The Blank State – Reviewed by Rachel Smith

 


Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 1 Lent 2003

The magazine of


Women's Union

The Blank Slate

Steven Pinker

Reviewed by Rachel Smith

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker tries to explain why many people get
upset by claims that psychological and behavioural traits derive directly
from a genetic and evolutionary heritage. He blames the view that human
nature is malleable and shaped by experience, which he thinks is
scientifically outdated. It’s protected by the academic thought police
out of laziness and fear of the consequences of the alternatives, from
nihilism through to social inequality, social Darwinism and eugenics.

Pinker’s challenge is politically and socially conservative. He thinks
utopian social experiments are doomed to fail, but not because people are
incapable of altruism. Instead, there is an evolutionary pay-off for
co-operation between individuals, but this takes different forms
depending on their genetic relatedness: nepotism among kin, and
tit-for-tat reciprocity among friends/acquaintances. Emotions like
sympathy, anger and shame evolved as a form of guarantee of these
contractual arrangements. Nevertheless, some violence, mostly among young
males, is unavoidable, especially in conditions of relative deprivation
where violence appears the only way to get ahead. A leviathan state can,
Pinker thinks, reduce (but not eliminate) violence both with better
deterrence policies, and by working to promote equality.

As for work, the idea seems to be that girls’ brains prefer dolls and
boys’ brains prefer guns and trucks; in the marketplace, the
gun-and-truck jobs tend to pay better, so the gap between men’s and
women’s earnings may be a consequence of innate preferences, rather than
inequalities. It’s easy, and tempting, to dismiss this as a
rationalisation of current (Western) social conditions. Of course, if
Pinker’s right, and if everyone’s happy, then there’s no problem; I
suspect, though, that he underestimates women’s ambition and desire for
status and prestige.

What The Blank Slate does best is to show that blaming it all on the
genes doesn’t actually get us off the hook, or allow us to abjure moral
responsibility for our actions. Morality is about how people ought to
treat one another so as not to cause harm, and is detachable (with some
difficulty) from claims about what human nature is like. This view of
morality is carefully developed through the book, and Pinker is keen to
distinguish it from the sanctimonious moral sense that causes people
reflexively to condemn acts that harm no-one: examples he gives are
consensual incest with no possibility of reproduction and, more
memorably, having intercourse with the turkey before cooking it for
lunch.

As a non-specialist, I thought some of the claims were sensible enough,
but others less so. It stands to reason that there exists variation in
genes that, directly or indirectly, affects some aspects of mental life,
and likewise that some of our psychological make-up may result from
natural selection. But the jury is still out on the specifics, and much
of the evidence is extremely controversial. This means that it matters
how you argue the case, and here Pinker’s polemical style lets him
down. In a field that is heavily metaphorical (blank slates, selfish
genes, etc.) he treats opponents’ metaphors with scornful literalism: how
could anyone possibly claim that “language is a prison-house”, when we
create hundreds of entirely novel sentences each day? His own, on the
other hand, are painstakingly explained: no, a gene doesn’t have a
self; no, a selfish gene needn’t produce a selfish animal. More
disruptive for the coherence of the book is the fact that Pinker’s “blank
slate” is a gigantic straw man, cobbled together from many thinkers’
ideas, with little attempt to describe any of them clearly, let alone
contextualise them. He defines it far too briefly, which means he can
spend the rest of the book rearranging the goalposts. At different
points, the “blank slate” is taken to imply each of the following
propositions: the mind must be uniform, and cannot harbour different
processes with different goals; the brain must be a meatloaf, lacking any
neuroanatomically specialised regions; there can be no innate capacities
at all, not even the ability to learn; people must be gullible and
endlessly available to others’ manipulations. I don’t think Locke or any
other empiricist intended this; a bit more even-handedness might move the
debate forward.

Finally, The Blank Slate is an oddly cerebral book; there’s little in
it about our primate bodies and how we experience them. Indeed, I was
struck by the nostalgic tone of Pinker’s descriptions of maladjusted
nature: “our minds are adapted to a world that no longer exists”, one
where naked ambition, fatty food and casual sex simply promoted survival,
and by implication were less personally troubling. In all, as a theory of
human nature, The Blank Slate is only intermittently convincing, though
it’s much more successful as an argument about why liberals needn’t be
afraid of thinking about genetics or evolution.

 


 

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