Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

This book was something of an aberration for me: what I read and when is usually the product of much forethought and careful selection out of an ever-growing, increasingly threatening pile of books atop my writing desk. Prior to purchasing it, I had very little knowledge of who Steven Pinker is or what his positions are, but something about the title caught my eye and cohered with much of my recent private thinking, and so I risked disappointment and wasted time. I am extremely grateful that I did.

Steven Pinker is a fellow Montrealer, a trifling fact I nonetheless take pride in, and currently a Harvard Professor of Psychology. He is a proponent of the much-maligned field of evolutionary psychology, which seeks to explain human behaviors, emotions and motivations in Darwinian terms. This is where the first digression becomes necessary. Evolutionary psychology, as a discipline, is extremely controversial, mired in misguided criticisms equating it with eugenics and Social Darwinism. In the 20th century, in the wake of Hitler’s death camps and the horrors of Nazi ideologies concerning race, the study of evolutionary psychology became a taboo, and publishing or researching in the discipline carried with it inherent risks. However, the truth will out, and a growing body of evidence has slowly been vindicating the field and increasing its prominence and prestige. Pinker, whose breakthrough work The Language Instinct argued that language is a biological adaptation rather than a cultural one, is at the forefront of this new field.

He writes with verve and probity and spends much of the first third of the book preparing a moral argument for the study of evolutionary psychology that, to my mind, is quite flawless. The blank slate, the concept that each and every human being, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, is born into the world an infinitely malleable tabula rasa on which parents, culture and learning leave distinguishable imprints, has been the bedrock of liberal policy and morality for the better part of the last half century. The thinking has been quite rudimentary: if we are all biologically identical, then equality is not just morally desirable but imperative, a logical conclusion. The trouble, Pinker argues, is that we are not all identical, and that well-intentioned policies based on such spurious claims can cause real harm to society. Furthermore, he is uncomfortable – as we should all be – mooring our moral and ethical practices to the misguided notion that each person is born without innate and differing predispositions. In other words, equality should not be a contingency.

What should give us pause is the willingness with which both the extreme left and the extreme right have sought to uphold the doctrine of the blank slate, as well as the vociferous and ill-spirited means they have used to criticize those offering or attempting to offer alternative views. The left views the blank slate as a prerequisite for equality; the right, already no friend of Darwin, opposes any means to explain human behavior in evolutionary terms. Strange bedfellows. That man (or woman, for that matter) is an animal, subject to an innate and evolved nature, is seemingly a concept too humbling for our species to grasp. Nevertheless, Pinker presses on, presenting an abundance of evidence and reasoned argument to suggest that a large spectrum of human emotion evolved as a biological adaptation, and can be explained in Darwinian terms.

He begins with violence, which, despite the claims of politicians looking for an easy platform and puritanical activist groups condemning violence on television and in the media, Pinker argues is innate, not a learned behavior but an unlearned one. He writes,

The presence of deliberate chimpicide in our chimpanzee cousins raises the possibility that the forces of evolution, not just the idiosyncrasies of a particular human culture, prepared us for violence. And the ubiquity of violence in human societies throughout history and prehistory is a stronger hint that we are so prepared. When we look at human bodies and brains, we find more direct signs of design for aggression. The larger size, strength, and upper-body mass of men is a zoological giveaway of an evolutionary history of violent male-male competition. Other signs include the effects of testosterone on dominance and violence, the emotion of anger (complete with reflexive baring of the canine teeth and clenching of the fists), the revealingly named fight-or-flight response of the autonomic nervous system, and the fact that disruptions of inhibitory systems of the brain (by alcohol, damage to the frontal lobe or amygdala, or defective genes involved in serotonin metabolism) can lead to aggressive attacks, initiated by circuits in the limbic system.

This is not to say, as Pinker is always careful to point out, that because violence is natural, or that we are predisposed to it, that it is ethical to engage in violence, or that violence is not also a cultural and political problem. Between the extremes of biological determinism and cultural determinism, Pinker places himself squarely in the middle; it is other groups who willfully ignore biology, and therefore reside exclusively in the cultural determinist camp, that Pinker excoriates.

