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Darwinian Storytelling

1.

What do Stalin, modern architecture, radical feminism, and most parenting experts have in common? They are all products of the false belief that we are born with empty minds, a tabula rasa. Or so says Steven Pinker in his new book, The Blank Slate. If the aim of science is to explain apparently unrelated phenomena via a single elegant theory, Pinker is obviously onto something big. Any theory that can explain the origins of the Five Year Plan and Le Corbusier must be reckoned with.

Pinker, Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, is an accomplished psycholinguist. But he is best known as a science popularizer. His previous popular books, including The Language Instinct (1994) and How the Mind Works (1997), were huge commercial and critical successes. While The Language Instinct concentrated on the Chomskyan revolution and the now overwhelming evidence of an inborn mental organ underlying grammar, How the Mind Works cast a broader net, reviewing a good deal of cognitive science and a smattering of neurobiology. In his latest book, Pinker steps back yet further and reassesses the interminable debate over nature vs. nurture. Are personality, intelligence, gender, and the moral sense in the genes or are they the stuff of culture? In view of his previous work, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Pinker thinks much of what makes you you resides in your genome.

Pinker takes aim at three targets in his book. He calls them the Blank Slate (the notion that the mind has no inherent structure), the Noble Savage (the notion that man is born innocent and is corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the notion that mind differs from matter). These correspond, at least loosely, to the philosophical traditions of empiricism, Romanticism, and dualism, respectively. Pinker considers all three traditions because he believes they are typically found together. While this seems doubtful (Marxists subscribe to the Blank Slate and the Noble Savage but reject the Ghost in the Machine, while Catholics do the opposite), it doesn’t much matter. Pinker ends up attacking what he takes to be the errors of the Blank Slate almost exclusively and the other two targets mostly disappear.

The Blank Slate is a distinctly Western idea of fairly recent origin. It was first articulated in 1690 by John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Though Locke offered the tabula rasa as an epistemological theory—knowledge comes from experience—it had, and has, obvious social implications. As Pinker explains:

The Blank Slate has also served as a sacred scripture for political and ethical beliefs. According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences—by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards—and you can change the person. Underachievement, poverty, and antisocial behavior can be ameliorated; indeed, it is irresponsible not to do so.

Despite the warm feelings such talk evokes in most of us, Pinker says we’ve got it all wrong. In fact we have it wrong in two ways. The first is that the Blank Slate is simply false. The “new sciences of human nature”—combining cognitive science, neuroscience, genetics, and evolution—strongly suggest that our minds are partly “hardwired” at birth. Pinker spends much of his book arguing that this hardwiring likely underlies many human universals—forms of behavior and mental structures shared by all peoples in all cultures, e.g., baby talk and incest avoidance. But it also seems likely that such hardwiring underlies some differences among people. Though Pinker emphasizes that he’s not a fanatic—he does not deny an important role for environment in who we become—he believes that differences in traits such as those that contribute to personality are at least partly due to differences in genes. He also argues that male and female minds differ biologically. Male minds are, for example, predisposed to greater aggression and sexual promiscuity. Male and female minds also appear to have different cognitive strengths: boy brains are better at mentally rotating 3-D objects, for example, while girl brains are better at recalling words. And these differences in brain functioning are, Pinker argues, likely genetic.

The second way Pinker says we have it all wrong is in thinking that the Blank Slate is a moral good. It is not. Pinker devotes much of the second half of his book to the moral and political implications of the debate between nature and nurture. He concludes that Blank Slate ideology is pernicious nonsense that “distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse, and our day-to-day lives.” Locke’s ostensibly innocent tabula rasa is in fact an “anti-life, anti-human theoretical abstraction that denies our common humanity, our inherent interests, and our individual preferences.” Not surprisingly Pinker thinks this monstrous doctrine has given rise to a host of sins, including those listed at the start of this review.

At the same time, Pinker tells us, denial of the Blank Slate does not lead to moral catastrophe. Despite left-wing propaganda to the contrary, the “existence of human nature is not a reactionary doctrine that dooms us to eternal oppression, violence, and greed” or that requires us to “abandon feminism, or to accept current levels of inequality or violence.” Devoting a chapter each to gender, inequality, child-rearing, and violence, Pinker concludes that you can be both a hereditarian and a decent human being. The reason, he says, is simple: biology is not morality. And once this fact sinks in, we see that we can both recognize and condemn any dark, biological side to humanity. The new sciences of human nature are morally neutral.

