John Gray is a tragic fatalist. Steven Pinker believes in a progressive science of humanity. Are either of them right?by Kenan Malik / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Where once the idea of human nature was treated with suspicion, today there is barely a human activity for which someone does not have an evolutionary account. A key figure in bringing about this change has been the psychologist Steven Pinker. Books such as The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works have established Pinker’s reputation both as one of the finest science writers of his generation and as a swashbuckling champion of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.
Pinker, however, remains unconvinced that there has been such an intellectual transformation. Human nature, he insists, remains “a modern taboo.” It’s a taboo “that distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse and our day-to-day lives.” In his new book, The Blank Slate, Pinker seeks to to restore balance to the discussion of what it is to be human.
The “modern denial of human nature,” he argues, is rooted in three beliefs: “the blank slate,” the “noble savage” and the “ghost in the machine.” According to the blank slate view, human infants acquire all their knowledge socially. The ideology of the noble savage suggests that humans are naturally born good, and that society corrupts them. The “ghost in the machine” is the term that the philosopher Gilbert Ryle gave to Descartes’s view of the mind as an immaterial spirit distinct from the physical world.
Many social scientists cling to these three beliefs-what philosophers call empiricism, romanticism and dualism-because, Pinker says, they are gripped by a politically inspired dread of human nature. The Blank Slate unpicks this dread, in particular the worry that scientific theories of human nature can legitimise inequality, undermine moral responsibility, and lead to nihilism. Not only are “claims about human nature less dangerous than many people think,” Pinker argues, but “the denial of human nature can be more dangerous than people think.”
There is much to admire about The Blank Slate, not least the wit and panache with which it is written. I agree with Pinker’s dismissal of most of the political and moral fears about the idea of human nature. The Blank Slate, however, is more than simply an argument about the importance of human nature. For Pinker, the blank slate view is not so much an incorrect view of human behaviour as a general-purpose bogeyman responsible for every bad idea in the 20th century-or, at least, every one that Pinker dislikes. Among the…