Biology vs. the Blank Slate

Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker deconstructs the great myths about how the mind works.

Steven Pinker has been called "science's agent provocateur" by the Guardian, named an "evolutionary pop star" by Time, hailed as a "wunderkind" by The Washington Post, and acclaimed by the London Times as both a "world-class cognitive psychologist" and a "stud-muffin of science." Yet Pinker, a professor of psychology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is more than a scientific superstar. He's also the author of the bestsellers How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct. His new book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking), is likely to continue his string of publishing successes -- and to keep him at the red-hot center of discussions over the meaning and implications of the increasingly important field of evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker argue that the human mind, like the human body, has been designed by natural selection through the process of biological evolution. Insights from evolutionary psychology are dramatically transforming the ways in which political scientists, economists, anthropologists, social psychologists, linguists, and cultural studies critics think about social and political institutions. If Pinker and his colleagues are right, it turns out that there really is an innate human nature common to all people.

To be sure, this is not your grandfather's human nature. Evolutionary psychologists argue that the brain is a physical system with built-in neural circuits designed to generate environmentally appropriate behavior. These neural circuits are specialized for handling different adaptive problems, and most brain functioning is unconscious. Because our brains evolved to handle problems faced by our Stone Age ancestors, some innate behaviors are maladaptive in the modern world. These range from our tendency to divide people into in-groups and out-groups to our sweet tooth, which helped our ancestors select ripe fruit in a world where food was scarce, but leads to obesity for many in societies where food is abundant. Innate brain modules exist for activities such as social learning, language, feeding, mating, and many other unconscious behaviors. Many of these neural circuits have been mapped by brain scans and by clinical studies of brain-damaged people.

Evolutionary psychology is addressing age-old questions about human nature. Are people inherently good? Are they social animals? Are they rational, utility-maximizing individuals? If both nature and nurture shape our characters and determine our destinies, what is the precise contribution of each? Do we have free will? These questions lie at the heart of centuries-long political, philosophical, and religious conflicts. And the answers inform how we think social, political, and economic life should be organized.

Evolutionary psychology discomfits many intellectuals and scientists and Pinker has been savagely attacked by both the left and the right. Marxists such as Harvard's Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould assert that evolutionary psychology is little more than fatuous cocktail party speculation, while conservative commentators in The Weekly Standard and First Things charge Pinker with trying to undermine the religious basis of morality.

The Blank Slate, which combines scientific insights from genetics, neuroscience, computer science, and evolutionary biology, is Pinker's rejoinder to such critics. In it, he masterfully deconstructs what he calls the main "myths" about human psychology that have dominated and distorted intellectual discourse about human nature for the last century.

Pinker, a native of Montreal, received his B.A. from McGill University in 1976 and his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in 1979. After serving on the faculties of Harvard and Stanford he moved to MIT in the early 1980s.

Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey and Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie spoke with Pinker this May in Washington, D.C., where he delivered a lecture at the Carnegie Institution.

Reason: What is the aim of your new book, The Blank Slate?

Steven Pinker: To explore why the concept of human nature and biological approaches to the mind in general are seen as so politically suspect. Why do they arouse so much emotion? Why do people think that there are great moral issues at stake, as opposed to empirical issues about how the human mind works?

Some of the issues I explore are concerns of the left, which sees evolutionary and genetic approaches to the mind as reactionary. Others annoy the right, which thinks that a materialist view of the mind that incorporates computation, neuroscience, evolution, and genetics undermines the basis of morality and leaves us with only a dangerous amoralism.

Reason: You talk about three modern "myths" in the book: the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. Explain them briefly.

Pinker: The blank slate is the doctrine that the mind has no unique structure and that its entire organization comes from the environment via socialization and learning. The blank slate mentality is popular with people who believe that any human trait can be altered with the right changes in social institutions. It's popular in the more radical branches of feminism, although not with the original core of feminism that stressed the drive for equity between the sexes. I think it allies to some degree with Marxist approaches to society. Not that Marx literally believed in a blank slate, but he certainly believed that you could not intelligently discuss human nature separate from its ever-changing interaction with the social environment.

The doctrine of the noble savage is that people have no evil impulses, that all malice is a product of social institutions. The noble savage myth is behind the sensibility that violence is learned behavior, a slogan that is repeated endlessly whenever violence is chronicled in the news. It's also behind the Romantic idea that violent nonconformists are actually seeing the hypocrisy of society and challenging social institutions from a marginalized viewpoint, as opposed to the idea that such people are psychopaths and that we should prevent them from wreaking havoc on everyone else.

The doctrine of the ghost in the machine is that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus of free will and choice and which can't be reduced to a function of the brain. The ghost in the machine [idea] lies behind the religious and cultural right -- literally in the case of people who want to couch the stem cell debate in terms of when ensoulment occurs.

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