Do we need a biological theory of human nature?
"There is nothing in the world so false and so absurd
that it is not believed to be true by very sensible people, whenever their minds
cannot find any way of coming to terms with the opposite and being at peace with
Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri, 54 (part)
Two questions about human nature
The two questions we need to address here are:
- Does a proper understanding of human nature require a
biological account of human nature?
- Is it possible to have an exclusively biological theory
of human nature?
The question left for discussion is:
- What are the consequences of our answers to the
In order to explore these questions we need to establish some
working definitions. Don’t worry about the finer points here. They’re intended
to map out positions, not accuse people of wrong doing.
Theories of human nature tend to blend two sets of persistent
Human nature is based on reason.
Our humanity is our rationality.
Rationalism is often associated with platonism, namely, the
idea that there is a something that explains every instance of a thing. This
something is usually hidden and not like the thing it explains. So here for
instance a platonist would say there is something biological that explains and
accounts for human nature and everything about human nature.
Human nature is part of nature as a whole.
Our humanity is given to us by dint of our birth.
Empiricism is usually associated with experiment and
aristotelianism, the idea that the explanation of a thing is to be found by
investigating the thing itself. This explanation is usually observable and part
of the thing itself. So here for instance an aristotelian would say there is
something about individual humans that accounts for human nature in all its
So like Pinker, you can be an aristotelian about method but a
platonist about theory. Pinker believes we can investigate the mind through
experimental science in a thoroughly aristotelian fashion. At the same time, he
wants a biological explanation of human nature to pin down exactly what it is.
In this he is a thoroughgoing platonist.
When considering how to account for human nature we usually
end up with one of three basic positions
Cartesian Dualism (from Descartes)
There is a categorical division between spirit/body,
mind/body, mind/brain, and so on.
Physical or Material or Biological Monism (e.g. La
There is only the physical, the material, the biological.
Everything should and can be explained in these terms using science
Another sort of monism
Everything is the way it is, in the way it is, but we
can’t explain by using science, at least not science as we know it e.g. holism,
Gaia, deep ecology, mysterianism
Of course you don’t have to accept one or any of these
positions but you do have to argue for your position and you will be expected to
account for it.
If you say, as Pinker does, the mind is what the brain does,
you are advancing cartesian dualism. If you say, as Pinker does, the proper
theory of human nature is a biological theory of human nature, you are advancing
biological monism, in the way La Mettrie introduced. So Pinker appears to be
both a cartesian dualist and a biological monist. This is a philosophically
tricky place to be.
Within philosophy, platonism is generally considered
naïve at best. Cartesian dualism has been rejected long ago though monism
has proved to be more problematic than first thought. From the point of view of
philosophy, experimental psychology is usually seen as being conducted by
platonists seeking a single, hidden, explanation on the basis of mind/brain
dualism dressed up as psychophysical monism.
Science and philosophy: Balancing or juggling?
For both science and philosophy, the important questions are:
Do you know what you’re investigating? Do you know what research you need to do?
And, do you really know what you’re talking about? Have you defined your
Science, especially non-physical science, works by
persuasion. It attempts to explain by observation and description why a
particular theory is a correct theory. In this way it is radically
underdetermined. Like syntax and semantics, no matter how much evidence is
presented this alone can never constitute a complete explanation; it can never
produce a theoretical proof. There is a qualitative difference between the
The reason for this is that science relies on data, and data
is just data. It doesn’t matter how much you have of it, it doesn’t turn into
something else, nor does it acquire new properties. No matter what you do with
it, it’s still just data. No one should be impressed simply by the amount of
data gathered or by the number of citations listed.
While evolutionary psychologists and practitioners of the new
sciences may choose to gather and use data from many studies in many areas, they
should not think that simply gathering data turns their beliefs into facts and
their ideas into reality. To do so is hubris.
The job of scientists is, then, to present, explain and
persuade while knowing that it just takes one piece of genuine disconfirming
evidence, such as Popper’s black swan, and the theory must be abandoned.
