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The Great Debate at Newcastle Science Festival 2004

Of Blank Slates and Zombies
Notes from a day school held as part of Newcastle Science Festival 2004
David Large

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Do we need a biological theory of human nature?
David Large
March 2004

"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 it."
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 above?

Working definitions

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 Ideas:


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 various forms.

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.

Three positions

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 Mettrie)

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 terms?

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 two.

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 unified.

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 subject.'

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, sensible, positions?

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 ludicrous claims.

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.

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 slapdash.

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 with.

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 psychology.

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 evolutionary past.

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 generations?

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 anyone’s guess?

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 dispositions.

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 years old.

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.)

Respecting persons

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 empirical science.

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 water.

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 applauded.

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 - Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Introduction, Polity, 2000
Denise Cummins and Colin Allen (eds) - The Evolution of Mind, Oxford, 1998
Daniel Dennett - Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Penguin, 1996
Steve Grand - "I’m sorry, has your brain broken?", Guardian, 29 January 2004
Arlene Klotzko - A Clone of Your Own?: The Science and Ethics of Cloning, OUP, 2003
David Large - The Great Blank Slate Debate, 2002 - 2003:
Kenan Malik - Man, Beast and Zombie, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000
Mary Midgley - Science and Poetry, Routledge, 2001
Steven Pinker - The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin, 2002
Henry Plotkin - Evolution in Mind, Penguin, 1997
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (eds) - Alas 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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Buy these books from Amazon
Man, Beast and Zombie The Blank Slate Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Introduction Alas Poor Darwin Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
The Evolution of Mind A Clone of Your Own? Not In Our Genes Science and Poetry Evolution in Mind

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