I desperately wish I had been paying closer attention when the flower of Steven Pinker’s genius blossomed in the public consciousness around two decades ago. Instead of spending all that time in the mid 2000’s wandering in a field of dead philosophers I could simply have picked up The Blank Slate and been quickly educated on what we know of the distilled essence of human nature. This book, a grand tour of the reigning theories of human cognition and development (concerning much of what philosophers call ‘epistemology’), as applied to the contemporary strategies for dealing with problems like violence and gender relations and child-rearing, is nothing less than a tour de force of rational, objective thought. This is the best book I’ve read since reading Albert Jay Nock’s sensational Memoirs of a Superfluous Man a few years ago. Like Nock, Pinker is concerned with the thing as it is, not the thing as our social blinders and biases want to deceive us into believing that it is. And the thing as it is turns out, not surprisingly, to be quite different than the thing as most people wish it would be.
This review will not be directed at criticism so much as simply sketching out the contours of Mr. Pinker’s ideas so that I might more easily recall them for future reference.
In the last chapter of the book Pinker notes how artists have often depicted the realities of human nature that he was trying to describe in The Blank Slate much more poignantly than any psycholinguist like him would be capable of doing. But he should give himself more credit. Pinker took the time to write a succinct book (434 pages) about a complex subject in which he manages to clearly and lucidly explain the leading science on the matter, while also offering competing points of view, and readily dispensing with them. For the clarity he offered the world along the path to understanding human nature, Steven Pinker can rest easy that his legacy (the striving for which he points explains a good deal of human behavior) is for all time secure with The Blank Slate. The book is that good.
Blank Slates, Noble Savages and A Ghost in the Machine
The book takes its title from terminology that should be familiar to any armchair philosopher. The ‘blank slate’ (or in its Latin form, tabula rasa, which literally means ‘scraped tablet’ after the waxed note pads used during Roman times that were heated and scraped clean between use) is the idea, most famously promoted by the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke, that nothing gets in the mind except through experience. A baby is born with a blank slate (a chalkboard or whiteboard in today’s vernacular) upon which the senses write the tale of the person’s experiences. The theory assumes the mind of man to be completely malleable—that the attributes of the slate being written upon do not matter in the least. Radical scientists (Pinker’s appellation) who have adopted the Blank Slate as their philosophy of mind believe that the mind can become anything at all, depending on the experiences it encounters in its environment.
It should be patently obvious to anyone, except perhaps people in academia and some professional fields in whose interest it is to see things otherwise (education, e.g.), that the idea is absurd. No matter how much nurturing a child raised by wolves might get, the child still grows into a human and no matter how little a dog experiences of other dogs (who are descendants of wolves), it still, mind and body, becomes a dog. On a personal level, no matter how much basketball I had played, or how many great coaches had nurtured me as a child, I would still not have developed basketball skills to rival Michael Jordan’s (I know—I played a lot of basketball, and they did not come). That there are those who actually believe that nurture is everything and that genes and nature do not matter reflects a combination of circumstance perhaps unique to our time. Western cultures (the nonsensical idea originated in Western cultures) are grown so rich that any manner of silliness may be indulged without consequence, and as a result, whole professions have grown up that have a vested interest in the implicit acceptance of the idea that humans have no nature that can’t be changed with proper nurturing. And it is the essence of the political Progressive’s ideal.
What Pinker does not explore, but is as valid a basis for explaining how the Blank Slate could obtain a cultish coterie of devotees, is that Rousseau has finally won. The Age of Reason, begun by Enlightenment philosophers like Spinoza and Descartes; Newton and Galileo; and even, ironically, Locke, is now over. The benefits of engaging the universe with objective rationality have been fully realized. And Reason, having made us rich, can now be rejected for indulging the emotions, and engaging the world through the unrestrained primacy of the heart. There are good, heart-felt reasons, for wanting to believe that human beings are wholly creatures of their environment, and today there are no existential restraints that prevent us from doing so, even as there is no evidence to support the belief. Believing a thing to be true because of the sincerity and depth with which the belief is held constitutes the essence of Rousseau’s eighteenth century Romanticism. Two hundred years later, Rousseau has finally won. The heart is free to ascertain truth through believing whatever the hell it wants to believe, without concern that the head might ever interfere.
