skepticism. We also do well not to jettison other cultural resources too quickly. The depressing thing about The Blank Slate is that behind the rhetoric and the salesmanship, I suspect that Pinker knows this as well as anyone else.