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Q&A: Steven Pinker of 'Blank Slate'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Oct. 30, 2002 at 10:20 AM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's bestseller "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" is one of the more intellectually ambitious books to hit the best-seller lists in recent years. United Press International caught up with him just before a lecture at the California Institute of Technology, and then followed up with e-mail questions:

UPI: A widespread criticism among hostile reviewers has been: "You say that genes affect how people behave. Doesn't everybody know this already? Why write a book about it?"

Pinker: In their hearts, most people know it, especially people with more than one child. But many people deny it when they switch into intellectualizing mode. For example, many parenting studies measure a correlation between parenting practices and children's outcomes and conclude that parenting made the difference -- jabbering at your kids advances their language skills, spanking them makes them more violent and so forth. They ignore the fact that parents provide their children with genes, not just an environment, so talkative parents may pass on genes for talkativeness to their children. Another example: every few years, many academics and activists sign pious petitions declaring that "violence is learned behavior." A third example: statistics showing that women are underrepresented in professions like mechanical engineering are interpreted as evidence of hidden barriers; no one asks whether women are less likely to choose people-free professions like mechanical engineering. All three of these blank-slate fallacies, by the way, are commonly made by scientists.

Q: A common fear seems to be: "But if genetic determinism is actually true, doesn't that mean the Nazis were right?"

A: Genetic determinism is not true. Except for a few neurological disorders, no behavioral trait is determined with 100 percent probability by the genome, or anything else (we know this because identical twins are only similar, not indistinguishable, in their personality and intellect). Of course, even a statistical influence of the genes does not mean that the Nazis were right. Factually, they were wrong in believing that races and ethnic groups are qualitatively distinct in their biology, that they occupy different rungs on an evolutionary ladder, that they differ in morally worthy traits like courage and honesty, and that "superior" groups were endangered by interbreeding with "inferior" ones. Morally, they were wrong in causing the deaths of some 35 million innocent people and horrific suffering to countless others.

Your question, of course, alludes to a conventional wisdom among left-leaning academics that genes imply genocide. But the 20th century suffered “two” ideologies that led to genocides. The other one, Marxism, had no use for race, didn't believe in genes and denied that human nature was a meaningful concept. Clearly, it's not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It's the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.

Q: Aren't we all better off if people believe that we are not constrained by our biology and so can achieve any future we choose?

A: People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

Q: What is the Tragic Vision vs. the Utopian Vision?

A: They are the different visions of human nature that underlie left-wing and right-wing ideologies. The distinction comes from the economist Thomas Sowell in his wonderful book "A Conflict of Visions." According to the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in virtue, wisdom, and knowledge, and social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. According to the Utopian vision, these limits are “products” of our social arrangements, and we should strive to overcome them in a better society of the future. Out of this distinction come many right-left contrasts that would otherwise have no common denominator. Rightists tend to like tradition (because human nature does not change), small government (because no leader is wise enough to plan society), a strong police and military (because people will always be tempted by crime and conquest), and free markets (because they convert individual selfishness into collective wealth). Leftists believe that these positions are defeatist and cynical, because if we change parenting, education, the media, and social expectations, people could become wiser, nicer, and more peaceable and generous.

Q: What is the Naturalistic Fallacy vs. the Moralistic Fallacy?

A: The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for Social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the Naturalistic Fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave -- as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK).

The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on. It also lies behind the romantic belief that humans cannot harbor desires to kill, rape, lie, or steal because that would be too depressing or reactionary.

Q: It's widely assumed that only right-wingers believe in human nature. Are there any leftists who argue that understanding our evolved natures will better help the poor?

A: The most famous is my MIT colleague Noam Chomsky, who believes that people have innate tendencies to cooperate, share, and produce creative works, justifying a kind of socialist anarchism. This is a rather romantic view of human nature that is innocent of modern Darwinism -- you can't be an anarchist unless you're a romantic, and you cannot be a romantic if you're a Darwinian. But other leftists are fans of evolutionary psychology. Peter Singer believes we cannot achieve Utopia, but we can do better than we're doing now to help the poor. Herb Gintis and Sam Bowles argue that welfare can become politically popular again if it does not violate the public's sense of fairness. Robert Frank argues that extreme laissez-faire policies don't make people better off because of our innate craving for status makes us waste disposable income in zero-sum contests of conspicuous consumption. And decades ago there were "Bell-Curve Liberals" -- British intellectuals who saw IQ tests as the ultimate egalitarian talent-detectors, which would subvert a class system ruled by inbred upper-class twits.

