Copyright 2002 New Statesman Ltd
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
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
LOAD-DATE: September 12, 2002