We are who we are, or are we? The idea that
we are driven by biology isn't sitting well
By Kim Painter
Special for USA TODAY
Girls like to play house. Boys like to play war. Some
people are shy, others gregarious; some are especially smart,
others especially brave. But in many ways, humans are alike:
We fall in love, worry about status and know joy, jealousy and
That's human nature. And according to psychologist Steven
Pinker, nature -- not nurture, culture or learning -- is the
Girls don't play with dolls because we dress them in pink;
young men don't develop violent urges because they read comic
books; and it is not just a cultural coincidence that
societies everywhere wage war, frown on incest and celebrate
We are who we are, collectively and individually, because
of our brains, he says. And our brains, no less than our
livers or kidneys, are products of evolution, Pinker argues in
his new book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human
Nature (Viking, $27.95).
''The emotions and drives and ways of thinking and learning
that are uniform across the human species are part of our
inheritance,'' he says. In other words, a baby's brain is not
a blank slate; it is inscribed with the genetic history of
humankind, with the traits that allowed earlier humans to
survive -- and with many of the quirks that make individuals
themselves, Pinker says. ''Evolution feeds on variation.''
If science and politics feed on controversy, Pinker's book
provides plenty. The Canadian native, 48, a language and
cognition researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, is picking a fight with those who deny that the
mind is biological and much human behavior innate. That group
includes many religious thinkers and evolution skeptics.
But even some scholars and defenders of evolutionary theory
reject many of the ideas Pinker endorses, which range from the
notion that there is an innate set of emotions to the idea
that men crave multiple sex partners because promiscuous male
ancestors left the most offspring. The late evolutionary
biologist Stephen Jay Gould called the whole field, known
broadly as sociobiology, ''foolish,'' ''pathetic'' and
''egregiously simplistic,'' among other things.
Many feminists, of course, reject the idea that sexual
differences are largely unlearned and unchangeable. Any
discussion of innate genetic differences raises the question
of whether minds vary by race (Pinker says innate race
differences in IQ ''are possible,'' but ''the evidence we have
today doesn't demonstrate that they exist''). And the whole
industry of child-rearing advice is based on the idea that
parents can mold the minds of children.
Certainly, no one denies that some mental characteristics
are innate. ''Human nature exists,'' says sociobiology critic
Jonathan Marks, an anthropology professor at the University of
North Carolina-Charlotte. ''It's different from chimp nature
and cow nature. . . . But I don't know of any reliable
way of establishing that any particular trait is human nature.
''When you start talking about behavioral genetics and the
influence on personality, you are getting into a real nasty
field. . . . There is a political advantage to the
right wing in telling you that there is no chance to better
yourself, that social hierarchies are rooted in natural
differences and therefore there is nothing you can do about
But Pinker, who has written several books on language and
the mind, argues in his book that the idea of a truly
biological mind is neither unscientific nor dangerous. If
anything, he says, the idea of the blank slate is dangerous.
''If you believe in a blank slate, you better make sure the
right thing gets written on the slate,'' he says, adding
that's just what totalitarian and Marxist governments attempt.
As he notes, Mao Tse-tung once said: ''It is on a blank page
that the most beautiful poems are written.''
Pinker concedes that some of the ideas of sociobiology can
be unsettling. Take gender. Talk about differences in men's
and women's brains immediately raises the specter of
justifiable discrimination, he says. But, he says, ''People
confuse two questions. One is, 'Are men and women
indistinguishable?' And the answer is no. The other is,
'Should we bring back discrimination?' And the answer is no
Pinker envisions a world in which individual men and women
have the same opportunities even while people acknowledge that
average men and women are different -- that, for example,
women tend to feel more attached to children and men tend to
feel more competitive about job success. Even in a world with
perfect equality of opportunity, he says, ''I don't think as
many women would figure out how to build a better dishwasher
and I don't think as many men would write doctoral theses on
the writings of Sylvia Plath.''
On another hot-button issue -- children -- Pinker says
parents should be relieved that they can't mold their
children's intellects and personalities with the right toys,
books and experiences. ''There is a tendency to blame mothers
for everything that goes wrong with their children,'' he says.
But, he adds, research suggests that within a culture, ''about
half the variation among people's personalities is caused by
differences in their genes; little is caused by the homes and
parents they grew up with; and half is caused by something
That something else could be peer group experiences, he
says, as proposed by researcher Judith Rich Harris in her 1998
book The Nurture Assumption, or even ''chance events in
the wiring of the brain in utero and early life.'' But, he
says, that doesn't mean that parenting doesn't matter.
''Parents affect which peer group a child falls into,'' he
says. ''They teach their children skills such as sports,
musical instruments and school skills.'' And, at least during
childhood, parents ''strongly affect their children's
happiness and well-being.''
Nothing about a belief in biological human nature robs life
of its meaning or humans of their freedom, Pinker says. Our
brains are complex enough to allow moral thinking, and humans
are not just gene-carrying robots programmed to reproduce and
Of his own decision not to have children, Pinker once
wrote, ''If my genes don't like it they can jump in the
lake.'' The point, he says, was to ''underscore that the
metaphorical motives of the genes (to reproduce themselves) is
different from the real motives of people.''
Many questions remain unanswered, Pinker says. ''We know a
lot of things at a general level . . . but we don't
know much about how, in detail, the child's innate endowment
allows learning to take place. For example, we don't
understand human nature well enough to program a computer with
a simulation of human mental abilities and expect it to learn
what children naturally learn.''
Genetic explanations of behavior ''give a lot of people the
heebie-jeebies,'' says Eugenie Scott, executive director of
the National Center for Science Education, a group that
promotes the teaching of evolution in schools. But, she says,
''there's a continuum of scientific views. Nobody says it's
all environment and nobody says it's all genetic.''
Pinker certainly falls on the genetic side of the
continuum. But the important message, Scott says, is that
genes ''are pretty darn important, and we better understand
this interaction if we are going to create societies that are
functional and humane . . . which is very different
from saying that we are slaves to our genes.''