Recall the 1983 movie “Trading Places” with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Winthorpe, the character played by Aykroyd, is the managing director of a Philadelphia commodities brokerage, engaged to the niece of the owners, the Dukes brothers, who wager with each other that they could trade Winthorpe for a street hustler, Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), and that the results would not change—each man would rise or fall to according the station he’d been assigned in life; that innate characteristics had nothing to do with their relative positions; that it was all nurture that got them where they were, which is roughly the position of the ‘radical scientists’ in the academy. Of course, in the movie, it works just as the Dukes experiment suggested it should—Winthrope becomes a drug addict living with a prostitute and Valentine makes the Dukes rich. Or does, until the two men find out they had been manipulated for the Dukes’ entertainment, at which point they become cooperators instead of competitors, and destroy the Dukes’ commodities brokerage to their advantage. The movie was a big hit, but mainly, I think, because the underdogs who had been cynically manipulated won. The manipulators (the Dukes) became the manipulated (by Valentine and Winthorpe). But the premise of Trading Places was so sufficiently suffused in the public consciousness by the time of the movie that it seemed perfectly plausible that when the two men traded places, they would trade the attributes of their characters with a trade in circumstance. A managing director of a commodities brokerage could be anyone, and whoever it was, would become exactly who Winthrope was before his fall.
Pinker’s observations in The Blank Slate stand in opposition to the outrageous premise driving the plot in ‘Trading Places’. Billy Ray Valentine was a street hustler for more reasons than the unfortunate circumstances of his life, and while Winthrope might have inherited the managing director position at the commodities brokerage, he also inherited the genes that got the brokerage started in the first place.
The notion that environment explains everything is actually a quite familiar one in movies. ‘Pretty Woman’, with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, is a fairy tale, a bit like Snow White, where the whore (Roberts) with the virtuous heart who would never have sold herself except that she was forced to by circumstance, is rescued from a life of prostitution by a wealthy suitor (Gere) who can see through her circumstance and gaudy attire to realize there is more to her than just whorish beauty. It is Romanticism and romantic nonsense, to be sure, to imagine that all whores have hearts of gold, or even that most do, and that they wouldn’t be whoring except for their circumstances (there are other ways that women can make money, especially in these economically liberated times). But for movie goers, Roberts’ character was admirable because she was a victim of circumstance who only spread her legs reluctantly. The Blank Slate, the idea of environmental, and not genetic, determinism, becomes a catchall explanation and excuse for every sort of social, and personal, ill imaginable. The Blank Slate is to the social sciences and pop psychology what anthropogenic global warming is to environmental sciences—the cause for every observable effect.
There are two complementary ideas fueling the neo-Romanticism of today. Pinker describes them as the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. The Noble Savage is the idea that man in his natural state is not violent or environmentally rapacious or power hungry or status conscious, or any of the other undesirable traits we see expressed in modern man. The idea is that if only man could return to his hunter/gatherer days, he could live in harmony with the environment and himself and his fellows. The notion of man being a Noble Savage corrupted by civilization was popularized, if not first promulgated, by Rousseau.
And it is bunk, every bit of it. Hunter/gatherer clans of today, Pinker points out, have far higher rates of violent crime than do people living in civilization. They take no more notice of the environment than a seventeenth century Dutch or English capitalist sailing the high seas looking for land and resources to exploit might take, as they have essentially the same relationship to it—that of rapacious exploiters. And there is rarely anything approaching harmony within the clans or without them, as they are always consumed with a frenzied striving for the power and status that ensures reproductive success within the clans, and they are constantly under threat of attack by other clans. Chimps, our closest genetic relatives, are notoriously barbaric, taking apparent joy in the killing of those the troop deems to be others. Whatever is in our DNA that makes us different from chimps is apparently not the code that determines violent inclinations. We are every bit as violent as chimpanzees, but have a greater mastery of tools, so can often leverage our latent tendencies quite substantially. Chimps don’t yet have the bomb.
The Ghost in the Machine idea is a derivative answer to an ages-old theological problem with metaphysical implications that came to a head during the Enlightenment—if the body is material and dies, what is it that is sacred in this sublunary world that can survive death and go to heaven? Thus was the idea of an eternal, disembodied soul invented by Enlightenment philosophers, who needed to find some mechanism to protect belief in God and eternity as they were rapidly stripping the notion of a supernatural God from the fabric of belief.
