15 June, 2003Issue 2.3Politics & SocietyScience

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The Science and Politics of the Human Mind

Jason Wasfy

Steven Pinker
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Penguin Press, 2002
434 pages

Since any good scientist should approach research with as few preconceptions as possible, championing a scientific theory because of its potential political consequences just seems wrong.

Wrong, maybe, but not inconceivable. Environmentalists, for example, cite data implying that humans are inflicting great damage on the earth, while industry-advocates typically defend other studies that paint a more nebulous picture of global change. In his new book, Steven Pinker argues that contemporary politicians, social theorists, and even scientists are twisting science to fit political aims. ‘The effort to figure out what is going on’, Pinker writes, ‘has been hijacked by an effort to legislate the right answer’.

What’s’more, the consequences are serious – and not only for science policy. Ethical and political theorists since Plato have relied on distinct conceptions of human nature. Arguing how people should govern themselves seems to require an understanding of how people behave ‘naturally’. But in formulating public policy, Pinker believes that too many of us still cling to doctrines of human nature that recent science has rendered obsolete. Those doctrines of human nature influence our deliberations about equality, criminal justice, education, and other major issues that modern societies face. Much of The Blank Slate aims to deconstruct ‘old’ views of human nature – Rousseau’s idea that humans are naturally peaceful, Locke’s idea that experience alone shapes people’s minds, and Descartes’ dualism that draws an impenetrable distinction between physical body and non-physical mind.

The dogma of the mind as disembodied and eminently malleable, Pinker believes, does not hold up in the face of modern scientific findings. Studies have shown that the minds of different species are preprogrammed at birth for distinct tasks. The fact that humans, dolphins, and birds can all perform specific tasks that other species cannot perform, regardless of environmental conditions, suggests that some innate structures of the mind are coded for by genes. Also, cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists have identified natural tendencies in young children to use ‘distinct representations and processes in different domains of knowledge’. From an early age, some innate mechanism leads the mind to develop a capacity for language, an intuitive understanding of objects, and of the personalities of other people. In short, Pinker writes, the mind is not ‘silly putty’. The mind can change, react, and develop – but only within certain intrinsic constraints specified by our genes.

After tearing down these outdated ideas prevalent in political theory, Pinker expounds his own understanding of innate human nature. And this is Pinker’s strong suit – describing complex science in engaging language that lay readers can understand. Pinker has been developing these ideas for decades. Much of the material has appeared before, in How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct, and I even remember some of Pinker’s points from my own days in his introductory psychology class at MIT. But The Blank Slate represents Pinker’s first synthesis of his arguments into a coherent exposition of human nature and connects his conclusions to politics. As in the past, Pinker animates profound lessons about the mind with a staggering range of political and cultural sources – from Kahlil Gibran, to Woody Allen, to Leon Kass, chair of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

The problem with Pinker’s approach is that this sort of popularisation often creates a lack of precision. Delineating the differences between the political theories of Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes requires a deeper appreciation of the linkages between their conceptions of human nature and their political ideas than The Blank Slate offers. Still, Pinker can balance the competing ideals of understandability and completeness as well as anyone, and this book packages complex concepts for popular consumption well.

Popular consumption is meaningful because many of the matters Pinker raises lie at the heart of issues that plague contemporary societies. Here Pinker may disquiet readers, at least initially. For example, he argues that rape may be natural – ‘in our genes’, that is – but he goes out of his way to show that natural does not imply tolerable. ‘Understanding an affliction’, Pinker writes, ‘is the first step towards eliminating it’. Pinker insists that we can acknowledge a natural tendency to rape and still not tolerate or forgive rape. Human nature is sometimes evil, and we need to understand that if we are to contain evil impulses. This argument about the genetic tendency towards certain behaviors runs parallel to arguments about racism, social redistribution, and other issues. The general theme is that we need to develop a morality that does not merely accept as moral everything that science identifies as natural. Discrimination, exploitation, and violence are wrong because treating people unfairly is wrong – not because the alternatives are natural.

In drawing that distinction, Pinker defends the autonomy not only of science but of ethics and politics as well. People in societies need to deliberate about and agree upon what they regard as moral and politically desirable. Science can and must weigh in by providing technical expertise necessary to implement those moral and political goals. But we should not rely on science to answer our toughest ethical questions. That scientists should draw their conclusions free from political pressure seems obvious. That all of us are free to determine our ethics and our politics, independent of what science tells us, should be obvious too. With this illustrative, interdisciplinary, and thoughtful new book, Pinker reminds readers of that important truth.

Jason Wasfy is a graduate student in Politics at New College, Oxford. He will be attending Harvard Medical School in the fall.