Blank Slate reviewed

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Nov 18 07:55:37 MST 2002

The New Yorker, Nov. 18, 2002

Does evolution explain who we are?

"The new sciences of human nature." Well, why not? The old sciences of
human nature didn't have such a fabulous track record. They gave us
segregated drinking fountains, "invented spelling," and the glass
ceiling—all consequences of scientific theories about the way human
beings really are. Possibly, there is a lesson there, which is that the
sciences of human nature tend to validate the practices and preferences
of whatever regime happens to be sponsoring them. In totalitarian
regimes, dissidence is treated as a mental illness. In apartheid
regimes, interracial contact is treated as unnatural. In free-market
regimes, self-interest is treated as hardwired. Maybe this is unfair to
the new sciences of human nature, though. It could be that the problem
with the old sciences was simply that they weren't scientific
enough—that they were mostly wishful thinking projected onto dubious
data about skull size and the effects of estrogen on the ability to
balance a checkbook. Today's scientists might have the capacity to get
right down there among the chromosomes and the neurotransmitters, and to
send back reports, undistorted by fear, favor, or the prospect of
funding, about what's going on. Maybe the new sciences of human nature
are really scientific. It's worth a look.

Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at M.I.T. and the author of an
entertaining and popular book on language (his specialty), called "The
Language Instinct," and a more wide-ranging volume, also popular, called
"How the Mind Works." His new book, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial
of Human Nature" (Viking; $27.95), recycles some of the material
published in "How the Mind Works" but puts it to a more prescriptive
use. Pinker has a robust faith in "the new sciences of human nature"
(his phrase)—he was formerly the director of M.I.T.'s Center for
Cognitive Neuroscience—but his views in "The Blank Slate" are based
almost entirely on two branches of the new sciences: evolutionary
psychology and behavioral genetics.

These are both efforts to explain mind and behavior biologically, as
products of natural selection and genetic endowment. Unless you are a
creationist, there is nothing exceptionable about the approach. If
opposable thumbs are the result of natural selection, there is no reason
not to assume that the design of the brain is as well. And if we inherit
our eye color and degree of hairiness from our ancestors we probably
inherit our talents and temperaments from them, too. The question isn't
whether there is a biological basis for human nature. We're organisms
through and through; biology goes, as they say, all the way down. The
question is how much biology explains about life out here on the
twenty-first-century street.

Pinker's idea is that it explains much more than some people—he calls
these people "intellectuals"—think it does, and that the failure, or
refusal, to acknowledge this has led to many regrettable things,
including the French Revolution, modern architecture, and the crimes of
Josef Stalin. Intellectuals deny biology, according to Pinker, because
it interferes with their pet theories of mind and behavior. These are
the Blank Slate (the belief that the mind is wholly shaped by the
environment), the Noble Savage (the notion that people are born good but
are corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that
there is a nonbiological agent in our heads with the power to change our
nature at will). The "intellectuals" in Pinker's book are social
scientists, progressive educators, radical feminists, academic Marxists,
liberal columnists, avant-garde arts types, government planners, and
postmodernist relativists. The good guys are the cognitive scientists
and ordinary folks, whose common sense, except when it has been damaged
by listening to intellectuals, generally correlates with what cognitive
science has discovered. I wish I could say that Pinker's view of the
world of ideas is more nuanced than this.


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