Copyright 2002 New Statesman Ltd

 New Statesman


September 16, 2002


The darkness within.

John Gray on why the left is in flight from 'human nature

The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature

Steven Pinker

Allen Lane

509pp, GBP25 ISBN 0713996722



The belief that there is no such thing as human nature has come to be the

core dogma of radical humanism. Marxists and feminists,

left egalitarians and right-wing libertarians may disagree violently about a

great many things, but they are at one in insisting that

humans are categorically different from all other animals. The needs and

capacities of tigers and gorillas are biologically given, their

possibilities narrowly limited; but humans can transcend their animal

origins and live as they choose. Marx gave a canonical

formulation of this view when he declared that there is no human essence,

only a changing ensemble of social relations; but it is by

no means confined to Marx and his disciples. Jean-Paul Sartre in his

existentialist days, Ortega y Gasset and the Tory philosopher

Michael Oakeshott all shared this humanist creed, each of these (otherwise

very different) thinkers writing that man has no nature,

only a history. The denial of human nature spans many philosophies and all

political parties, but it is most adamant on the left. It is

not hard to see why. Human nature is a stumbling block to believers in

progress. If humans are like other animals, they cannot be

expected suddenly to change their ways. Science may yield new forms of

knowledge and new technologies, governments and

economic systems may change, sometimes for the better, but the basic traits

of human behaviour will remain the same. Even the

most revolutionary transformation of society will leave human needs and

motives much as they have always been.


For anyone who has inherited the grandiose hopes of Enlightenment thinkers

such as Marx, this is an intolerably dispiriting

prospect. It is only to be expected that they should seek to evade it.

Accordingly, left-leaning social scientists and philosophers

have waged an unending war of attrition against the idea of human nature.

Many have argued that human behaviour is largely the

product of cultural conditioning. Some - such as the American pragmatist

philosopher Richard Rorty - have maintained that the

very idea of human nature is a mere cultural construction, whose content

changes along with shifting modes of power and

discourse. What these thinkers have in common is the belief that when human

beings come into the world, they are tabulae rasae,

blank slates on which societies inscribe their differing beliefs and values.


That humanists should join forces in denying the existence of human nature

is curious enough. What is even more curious is that

they all proclaim themselves to be Darwinists. Darwin teaches that we are

animals. Even so, humanists insist, we are not limited by

our biological natures. Using our capacities for choice, inquiry and

invention, we can alter our environment and thereby ourselves.

Godlike, we can be our own makers. If there is a modern creed, this is it.


In practice, the denial of human nature has been disastrous. All the great

political experiments of the 20th century - communism,

the more radical varieties of fascism and the fleeting fantasy of 'global

democratic capitalism' - presumed that human behaviour can

be fundamentally changed by an alteration in social arrangements. In each

case, the experiment has ended in disappointment.

Needless human suffering has flowed from the belief that there is no such

thing as human nature.


It is still not enough, because an idea has harmful consequences, to show

that it is mistaken. For that, we need rigorous and

dispassionate analysis, which is precisely what Steven Pinker provides in

his magisterial and indispensable new book.


There have been several statements of the case for human nature. Perhaps the

most elegant is E O Wilson's On Human Nature

(1978), a book that combines uncompromising intellectual objectivity with a

tragic and poetic vision of what Darwinism implies for

human hopes. Every intellectually literate person should read Wilson. For

the most comprehensive and exhaustive argument for the

reality of human nature, however, they should turn to Pinker.


The Blank Slate provides an invaluable survey of the evidence showing that

what Pinker calls the 'official theory' - that the human

mind is in some deep way a social or cultural construction - is false. Both

genetics and research in the advancing science of the

brain show the human mind to be rooted firmly in the biology of the human

animal. Contrary to Descartes, our minds are not

mysterious entities directing our bodies from outside. They are an integral

part of our animal equipment. Equally, contrary to Marx

and to a long line of sociologists such as Durkheim, they are not primarily

products of socialisation. Human responses vary

somewhat from culture to culture; but the components of the human repertoire

are universal. Among a host of other species-wide

features are common facial expressions, a belief in superstition and an

innate propensity to learn language as identified by

Chomsky. Underneath the surface differences of physical appearance and local

culture, the human species is one.


Pinker's book contains an overwhelming argument against the theory that the

human mind is a social construct. But it is far from

being a mere diatribe. It is also a wide-ranging and unfailingly sensible

discussion of the ethical and political implications of

accepting that we have a common nature. As Pinker points out, nothing of

ethical importance follows logically from the truth that

human mental capacities are largely hard-wired. Certainly, that humans are

born with different talents and abilities does not mean

they should be treated as being of unequal worth. Nevertheless, the

scientific demonstration of the reality of human nature does

have some political implications, and - as Pinker shows very clearly - these

are consistently anti-utopian. To take only one of

several examples that Pinker discusses, the human propensity to violence is

built in to the human animal. It is not a response to

media portrayals of violence, nor can it always be explained as a reaction

against injustice. Humans are extremely violent animals.

That does not mean violence cannot be controlled. Rather, it must be

controlled. If we are skilful and determined in dealing with

the causes of war, we can have a more peaceful world. We cannot have one in

which the risk of violent conflict does not exist.


In an interesting aside, Pinker notes that the view of human nature which is

emerging from science has more in common with that

defended by Christian thinkers and by Freud than it does with theories such

as Marx's. This is a point worth further elaboration,

because it suggests another curious turn in the history of ideas.

Enlightenment thinkers took up the scientific study of human

behaviour in the hope of transforming the human condition. The result of

scientific inquiry, however, is to vindicate a secular version

of the idea of original sin.


John Gray's latest book is Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals





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