Continuing my series of old essays and talks about human nature that I have not previously published on Pandaemonium, this is a review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and John Gray’s Straw Dogs. It was first published in Prospect, October 2002.
Review of The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker and
Straw Dogs by John Gray, Prospect, October 2002
The psychologist Geoff Miller has called it a ‘paradigm shift’: the restoration of human nature into discussions of human behaviour, political policy and social organisation. Where once the idea of human nature was treated with suspicion and ridicule, today there is barely a human activity for which someone does not have an evolutionary account.
A key figure in bringing about this change in the intellectual climate has been the psychologist Steven Pinker. Books such as The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works have established Pinker’s reputation both as one of the finest science writers of his generation and as a swashbuckling champion of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.
Pinker, however, remains unconvinced that there has been an intellectual transformation. Human nature, he insists, remains ‘a modern taboo’. It’s a taboo ‘that distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse and our day-to-day lives.’ In his new book, The Blank Slate, Pinker seeks to restore balance to the discussion of what it is to be human.
The ‘modern denial of human nature’, he argues, is rooted in three beliefs – the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. According to the Blank Slate view, human infants are born with empty heads and acquire all their knowledge socially. The ideology of the Noble Savage suggests that humans are naturally born good, and that society corrupts their innate goodness. The Ghost in the Machine is the term that the philosopher Gilbert Ryle gave (with ‘deliberate abusiveness’, he said) to Descartes’ view of the mind as an immaterial spirit distinct from the physical world.
Many social scientists cling to these three beliefs – what philosophers would call empiricism, romanticism and dualism – because, Pinker suggests, they are gripped by a politically-inspired dread of human nature. The Blank Slate unpicks the main political and moral fears, in particular the worry that scientific theories of human nature might legitimise inequality, undermine moral responsibility, and lead to nihilism by robbing human life of any meaning. Not only are ‘claims about human nature less dangerous than many people think’, Pinker argues, but ‘the denial of human nature can be more dangerous than people think.’
There is much to admire about The Blank Slate, not least the wit and panache with which it is written. I agree with much of the criticism of the blank slate view (though it is worth asking who it is that still believes in it) and with Pinker’s dismissal of most of the political and moral fears about the concept of human nature.
The Blank Slate is, however, more than simply an argument about the importance of human nature. For Pinker, the blank slate view is not so much an incorrect vision of human behaviour as a general-purpose bogeyman responsible for every bad idea in the twentieth century – or, at least, every one that Pinker dislikes. Among the horrors laid at its door are totalitarianism, relativism, progressive education, modernist art, postmodernist literature, atonal music, bad public housing, liberal criminology, unacceptable child rearing practices and hostility to biotechnology. The ideology of the Noble Savage, in the meantime, ‘invites contempt for the principles of democracy’ and, most bizarrely, is held responsible for the rise of celebrity culture. The only things that seem to be missing from the list are Islamic fundamentalism and the events of September 11.
Pinker want, not just to demolish the bad ideas to which he believes we still cling but also to lay the foundations for a new vision of what it is to be human, to provide a ‘scientific explanation for the tragedy of the human condition’. Recent advances in genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and artificial intelligence have certainly transformed the way we think about human nature, illuminating a variety of human behaviours from autism to sexual desire. Humans, however, are not simply natural beings and cannot be understood as if we were. Human history is as much about our emancipation from nature as about our embodiment in it.
The key to a science of human nature, Pinker argues, is the distinction between biological facts and human values. Human values are not rooted in nature, but arise in spite of nature. Pinker rejects both the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ (the belief that if something is natural, it must be good) and the ‘moralistic fallacy’ – the claim that if a trait is moral, it must be found in nature. This separation of nature and values allows Pinker to make mincemeat of the traditional criticism that evolutionary psychology provides an excuse for bad behaviour or reactionary practices. There is a difference, he points out, between explanation and exculpation. To explain a phenomenon is not to accept it as morally good. Men may be naturally promiscuous, but that does not necessarily make promiscuity right, nor does it necessarily excuse the behaviour of promiscuous men. ‘Nature is what we are put on this earth to rise above’, Pinker suggests, echoing Katharine Hepburn inThe African Queen.
But this separation of nature and values raises new problems. Human values, presumably, do not float down from the sky, but emerge out of human thought and behaviour. How then do they originate if not through ‘natural selection and neurophysiology’ which Pinker considers the basis of all human thought and behaviour?
This very question, Pinker retorts, ‘is itself a symptom of the Blank Slate’. Values to not enter our heads from the outside, but emerge organically from brain processes. Since the ‘mind is a system of many parts’, so ‘an innate desire is just one component among others’. Some innate faculties ‘may endow us with greed or lust or malice, but others may endow us with sympathy, foresight, self-respect, a desire for respect from others, and an ability to learn from our own experiences and those of our neighbours.’