All human endeavour, scientific or otherwise, gives rise to
more than one view. We are faced with all the alternatives there are and no
fewer. We may, of course, choose to deny what is facing us and stick our heads
in the sand. We may misinterpret the view and grasp the wrong end of the stick.
We may choose one view and ignore the others. There are always ways to go off
track, disown knowledge and so on.
What this means is that there’s nothing uniquely special
about science. Science is not the only fruit. This, the balanced view, holds
that there are some things you can do with science and some things you cannot do
with science. This is true, no matter how many scientists work on the project
and how much money you can get to fund the project.
As for philosophy, the philosopher and biological Darwinian,
Daniel Dennett says that the job of philosophers is to clarify and unify the
sciences. While it would be nice to ascribe a clarificatory role to philosophy
it is not clear that philosophers can, or should presume to, unify the sciences
or anything else. On the other hand, there is a sense in which once something is
clarified it can be said to have been agreed. And once everyone agrees about
something, then it may seem reasonable to say that that something has been
If only it were that simple. What often happens when
philosophers play Dennett’s clarificatory role is that the people they’re trying
to help, the scientists and psychologists, feel insulted, take umbrage, and
choose to ignore these non-scientists and their presumptuous ilk. Once this has
happened then maybe the best you can hope for is books like The Blank Slate.
But surely we can do better this? While Pinker’s rejection of
the blank slate dogma is very welcome, he replaces this with the belief that
human nature is biological. This means that if psychologists only do enough work
in the new biological sciences they will discover what human nature ‘really’ is
and what lies behind our notions surrounding it. This commitment to biological
platonism is lapped up by an eager audience of the literate and the sincere.
So maybe we need to look at the basis of our biological and
scientific assumptions. Do we really think human nature is a biological entity,
or that it is to be accounted for purely in terms of biological entities?
Perhaps what we’re looking for is a gene, or a structure or distributed set of
structures in the brain, or maybe it’s the interaction between genes and brains
and nervous systems, and so on. There is, however, no merit in replacing a
mysterious non-physical or ‘spiritual’ entity/thing/term with a mysterious
physical entity/thing/term. If Plato didn't see this, Aquinas certainly did.
Today, however, our marvellous new sciences of evolutionary psychology,
cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience and behavioural genetics seem to be
making just this move. We are living in an age of biological platonism.
Nor can Pinker and his supporters say that debates about
platonism and cartesianism are outside the scope of their concern. Having
written a book about human nature and having presented the ideas he has, these
and other philosophical notions are at the heart of what he is doing, whether he
likes it or not.
On the balanced view, human nature is not just a question of
evolution even in the widest sense. Alongside the biological aspects, human
nature is about reasons and persons, thoughts and feelings, virtues and
emotions, and all sorts of non-biological stuff. It is not reducible to
description and explanation in terms of science, including the new sciences,
alone. What makes the balanced view, balanced, is that it is a fairly weak claim
allowing a major, even dominant, role for the biological sciences. All it
requires is that science does not explain it all.
While it may be commendable to offer a balanced position, we
may ask whether there is any balance to be had. Can we have a biological
approach and a philosophical approach to human nature, or is it a case of one or
the other and ne’er the twain shall meet? Pinker attempts to promote one at the
expense of the other, without remarking on this, while remaining very popular.
Richard Dawkins, memes excepted, attempts some sort of balance while provoking
ire and dislike. Daniel Dennett, it seems, gets things about right.
Can we deny human nature?
But we all, scientists and philosophers alike, may be wasting
our time. Pinker and others inform us that many empirical scientists deny that
there is such a thing as human nature. I’m not sure we can take this at face
value but nevertheless, this is truly alarming news.
One reason why scientists may feel like this is that, whether
they know it or not, human nature is not something that falls within the scope
of their enquiry. It may even be something that stands outside their notion of
what science, and hence they, can accept. So being an intelligent person doesn’t
stop you from adopting a blinkered approach that leads you to say and do very
stupid things. As your Grandma told you, ‘never listen to an expert off their
Well, we can’t all be experts but we can and increasingly do
read, take notice of and quote works of popular science. The question then
becomes does popular science help or does it hinder our understanding?
