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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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Having Your Cake Before It’s Made

Philosophical Reflections on Steven Pinker’s Biological View Of Human Nature
David Large
March 2004

"Man will become better when you show him what he is like."
Anton Chekhov (Notebook entry)


What on Earth is Human Nature

The first problem we face when talking about human nature is knowing where to begin. One approach is to say that by exploring the political, moral and philosophical implications, impressions of, and feelings about discoveries about what makes us tick; we can have a more honest science and a less fearful intellectual milieu.

In this area, falls the well-known work The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by MIT research psychologist Steven Pinker. This book has attracted a lot of attention, not least because it asks us to consider questions that challenge our basic assumptions about ourselves.

Steven Pinker: An introduction

Steven Pinker is a distinguished research psychologist. He is Peter de Florez Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the MIT and director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. He is the author of several influential books - Language Learnability and Language Development, Learnability and Cognition, The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

His research on visual cognition and on the psychology of language has received the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences and two prizes from the American Psychological Association. He has also received awards for his graduate teaching at MIT and for his undergraduate teaching at MIT, two prizes for general achievement, an honorary doctorate, and five awards for his popular science books. Pinker is a fellow of several scholarly societies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is an associate editor of Cognition and serves on many professional panels, including the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and the Scientific Advisory Panel of an 8-hour NOVA television series on evolution. He also writes frequently in the popular press, including The New York Times, Time, Slate, and The New Yorker.

Pinker has cited several key figures who have influenced his work.

When an undergraduate, he read Chomsky, who was one of the first to break the then prevailing taboo against explanations that appeal to human nature. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Chomsky argued that our capacity for language is an innate ability of the human mind, connecting his theories (correctly or incorrectly) to enlightenment philosophers and political thinkers who acknowledged the importance of human nature.

In graduate school, his mentors were Steve Kosslyn, who trained him to be an experimental psychologist, and Roger Brown, who invented the modern science of language acquisition and got him interested in the topic. Roger inspired Pinker to pay attention to clarity, style, and breadth in writing. Joan Bresnan, a brilliant linguist, was his postdoctoral adviser. She sharpened his formal, computational, and mathematical competence.

Aside from his mentors, Pinker was influenced by leading cognitive scientists such as Warren McCullough, Herb Simon, Allen Newell, Marvin Minsky, George Miller, Gordon Bower and John Anderson, who developed the computational theory of mind. Later, he was influenced by the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and Don Symons, who got him to read the work of George Williams, Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and John Maynard Smith.

Pinker became interested in behavioural genetics from reading about the work of Tom Bouchard and David Lykken in Science in the late 1980s. It was, however, Judith Rich Harris who forced him to think through the implications of that work, and of work in social and personality development more generally.

Pinker sees himself as a unifier, someone who ties a lot of big ideas together. He has studied visual cognition and language acquisition in the laboratory, and became one of the first researchers to develop computational models of how children learn the words and grammar of their first language. He has merged Chomskian ideas about an innate language faculty with the Darwinian theory of adaptation and natural selection. Pinker also wrote How the Mind Works, one of the most influential critiques of neural-network models of the mind.

In his book, 'The Language Instinct' Pinker discusses all aspects of language in a unified, Darwinian framework. In How the Mind Works, he does the same for the rest of the mind explaining, as he says, "what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life."

The Traditional Theory of Human Nature

In The Blank Slate, Pinker notes, "there is a quasi- religious theory of human nature that is prevalent among pundits and intellectuals, which includes both empirical assumptions about how the mind works and a set of values that people hang on those assumptions". This is what we may call the traditional theory of human nature. It has three parts:

  1. The Blank Slate

The first is the doctrine of the blank slate itself. This states that we have no inherent or inborn talents or temperaments because the mind is shaped completely by the environment, parenting, culture, and society. The doctrine of the blank slate denies the existence of innate ideas, which are with us from birth, shape our psychological profile and determine the sort of people we become.

  1. The Noble Savage

The second is the idea of the noble savage which holds that evil motives are not inherent to people but come from corrupting social institutions. This was developed by the eighteenth century Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who held the noble savage to be the natural expression of humanity and in particular the general will. The general will, Rousseau says, applies to all humanity for it comes from all humanity. Things like civilisation, laws and social conventions distort and corrupt the true natural expression of the general will.

