Saturday, December 13, 2008

THE BLANK SLATE by Steven Pinker

The deafening silence that accompanied the 2002 publication of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (If there was an outcry, I didn't hear it.) was the unmistakable sound of a paradigm shifting. If this book had been published 20 or 25 years earlier, it would have ignited furious scholarly denunciations, critical conferences, even public demonstrations, but it seems that sometime around the millennium a new paradigm slid into place, and the ideas that ignited the 'sociobiology wars' of the 1970s-80s in academe have achieved broad acceptance. This book does seem to be the final and decisive nail in the coffin of a kind of radical social constructionism that creeped from sociology and literary theory into biology in the 1970's-90's. It replaces the concept of mind as a tabula rasa written upon by patriarchal capitalist society with a more nuanced approach to mind informed by recent research in neuroscience, genetics, cognitive science, evolutionary theory, etc. In short, Pinker compellingly argues that genes and heredity and evolutionary history ('biology' in the broadest sense) are more important in determining the construction of the self than any of the current 'star' thinkers in the American humanities have been willing to admit. If the self is likened to a computer, all of the hardware and a significant percentage of the software is assembled and loaded at the genetic factory; culture and society load the rest of the software and tinker with the hardware, but who we are is profoundly genetic. This is a chastening notion for anyone who has come into self-consciousness in an intellectual world dominated by Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and their American disciples--even for someone like me who reads them with a large bag of rock salt--but it's good and healthy (it is meet, as Shakespeare might have said) to be intellectually chastened every once in a while. The nature-nurture debate is by no means over (and I suspect Pinker underestimates the importance of environment), but the massive amount of evidence he marshals from anthropology, biology, medicine, etc. should make it virtually impossible for anyone to argue that the biological component of personality and behavior is negligible or that there is no fundamental 'human nature' shared by all homo sapiens regardless of culture. The book is already forcing me to re-examine my existentialism. Yes, Virginia, there is an 'essence' and it precedes our individual existences by tens of thousands of years. There is, in other words, a human nature, and its existence is powerfully demonstrated by the many columns of cultural universals in the back of Pinker's book (some of which are, admittedly, highly abstract and arguable). So the fundamental principle of Sartrean existentialism is incorrect. Can I 'save' Sartre, save what's valuable for me in existentialism (its godless ethics, its insistence on free will, 'thrownness' and the absurdity of existence)? I think I can, even in the face of the idea that not only what makes us similar but what makes us individual (tendencies toward aggression, melancholy, happiness, etc.) may well be genetically programmed. The key to saving an existentialist outlook lies in the realization that we are hardly the slaves of our genetic inheritance. First, we must appreciate that the genetic inheritance is complex and contradictory. We have evolved frontal lobes, for example, that control and repress the violent impulses in the brain's limbic system. (Incidentally, this is a good example of contemporary neuroscience independently confirming Freud's theories of repression and showing their material basis.). Second, we have developed self-consciousness and the abilities to reason, to empathize, to feel compassion, to love irrationally. All of these may be genetic inheritances, but we have the freedom to put them into play against other, darker inheritances. That's where the crucial existential choices come in.

What are the downsides of Pinker's book? His theories can be easily misused by the far right (and even left) to justify differential social and legal measures, but one hopes this is a characteristic only of the wacko political fringe. There are a few passages in which I think Pinker comes very close to racism, and overall the book does seem to be concealing a neoconservative bias. From a methodological standpoint, Pinker is seemingly oblivious to the dangers of his own 'paradigm creep', even as he decries the creeping paradigms of the 'blank slate' and the 'noble savage'. This is especially evident in the chapter on art, which reads like an afterthought that should have been excised. Pinker is far outside his area of competence here, and it shows.

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