When it comes to The Blank Slate we could go on about how
popular science, by definition, isn’t real or proper science. But maybe we
should relax. Pinker isn’t writing a doctoral thesis or even a research report.
His stuff is popular not because it’s baby science but because it’s not written
in incomprehensible jargon and because he’s a nice guy that puts things well.
Alas, this won’t do. It is not sufficient to say that
Pinker’s books are popular works, as if the real arguments are to be found
elsewhere. That they are positioned in the popular genre of course means they
are fair game for journalists and commentators. And if these journalists and
commentators take up incorrect positions and say things that are false, then who
is to blame - the journalists and commentators for reading and remembering what
the books say, or the author, whoever they may be, for withholding the true,
Can genetics help?
One truth that very few people seem keen to publicise is that
we don't even know what a gene is. As John Dupre has pointed out, the concept of
a gene as a 'particle' passing on a specific trait, which originates with the
work of Mendel in the nineteenth century, is no longer useful and is deeply
problematic in relation to current understanding.
We would like to think that in evolutionary theory using the
phrase 'the gene for such and such' has a well-defined meaning tempered by the
reality of what genes are. This, however, is simply not true. Worse, when the
term gets picked up and used by the media then, it seems, anything goes. Stories
about discovering 'the gay gene' and 'genes for violence' for example show how
this use of language can lead science savvy people to make exaggerated and
The truth is that there’s nothing very special about genes.
Leading geneticists readily admit that we are more than the sum of our genes. It
is just that genes are often ascribed an exaggerated uniqueness in evolutionary
theory, and usually by non-geneticists.
The term ‘genes’ needs to become seen and used like the term
like 'cells', not trivial but nothing like the universal explanation it is often
taken to be. While many geneticists already use the term in this way many
psychologists, sociologists, journalists and educated people do not.
So, genes don’t explain it all, and they don’t explain human
Nature versus nurture, chicken versus egg
If genes alone aren’t going to provide us with a biological
account of human nature then Pinker and his supporters will have to look for
something to support them. Maybe we can appeal to nature and to nurture to give
us the basis of our biological account.
This will, however, embroil us in the chicken and egg of the
nature-nurture debate. We have long recognised the part played by both nature
and nurture in making us who we are, and of course, what is nurture if not an
aspect of nature? What this means is that the nature/nurture distinction is very
useful for starting debates but is worse than useless for producing any firm
conclusions. That this is significant in itself is often overlooked.
Worse follows. There are now clear empirical based problems
with talking about things in terms of nature and nurture. In particular, Pinker
draws our attention to the 50/50 puzzle.
The 50/50 puzzle
From our new sciences we have learned that genes matter in
the formation of personalities. About half of the variation in personality can
be attributed to differences in genes (nature). People then proceed directly to
the conclusion that the other half must come from the way your parents brought
you up (nurture). Half heredity, half environment, or half nature, half nurture.
While this would be a nice compromise, it is wrong! Behavioural
geneticists have found that the other 50% of the variation in personality is not
explained by which family you have been brought up in.
Now everyone knows that identical twins separated at birth
have lots of remarkable similarities. They score similarly on personality tests,
they have similar abilities in music, similar political opinions, and so on. But
the other discovery, which is just as important, though less well appreciated,
is that the twins separated at birth are no more different than the twins who
are brought up together in the same house with the same parents, the same number
of TV sets, the same number of books, the same number of guns, and so on. Over
the long term, growing up together does not make you more similar in
intelligence or in personality. A corroborating finding is that adopted
siblings, who grow up in the same house but don't share genes, are not
correlated at all. They are no more similar than two people plucked off the
street at random. So though personality is not all in the genes, what is not in
the genes is not in the family environment either. What is not in the genes
cannot be explained in terms of the overall personalities, or the child-rearing
practices, of the parents.
Those wishing to put parents back into the picture often
assume that differences among siblings come from differences in the way parents
treat their different children. This is simply not true. Studies show that when
parents treat their children differently it is because the children are
different to begin with in just the same way as anyone reacts differently to
different people depending on their personalities. Any parent of more than one
child knows that children are little people, born with their own personalities.