  1. The Ghost in the Machine

The third is the notion of the ghost in the machine, which holds that the most important part of us is somehow independent of our biology. A prime example of this is Descartes’s doctrine that we are thinking things, independent from but intimately related to our biological bodies. This means that our ability to have experiences and make choices cannot be explained by our physiological makeup and evolutionary history.

These three ideas are now being challenged not only by the new sciences of evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and behavioural genetics, as these disciplines make wider and wider claims on an ever-increasing proportion of our lives, but also by philosophers and the philosophy of mind. Indeed, in so far as philosophers may be accused of promulgating these ideas they have led the charge to refute them.

For Pinker "these three ideas are held as much for their moral and political uplift as for any empirical rationale. People think that these doctrines are preferable on moral grounds and that the alternative is forbidden territory that we should avoid at all costs". Rather than bind ourselves to one or more of these unscientific outlooks, Pinker seeks a biological understanding of human nature. The Blank Slate presents his attempt to do this.

Pinker’s idea of human nature isn’t that radical. Many psychologists, linguists, biologists, philosophers and scholars, have voiced similar opinions about human nature. For example, the connections between human nature and political systems were prefigured in the debates during the Enlightenment and during the framing of the American Constitution. James Madison (1751 – 1836) asked;

"What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

- Federalist Papers, 47, January 1788.

Pinker notes that people sometimes get uncomfortable with empirical claims that seem to clash with their political assumptions, often because they haven't given much thought to the connections. Certainly, it is clear that the conception of human nature as connected to other fields such as politics and the arts has been there throughout history. We will return to Pinker’s thoughts about human nature, politics and the arts below.

The main thrust of The Blank Slate is Pinker’s challenge to the intellectual establishment in terms of their denial of human nature. For him the main question is:

  • Why are empirical questions about how the mind works so weighed down with political, moral, and emotional baggage?

And subsequently

  • Why do people believe that there are dangerous implications from the idea that the mind is a product of the brain, that the brain is organised in part by the genome, and that the genome was shaped by natural selection? He points out that this idea has been met with demonstrations, denunciations, picketing, and comparisons to Nazism, both from the right and from the left.

In particular, reactions to these questions affect both the day-to-day conduct of science and the public appreciation of the science.

By exploring the political and moral aspects of discoveries about what makes us human, Pinker wishes to bring about a more honest science and a less fearful intellectual milieu. This, however, is not a straightforward matter. For experience shows that we need to assuage people's fears rather than just state the unalloyed truth.

Pinker says that certain factual hypotheses in this area are treated as third rails - if we touch them, we die. A clear example is research on parenting. Hundreds of studies have measured correlations between the practices of parents and the way their children turn out. Parents who talk a lot to their children have kids with better language skills, parents who spank have children who grow up to be violent, parents who are neither too authoritarian or too lenient have children who are well-adjusted, and so on. Most of the parenting expert industry and a lot of government policy turn these correlations into advice to parents, and then blame the parents when their children don't turn out as they would have liked.

That said, correlation does not imply causation. Parents provide their children with genes as well as an environment. So, the fact that talkative parents have kids with good language skills could simply mean that the same genes that make parents talkative make children articulate. We will not know whether the correlations reflect the effects of parenting, the effects of shared genes, or some mixture until these studies are replicated with adopted children, who do not get their genes from the people who bring them up. At the moment, however, to suggest the possibility that experimental correlations reflect shared genes is taboo. In developmental psychology, and elsewhere, it is considered impolite to even mention the idea, let alone conduct a research programme to test it.

Arguments against the Blank Slate

The blank slate has been undermined by a number of discoveries. One of them is a simple logical point that no matter how important learning, culture, and socialisation are, they don't happen by magic. There has to be innate circuitry that does the learning, creates the culture, acquires the culture, and responds to socialisation. Once you try to specify what those learning mechanisms are, you are forced to posit a great deal of innate structure to the mind.

The blank slate has also been undermined by behavioural genetics. Research in this area has found that at least half of the variation in personality and intelligence in a society comes from differences in the genes. The most dramatic demonstration of this is the fact that identical twins who were separated at birth have a remarkable range of similarities in their talents and tastes.