The most impressive thing about The Blank Slate has less to do with its thesis than with how it’s delivered. Pinker’s prose remains as brisk and witty as ever and he’s able to convey difficult technical matters with a minimum of jargon. He also scores a number of direct intellectual hits and is perhaps at his best when exposing the undeniable excesses of Blank Slate enthusiasts. His accounts of behaviorists who have maintained that sexual desire is learned, and fringe feminists who have claimed that castration can’t stop rape since it’s a crime of violence, are devastating.

This is not to say the book is without problems. Some of these amount to mere annoyances, like Pinker’s tendency to talk out of both sides of his mouth. He tells us early on, for instance, that there is good evidence that “sexual orientation” is heritable but later on that “no one knows why some boys become gay.” Similarly, “the idea that nature and nurture interact to shape some part of the mind might turn out to be wrong” but “the nature-nurture debate, as it has been played out for millennia, really is over, or ought to be.”

But the most serious problem with Pinker’s book is that he makes things too easy on himself. Pinker has a habit of making things seem simpler than they are and of doing so in a way that just happens to make his claims more secure and his conclusions more inescapable than they really are. This is not to say that the direction he moves in is wrong—a wholly Blank Slate is untenable and he is right to say so—but it is to say that there are good reasons for not going as far as he’d like you to. Pinker’s tendency to make things too easy leads him into three kinds of problems. One is scientific, one historical, and one ethical.

2.

Pinker’s scientific problems begin when he builds—and then torches—a straw man. For the Blank Slate he assails is something few thinking people believe in. Of course we’re organisms, of course we evolved, and of course this is as true for the brains between our ears as for our ears. This may have been scandalous stuff in 1871 when Darwin published The Descent of Man but it is not now. The result is that it’s easy for Pinker to appear on the side of the angels. He assails those intellectuals who believed that genes cannot shape brains or who insisted that our minds are animated by little ghosts who lurk in the interstices of our neurons. Whether such intellectuals still exist seems a lesser concern.

But there’s more going on than this. After Pinker’s relentless parodying of the Blank Slate, the reader, sensibly enough, wants nothing of it. The problem is that it’s unclear what Pinker is proposing instead, at least early on. And that’s because Pinker has a frustrating way of not distinguishing between weak and strong versions of his claims.

Take this statement: “History and culture, then, can be grounded in psychology, which can be grounded in computation, neuroscience, genetics, and evolution.” This is one of Pinker’s big conclusions. But it might mean several very different things. One is that culture is made from minds which are made from neurons which are made by genes. This is undeniable. Another is that culture is made from minds that have been hardwired by genes to have certain contents—to think certain thoughts, say—a stronger claim. Yet another is that culture is made from minds that have been shaped by natural selection to think certain thoughts because those thoughts maximized the number of children ancestral thinkers had on the savanna and so gave them an evolutionary advantage over those who did not think such thoughts. This claim is stronger still.

This ambiguity comes in handy. If Pinker senses doubt about a strong version of his claims, he can adroitly slip into a defense of a weak version. Are you feeling uneasy about the notion that culture can be reduced to neurons and genes? But surely you admit that “culture relies on neural circuitry that accomplishes the feat we call learning”? Surely you acknowledge that “culture could not exist without mental faculties that allow humans to create and learn.” Well, of course you do.

If that’s the claim of the new sciences of human nature, we can all agree they’ve been a big (if banal) success. But that’s not their claim. The new sciences of human nature go much further. And so does Pinker.

As his book progresses it becomes clear that Pinker is committed to a particular and strong strain of psychology. It’s not just that minds emerge from neurons (no Ghost in the Machine). And it’s not just that some features of minds—grammar, say—are genetically hardwired (no Blank Slate). It’s that we can “reverse engineer” the mind and the mental modules that allegedly make it up. (A mental module is a neurological “program” that performs a specific function. The grammar module, for instance, does a different job from the visual surface-perception module, which in turn does a different job from the “cheater-detection” module, as described below.) Just as an engineer who sees a spark plug for the first time could infer its purpose by studying an engine, so we as psychologists can infer the evolutionary “purpose” of behaviors and mental modules by studying when they come into play in daily life and how they increase reproductive success. We can, in other words, discern the adaptive reasons why our minds do what they do. In short Pinker champions a Darwinian psychology of human beings. But the proposition that we can build a Darwinian science of mind is distinct from—and more ambitious than—the proposition that the slate isn’t blank.

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