The Blank Slate

The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Steven Pinker

Pinker’s recent lecture ‘A Brief History of Violence’ introduced me to his thought. It was not a great first impression. Even cursory research revealed grave flaws in his evidence and reasoning. When it came to delivering a talk of my own recently, part of which analyzed the concept of the “noble savage”, I intended to criticize Pinker. But should I base my attack on a YouTube video? Surely even neo-Darwinians deserve better than that. I wrestled with the idea of giving money to someone I’d already taken a dislike to, but my integrity got the better of me and I bought a copy of the work that his “history of violence” is rooted in: The Blank Slate.

Certainly his analysis of warfare and violence, in relation to anthropological and archaeological evidence, contains some lumps of bullshit along with its grains of truth. But serious problems such as this notwithstanding, the further I got with this book, the more I was prepared to give it space. I found Pinker not as irritatingly reductionist, nor as naively determinist as many critics claim. And the bulk of his argument seems to be very useful fodder for debate, at worst, and compelling, myth-breaking reading at best.

His central claims revolve around the intertwined “Three Modern Dogmas”: the idea that humans have no innate traits (“the Blank Slate”) the idea that we are born good and corrupted by culture (“the Noble Savage”) and the idea that there’s is some immaterial part of us that is free of biological influence (“the Ghost in the Machine”). There’s an immediate clash between the first two: how can the idea that we have no innate traits be intertwined with the idea that we are born good? Pinker points to the connotations of “blankness” as “unsullied”: pure, clean, flawless, and so on. This doesn’t wholly tackle the issue; but in the end I think he’s justified, for the sake of argument, to forget the subtleties of this point and plough ahead with the way in which these two general doctrines do actually interrelate.

Generally, the book brings recent research in evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics to bear on questions that, for most of the 20th century, in the wake of the Holocaust especially, have been intensely loaded with political charge. I do agree with left-wing critics that some of the ostensibly scientific material around “sociobiological” arguments are dubious fodder for dubious belief systems such as free market economics and right-wing libertarianism. Nevertheless, I’ve never had much time for thought rigidly grounded in Marxism, and—as Pinker ably demonstrates—the aversion that left-leaning intellectual culture has to genetics-oriented research into personality and behaviour, using Nazi ideology as a demonic touchstone, conveniently forgets the atrocities committed in the name of communism. Why has the idea that our genes contain at least some portion of who we are been tainted so heavily by Josef Mengele, yet the idea that we are wholly shaped by our environment has shrugged off the legacy of Stalin and Mao?

Regarding the “Noble Savage”, I take issue with his definition of it as the idea that we are born good and corrupted by society. The concept (whose tangled history has been mapped by Ter Ellingson) is of course bound up with our view of pre-state cultures in the corners of today’s world they’ve been pushed into and in prehistory. And it makes the gargantuan mistake of assuming that ethnographic accounts of “primitive” life say anything about our pre-cultural state as newborn babies. This is purely a hangover from the early colonial attitude that, without King and Country, people lived without society or culture at all, in Hobbes’ famed brutish “war of all against all”. I’ve no doubt that Pinker would be the first to acknowledge that tribal cultures are indeed cultures, subject to historical change and modification of the “state of nature”. But he doesn’t explicitly deal with the issue here, which is a grave omission. Ellingson shows that even Rousseau, the falsely-accused originator of the “Noble Savage” ideology, was careful to draw this distinction.

This leads directly into his uncritical use of Lawrence Keeley’s work in arguing for a revision of the human story in which, contrary to the “Noble Savage” mythology that sees us falling from a state of peaceful harmony with nature into the nightmares of civilization, he sees us gradually becoming more peaceful, more just, and more moral. Pinker’s small bar chart, adapted from Keeley, showing male mortality rates from several of the most violent contemporary hunter-gatherer societies compared to the relatively low rates for the West in the 20th century, certainly undercuts the idea that every bunch of foragers out there now are basking in Eden while we suffer the Hell of modernity. But the undeniable impacts of European colonial history on these cultures is neglected, as is the lack of archaeological evidence for organized violence extending very far before the discovery of agriculture, and this selective data from the present is projected right across the 200,000 years of our species’ existence. (See R. Brian Ferguson‘s work for good counters to Keeley that rely in no way any “noble savage” naivety.)

This dodgy foray into the paleoanthropology of war probably ranks alongside Richard Dawkins’ feeble grasp of theology, and certainly argues further that prominent scientific figures, apparently so keen to combat the spread of ideology unsupported by science, should stick to what they’re good at when publishing major works.