The blank slate has also been undermined by evolutionary psychology and anthropology. For example, despite the undeniable variation among cultures, we now know that there is a wide set of ‘universal’ traits that are common to all of the world's 6,000 or so cultures. In addition, evolutionary psychology has shown that many of our motives make no sense in terms of our day- to-day efforts to enhance our physical and psychological well being, but they can be explained in terms of the mechanism of natural selection operating in the environment in which we evolved.

A relatively uncontroversial example is our tastes for sugar and fat. These were adaptive in an environment in which nutrients were in short supply but are redundant and indeed harmful in a modern environment in which they are cheap and available. A more controversial example may be the universal thirst for revenge. This was one's only defence and means of redress in a world in which one couldn't dial 999 to get the police to show up if one's interests were threatened. A belligerent stance was one's only deterrent against other people whose interests were in conflict with one's own.

Another usually acceptable example is our taste for attractive marriage partners. As wise people have pointed out for millennia, this makes no sense in terms of how happy or compatible the couple will be. The curve of your partner's nose, or the shape of her chin, does not predict how well one you're going to get along with her for the rest of your life. However, evolutionary psychology has shown that the physical features of beauty are cues to health and fertility. Our fatal weakness for attractive partners can be explained in terms of our evolutionary history, not our personal calculations of well-being or aesthetic discrimination.

The blank slate has also been undermined by brain science. The brain clearly has a great deal of what neuroscientists call plasticity, and that plasticity is what allows us to learn. Nevertheless, recent research is showing that many properties of the brain are genetically organised, and do not depend on information coming in from the senses.

Arguments against the Noble Savage

The doctrine of the noble savage has been undermined by a revolution in our understanding of non-state societies. Many intellectuals believe that violence and war among hunter-gatherers is rare or ritualistic, and that the battle is called to a halt as soon as the first man falls, the point having been made. But, Pinker claims, studies that actually count the dead bodies have shown that the homicide rates among prehistoric peoples are orders of magnitude higher than the ones in modern societies, even taking into account the statistics from two world wars! We also have evidence that nasty traits such as psychopathy, violent tendencies, a lack of conscientiousness, and an antagonistic personality, are in large part heritable. And, there are mechanisms in the brain, probably shared across primates, which underlie violence. All this suggests that what we don't like about ourselves cannot simply be blamed on the institutions of a particular society.

Arguments against the Ghost in the Machine

The ghost in the machine, including Descartes’s thinking thing, has been undermined by cognitive science and neuroscience. The foundation of cognitive science is the computational theory of mind, the idea that intelligence can be explained as a kind of information processing, and that motivation and emotion can be explained as feedback systems. Feats and phenomena that were formerly thought to rely on mental stuff alone, such as beliefs, desires, intelligence, and goal-directed behaviour can be explained in physical terms. Pinker assures us that cognitive neuroscience has decisively exorcised the ghost in the machine by showing that our thoughts, feelings, urges, and consciousness depend completely on the physiological activity of the brain.

The Four Fears

Having dispensed with the traditional theory of human nature, Pinker addresses the phobia intellectuals have of any explanation of the mind that invokes genetics. He argues that they are afraid of four things none of which need cause us anxiety.

The First Fear: Inequality

First, there is a fear of inequality. The great appeal of the doctrine that the mind is a blank slate is the simple mathematical fact that zero equals zero. If we all start out blank, then no one can have more stuff written on their slate than anyone else, whereas if we come into the world endowed with a rich set of mental faculties, they could work differently, or better or worse, in some people than in others. The fear is that this would open the door to discrimination, oppression, or eugenics, or even slavery and genocide.

This is all a non sequitur. As many political writers have pointed out, commitment to political equality is not an empirical claim that people are clones. It is a moral claim that in certain spheres we judge people as individuals, and do not take into account the statistical average of the groups that they belong to. It is also a recognition that however much people might vary, they have certain things in common by virtue of their common human nature. No one likes to be humiliated, oppressed, enslaved or deprived. Political equality consists of recognising, as the US Constitution says, that people have certain inalienable rights, namely life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Recognising those rights is not the same thing as believing that people are indistinguishable in every respect.

The Second Fear: Imperfectability

The second fear is the fear of imperfectability. If people are innately saddled with certain sins and flaws, like selfishness, prejudice, short-sightedness, and self-deception, then political reform would seem to be a waste of time. Why try to make the world a better place if people are rotten to the core and will behave badly, or evilly, and mess things up no matter what you do?