It was Descartes for whom the idea of Cartesian duality–that human beings are comprised of two parts, the body and the mind/soul (the latter being the ‘Ghost’)—was named. Descartes hadn’t long proposed the duality until Spinoza, not bound to please any church or synagogue after his excommunication, said that it was nonsense—that there is no duality between mind and body. In his words, “…we understand not only that the human Mind is united to the Body but also what is to be understood by the union of Mind and Body.” Mind arises from the Body and does not exist as a separate entity. There is no such thing as disembodied minds or souls. Has any sane person ever had a conversation with a disembodied mind? There is no Ghost in the Machine, but again, the idea that there is seems so romantically attractive that in this age of neo-Romanticism we allow ourselves to believe that which we know not to be true.
But is there any truth to be found in the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage or the Ghost in the Machine? Like almost all wayward ideas, there is a kernel of truth in each. For instance, behavioral geneticists can only explain about fifty percent of the variability of human behavior through genes—the rest, as Pinker points out later in the book, in a chapter about children—is a mystery. We aren’t a blank slate, but neither are we unaffected by experience.
The Noble Savage taps a deep vein of the civilized human’s experience, one that tells him that so much of how we have structured our world today screams bloody hell against our genetic legacy. We have hunter/gatherer genes, not sit-in-a-cubicle-typing-on-a-spreadsheet genes. Modern civilization does great violence to our genetic legacy. Can we really be so much faulted that our dim remembrances of the past conjure idyllic, less structured, less violent and less stressful lifestyles?
And it certainly seems that we have souls that survive us. What are the memories we carry of people who have died except vestiges of an eternal soul? It could easily be argued that so long as the memories of the living persist, the soul of the person survives.
But not one of these justifications suffices for good science. Just because we want our minds to be a Blank Slate that would develop into a Noble Savage if properly allowed, and whose disembodied soul would then live forever in the world of the Great Spirit, does not make it so. We must dispense with how we would like things to be and concern ourselves only with how things are if we are ever to gain a workable understanding of the nature of human beings.
The hubris accompanying the idea of the Blank Slate was at times comical. Here’s what John B Watson (1878-1958), the founder of behaviorism, a psychological movement following the Blank Slate to its logical conclusion, said (as quoted by Pinker):
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.
What is most interesting in this debate over nature and nurture that Pinker attacks with preternatural insight (but not really, as the nurturists would say he derived his nature from his environment, so it could not be preternatural, even as his observations are parenthetically opposed to those of the majority—the Blank Slate aficiondos–in his academic environment) is how anyone could ever come to believe themselves so powerful as Watson believed himself to be? Was it Watson’s nature or nurture that led him astray? How could anyone look at objective human reality, with talents and abilities arrayed over a bell curve for every measurable attribute and conclude that nothing of the differences had to do with the innate genetic composition of the individual, but instead had solely to do with the environment in which he was raised? What of those with mental deficiencies and defects? Could Watson have made them into anything he wished, or is his limitation that they be “well-formed”, whatever that means, be enough to get him off the hook?
This much is clear: It takes a directed willingness to ignore reality for anyone to make a claim such as Watson did. Perhaps this willful ignorance was the product of having coming of age during a time when science seemed very close to completely conquering nature in every other realm. Or it might have been because Watson was a one of those sort of psychopaths who readily lie to see their version of truth accepted. Or it may simply have been that Watson’s inherent biases blinded him to reality, a rationale which goes a long way towards explaining how academia adopted the notion of the Blind Slate—the academics propounding the notion were vested in the outcome. Whatever is the case, the notion that nature is irrelevant simply does not withstand even the mildest scrutiny.
But it may well be that academia will be forced to backpedal from the idea after all, because one of their revered constituencies, in seeking recognition and rights, have rested their claims on the idea that their status is innate and not chosen. I speak, of course, of homosexuals. I wonder, would Watson have believed he could make a straight man out of a homosexual, or vice versa? Homosexuals claim they are born that way. And of course, for the most part, they are correct. But if they are born that way, how could every other human attribute be completely malleable except this one, sexual orientation? The contrived and exclusive importance of nurture simply collapses in the face of innate attributes determining sexuality. And the idea of the innateness of homosexuality, initially only reluctantly adopted by the gay community because of its social implications in other spheres, has now become something of a taboo to even question.
