September 29, 2002

 

 

                   BOOK REVIEW

                   The Crooked Timber of Humanity

                      THE BLANK SLATE: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. By Steven

                   Pinker, Viking: 510 pp., $27.95.

 

                   FREDERIC RAPHAEL

 

                   "Philosophy," Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, "leaves

                   everything as it is." It was not his wisest remark. Man

                   has always been eager for--and is often alarmed

                   by--new theories about the world: why and how it

                   came to be and where it is going. Philosophers--from

                   Democritus through Plato to Marx and

                   Nietzsche--have rarely left things as they were. Marx,

                   for instance, alleged that previous philosophers had

                   only described the world; his mission was to change

                   it. In fact, earlier philosophers had, in various ways,

                   shaped the world he now proposed to revolutionize.

 

                   Would Marx ever have believed that mankind was

                   ripe for radical remodeling if John Locke, two

                   centuries earlier, had not maintained, with liberating

                   plausibility, that men are born with minds like blank

                   slates? Experience alone, Locke insisted, loads them

                   with the information from which they later compose

                   images of reality. A consequence of the blank slate

                   was that there could be no inherited nobility. How

                   could one newborn blank reasonably claim to be

                   innately better than another?

 

                   Locke came at the right moment for democracy. His

                   views emboldened America's Founding Fathers when

                   it came to "self-evident" truths. He seemed to

                   promise that everyone began life at the same starting

                   line. Although challenged in detail, his empiricism

                   appeared, for many decades, both common-sensical

                   and scientific. It may still appear the first; it is not the

                   second. Science and common sense seldom tell the

                   same story.

 

                   Genetics has now established what Locke's

                   contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz, had immediately

                   suspected: Men's and women's (and animals') minds

                   are elaborately "wired" long before they are born.

                   And some have capacities that others do not. In their

                   "selfishness," genes do not invest in level playing fields

                   or universal human rights. Justice and fairness may be desirable; they are not

                   natural.

 

                   If the theory of the blank slate is no longer tenable, must democratic theory

                   collapse with it? Fortunately, and unarguably, there is no logical connection

                   between how the world is and what values man chooses to impose on it and on

                   himself. The only link between ethics and facts is that "ought entails can": We

                   should not require of ourselves, or others, what it is beyond human capacity to

                   achieve. It is not within our power, for instance, to be identical to our neighbors,

                   neither more intelligent nor more comely; not even if our neighbor is our clone.

                   Absolute equality is contrary to human nature. Why would anyone have to watch

                   his back when saying something so matter-of-fact?

 

                   Steven Pinker, best-selling author of "The Language Instinct" and "How the Mind

                   Works," has written a big book, "The Blank Slate," that is built like a bouncer,

                   and it needs to be. "Human nature is human nature" is not the kind of tautology

                   some people are willing to take lying down. For ideological reasons, clever

                   people can still deny that their brains--but not their eventual contents or use--are

                   shaped by their parents' genes. The unreasonable fear is that to concede

                   unwanted truths will leave mankind with no logical resistance to fascism,

                   capitalism, racism, religious obscurantism, male dominance and the rest. If

                   Locke's theory generated democracy, how can rejecting it not rehabilitate

                   tyranny? Part of Pinker's mission is to repeat that there is no inescapable

                   correlation between facts and human value systems, good or bad.

 

                   Darwin's theory of natural selection was, in important ways, irrefutably right. Yet

                   its perversion, so-called social Darwinism, did not follow logically from it. Natural

                   selection--which involved what Richard Dawkins called, metaphorically, the

                   "selfish gene"--is not a warrant for genocide nor even for human selfishness

                   (altruism, like love, can be good for the future of you and your genes). Opposition

                   to genocide in no way requires us to deny undeniable evidence for natural

                   selection or for genetically programmed variety.

 

                   The use of new knowledge to challenge false theories (which are incompatible

                   with it) is what many of us call intellectual progress. Communism depends on the

                   idea that man is infinitely malleable ("The working classes are to Lenin what

                   minerals are to the metallurgist," said Maxim Gorky, toady-in-chief to the

                   Bolsheviks). If, therefore, it can be shown that men are not pieces of elemental

                   putty ready to be molded by Those Who Know, communism cannot be--as

                   dialectical materialism asserted--an inevitable result of the scheme of things.

 

                   Yet despite the Gulag, the Khmer Rouge and Mao Tse-tung's murderous legacy,

                   today's academia remains infatuated with Marxism. Many ranking

                   scientists--Pinker's hit-list is starry with well-known names--refuse to extricate

                   themselves from their implacable mind-sets. "Fascist" is their yelping Pavlovian

                   response to facts that challenge their fantasies. Yet the same men and women

                   deride the Nazis' idiotic denunciation of the theory of relativity as "Jewish

                   science." Pinker would like to have them recognize that "the problem is not with

                   the possibility that people might differ from each other, which is a factual question

                   that could turn one way or the other. The problem is with the line of reasoning

                   that says that if people do turn out to be different, then discrimination, oppression

                   or genocide would be OK."

