Pinker reviewed in the NY Review of Books

Sam Pawlett gusm at uniserve.com
Sat Feb 8 23:35:51 MST 2003





> Received from Jim Farmelant, a Marxmail subscriber.

>

> Like myself, and one or
> two other people, Orr finds Pinker guilty of bashing strawmen (How many
> thinking people now a days accept a radical Blank Slate view?).

Yes, very much so. One of Pinker's many problems is defining  the Blank State as
the notion  that humans are infinitely malleable by culture or social forces.
*Noone* has ever believed that. Pinker picks a few extreme statements from likely
culprits Chairman Mao, Durkheim, Skinner, and J.Watson and then concludes that the
Blank Slate is a secular religion influencing intellectuals and politicians across
the scholarly and political spectrum. It is a nasty secular religion that has led
to disastrous social policy and political dictatorship.

  Another mistake he makes is confusing the denial of human nature over
disagreement with what that nature actually is (I'll give some examples when I post
my own review of this awful book.) Many scholars whom Pinker takes to be Blank
Slate theorists simply had positive views of human nature e.g. Locke, Rousseau,
Marx et.al. Because someone believes that culture, history, and socio-economic
factors influence a person's behavior does not entail a denial of human nature and
a belief in social engineering does not entail Pol Potism (Pinker is a bit more
careful with that last point than most right-wingers). I think only the early
behaviorists can be called Blank Slate theorists i.e. they denied any human nature
or hardwiring of the brain.

  The two other pillars of Pinker's book, the idea of the Noble Savage and Ghost in
the Machine are red herrings which have nothing to do with each other or with Blank
Slate. The Noble Savage (something Pinker picks up from an incorrect reading of
Rousseau) is *not* a denial of human nature, it's just a belief that human nature
is social or decent (or at least more decent than Hobbes or Pinker's views.) Any
empirical look at pre-modern societies will confirm this. This is Pinker's real
target: the view that human nature is better than capitalist patriachical society
allows it to be. The Ghost in the Machine or substance dualism was refuted 50 years
ago by Wittgenstein and G.Ryle. Noone outside organized religion believes that. It
is irrelevant.

  Another problem is sampling bias. It is easy to choose inmates from maximum
security prisons and then prove that human nature is evil. Are these inmates
showing off  their evil naturally selected human natures or are they that way
because they were raped and physically beaten as children? How can one tell and
where does the cycle stop?

Pinker tries hard but ultimately ends up endorsing a weak version of the Blank
Slate himself: "Humans behave flexibly *because* they are programmed: their minds
are packed with combinatorial software that can generate an unlimited set of
thoughts and behavior.Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the
mental programs that generate it need not vary." p40-1. First of all, why the use
of the terms "unlimited" and "software"? Hardware is usually the terms used to
speak of a fixed nature of some kind. And 'unlimited' makes him sound like Mao in
1956.  So what we have is a fixed human nature that *programmes* people into being
Blank Slates.  Humans are Blank Slates, it's just that we are programmed (by our
genes, presumably) to be that way. Not much of a step forward for science but o.k.
I haven't read the second part of the book yet but this isn't going to fit with
evolutionary psychology.

Pinker in this book unwittingly undermines the explanatory power of his beloved
evolutionary psychology:

"..consider the roundworm which has about 18,000 genes (humans have about
34,000--Pinker's numbers-SP). By the logic of the (anti) genome editorialists, it
should be twice as free, be twice as diverse and have twice as much potential as a
human being. In fact it is a microscopic worm...it eats, mates, approaches and
avoids certain smells, and that's about it." p76. Incidentally, this last bit is a
pretty good description of the lives of many humans living under the capitalist
system. So if the roundworm came to have 34,000 genes would it come to resemble a
human being?  Pinker concludes the above quotation with: "This alone should make it
obvious that our freedom and diversity of behavior come from having a complex
biological  makeup, not a simple one.(p76) This complexity does not come from the
number of genes. Looks like Pinker must give up the idea that genes or genic
selection influences behvior in any significant way or the idea that the most
important type of natural selection is genic selection.

just a few points.

Sam Pawlett



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