Would that the questioning of innateness in determining the variability of other attributes like, for example, intelligence or sociability or criminality, were similarly taboo. Without question, the innate genetic makeup of any individual bears heavily on their talents and abilities and personality. The mistake is made whenever one lumps groups together and tries to determine individual attributes by dint of group averages. Every group of humans, whether randomly sorted and collected, or lumped together according to some racial, ethnic, cultural, climatological, and etc., attribute, will have a bell-curve dispersion of traits around a mean. But the averages tell almost nothing about the individuals, only perhaps rendering some predictive capacity greater than simple randomness if the groups are appropriately demarcated for attributes. For example, while the average percentage of body fat for Inuit might dramatically exceed that of sub-Saharan black Africans, there will still be some Africans who have a greater percentage of body fat than some Inuit, but most Inuit will have a body fat percentage exceeding that of most Africans, so it would be a fair guess that if a person is Inuit, their body fat percentage exceeds that of a black African. Acknowledging anything less or more is simply willful ignorance or outlandish speculation.
It would seem almost impossible for the social sciences to hold fast their commitment to the Blank Slate, particularly in the face of the increased acceptance of homosexuality as innately determined. But academia is nothing if not nonsensical. Its ideas need have no bearing on reality because the people who propound them from the ivory tower have no intrinsic need for them to make actionable sense. Academia can be irrational and willfully ignorant for long stretches, insulated as it is from the vagaries of nature and its selection and elimination process.
After explaining the implications of the Blank Slate and Noble Savage and Ghost in the Machine, Pinker applies the implications to several social “hot buttons”, politics, violence, gender, children and the arts. I will take each, briefly, in turn.
Pinker points out that political attitudes—the great divide being between conservatives and liberals—are innately determined, by over sixty percent of their variability according to studies of identical twins. And these differences go back over the millennia to the beginnings of recorded history. The conservative idea that society is an economic or social contract whereby rational, but innately selfish people come together when, and only when, cooperation enhances their selfish aims, arose as far back as Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, and was the central tenet of political philosophers from Machiavelli to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith and Bentham.
The liberal catechism is that society as a cohesive organic entity and its individual citizens mere parts. People are thought to be social by their very nature and to function as constituents of a larger superorganism. Plato, Hegel, Marx, etc., and the humanities and social science paradigms ascribe to this ideal.
Pinker refers to the two visions of mankind expressed as political impulses as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision. The Tragic Vision believes man to be a necessarily flawed creature limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue—limitations for which all social arrangements should account. The Tragic man is inherently selfish. The Utopian Vision imagines that it is only the fault of man’s circumstances that limits his potential. The Utopian man actually wants to become altruistic, and can, if circumstances permit.
Which is correct? The Tragic or the Utopian Vision? Any vision that fails to account for the inherent self-interestedness of mankind is doomed to see only very dimly the reality of mankind’s nature. Yes, man is a social animal, in the sense that he most often finds that sociability allows him to achieve his ends at substantially less cost and greater gain than otherwise. But man is not simply a constituent part of a superorganism, like an ant in an ant hill. Men have the capacity for individual reproduction, unlike ants (or other social insects). Thus their imperatives always conflict, at least in some measure, with the imperatives of society and of the other humans comprising it. Any organization of society that fails to account for mankind’s selfish nature arising from his capacity for individual reproduction is utterly doomed to failure. In recent history, the society most closely constructed along the lines of a superorganism had to have been Mao’s China. Something north of twenty million Chinese died as a result. And the social organization collapsed into a heap of selfish capitalism shortly after Mao’s death. So, is man an inherently self-interested individual, or is he at heart an altruistic member of a larger organization, always willing to sacrifice for the common good? Ask the Chinese.
The idea that men were Noble Savages who became corrupted and violent through the influence of civilization is just a load of Romantic drivel. Men are innately violent (and here, “men” is not necessarily the male gender used as a universal for all mankind, as it actually is mostly men who commit the violence—more on that later). More so than any other extant species, mankind kills its own. And the violence is not just a question of environment (though environment certainly contributes). Killings, beatings and rapes have been going on for as long as we have records to know of such things. But there is something of an environmental antidote to our violent nature: Take an idea from Hobbes and vest a leviathan government with a monopoly on the imposition of violence. Strongly governed societies have far less violence than anarchical or loosely governed societies.