This is a faulty argument. We know that there can be social improvement because we know that there has been social improvement, such as the end of slavery, torture, blood feuds, despotism, and the ownership of women in western democracies.

Social change can take place, even with a fixed human nature, because the mind is a complex system of many parts. Even if we do have some motives that tempt us to do awful things, we have other motives that can counteract them. We can figure out ways to set one human desire against another, and thereby improve our condition, in just the same way as we manipulate physical and biological laws, rather than denying they exist, to improve our physical condition. We combat disease, we keep out the weather, we grow more crops, and we can jigger with our social arrangements as well.

A good example here is the invention of democratic government. As James Madison argued, by instituting checks and balances in a political system, one person's ambition counteracts another person's. It is not that we have bred or socialised a new human being who is free of ambition. It is, rather, that we have developed a system in which these ambitions are kept under control.

Another reason that human nature does not rule out social progress is that many features of human nature have free parameters. This has long been recognised in the case of language, where some languages use the mirror-image of the phrase order patterns found in English but otherwise work by the same logic. Our moral sense may also have a free parameter as well. People in all cultures have an ability to respect and sympathise with other people. The question is, with which other people?

The default setting of our moral sense may be to sympathise only with members of our clan or village. Over the course of history, our moral sensibility has been adjusted so that a larger and larger portion of humanity is admitted into the circle of people whose interests we consider as comparable to our own. From the village or clan the moral circle has been expanded to the tribe, the nation, and most recently to all of humanity, as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The idea of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights is put forward by the philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Expanding Circle. Pinker says that this is an example of how we can enjoy social improvement and moral progress even if we are fitted with certain faculties, as long as those faculties can respond to inputs. In the case of our moral sense, the relevant inputs may be a cosmopolitan awareness of history and the narratives of other peoples. This awareness allows us to project ourselves into the experiences of people who might otherwise be treated as obstacles or enemies.

The Third Fear: Determinism

The third fear is a fear of determinism: that we will no longer be able to hold people responsible for their behaviour because they can they can always blame it on their brain or their genes or their evolutionary history. This is sometimes called the evolutionary-urge or killer-gene defence.

This fear is misplaced for two reasons. One is that the silliest excuses for bad behaviour have in fact invoked the environment, rather than biology, anyway. Pinker refers to such examples as the abuse excuse that got the Menendez brothers off the hook in their first trial, the ‘black rage’ defence that was used to try to exonerate the Long Island Railroad gunman, and to the ‘pornography made me do it’ defence that some rapists have tried. If there is a threat to responsibility it does not come from biological determinism but from determinism per se, including childhood upbringing, mass media, social conditioning, and so on.

However, Pinker says, none of these so-called explanations should be taken seriously in the first place. Even if there are parts of the brain that compel people to do things for various reasons, there are other parts of the brain that respond to the legal and social contingencies that we call ‘holding someone responsible for their behaviour.’ For example, if I rob a bank, I'll get thrown in jail, or if I cheat on my spouse, my friends, relatives and neighbours will think that I'm a boorish cad and will refuse to have anything to do with me. By holding people responsible for their actions we are implementing contingencies that can affect parts of the brain and can lead people to inhibit what they would otherwise do. There is then no reason for us to give up this lever on people's behaviour, the inhibition systems of the brain, just because we're coming to understand more about the temptation systems of the brain.

The Fourth Fear: Nihilism

The fourth fear is that of biological nihilism. If it can be shown that all of our motives and values are products of the physiology of the brain, which in turn was shaped by the forces of evolution, then they would in some sense be shams, without objective reality. Biology would have taken away all that really makes us human and left us with the status of mere animals, super-apes. For example, I wouldn't really love my child; all I would be doing is selfishly propagating my genes. Flowers, butterflies, and works of art are not truly beautiful; my brain just evolved to give me a pleasant sensation when a certain pattern of light hits my retina. The fear is that biology will debunk all that we hold sacred and take away everything that I think of as uniquely mine. Taken to its logical conclusion this view says that thanks to biology there will no longer be a ‘me’ for me to be and hence, in any meaningful ‘human’ way, I will cease to exist! (The idea that there is a ‘me’, an essential something that is what I really am, is an example of platonism. So, if you’re against platonism you should be against this idea, whether you’re a biological nihilist or not.)