For Pinker this may be the most important puzzle in the
history of psychology and one that most psychologists themselves don't
appreciate or understand. Notable exceptions are to this are Judith Rich Harris,
Frank Sulloway, David Rowe, Robert Plomin, and Sandra Scarr. They have all
called attention to this puzzle and the question ‘given that they are almost
certainly not the family environment, what then are the non-genetic determinants
of personality and intelligence?’
Sulloway argues that the unexplained variation comes from the
way that children differentiate themselves from their siblings in the family.
They take strategies for competing for parental attention and resources outside
the family and react to non-relatives using the same strategies that worked for
them inside the family. In contrast, Harris argues that the missing variance
comes from how children survive within peer groups, how they find a niche in
their own society and develop strategies to prosper in it.
For Pinker, Sulloway has captured something about the
dynamics among siblings within the family, but is not convinced that these
strategies shape their personalities outside the family. What works with your
little brother is not necessarily going to work with strangers, friends and
colleagues. Most of the data that supports Sulloway comes from studies in which
siblings rate their siblings or parents rate their children, or in which
siblings rate themselves with respect to their siblings. This means that
Sulloway’s theory is not well-supported by studies that look at the personality
of people outside the home. Indeed, it is a major tenet of evolutionary
psychology that our relationships with kin are very different from our
relationships with non-relatives.
As for Harris, Pinker is completely persuaded by her argument
that socialisation takes place in the peer group rather than in the family. This
is not a banal claim, for most child psychologists will not go near it. But it
survives one empirical test after another.
To take a few positive examples; children almost always end
up with the accent of their peers, never their parents; children of culturally
inept immigrants do just fine where they learn the ropes from native-born peers;
children who are thrown together without an adult language to model will invent
a language of their own.
As for negative evidence, many studies have shown that
radical variations in parenting practice, such as whether you grow up in the
average nuclear family or a hippy commune, whether you have two parents of the
same sex or one of each, whether you spent your formative hours in the family
home or a day care centre, whether you are an only child or come from a large
family, or whether you were conceived the original way or in a laboratory dish,
leave no lasting marks on your personality, as long as you are part of a
standard peer group.
But a lot of this sounds like socialisation, and personality
and socialisation are not the same thing. Socialisation is how you become a
functioning person in a society. In other words it is how you speak the
language, win friends, hold down a job, wear accepted kinds of clothing and so
on. Personality is whether you are nice or nasty, bold or shy, conscientious or
Now while Harris's theory can account for socialisation it
has not satisfactorily explained, at least not yet, the missing variation in
personality. This can be shown by going back to the supposedly clear case of
identical twins brought up together, who share both their genes and their
environment, but nonetheless are not identical in personality. They almost
certainly will have grown up in the same peer groups, or at least the same kinds
of peer groups, and their personalities and physical characteristics will tend
to place them in the same niches within those peer groups. Nevertheless they
have different personalities and this means that peer groups alone cannot
explain the unexplained variation in personality.
Harris points out that which niche you fill in a peer group,
be it the peacemaker, the loose cannon, the jester, the facilitator, and so on,
might in part be determined by chance. It might simply be that you fit into
whichever niche is currently open when you find a group of friends to spend time
For Pinker this is not an explanation of personality
difference but is just a special case of what might be an enormous role for
chance in shaping who we are. In addition to which niche was open in your peer
group, there are other unpredictable events that happened to us as we grew up.
For example, did you get the top bunk bed, or the bottom bunk bed? Were you
chased by a dog, or dropped on your head as a baby, or infected by a virus, or
smiled on by a teacher?
And there are even more chance events in the formation or
‘wiring’ of the brain in utero and during the first couple of years of life. We
know that there is not nearly enough information in the human genome to specify
the brain down to the last synapse, and that the brain is not completely shaped
by incoming sensory information either. Based on studies of the development of
simple organisms like fruit flies and roundworms, we know that much in
development is a matter of chance. You can have genetically homogeneous strains
of roundworm brought up in the same monotonous laboratory conditions, and find
that one lives three times as long as the other. Two fruit flies from inbred
strains, which are in effect clones, can be physically different. They can, for
example, have different numbers of bristles under each wing. If in simple
organisms like worms and flies can turn out differently for capricious and
unpredictable reasons, then surely chance can play an even bigger role in the
way our brains develop.