If you need an example from today of what Hobbes meant, look at the number of deaths suffered in Iraq before and after Saddam Hussein was toppled. The anarchical social order left in the wake of Hussein’s disposing has been relentlessly violent. Life really is nasty, brutish and short for Iraqis today. Nobody knows when a bomb will go off and kill everyone in the market or at the mosque or at the wedding. At least under Hussein, there was a predictability and rationality to the killing. Hussein, for all his faults, kept the people in line by jealously protecting his government’s monopoly on the use of violence. And now the US must go back to Iraq to fix the problem its departure exacerbated. How many lives might have been saved had the US understood that men are inherently violent and that the only proven means of quelling the killings is for them to vest, either voluntarily or through force, a governing entity with a monopoly on the imposition of violence? It is possible that self-governing individuals will choose a state strong enough to quell the murderous impulses of its inhabitants. The likelihood is far less when the state is riven with ancient tribal and theological differences.
Relying on Hobbes, Pinker shows three rational reasons for human violence—competition, diffidence (or distrust) and glory (or honor/status). The compulsions of natural selection are as compelling in humans as in the rest of living things. Violence is just one of many possible strategies to win at the competitive game. Distrust causes people to fortify their defenses against others. It is never known to what extent one’s neighbor covets one’s possessions, so it always best to be wary and ready to defend, and oft times, particularly in the case of nation-states, the best defense is a good offense. Remove the survival impulse that yields competition and the fear that yields diffidence; there would still be glory and honor to justify violence. Probably more people have died at the hands of those who were attempting to protect or enhance status, i.e., who sought to achieve honor or glory, than for any other reason. Hitler may have justified his murderous assault on Europe by claiming he feared for German safety, but in the end it became about Hitler seeking honor and glory for himself and Germany through violent means. Practically every emperor in history, from Qin to Genghis Kahn to Napoleon, achieved their status and perhaps a trifling slice of immortality through the violence they inflicted upon their own and conquered peoples.
Incidentally, Pinker doesn’t bring it up, but there is a genetic marker that can predict with over 90% accuracy the gender of an inmate in the prison system who has committed a violent crime. What is that marker? The possession of a Y chromosome. Men are incarcerated at far greater rates than women. Surely though, this disparity in rates of incarceration is solely the product of boys receiving less positive nurturing than girls, no? But then why too is the Y chromosome also such a good predictor of who will hold jobs at the pinnacle of society (much to the chagrin of feminists everywhere)? Boys can’t have been advantaged such that they become CEO’s at a greater rate than women while at the same time disadvantaged so that they become inmates at a far, far greater rate than women. But boys and girls are discretely different genetically (and physiologically), and that matters a great deal, as will be discussed in the forthcoming section.
Pinker identifies two forms of feminism—equity and gender feminism. Equity feminists believe that women should be treated on an equal basis with men, so far as such a thing is possible. Neither gender should expect special treatment, good or bad,m for the simple act of being of that gender. Gender feminism is what a famous conservative talk-show host calls femiNazi feminism, and gets a disproportionate amount of attention because of the utter outrageousness of its views. In surveys, the vast majority of people ascribe to the ideas of equity feminism, but far fewer buy the catechism of gender feminism.
The gender feminism catechism looks something like this: First, they believe that there are no differences between men and women that have anything to do with biology. The differences are all social constructions. The second is they believe that humans possess a single motive—power—through which all of social intercourse must be understood (it should be observed that this is quite the same observation as made by Hegel, a German philosopher of the nineteenth century, who claimed that all the world, social and otherwise, was a constant dialectical struggle for power). Third, they believe that human society is not the result of people dealing with each other as individuals but is the result of groups vying for power against other groups. So, conveniently for the gender feminists, the fact that women have possibly been oppressed in the past (though the claim is routinely accepted, and Pinker does so here, it gets harder and harder to imagine the more one thinks about it that any group with the individual and collective power of the womb could be long subjugated), fits their narrative of how the world operates. Thus, although there are no differences between men and woman that aren’t contrived, men take these contrived differences to create a power advantage that they then use to collectively exploit and subjugate women. The problem with the theory, aside from having the biology wrong, is that it depends on a contrived difference to cause all of the supposed advantage afforded to men. If the difference actually is contrived, wouldn’t some woman (or women) come along who could crash through the contrivances to claim power for herself? Did they leave out the part where women believe the contrived differences are real and hold real advantages for men, thereby making what is contrived real? That’s not true either, but is the only way their beliefs could comport with reality.