Q: You argue that the modernist high culture and post-modernist criticism have, on the whole, failed to engage humanity's interest because they ideologically rejected basic truths about human nature. What are some of modern art's flaws?

A: My quarrel isn't with Modernism itself, but with the dogmatic versions that came to dominate the elite arts and bred the even more extreme doctrines of postmodernism. These movements were based on a militant denial of human nature, especially the idea that people are born with a capacity to experience aesthetic pleasure. Beauty in art, narrative in fiction, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, ornament and green space in architecture, were considered bourgeois and lightweight, or products of mass-marketing. Instead, modernist and postmodernist art was intended to raise our consciousnesses, illustrate a theory, or shock us out of our middle-class stupor.

Q: Why, in contrast, did popular culture become so much more, well, popular?

A: Popular culture, to become popular, had to please people, and (at least at its best) it perfected engrossing plots, catchy rhythms and melodies and gorgeous fashions and faces.

Q: You are an atheist, although less strident about it than your fellow evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins. Do you ever worry that by pitting Darwin vs. God, mano a mano, evolutionists are encouraging Creationism, since an awful lot of Americans would pick God if forced to choose?

A: My criticism of religion in "The Blank Slate" was defensive, meant to counter the argument that morality can only come from a belief in a soul that accepts God's purpose and is rewarded or punished in an afterlife. I think the evidence suggests that this doctrine is false both logically and factually. I don't make a point of criticizing religion in general. Some hard-headed biologists and evolutionary theorists believe that an abstract conception of a divine power is consistent with conventional Darwinism.

Q: In 1922, G.K. Chesterton argued that only the Christian doctrine of the equal value of all souls could reconcile the human desire for equality with Darwin's strong emphasis on heritable differences as the engine of evolution. Chesterton observed, "The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man." You believe the doctrine that we have souls is pernicious, but didn't the blank slate theory start to flourish when intellectuals stopped believing in souls, yet still wanted to believe in equality, so they started insisting that humans had to be biologically equal blank slates?

A: Yes, that's historically correct, but it is still a bad political philosophy. It makes the principle of political equality a hostage to fortune, implying that foreseeable empirical discoveries could make it obsolete. A stronger case for political equality comes out of two more robust principles. First, that humans, however much they might differ in certain traits, don't differ in having a desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These desires do not depend on having a soul but on being a member of a species that was homogenized in certain ways by natural selection. Second, that the policy of treating people according to their individual merits is more fair than a policy of prejudging them according to the statistics of their race, sex, religion or ethnic group.

Q: If free will is a myth, how can we justify punishing criminals who couldn't control their actions? How can we teach our children that crime is wrong, even if nobody sees you commit the crime?

A: I don't think free will is a myth, only that it consists of a brain process rather than the uncaused action of an immaterial soul. In cases where we can tell with certainty that an identifiable kind of actor is undeterrable by criminal sanctions, in fact we “don't” punish him -- that's why we don't punish children, animals, machines, or the truly insane (though we may incapacitate them if they are dangerous to themselves or others). In other cases, we hold people responsible because the steadfast policy of holding a person responsible can deter bad behavior in the future -- if not by the person himself, then by other people who see the policy being applied resolutely and are not tempted to game the system.

We cannot teach a psychopath that crime is wrong even if no one sees you commit it. With everyone else, we can appeal to their empathy, alerting them to the harm they do to other people; to their intellect, pointing out that they cannot logically hold others to standards that they flout themselves; and to their sense of character, reminding them that a person of principle will, in the long run and for good reason, be trusted and esteemed more than someone who cuts corners whenever he thinks he can get away with it.

Q: Your long curly hair has been compared to such 1970s rock stars as Peter Frampton, Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant, but you might look more like the 17th century philosopher Spinoza. Whom do you think you look like?

A: Then there's T. Rex singer Marc Bolan, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, and most often, conductor Simon Rattle. I, personally, would have to answer Bruno, the piano player in the TV show "Fame."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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