This fear is based on a confusion between two very different ways to explain behaviour: proximate and ultimate. What biologists call a ‘proximate’ explanation refers to what is meaningful to me given the brain that I have. What they call an ‘ultimate’ explanation refers to the evolutionary processes that gave me a brain with the ability to have those thoughts and feelings.

Evolution, as the ultimate explanation for our minds, is a short sighted, selfish process in which genes are selected for their ability to maximise the number of copies of themselves. This, however, does not mean that we are selfish and short sighted, at least not all the time. There is nothing that prevents the selfish, amoral process of natural selection from evolving a big-brained social organism with a complex moral sense.

Pinker refers to an old saying that people who appreciate legislation and sausages should not see them being made. For him, that reflects like human values, where knowing how they were made can be misleading, especially if you don't think carefully about the process. The lesson here is that selfish genes do not necessarily build a selfish organism.

Four New Sciences

If the traditional theory of human nature is incorrect and there is no good reason for us to fear a biological theory of human nature, what will this theory look like? What will a biological theory of human nature say and how will it say it? What are the biological alternatives to the blank slate, the noble savage and the ghost in the machine? How has the empirical work in the sciences undermined these beliefs and established a biologically grounded alternative?

Pinker refers to the following four new sciences:

    • Evolutionary psychology
    • Cognitive science
    • Cognitive neuroscience
    • Behavioural genetics

He claims that these four sciences that are bringing human nature back into scientific consideration and making the notion respectable. With them, we can reject the traditional, flawed, ideas of human nature without rejecting the notion of human nature itself. Further, we can adopt a robust, biologically based idea of human nature.

Pinker focusses on evolutionary psychology. For him, there is a sense in which all psychology is evolutionary. When it comes to understanding a complex psychological faculty such as thirst or shape perception or memory, psychologists have always appealed to their evolutionary functions, and it has never been particularly controversial. For Pinker, it's no coincidence that the effects of thirst are to keep the amount of water and the electrolyte balance in the body within certain limits required for survival without such a mechanism, organisms would plump up and split like a sausage on a barbeque or shrivel up like a prune. Likewise, it cannot be a coincidence that the brain compares the images from the two eyeballs and uses that information to compute depth. Without such an ability we would be more likely to bump into trees and fall off cliffs. The only explanation, other than creationism, is that those systems evolved because they allowed our ancestors to survive and reproduce better than the alternatives.

Evolutionary psychology takes that way of thinking and applies it to more emotionally charged aspects of behaviour, such as sexuality, violence, beauty, and family feelings. One reason that evolution is more controversial in these areas than in the study of thirst is that in the case of emotions and social relations the implications of evolution are less intuitive. You don't need to know much evolutionary biology to know that it's useful to have stereo vision or thirst. But when it comes to how organisms deal with one another, common sense intuitions cannot substitute for good evolutionary theory. We have no strong intuitions about whether it's adaptive, in the narrow biologist's sense, to be monogamous or polygamous, to treat all your children equally or to play favourites, to be attracted to one kind of facial geometry or another. In these areas you have to learn what the best evolutionary biology predicts. One consequence of this is that evolutionary thinking in those fields is more surprising than in the rest of psychology.

Pinker’s Critics

Pinker expects and usually receives criticism from five main groups:

  1. Postmodernists in the humanities
  2. Many of the child psychologists who still hold parents to be the shapers of children’s personality and intelligence
  3. Neural network modellers who have tried to revive the laws of association as an explanation for all aspects of language and cognition
  4. Some of the more extreme enthusiasts of neural plasticity, who believe that the brain is infinitely malleable, and that this holds great promise for education and child-rearing and successful aging
  5. People with sympathies for the romantic revolutionary politics of the 60s and 70s, which is where the initial opposition to sociobiology came from. He says they are always enraged by the claim that limitations on human nature might constrain our social arrangements.

Philosophers aren’t specifically mentioned because, we may assume, he hasn’t thought them relevant or worthy of consideration.

Implications of a Biological Approach to Human Nature

Pinker claims that the rejection of the blank slate view and the adoption of a biological understanding of human nature will have an enormous influence in far-flung fields. He focuses on three huge areas where blank slate dogma has had invidious effects and where the rejection of blank slate doctrines would result in improvements for individuals and society. These areas are politics, architecture and the arts.

The Politics of the Blank Slate

Science does not take place in a vacuum. Scientific views may have political consequences; they may affect our everyday lives. It would not be surprising then that such a fundamental and widespread picture as the blank slate had had such an effect.