Men and women are different, and not only because they have been socialized to difference by the happenstance of the particular plumbing with which they were born. Men are not more intelligent, on average, than women, but they are, on average, bigger, stronger, faster, tougher and otherwise physically more capable than women. It is simply how eons of evolution has parceled out the attributes between the sexes. Because women faced the necessity of carrying a baby for nine months and then nursing it for several more years, the heavily physical tasks, like hunting and protection, were left to men. And so men got bigger and stronger, while women were smaller and softer. But as Pinker points out, men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Men and women both are from the East African plains, and evolved together as a species with the same survival impulse latent to all species. The parceling of attributes between males and females is how nature selected H. sapiens to accomplish its ends.
The more interesting aspect of Pinker’s discussion concerned violence against women, and specifically, rape. The gender feminist catechism is that rape is an act of violence and power, not sex, and in a blank slate, purely socialized world, can be stamped out with proper socialization. Pinker points out that there is no reason to believe as much—that rape can very well be an act of procreation—a way for a marginally fit male to use his physical prowess to see his genes into the next generation. As Pinker observes, “Evil men may use violence to get sex, just as they use violence to get other things they want…It would be an extraordinary fact, contradicting everything else we know about people, if some men didn’t use violence to get sex.”
When it is acknowledged about men and rape that a) men are built for violence, and b) that they often use their physical prowess to violently achieve their aims, and c) that they often seek to have sex with women who don’t want to have sex with them, then the fact that rape sometimes occurs is no mystery. Combine all three motives with opportunity, and the chances are vastly increased that there will be a rape. The prescription for reducing rape, particularly of the acquaintance variety, is to reduce the opportunities. Men are going to be what men are going to be, no matter how many sensitivity training seminars they are forced to attend. But men don’t often get to express their innate attributes without the fear that doing so might be very costly. Remove a potential cost—perhaps through intoxicating the female thereby impairing her ability and desire to resist—and the likelihood of expression goes up.
Women who get drunk or high in the company of men don’t ‘deserve’ to get raped, no matter how slutty is their attire, no matter if they voluntarily go to a man’s room or home. But if women, and particularly gender feminists, were really interested in reducing the incidence of rape, they would increase the costs that might accrue for men who are contemplating stepping over the line and indulging their innate impulses. They would advise young women to stay reasonably sober in the company of young men, particularly when they are alone in the company of young men. Not many frat boys are going to be interested in fighting a clawing and scratching young woman in complete control of her mental and physical faculties in order have sex. But they don’t mind having their way with a woman drunk nearly to the point of passing out. It’s a lot easier that way. There’s a reason country songs have lyrics like tequila makes her clothes fall off.
The gender feminists would like to increase the penalties and likelihood of punishment (along with, of course, more sensitivity training) in order to tilt the male calculus against rape. But there are ample punishments for truly random acts of violent rape, if the perpetrator can ever be caught. And with acquaintance rape, or even husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend rape, the issue often resolves to a he said/she said contest where justice demands that the male’s version of events be given as much probative value as the female’s version. It really would be better and easier to prevent date rape or acquaintance rape that women took some proactive measures to do so, such as staying sober enough to know whether someone is having sex with them.
Rape is not necessarily an act of violence or an expression of power. It can be (e.g., the sick minds and actions of serial rapist/killers). But more often it is just an act of lust that is expressed through leveraged violence. Which is good, because lust is easier to contain than mere violence. But don’t tell the gender feminists as much.
To sum up the matter regarding children, Pinker points out that almost nothing of what our children become is attributable to us, except the genes that we provide them. Quit hovering, all you helicopter parents. Nothing you do will ultimately have any bearing on who or what your children become. These conclusions arise out of the three laws of behavior genetics:
1) All human behavioral traits are heritable;
2) The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the same genes, and
3) A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
Adopted siblings raised together by the same parent are no more similar in the people they become than are random strangers plucked off the street. None of the child-rearing books you’ve read matter. None of all “…this love that [you’re] pouring into your child…counts for [any] thing…”, as Pinker notes a Chicago woman lamented, upon learning of the three rules. And well, it doesn’t. But Pinker also points out that what does matter are the memories, good or bad, your child has of his rearing. They won’t change his personality or who he becomes, but they will affect his opinion of you. In other words, treat your kid well, and later on when you’re old and decrepit, dribbling your oatmeal down your chin, he might just be kind to you. Unless of course the genes you gave him that determined his personality, or the socialization he received from his peers (where it is guessed that most of the rest of behavioral traits are determined) taught him to be cruel, even to people who have been nice to him. It happens sometimes. Parents used to call it a “bad seed”, but now blame it all on themselves.