Nature, in other words, has endowed us with both good and bad propensities, and particular values arise from the clash of these differing tendencies. This suggests that, contrary to Pinker’s previous argument, values are biological processes and are rooted in nature. It is difficult to distinguish this argument from that which Pinker condemns as the ‘moralistic fallacy’. The primatologist Frans de Waal – whom no one could accuse of being an advocate of the blank slate view – suggests acidly in his book The Ape and the Sushi Master that thinkers like Pinker ‘want to have it both ways: human behaviour is an evolutionary product except when it is hard to explain’. What is lacking in such arguments, de Waal points out, ‘is an indication of how we can possibly negate our genes’.
No one – not even the blankest of blank slate advocates – denies that human thoughts and behaviours are the products of brain processes, nor that our propensity to be moral beings may be an evolved trait. But this is not the same as explaining where those thoughts and values come from in the first place. Why, for instance, have we come to believe that slavery is wrong and the idea of equal worth good? Pinker suggests that everyone feels ‘revulsion… toward discrimination and slavery’, because it is in human nature to reject such treatment: ‘No one likes being enslaved. No one likes being humiliated.’
For most of human history, though, slavery was regarded as natural as individual freedom is today. Only in the past two hundred years have we begun to view the practice with revulsion. Why? Partly because of the political ideas generated by the Enlightenment, partly because of the changing economic needs of capitalism, and partly because of the social struggles of the enslaved and the oppressed. To understand human values such as the belief in equal worth we need to explore not so much human psychology as human history, society and politics.
Another way of putting this is that human nature is not simply natural. We often lose sight of this because of the ambiguity of the concept of human nature. On the one hand, human nature means that which expresses the essence of being human, what Darwinists call ‘species-typical’ behaviour. On the other, it means that which is constituted by nature; in Darwinian terms that which is the product of natural selection. In non-human animals the two meanings are synonymous. What dogs, bats or sharks typically do as a species, they do because of natural selection. But this is not true of humans. The human essence – what we consider to be the common properties of our humanity – is shaped as much by our history as by our biology.
A good illustration of the historicity of the human essence is, paradoxically, the universality of great art. Art, Pinker argues, is ‘in our genes’, because nature endows us with an innate aesthetic sense. Great artists, such as Shakespeare or Beethoven, are appreciated across cultures and over time because their work taps into the universal features of human nature. Modernism, on the other hand, has been an aesthetic failure, Pinker suggests, because it developed ‘out of a militant denial of human nature’.
Not only is this a crass view of modernism but also a misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s genius. Shakespeare did not simply articulate universal themes of love, lust and power; he also helped fashion a new vision of what it is to be human. Shakespeare’s characters speak to us in an entirely different way because, unlike previous literary figures, they possess a self-consciousness as we do. As the American critic Harold Bloom puts it, ‘Insofar as we ourselves value, and deplore, our own personalities, we are the heirs of Falstaff and Hamlet, and of all the persons who throng Shakespeare’s theater of what might be called the colors of the spirit.’
Shakespeare was not alone in developing a new language through which to understand our emotions and feelings. The kind of sensibility that Shakespeare brought to the stage, his near-contemporaries Rembrandt and Vermeer worked into a canvas, while Descartes gave it philosophical flesh. Rembrandt is regarded as the first, perhaps the greatest, of all self-portraitists because when we view his paintings we come face to face, for the first time in history, with a person, a self. It is impossible to look at his self-portraits, especially of old age, and not see Rembrandt himself. In a similar way, Vermeer’s paintings reveals the new eyes through which painters now viewed their subjects as persons. Meanwhile, in Descartes’ famous phrase cogito ergo sum, we can see the ‘I’ being used in a very different way than previously.
In the works of Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Descartes (and of others of their time) we can see the development of the modern sense of subjectivity, and of the individual as a rational agent. Human emotions may be furnished by evolution, but the self that possesses those emotions was forged in the furnace of history. That is why Shakespeare’s work is paradoxically both universal and contingent. It is universal because, today, whether we live in Britain or in Japan, we are able to recognise in his characters the workings of our own self. It is contingent because this concept of the self was not given by nature but made in history.
We can now see why Pinker shifts so uncomfortably between regarding human values as distinct from nature and human values as the product of biological processes. Humans do possess a dual character, as both biological and historical beings. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, and hence able to design ways of breaking the constraints of our biological and physical limitations.