It is often presumed that the historical events of the 20th century led to the widespread acceptance of the blank slate model of human nature. This was because intellectuals of many stripes were enormously affected by an understandable revulsion to Nazism, with its pseudoscientific theories of race, and its equally nonsensical glorification of conflict as part of the evolutionary wisdom of nature. It therefore became natural to reject anything that smacked of a genetic approach to human affairs.

Nevertheless, Pinker says, historians of ideas have begun to fill in another side of the picture. During the twentieth century, equally horrific genocides were carried out in the name of Marxism, such as in the mass purges and manmade famines of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. For Pinker, the remarkable fact is that the great ideologically driven genocides of the 20th century came from theories of human nature that were diametrically opposed. The original Marxists had no use for the concept of race, did not believe in genes, and denied Darwin's theory of natural selection as the mechanism of evolutionary adaptation. Pinker argues that this shows that it is not the biological approach to human nature that is uniquely sinister for, given this historical evidence, there must be common threads to Nazism and totalitarian Marxism that cut across a belief in the importance of evolution or genetics. One common element was a desire to reshape humanity. In the Marxists' case, it was through social engineering; in the Nazis' case, it was eugenics. Neither group were satisfied with human beings as we find them, with their flaws and weaknesses. Rather than building a social order around enduring human traits they both had the conceit that they could re-engineer human traits using purportedly scientific, but in reality pseudoscientific, principles.

It may be that, as Martin Amis has suggested, intellectuals have not yet come to grips with the lessons of Marxist totalitarianism in the way that they have with Nazi totalitarianism many decades ago. A number of historians and political philosophers have made the same point. Nevertheless, Pinker sees this as a blind spot that has distorted the intellectual landscape, including the implications and non-implications of genetics and evolution for understanding ourselves, and unfairly biased psychologists and intellectuals against the idea of a biological understanding of human nature.

Blank Slatism in Architecture

With respect to architecture and urban planning, the 20th century saw the rise of ‘authoritarian high modernism’, which was contemporaneous with the ascendance of the blank slate. City planners believed that people's taste for green space, for ornament, for people-watching, for cosy places for intimate social gatherings, were just social constructions. They were archaic historical artefacts that were getting in the way of the orderly design of cities, and should therefore be ignored by planners designing optimal cities according to so-called scientific principles.

Le Corbusier was the clearest example. He and other planners had a minimalist conception of human nature. A human being needs so many cubic of air per day, a temperature within a certain range, so many gallons of water, and so many square feet in which to sleep and work. Houses were to become ‘machines for living’, and cities were designed around the most efficient way to satisfy this list of basic needs, namely motorways, huge rectangular concrete housing projects, and open plazas. In extreme cases this led to the wastelands of planned cities like Brasilia or Stevenage. In milder cases, it gave us inner city urban renewal projects and the dreary high rise blocks of the Soviet Union and English council flats. Ornamentation, green space, gardens, and comfortable social meeting places were written out of cities because the planners had a theory of human nature that omitted human aesthetic and social needs.

The implication of this is that if we adopt a biological understanding of human nature we would reject ‘authoritarian high modernism’ and all would be well. But would it?

The Blank Slate in the Arts

In the 20th century the world of the arts was taken over by modernism, post-modernism and the struggle between the two. Their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, and lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking, on the assumption that people's tastes for attractive faces, landscapes, colours, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuousness and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But once anyone could afford a Mozart CD or could see Rembrandts for free in a museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the masses. This has meant that for most people art has become baffling and uninterpretable without particular knowledge and acquaintance with arcane theories.

For Pinker it is this that has led to the even worse position where, by their own admission, the humanities programs in universities and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. Put simply people are staying away. They won’t spend time and money going to see things they are prevented from understanding or which seem trivial to them. When did you last visit The Baltic? Pinker explains this by saying that by denying people's sense of visual beauty in painting and sculpture, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, plot and narrative and character in fiction, the elite arts wrote off the vast majority of their audience. They purposely excluded people who approach art in part for pleasure and edification in favour of social one-upmanship and an ever-narrowing, in-crowd elite. Today there are movements in the arts to reintroduce beauty and narrative and melody and other basic human pleasures, though they are considered radical extremists or reactionary fogies.