 

                   The right can be as every bit as mutton-headed as the left. The "religious right,"

                   which has corralled President George W. Bush into its pious camp, opposes the

                   use of 5-day-old human embryos in medical research. Why? Because it believes

                   in "ensoulment" at the moment of conception. Belief passes itself off, in modern

                   rhetoric, as an ultra-sincere form of knowledge. In a democracy, aren't we all

                   entitled to our beliefs and our opinions? Of course. And only a crackpot believes

                   that that makes them all equally valid or worthy of respect. The most sincere

                   politician of the last century was Adolf Hitler.

 

                   Pinker's retort to the card-carrying pro-lifer is unequivocal and very pro-life: "I

                   see no dignity in letting people die of hepatitis or be ravaged by Parkinson's

                   disease when a cure may lie in research on stem-cells that religious movements

                   seek to ban because it uses balls of cells that have made the 'ontological' leap to

                   'spiritual souls.' Sources of immense misery ... will be alleviated not by treating

                   thought and emotion as manifestations of an immaterial soul, but by treating them

                   as manifestations of physiology and genetics."

 

                   Not exactly catchy prose, I grant, but elsewhere Pinker can be both terse and

                   witty. And when he comes to the point, he knows how to drive it home. He asks

                   what mainstream politician would dare to challenge so-called Judeo-Christian

                   religious theory when 76% of Americans believe (so polls promise) in the biblical

                   account of creation and the same proportion in angels, the devil and other

                   immaterial souls.

 

                   The sorry truth is that "most academics, journalists, social analysts and other

                   intellectually engaged people" hide their genuine opinions because they are

                   cowards and careerists. Christianity has, in truth, been a lot less unanimous in its

                   moral stance than official dogma would have us believe. One of the president's

                   men should check out what bishop Julian of Eclanum wrote, in the 5th century, to

                   that coercive centralizer, the great St. Augustine, about that dignitary's lack of

                   common humanity and civilized standards.

 

                   Pinker presents an unanswerable case for accepting that man can be, as he is,

                   both wired and free. Genes do not determine how we use our minds, only the

                   kinds of minds we have. No one has to propagate fairy tales in order to justify a

                   better world. Ashley Montagu's UNESCO resolution, stating that biology

                   supports an ethic of "universal brotherhood" is as baseless as Jean Jacques

                   Rousseau's myth of the noble savage. Man is good and bad; man is loving and

                   savage; man is thoughtful and impulsive. The ingredients vary with genetic

                   inheritance. Too bad if that doesn't suit left- or right-wing Utopians, but the good

                   news is that man is unrivaled in ingenuity and in ability to learn and adapt. An

                   individual mind can be closed (or held shut); the book of knowledge, and hence

                   society itself, can never be.

 

                   Is the "soul," or what philosopher Gilbert Ryle called "the ghost in the machine," a

                   plausible or a necessary adjunct to our idea of humanity? As for religion, its

                   alleged guarantor, why does a hard head such as Irving Kristol insist that "no

                   community can survive if it is persuaded--or even suspects--that its members are

                   leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe"? Even if the universe has no

                   "meaning" (whatever that might mean), must it follow that human life is

                   meaningless? The values that civilized men attach to life, and to one another, give

                   it, and us, meaning.

 

                   Pinker bites off a lot, and some of it is, to put it mildly, more swallowed than

                   chewed. If he is excellent on genetically modified foods and the fatuous phobias

                   they excite (the president of Zambia would sooner his people starve than eat such

                   foods), he might have spared us his Panglossian assessment of the arts, in which

                   he quotes a ragbag of sources, such as George Bernard Shaw, with callow

                   deference. Nor is he wholly right about the universal aversion to incest: It was a

                   royal privilege in ancient Egypt and widely practiced by Greek tyrants (having

                   come to power, they wanted to keep it in the family).

 

                   More important, and much more unwise, he waxes dogmatic about educational

                   curricula. He recommends that the study of "economics, evolutionary biology and

                   probability and statistics" replace that of "the classics or foreign languages" in high

                   schools and colleges. As bridge players say, "Alert!" Americans (and the English)

                   are already fortified in their vanity by ignorance of foreign languages. The

                   despised classics, and the disinterested intelligence which should derive from

                   them, foster nonutilitarian values (which is what some vital values have to be).

                   How many squads of statisticians do we need?

 

                   What we certainly need are critics--as Pinker himself is--of reckless conclusions

                   drawn from statistics, or from anything else. Such characters used to be the fruit

                   of what was known as the humanities. And "The Blank Slate"--at once tolerant

                   and polemic, uncompromising and open-minded--offers a notable and instructive

                   contribution to them. As a brightly lighted path between what we would like to

                   believe and what we need to know, it is required reading.

 

                   Frederic Raphael has written widely on philosophy. His most recent book is

                   "Personal Terms," edited notebooks, 1950-69.