(Curiously, Donald Brown’s fascinating list of “Human Universals“, traits found in all known cultures, which Pinker proudly—and rightly—presents in an appendix as evidence against the Blank Slate, omits “war”. Elsewhere he argues for our innate capacity for self-deception and selectivity, which he certainly does a good job of demonstrating here, cherry-picking scholarship to support his thesis.)

It’s probably a prudent tactic, if you read someone discussing something you actually know something about, and you see them being ham-fisted at best, to assume that this may well be happening in other arenas they discuss that you can’t judge so well. But even with that caveat, much of the rest of this book gripped me. His contention is that people concerned with equality, social justice, and other traditional rallying points of the left (and he counts himself as one), should think very carefully about aligning themselves with scientific theories (like the Blank Slate) that are under increasing threat—at the very least—from scientific data. If your justification for morality is rooted in a scientific theory, which by definition must be falsifiable, what happens if it’s falsified?

This is of course the dread felt by many people in the face of behavioural genetics. They feel it falsifies the Blank Slate, the bedrock upon which much of their theories rest, and they fear that rampant selfishness, brutality and oppression will be unleashed if this bedrock vanishes. Much of this book is devoted to trying to argue that this fear is (thankfully) unfounded, and if anything, behavioural genetics can provide a firmer grounding for our moral thought. Details of the sometimes physical attacks on evolutionary approaches to studying society and psychology clearly show the irrationality of its opponents; and the blanket assumption that people working in the field are merely justifying reactionary personal politics is complexified, at least, by pointing out some facts (such Robert Trivers‘ membership of the Black Panthers, and another vehemently-attacked researcher’s involvement in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement).

He specifically addresses crucial issues related to the discoveries of sociobiology, such as gender and rape, with candour and rigour. Perhaps my favourite illustration of the disarming nature of this book, though, is found in his discussion of children; more specifically, the debate about how much parental attitudes affect our development. Anyone ready to shoot Pinker down for biological determinism will be shocked here. After ploughing through the latest studies of twins, adopted children, and so on, he concludes that the ratios for influence can be summed up as:

Genes 50 percent, Shared Environment [i.e. what is common to two or more children in the same family] 0 percent, Unique Environment 50 percent (or if you want to be charitable, Genes 40-50 percent, Shared Environment 0-10 percent, Unique Environment 50 percent).

The argument is against our recent tendency to focus on what parents can do to “raise children properly”, to stimulate them properly as babies, to love them properly, and so on. Pinker argues that the bulk of this stuff is nonsense and has no effect.

“So you’re saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my children?” is Pinker’s characterization of the standard disgusted response—again, that fear of morality collapsing without environmental determinism. “What a question!” is his justified response. If parents accept that they have a minimal effect on what kind of person their child might become, does this mean they may as well neglect or abuse them? Pinker turns the question around and asks, would you treat your partner badly if you found out you couldn’t change who they are? Nobody (except newlyweds, Pinker chips in) really believes they can change their partner, but they love them for who they are because they want to maintain a good relationship. Stated like this, the emphasis on “proper” ways to bring up children does begin to look a little like modern anxiety. After all, Pinker argues, why do we usually react with such horror at the idea of controlling the creation of children by selective genetic techniques, yet react with a different horror when someone suggests we can’t control who they are with external manipulation? This is one of the points where my estimation of Pinker’s efforts rocketed.

Further, that important “Unique Environment 50 percent” aspect of our development is acknowledged to contain, alongside peer group influence, a large element of chance. OK, randomness is hardly an unusual concept for a Darwinian to rally to his cause. But equally, those accusations of determinism seem to be a bit much. If “chance” seems a bit cold and blind, just call it “spontaneity” and read some Lao-Tzu.

Reductionism is the other repeated accusation, and there’s a certain amount of that. There’s a bizarre passage which (inspired by Daniel Dennett’s concept of “greedy reductionism“) tries to claim there’s “good” and “bad” reductionism. “Good reductionism” apparently “consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them.” To me that sounds a little like saying “good violence” is where, instead of hitting you in the face, I hug you.

But I’ve always considered the essence of reductionism to be attitude. Even if it could be proven incontrovertibly that spiritual experience is “just” the experience of biochemical mechanisms (which will never happen), that word “just” would be the mark of the reductionist attitude. It’s the carpet that is used to sweep things under. The spiritual experience itself, phenomenologically, if it’s genuine, would be unchanged. The non-reductionist’s attitude would be, “Those biochemical mechanisms are astonishing!”

And here, in the end, is where we find Pinker:

Yes, science is, in a sense, “reducing” us to the physiological processes of a not-very-attractive three-pound organ. But what an organ!