Here we see Pinker at his most incisive and at his most
philosophically naïve. Having analysed the problem, summarised the research
and given a critique of the outcome he refers to human dispositions and
behaviours, in terms of ‘wiring’ in the brain and brain development. This is
mind/brain dualism of the standard cartesian kind. It is commonly found among
psychologists and other scientists commenting on the mind. This sits alongside
his platonic commitment to a biological theory of human nature
Evolutionary psychology - Disposed to fail
If not centuries of philosophical thought and theory, what
lies behind the idea that human nature can be explained entirely in terms of the
biological sciences? In particular, how can we go about accounting for our
psychological dispositions in terms of biology? A popular answer to this
question today, and the one Pinker gives, is through evolutionary
Like the rest of us, Pinker thinks that all humans are born
with a common set of dispositions and abilities. So far, so good. But then,
unlike most of the rest of us, he goes on to claim that these come from our
So we may wonder: What are these dispositions and abilities
that come from our evolutionary past? Where are they? How did we get them? Can
we do anything to change them? Are they, for instance, locked in the human
brain? If they are in the brain, can we have surgery on them? And if they’re too
intricately distributed for surgery, what about therapy? If it’s too late for us
then can we do anything about this for our children or for future
These are not trivial questions. Pinker believes that these
dispositions and abilities constitute human nature, good and bad, and that they
are physically instantiated in our brains as a result of our evolutionary past.
This is his description of human nature.
But dispositions alone produce a very poor description of
human nature, of how we behave and what we think about. At best they fit a very
austere conception of what it is to be human. Their description relies on
physical instantiation of behaviours by an evolutionary process and this begs
more questions than it answers.
For example, do we really think that Leonardo was disposed to
paint the Mona Lisa and that Mona was disposed to be painted by Leonardo because
of something that happened in our evolutionary past? Surely, if such a
description is deemed appropriate, we should say that Leonardo and Mona had
renaissance minds and hence renaissance brains, plasticity being one of the most
marked and agreed features of the human brain. Even accepting the evolutionary
point of view, it is simply not correct to say that Leonardo and Mona had stone
age minds because they had stone age brains.
This, however, is what evolutionary psychology offers us. Put
simply, the exponents of evolutionary psychology, such as Pinker, attempt to
explain human nature as it was in Classical Athens, during the Enlightenment, is
today and as it will be in the future, in terms of our evolutionary past. It
seems then that evolutionary psychology allows no room for psychological
development, offering only the pieces given to us 100,000 years ago.
And doesn’t this strike you as strange? While we don’t know
precisely what our evolutionary ancestors got up to, it seems highly likely that
it wasn’t making just laws, discovering penicillin, and holding courses in human
nature. As for what humans will be doing in 1,000 years time, isn’t that
What evolutionary psychologists want to say is that the
abilities our ancestors of 100,000 years ago needed to survive shaped how we are
today. In particular, these abilities formed our behavioural and moral
dispositions and left us with the stone age brains that we still have today.
Once it is established that we have stone age brains, it is
but a short step to claiming both that we therefore have stone age minds and
that this means our current set of behavioural and moral dispositions can only
properly be understood in terms of stone age behavioural and moral
In this way male aggression is explained by the need to fight
a mammoth with a stick, and female linguistic ability is explained by the need
to cope with small children, a dirty cave and a load of blokes who’ve just been
fighting a mammoth with a stick. But this is nothing less than the Flintstones.
Humorous this may be, but it is the position put to us by evolutionary
psychologists and the otherwise seemingly sane Professor Pinker.
There is simply no reason to accept the arguments of
evolutionary psychology. Why go back to no one knows where and no one knows
when? Who had these primal, ur-dispositions? Why them? Perhaps there is more
than one individual or group or set of dispositions? And why say we have
inherited stone age brains? We have no stone age brains to compare.