In his chapter on gender, Pinker takes to task contemporary, or postmodern, feminists, who have become mired in pseudoscientific appeals to cultural hegemony and have been willfully misrepresenting or outright ignoring biology’s contributions to the study of gender for the better part of the last century. He begins, as always, with a preemptive  defense of his position:

There is, in fact, no incompatibility between the principles of feminism and the possibility that men and women are not psychologically identical. To repeat: equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group. In the case of gender, the barely defeated Equal Rights Amendment put it succinctly: “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” If we recognize this principle, no one has to spin myths about the indistinguishability of the sexes to justify equality. Nor should anyone invoke sex differences to justify discriminatory policies or to hector women into doing what they don’t want to do.

However, “feminism” is itself an umbrella term, encompassing a wide range of stances, beliefs and goals, and Pinker borrows a distinction initially made by the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers between two distinct branches of feminism: gender feminism and equity feminism. The latter is summed up quite succinctly by the above quotation from Pinker, and is concerned with equality of opportunity. Pinker writes,

Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.

It is this brand of feminism, which has a stranglehold on academia and public discourse, and exercises an alarming amount of control over public policy, that Pinker proceeds to pick apart point by point. I have developed an increasing interest and disdain for this particular brand of feminism, and will be discussing it further in future posts, so here I will consign myself to two particular tenets of gender feminism that Pinker undermines. The first is that the only difference between men and women is in the sex organs, and that the so-called masculine and feminism characteristics arise not out of a complex interaction of genes, hormones and biology, but social forces and only social forces. Every passing year yields more studies that render such a position increasingly radical, but still it is not relinquished. The irony, as Pinker points out, is that much of the research done in the field of evolutionary biology that so overwhelmingly contradicts the theories of gender feminism is done by women.

The second tenet of gender feminism, a direct offshoot of the first, is that, in an equal society, men and women, being approximately 50% of the population, would share an equal number of jobs in every field. Gender feminists point to large  gender disparities in politics and the management of Fortune 500 companies as examples of sexism, and openly contend that true equality will only be achieved when there is parity in these positions. Tellingly, gender feminists do not point to the huge disparity favoring men among the homeless or prison populations as being emblematic of sexism; their interests are exclusively for the coveted, high paying, and therefore “powerful,” positions in public policy and business.

But Pinker is quick to point out that an equal society, guaranteeing equality of opportunity for all of its members, would not necessarily produce 50/50 ratios in all fields. In fact, if evolutionary psychology is correct, there would be huge disparities in certain areas. One of the biological differences Pinker names, and substantiates with an abundance of evidence, is in empathy. Women, from an extremely young age, demonstrate an increased interest in, and proficiency for, social interaction. They are demonstrably better at guessing or interpreting the emotions of another human being, and are more successful in seeking out and establishing relationships. Men, on the other hand, are inclined towards violent or, at the very least, rough, physical activity, and demonstrate greater competitiveness. Women “are better spellers, retrieve words more fluently, and have a better memory for verbal material.” Men “have a higher tolerance for pain and a greater willingness to risk life and limb for status, attention, and other dubious rewards.” It is extremely important at all times to remember that these are mere generalizations. As a male humanities graduate with a love for language, and as one who breaks into a cold sweat at the sight of a differential calculus problem, I embody an exception to the male norms, but I am hardly rare. The important point is that such distinctions can be made, and accurately predict the differing choices and interests of men and women in society: more women than men are interested in humanities, or take careers involving social interaction, such as psychology, and more men than women are interested in engineering or take jobs involving a high level of risk, such as mining or police work.

None of this, of course, is to say that biology is the sole determining factor, or that the conversation about the role of gender in society is one not worth having. Pinker’s position, that cultural influence is far from the only – or even the most salient – variable impacting gender roles in society is considerably less radical than the position of gender feminism, which ignores entirely the contributions of neuroscience, genetics, psychology and ethnography that conclusively demonstrate that gender is not merely a social construct.

Ultimately, Pinker’s work is foundational, criticizing the dogmatically stubborn adherence to antiquated understandings of human nature and laying the groundwork for improved public policies and a more authentic, more effective egalitarianism, one that does not shy away from acknowledging and respecting human nature. It is something of a paradox that our future advancement, as a species and a society, is predicated on our ability to come to terms with our baser natures, our evolution rather than our creation.