The Blank Slate: Neuters Nature-Nurture? Nope.

For the most part I have no problem with evolutionary psychology.

Sure, I’m not a believer in all the arguments it puts forward. And sure, a portion of the work has been sloppy, in the early days (the vilified Sociobiology period, as documented here), and increasingly, I feel, in the recent output. But I’m quite happy to tie myself to the position that evolutionary forces have shaped the brain and behaviour in organisms, and consequently are well worth studying. It’s natural that I would: much work in neuroscience and psychology proper is tacitly underpinned by this notion, and to fail to recognise this would hamstring a serious investigator of brain and behaviour. If a sub-discipline wants to focus on these issues a bit more closely, then that’s fine with me; get some right, get some wrong, but get it out there for us to puzzle over.

At the moment, I do have a problem with evolutionary psychology.

I have a problem with it because it has shucked its safety harness and pounced into the public arena: being an unusual beast, it attracts spotlights and attention; being trained well it captivates onlookers with its dynamic flurry. One consequence is that evolutionary psychology and its trappings have firmly re-entered the arsenal of right-wing justification, and continue to perpetuate the mindset that rationality is bequeathed solely to the modern right. The agnosticism towards politics that seemed promised in the new wave of Evolutionary Psychology has been jettisoned in favour of extensive engagement with these issues. The most visible work in which this can be seen is Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate 1, which actually purports to excise “anxieties about human nature”(p139), but somehow manages to steamroll into every political issue it can find. Invariably, the only sector that comes out well is the secular right.

It might appear odd that a book which damns the politicisation of the scientific issue of nature-nurture, and vocally attempts to neuter it, could be so preoccupied with the social and indeed, political, implications of that same issue. But Pinker is an excellent writer, and the book is structured in such a way to allay even the critical reader’s suspicions. From the first few sections concerned with the history of ideas of human nature, and some of the science which conflicts with these ideas, he then moves to the nightmare implications that are so often thrown up by critics (won’t we all have to become racists?). He compellingly and dispassionately exposes the fallacies that plague thinking about human nature (using the Humean maxim -you can’t get ought from is- to illuminate how selfish tendencies would not undermine ethics; explicating what determinism really means, and whether genetic determinism would be any worse than environmental determinism), and shows that these issues ultimately bottom out into political and ethical arguments, rather than scientific findings. By the end of this, with any conscientious, rational reader firmly on side, the book turns from these extreme and worrying issues (determinism, eugenics, racism) onto contemporary ‘hot button’ issues; we are informed that in these cases science should be utilized, as we need a good cost-benefit analysis of what is going on.

As one of these readers, revisiting for the second time, I feel like a man beguiled, ruefully clutching his head the next day as he figures out that the other camel being lame, blind and toothless, doesn’t make this one worth the forty shekels. Hitler, Nietzsche and deep pessimism about humanity were hovering about human nature – but now, they are vanquished! And our saviour merely asks that we consider installing these new sentinels: Hobbes, Hayek, Burke. We are told accepting genes and biological bases to the mind doesn’t require accepting the bogeymen, but it is strongly implied that if we are going to be scientific about it we ought to pack up our Rousseau, Locke and Kennedy.

To me this book is disingenuous. Pinker as vigorous corrector of misunderstanding does, largely, a wonderful job. However, to sandwich in his viewpoints on hot button issues, he leaves the lab and slumps into the armchair, making arguments that where nominally solid are not reducible to science, or else not reducible to the scientific knowledge we currently have. They are at times intriguing and possibly compelling, but they are ultimately polemic and not an expression of the current scientific state of play.

I’m going to visit this book a few times over the next few weeks, try and build a concerted critique of its political aims. This is part of something I’ve been wanting to get off the ground, under the title of “Science is not a right wing tool”, or some such. Too often I see science and rationality touted as if they are the province of the right, and the left is dominated by dogma and blushing nonsense. I’d like to serve as some sort of corrective. For now, Pinker is target No 1 – not because I dislike him; I have read most of his books and enjoyed them all; I’ve paid to hear him speak and find him engaging, and he (and much of evolutionary psychology) were what drew me deeply into my studies in the first place. I’m tackling him because I’m frustrated that so much can be, as he hopes, “coolly analytical” (p xi), whilst his “positive thrust” (ibid) is so untempered and undoes, to my mind, what the real task of the book should be: to say everyone, regardless of belief, should get on board the science train.

1 Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate. Viking Penguin, New York.

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