If you are an evolutionary psychologist, the great thing
about these stone age theories is that they cannot be tested, so they cannot be
disproved! The not-so-great thing about them is that they cannot be proved
either, but this is a detail overlooked by true believers.
Or maybe they can be disproved. At least it may be the case
that, when tested on what we do have available to us, better explanations arise,
and by the principle of inference to the best explanation, the quasi-theories of
evolutionary psychology will fall apart.
The truth of the matter is that if all the conjectures,
theories, and ideas of evolutionary psychology turned out to be false, things
would be just the same as they are; the world would be the same as it is. If
only evolutionary psychologists would acknowledge this, act with appropriate
humility and refrain from informing us that human nature is no more than stone
age dispositions from our evolutionary past, physically (genetically)
instantiated in our stone age brains.
Humans and Persons - In our heads, out of our minds
Pinker considers the blank slate model to be an extreme
position. Like everybody else these days, he thinks it is an incoherent idea
stating, if a little obviously, "blank slates don't do anything, whereas
the human mind does many things". He points to two examples:
1. We are all born with a natural ability to use language
2. Babies appear to have distinct preferences and characters from birth
This, however, is nothing new. For a thorough, Flintstone-
free, explanation of these ideas, look no further than John Locke and his Essay
on Human Understanding, first published as a complete work in 1690. John starts
with the blank slate (or tabula rasa) and goes through the various objections.
He ends up saying that the model of the stand-alone blank slate is incoherent
and therefore both nature and experience must work together to make us what we
are. So at least some of Pinker’s latest insights are more than three hundred
Worse follows. If we accept the doctrines of evolutionary
psychology, the answer to the question ‘what are we?’ comes out as a set of
dispositions, handed down as genes from our evolutionary past, physically
instantiated in our brains, governed by a deterministic biological system and
subject to chance. But whatever happened to me, to reason, to intention, to
passion, to right and wrong, and to everything that describes and circumscribes
us? Those who seek a biological explanation of human nature see these as tough
problems to be tackled by further research in the new sciences. But isn’t the
truth that they present such tough problems for the new sciences because they
aren’t the sorts of thing that can be explained by biology at all? Isn’t this
biological conundrum simply what philosophers call a category error?
The subject of human nature and associated issues that Pinker
purports to now explain biologically were discussed in far more rigour and depth
a long time ago. At least by the time of Aristotle, humanity knew about most of
these things in just the way Pinker approaches them (but not the way he attempts
to explain them). Since that time the debate has continued. The biological angle
has been broached and explored alongside the philosophical, emotional,
educational, moral and many other angles. The addition of a genetic gloss and a
neurophysiological overview adds nothing to the substantive description of human
nature. Descartes had most of this under his belt and came to the same
conclusion as Pinker, specifically, that there has to be more to human nature
than the blank slate. Locke advanced this discussion seemingly to a point that
Pinker has yet to reach.
Pinker’s work in this area is at best a clearing of some
ground in a tiny part of the forest. It is a clarification for a minority of
confused scientists and uninformed intellectuals of a particular stripe. That
the good ideas that he does have and his valuable clarificatory work are skewed
by a commitment to the inappropriate doctrine of evolutionary psychology and an
unbending insistence on reduction to a biological explanation (even in the
broadest sense), is a matter for regret. The truth of the matter is that the
discussion of human nature is ongoing and will be ongoing for as along as there
are human beings or beings to reflect on human beings.
And, as a personal plea, isn’t it a pity that on questions in
this area we ignore the likes of Locke and Descartes, in favour of unthinking
acceptance of trendy dogmas, supported by very little relevant evidence and
produced in the name of so-called biological science? This plea runs counter to
a certain academic attitude that treats the latest ideas as the only ideas, and
that steamrollers over the objections of non-academics, no matter how counter-
intuitive, or crazy, these latest scientific ideas may be. (Indeed being
counter-intuitive is sometimes seen as a mark of true science by scientists such
as Lewis Wolpert.)