The very development of the scientific method has exacerbated this paradox of being human. To study nature scientifically requires us to make a distinction between a humanity that is a thinking subject and a nature that presents itself to thought but is itself incapable of thought. When studying ‘external’ nature the distinction between the thinking subject and the object of study is easy to make. But with the study of human nature, such a neat division becomes impossible: humans are simultaneously the subject that thinks and the object of that thought. This is, in philosopher Kate Soper’s words, ‘the paradox of humanity’s simultaneous immanence and transcendence’. Nature ‘is that which Humanity finds itself within, and to which in some sense its belongs, and also that from which it seems excluded in the very moment it reflects upon either its otherness or its belongingness.’
The success of science in understanding nature has, paradoxically, generated deep problems for the scientific understanding of human nature. It seems crucial to think of humans as conscious agents capable of rational thought and collective action if science itself is to advance. But by making humans into conscious agents we seem to separate them off from the rest of nature, and hence suggest that the language of natural science cannot fully encompass our humanness.
Pinker, like many contemporary thinkers, attempts to resolve this conundrum by trying to understand human subjectivity as we might any other natural process. The self, he suggests, is just a description of a brain process. To say someone is responsible for their actions is to say that they possess a ‘functioning brain system that can respond to public contingencies of punishment’. Moral responsibility resides in certain ‘parts of the brain (primarily in the prefrontal cortex)’ that are able to inhibit violent or criminal behaviour ‘by anticipating how the community would respond to it’. To invoke the ‘self’ in any other sense, Pinker suggests, is to reintroduce the ghost into the machine.
Insofar as this is true, it is saying something trivial. Insofar as it is saying anything profound, it is untrue. Since brain processes underlie all thoughts and actions, so the ‘self’ in some sense must be a brain process. But to suggest that the self is simply a brain process is a bit like Margaret Thatcher’s infamous argument that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families’. Individuals and families constitute society. But society has an existence beyond those individuals and families.
Similarly, with selves. We cannot point to a ‘self’ in the way that we can point to a neuron. But that does not mean that neurons have a reality, and selves don’t. As the neurobiologist Joseph le Doux put it in a recent Prospect essay, ‘My assertion that synapses are the basis of personality does not mean that your personality is determined by synapses; it’s the other way round. Synapses are simply the brain’s way receiving, storing and retrieving our personalities, as determined by all the psychological, cultural and genetic factors.’
Selves are expressive of the human capacity to act as a subject, rather than simply exist as an object. The self distills the human capacity transcend our circumstances, to rise above nature as Katherine Hepburn might have put it. To talk of humans as ‘transcendent’ is not to ascribe to them spiritual properties. It is, rather, to recognise that as subjects we have the ability to transform our natures and our world, an ability denied to any other physical being. All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history.
There is, however, a widespread reluctance today to acknowledge this idea of humans as transformative beings. ‘Humans think they are free, conscious beings’, John Gray writes in his provocative new book Straw Dogs, ‘but in truth they are deluded animals’. Straw Dogs is a trenchant critique of humanism, the belief that humans ‘can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals’ and be ‘masters of their own destiny’ – in other words that they exist as subjects rather simply as objects. For Gray, Professor of Modern European Thought at the LSE, this is an absurd delusion. ‘We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies’, he asks. ‘Why then humans?’ Only, he suggests, because humanists deny what Darwin taught us: that humans are animals, and like all animals we are ‘only currents in the drift of genes’.
Like Pinker, Gray begins with the argument that humans can be understood simply as natural beings. Unlike Pinker, he dispenses with any attempt to reconcile such a view with humanist notions of freedom and morality. Instead, Gray accepts what he considers to be the logic of the naturalistic viewpoint: that morality is a ‘sickness’, freedom an ‘illusion’ and the self a ‘chimera’.
The whole of the Western rationalist tradition is doomed because it rests on the faith that ‘through science humankind can know truth – and so be free’. But, Gray argues, ‘if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible’. Drawinian processes are driven, not by the need to ascertain the truth, but to survive and reproduce. Accordingly, ‘the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.’ Indeed, ‘in the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury’, even a ‘disability’. Science, Gray suggests, reveals that ‘humans cannot be other than irrational’.
But science itself is a product of our poor, befuddled, irrational, Stone Age minds. If we cannot trust such minds to discover truths about the world, how can we accept the verities of science – including the theory of evolution? The logic of Gray’s argument undermines our confidence in its own veracity. For if we are just another animal, then we cannot place any trust in the claim that we are just another animal. Far from science revealing humans to be beings without consciousness and agency, we are only able to do science because of our ability not to be constrained by our evolutionary heritage, to be able to act as subjects, rather than merely as objects.
Straw Dogs is written not as a conventional book, but as a series of aphorisms and loosely connected thoughts. It is less a rational argument than the expression of a mood. But, given the rapture with which the book has been greeted in some quarters, it is clearly a mood that afflicts many.
