Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Book Review: Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature"



Headline: Tabula Pinker: In his latest book, linguist Steven Pinker calls for a scientific revolution

"The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature," By Steven Pinker, Viking, 528 pages.

In his earlier volumes, "The Language Instinct" and "How the Mind Works," Steven Pinker won critical and popular acclaim for his lucid expositions of how language and the brain function. Surprisingly, his new book is an overgrown broadside, by turns dull and illuminating. What happened?

Pinker assumes the mantle of bellicose and ambitious prophet, proclaiming, as the century starts, that mankind is in for a transformation of Copernican proportions. There is a shorter, more modest, and more trustworthy volume huddling in the folds of this one, but maybe it's better that it had not been written. Since this book is nothing less than a manifesto for a scientific revolution, we might as well have the whole agenda on the table, prejudices and all.

Other writers, including the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson and the philosopher Daniel Dennett, call for a bracing synthesis of computer science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and genetics. But they were interested primarily in theory building. Pinker focuses on the social and cultural implications of the synthesis. As he sees it, the "new sciences of human nature" will change the way we think about sex, violence, child rearing, education, social conflict, and the arts. In other words, it will reformulate our vision of human life. But as is always the case with such radical proposals, there is an obstacle or enemy in the way. For Pinker, it's the notion of the Blank Slate, the idea that who we are owes everything to history, society, and culture -- but absolutely nothing to biology.

Pinker traces the blank slate to philosopher John Locke's notion of a Tabula Rasa, acknowledging that, in the 17th century, the concept had a democratic edge, challenging leftover feudal assumptions about the divine right of rulers. Since then, however, the idea has congealed into a dogma promulgated by figures as diverse as Steven Jay Gould and Mao Zedong, Walt Disney, and Big Brother. In fact, Big Brother gives the doctrine definitive modern form. In a passage Pinker quotes from Orwell's "1984," the main character is told that "you are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable."

Big Brother, Pinker knows, is more about Communism than Nazism. Nazism drew on a bastardized notion of genetics: if you were a Jew no amount of mere culture could turn you into an Aryan. But, in Pinker's view, fears of a Nazi comeback reinforce a reigning "taboo" on facing simple truths concerning the power of genetics. Merely to admit the scientifically indisputable fact that genes accounts for 50% of who we are is enough, as Pinker sees it, to set off alarm bells in our culture.

With regard to politics, Pinker's approach is even-handed: there's something for everyone to resent. So far as pure theory goes, he is more sympathetic to what he calls the right-wing's Tragic vision -- that, contrary to Big Brother, there are nonnegotiable limits to social engineering -- than to the left- wing's Utopian view -- that a Blank Slate is always ready to be rewritten. Still, this book may ruffle right-wing feathers more, since one of Pinker's core points is that morality, no less than a proclivity for violence, is part of human nature, and can stand on its own without any help from religion.

Pinker doesn't aim for originality in this book, but to provide a pointed summary of findings in the relevant fields. For example, when explaining where the non-genetic half of human character comes from, he leans heavily on recent work by Judith Harris. In her book, "The Nurture Assumption", she claimed that the 50% of personality that isn't nature isn't nurture either, at least not in the usual sense of parental influence. Our parents shape us by giving us their genes, period. After that, we are influenced by peer groups. So much, then, for that homespun Freudian narrative on the theme of: I am this way because my mother did this and my father that. sPinker and Harris claim that kind of story has run out of gas. They urge us to park it for a while, clearing the air of the guilt and blame that are its inevitable byproducts.

The devil in Pinker's book isn't in arguments like this, which can be engrossing. It's partly in the tone. Pinker sounds much like conservatives did during the Reagan Presidency. They were the majority, but couldn't give up the pretense that they remained a band of outsiders, bravely speaking for unfashionable truths. Despite Pinker's assumption of underdog status, his views, for the most part, couldn't be more mainstream. And they didn't win pride of place because people hunkered down with the collected works of E.O. Wilson and mastered sociobiology. They won because millions have taken Prozac or related drugs and, suddenly, life with Mom and Dad seemed less important than serotonin and bugs in neural wiring. Genetics has gone mainstream, not because people are thrilled to death about the details of protein folding, but because the mapping of the human genome was a monster media event, like landing on the moon. Genes are hot. Between brains and computers, wiring always makes the news. And everyone today is an armchair evolutionist, cooking up a scenario about how this trait or that behavior helped get the species to its current state.

The truth is that Pinker and his cohorts are in power. Why, then, the aggrieved and vengeful tone? Partly it's about mopping up pockets of resistance, and partly about settling old scores (Steven Jay Gould is now beyond the range of the multifarious tortures Pinker would devise for him.) But mostly Pinker is acerbic and confrontational because his view is as radical and thoroughgoing as any of the utopian schemes he scorns. Pinker knows we evolved with naive notions of how the mind and the world works. Those versions served us well enough for tens of thousands of years, but are unsuited to our freakishly complex civilization. Pinker wants to eradicate them wholesale and replace them with the counter-intuitive lessons of modern science. For example, we are predisposed to think in polarities -- clean and unclean, sacred and profane, permitted and taboo. But the outcomes we care about in the world today elude such absolutes. They need to be grasped in terms of costs and benefits, calculated in terms of probabilities. Hence, Pinker advocates that we drop the classics from the educational curriculum and teach our children statistics.

That's not such a terrible idea, on the face of it. But he doesn't really believe classics are the problem, as if the increasingly rare propagation of Greek and Latin could hold back a scientific revolution. By classics, Pinker means literature and the arts. And when Pinker gets started on the arts, he sounds less like the brilliant linguist and cognitive psychologist he is, and more like a hatchet man for some Central Committee of the New Synthesis. If you have any regard for Picasso and Joyce, van Gogh or Stravinsky, don't skip to the chapter on the arts, or you'll be sorry you bought the book.

Modern art is a dirty word for Pinker. van Gogh (van Gogh!), Picasso, and Stravinsky et al, have broken faith with the tastes in music, visual art and narrative that constitute our evolutionary heritage, and are the universals of our species, manifest in every culture. Pinker will grab at any argument to hammer this point home, including ones so patently false you wonder if you can take his word for the scores of surveys and studies he cites earlier. For example, he writes: "Western museum collectors plundered the prehistoric treasures of Africa, Asia, and the Americas not to add to the ethnographic record but because their patrons found the works beautiful to gaze at." Really? If the virtues of African art were so immediately apparent, why did literally tons of the stuff languish for decades in museums of natural history next to meteors and bones, rather than being showcased in art museums?

When talking about art, Pinker reveals the mailed fist of the new synthesis. Comrade van Gogh: less agitation, if you will, calm vistas, soothing views of rivers and trees, please. Comrade Joyce, what do you mean by sullying the tastes of the masses with your filthy and obscure excrescences? To this attitude, it's only fitting to respond that it is peculiar that Pinker honors the limitless complexity of science, but purges any semblance of complexity from the arts. Does this show that underneath it all, the genetic view only has contempt for the depth and variety of human culture?

Twentieth-century dictators spoke on behalf of a class or a race. Pinker presumes to speak for the genome itself. We'd all be safer if he stuck to linguistics rather than social engineering. Yes, the Tabula Rasa is outdated, but Tabula Pinker is no solution.

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