Again, Pinker implies that if we adopt a biological understanding of human nature we would reject deliberate uglification and elitism in the arts and all would be well. But he stops short of saying how this would be so.

Back on his home ground, one reason Pinker sees for the canonisation of artists is a particular quirk of our moral sense. Many studies show that that people hallucinate moral virtue in other people who are high in status, people who are good-looking, or powerful, or well-connected, or artistically or athletically talented. Status and virtue are cross-wired in the human brain. We see it in language, where words like ‘noble’ and ‘ugly’ have two meanings. ‘Noble’ can mean high in status or morally virtuous. ‘Ugly’ can mean physically unattractive or morally despicable. The deification of Princess Diana and President Kennedy are obvious examples. For Pinker, this confusion leads intellectuals and artists themselves to believe that the elite arts and humanities are a kind of higher, exalted form of human endeavour. Anyone else having some claim to insights into the human condition is seen as a philistine, and possibly as immoral, for they are seen not as debunking the pretensions of those in the arts and the humanities, but as name-calling their betters and throwing stones at the saintly.

Pinker points out that there are other strands of the arts and humanities, sometimes brushed aside in the 20th century, that sit well with the arguments he puts forward. Many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions that we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. The insights we hope to take from great works of art depend on their ability to explore eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, and friend and friend. Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore permutations and combinations of human conflict, and these are the very themes that scientific fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics and social psychology try to illuminate.

What Pinker and his followers hope to do is suggest ways in which the sciences of mind might come up with hypotheses and theories that complement the insights offered by scholars in the humanities. Linguistics can help poetics and rhetoric. Perception science can be useful for the analysis of music and the visual arts. Cognitive science can play a role in the analysis of literature and cinema. Evolutionary psychology can shed light on aesthetics. More generally, the sciences of the mind can support and reinforce the idea that there really is a biologically-based, persistent and enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.

Naming Names

Pinker is not afraid to name the names of those he sees as some of the people exploring the convergence and progress of art and science:

Among novelists, Ian McEwan, David Lodge, A. S. Byatt, John Updike, Iris Murdoch, Tom Wolfe, and George Orwell are a few that have invoked notions of human nature, sometimes traditional ones, sometimes ones from scientific psychology, in their work or their explanations.

Among scholars and critics, the ever-growing list includes: George Steiner on biological conflict and drama, Ernest Gombrich on perception and art, Joseph Carroll, Frederick Turner, Mark Turner, Brian Boyd, Patrick Hogan, on literature, Elaine Scarry on mental imagery and fiction. Pinker draws particular attention to Denis Dutton as a catalyst for this convergence through his journal Philosophy and Literature, so here is his web site: www.ArtsandLettersDaily.com.

A Biological Brave New World

Pinker thinks we are seeing a coming together of the humanities and the science of human nature. They were separated and held apart because of the, misguided, popularity of post-modernism and modernism. But now scientists, artists, thinkers, journalists and graduate students are grumbling in emails, conferences, meetings and cafes about being locked out of debates (and careers) unless they perpetuate postmodernist gobbledygook. They are eager for new ideas from the sciences that could invigorate the humanities within their disciplines and stimulate universities, which are, by anyone's account, in trouble. On top of this, connoisseurs and appreciators of art are starting to get sick of what Pinker refers to as ‘the umpteenth exhibit on the female body featuring mangled body parts’, or ironic allusions to commercial culture that are supposed to shake people out of their bourgeois complacency but that are really no more insightful than a parody in Viz comic or a sketch on Smack the Pony.

Pinker’s message is that we are on the verge of a super- informed, ultra-explanatory, biological approach to everything human. So stand by for take-off!


David Large - The Great Blank Slate Debate, 2002 - 2003:
Steven Pinker - A Biological Understanding Of Human Nature, Talk 9 September 2002,
Steven Pinker - The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin, 2002
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (eds) - Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, Vintage, 2001
Ben Schrank - Lunch with the FT: Steven Pinker, FT, 12 September 2002

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Buy these books from Amazon
Man, Beast and Zombie The Blank Slate Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Introduction Alas Poor Darwin Nature via Nurture
Consciousness Mapping the Mind Not In Our Genes Death of the Subject Explained The Hand: A Philosophical Enquiry into Human Being
The Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism In Defence of Realism The Raymond Tallis Reader A Conversation with Martin Heidegger The Meme Machine

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