In their discussions of human nature, freewill, intention and
other related topics, philosophers often bring into play the notion of the
person. It seems useful to introduce the notion of the person to help find a way
out of the maze of genetic reductionism, and biological determinism including
questions about ‘genes for’ and ‘stone age brains’.
‘Person’ is a philosopher’s term of art. The philosophical
notion of a person is not the commonplace usage meaning roughly ‘you there’, nor
is it a noun for a strictly defined object to be treated by the methods of
The philosophical notion of a person requires us to assent to
a general position like the following. (There is no need to worry about this
being general. The fact that it will need to be amended to suit individual cases
is one of its virtues.)
When something is in a position within a society, a culture,
an economy, a political system and a set of facilities, possesses a certain
maturity, and is involved in a discourse, then there arise certain
considerations for that something. These considerations involve rights,
responsibilities, freedoms, political inclinations, aesthetic experiences,
sensibilities, and, material and intellectual resources. Where this is the case
that something may be properly termed a person.
It is these considerations that go towards making up
dispositions and choices for that person. Simply looking at the biological,
neurophysiological, genetic, and evolutionary make up misses this out. So if you
choose to ignore this position, if you choose to dismiss these considerations,
or replace them with something else, then you throw the baby out with the bath
On this view, human nature and dispositions do not reduce
below the level of the person. The most we can say for the biological approach
is that while human nature is connected to human biology and to Pinker’s new
sciences, human nature is not constituted by human biology, and human nature is
not explained by a biological approach alone.
Of course, you do not have to accept this view. However, if
you want to reduce the debate about human nature below the level of persons you
have to both:
a) Come up with some reasons and arguments for what you
are doing, and
b) Show why the person-involving view, generally adopted
by non-biological scientists, is wrong, or at least is not acceptable.
Pinker does not do this, nor does he try to do this. Whether
intentionally or not, he assumes that the person-centred view is wrong, a non-
starter, and talks about the sorts of things, biological things, he thinks are
right. In doing this he does more than many other biological scientists but he
nevertheless walks straight into a whole set of long-discussed philosophical
arguments which he appears woefully equipped to deal with. True, he’s not a
philosopher, and The Blank Slate is not a philosophy book, but ignorance is no
excuse for engaging in areas where these arguments apply and for coming up with
positions that miss the point.
Human Nature: Theory and interpretation
What Pinker would like is a biological theory of human
nature. What he has achieved is a biological interpretation of human nature.
In so far as it is an interpretation Pinker’s work stands on
a par with other interpretations such as the blank slate, the noble savage and
the ghost in the machine. However, Pinker brings much of interest to the debate.
His interpretation is biologically informed and can thus be seen as a
considerable improvement on past work that, purposely or not, assumed biology
had no connection with human nature. Often, it is as important to show what is
not the case as it is to show what is the case. For this he is to be
Nevertheless, the biological interpretation offered by Pinker
falls short of the biological theory desired by Pinker. We have looked at some
reasons why this may be. Put simply, it seems that a theory of human nature
cannot do without a consideration of humans as persons, and that is something
that no amount of biological research can give us.
The following are works that discuss issues raised here.
They do not necessarily discuss them in the way raised here.
Christopher Badcock -
Psychology: A Critical Introduction, Polity,
Denise Cummins and Colin Allen (eds) -
Evolution of Mind,
Daniel Dennett -
Dangerous Idea, Penguin, 1996
Steve Grand - "I’m sorry, has your brain broken?",
Guardian, 29 January 2004
Arlene Klotzko -
of Your Own?: The Science and Ethics of Cloning, OUP, 2003
David Large - The Great Blank Slate Debate,
2002 - 2003:
Kenan Malik -
Beast and Zombie, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000
Mary Midgley -
and Poetry, Routledge, 2001
Steven Pinker -
Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin, 2002
Henry Plotkin -
in Mind, Penguin, 1997
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (eds) -
Poor Darwin, Vintage, 2001
Steven Rose, Leon Kamin and Richard Lewontin -
Not in Our
Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, Penguin, 1984
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