A former Thatcherite who has long since become disillusioned with the social and economic changes that Thatcherism wrought, Gray has increasingly come to question the very value of the political process. ‘Those who struggle to change the world’, he writes, are merely seeking ‘consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear’. Their ‘faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality’. We’re all going to die anyway, seems to be the argument, so why bother with grand schemes of social change? ‘The freest human being’, Gray suggests, ‘is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose’ – a sentiment that might appear not simply antihumanist but also disturbingly authoritarian.
Steven Pinker would undoubtedly reject Gray’s misanthropic antihumanism. Indeed, he suggests that his aim is to create a new, ‘biologically aware humanism’. Yet the logic of Pinker’s argument about human nature takes him in the same political direction as Gray, even if not to such a nihilistic conclusion. In the most important chapter of The Blank Slate, Pinker explores the relationship between evolutionary psychology and contemporary politics. He rightly dismisses the argument that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are inherently reactionary. But, he acknowledges, ‘the new sciences of human nature really do resonate with assumptions that historically were closer to the right than to the left’.
Drawing on the work of the American economist Thomas Sowell, Pinker suggests that there are two broad visions of what it is to be human: the Tragic and the Utopian. The Tragic Vision recognises that humans are ‘inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits’. Such limitations highlight the importance the importance of tradition: ‘Religion, the family, social customs, sexual mores and political institutions are a distillation of time-tested techniques that let us work around the shortcomings of human nature.’ It is a vision associated with Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper – and now John Gray.
In the Utopian Vision, by contrast, ‘psychological limitations are artefacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.’ Traditions are regarded as ‘the dead hand of the past, the attempt to rule from the grave’, and hence must be subject to the scrutiny of reason. Only in this fashion have we rid ourselves of practices such as absolute monarchy, slavery and patriarchy ‘that were once thought to be rooted in human nature’. It is a vision Pinker attributes to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, John Kenneth Galbraith and Ronald Dworkin.
‘The new sciences of human nature’, Pinker suggests, ‘vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook’. Science has revealed the primacy of family ties, the limited scope of communal sharing, and the universality of violence, dominance and ethnocentrism. It has shown human nature to be fixed, human beings to be flawed and human politics constrained by the inadequacies of the human psyche. Since ‘our moral sentiments, no matter how beneficent, overlie a deeper bedrock of selfishness’, so Pinker suggests, ‘we should not aim to solve social problems like crime or poverty, because in a world of competing individuals one person’s gain may be another person’s loss. The best we can do is to trade off one cost against another.’ Or, as John Gray puts it, ‘The good life is not found in dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies.’
Evolutionary psychology has certainly thrown light on many aspects of human behaviour. But it has not revealed humans to be innately ethnocentric or selfish, nor that crime and poverty are ineradicable aspects of the human condition. It is not the science of human nature that has undermined utopian visions. Rather the political demise of utopianism, has given credibility to certain interpretations of evolutionary psychology.
The barbarous history of the twentieth century – two World Wars and the Holocaust, gulags and ethnic cleansing, global warming and species depletion – has left many people disillusioned about what it means to be human. Every impression that Man makes upon the world, many have come to believe, is always for the worse. ‘For the first time since 1750’, Michael Ignatieff wrote in Prospect, ‘people experience history not running forwards, from savagery to civilisation, but backwards to barbarism’.
The result, as Straw Dogs so strikingly reveals, has been a growth of anti-humanism, of despair about human capacities, a view of human reason as a force for destruction rather than for betterment. These views have been strengthened by changes of past two decades – the collapse of Marxism, disillusionment with ideas of social transformation, the seeming irrelevance of politics to our lives. In this process utopianism has become a dirty word, standing for the hubristic belief that human reason can solve human problems, a belief that, many feel, can only lead to totalitarianism.
The consequence of all this has been the increased acceptance that we should limit our political horizons, that we should look to manage rather than to overcome problems, and that we should look to science to explain why we cannot do certain things rather than to politics to see how we can. Against this background many have read evolutionary accounts of human nature as explanations of human limits, as scientific validation of the impossibility of social solutions to our most deep-seated problems.
‘To try and do something which is inherently impossible’, the conservative philosopher Michael Oakshott argued, ‘is always a corrupting enterprise.’ Oakshott, Pinker suggests, sums up the dangers of transgressing the limits revealed by evolutionary psychology. But without such transgression is any form of historical progress possible? And what could be more corrupting than accepting as inevitable problems that we might be able to tackle were we to attempt the impossible? As Pinker himself puts it, for Utopians, ‘the existence of suffering and injustice presents us with an undeniable moral imperative. We don’t know what we can achieve until we try, and the alternative of resigning ourselves to these evils as the way of the world, is unconscionable.’