The first point about art that Pinker sort of subtly makes is that it is both ubiquitous—all cultures in all known times have engaged in painting or decorating or designing or writing, etc.– and it is done for its own sake, i.e., it is done outside the context of an identifiable survival purpose. Art is conspicuous consumption, i.e., consumption without a direct and immediate survival purpose, and always has been. Only now, everyone thinks there is no good art being produced any more. And well, Pinker might in this instance agree. But not because there aren’t any good artists. Instead because the art world has got itself so discombobulated thinking of nurture as determinative that it can’t see, in some cases literally, the forest for the trees.
Art has become, or perhaps always was, a mechanism for attaining social status, both for the artist and for the connoisseur. Creating or owning and appreciating “…difficult and inaccessible works of culture serves as a membership badge in society’s upper strata.” Which also explains how obscure and ridiculous so much of today’s art has become. It is only a connoisseur who can appreciate that a blank canvass isn’t just a blank canvass, so a blank canvass gives a connoisseur ample opportunity to demonstrate his membership in society’s upper strata by his winking appreciation that indeed, the canvass is so insightfully blank.
The problem with modernism and postmodernism, where blank canvasses and incoherent designs and vulgar images (e.g., “piss Christ”) count for art is that the movements have as their intellectual foundations a false premise, namely “…that the sense organs present the brain with a tableau of raw colors and sounds and that everything else in perceptual experience is a learned social construction.” This is hardly how the brain operates. The brain organizes what the senses provide it in order that we might assimilate and use the information to enhance our survival and propagation prospects. As for appreciating art, the brain interprets a communication from another human being, in whatever form—picture, sound, writing, etc.—by attempting, through its innate talent at empathy, to determine the point the person was trying to get across. It will do so while assuming that the point bears some relation to that person’s visceral impulses, as it intuitively knows that everything else a person does relates somehow to their visceral impulses. With some of the art being produced these days, the point seems to be that the artist is asking the connoisseur to join him in a fraud that serves to achieve status for them both by, for example, perpetuating the idea that a blank canvass could somehow be communicating a much deeper meaning than just a blank canvass. As Pinker deftly puts it: “The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship.”
Pinker makes the point that part of the attraction (and repulsion, by less affected denizens) of modern and postmodern art is its heavy reliance on faddish methods of presentation (e.g., using live actors) or mediums of expression (a vase full of the artist’s “piss’). This comports with the idea that art is a matter of conspicuous consumption, a luxury good in the economist’s lexicon, that is consumed for status. Promulgating the appearance of innovative cleverness (think today’s hipsters) has always been a vehicle for status enhancement. But initially successful fads are always carried to their logical, though ridiculous, conclusion. If a bit of flare at the bottom of the leg of a pair of jeans is good, then a lot of flare is even better, no?
Recall the leisure suit of the seventies, which was the laughably garish embodiment of several fashion trends of the time (wide lapels, silky print shirts, bell bottom pants, etc.). Faddish trends in modernism and postmodernism ultimately and inevitably resolve to the sort represented by the leisure suit, following their oft-times utterly nonsensical origins to their logical conclusions. Artists are the emperor’s court, dressing him in imaginary clothes, and the connoisseurs are the parade goers raving over the finery of the cloth. As Pinker notes, there is little wonder the general public stayed away.
It would be hard to read Pinker’s Blank Slate without feeling at least a bit despondent. Very little has changed since its publication twelve years ago. There are no dearth of parenting guides, or child-consumed helicopter parents, though we now conclusively know that what parents do or don’t do makes very little difference in what a child becomes. The notion of environmental determinism, i.e., that nurture explains everything, is as alive and well in academia as it is a foundational premise for popular society. Rape is blamed on patriarchal conditioning; violence on video games. The gender pay and promotion gap is presumed a fact of life and solely attributable to the oppression of women by men who are themselves conditioned to oppress and subjugate women by a patriarchal society, which also condones rape. The political right and left pursue self-contradictory policies (the anti-government right wants hegemony over a woman’s womb; the pro-government left wants more or less complete freedom from governmental intrusions of their privacy), without a hint that they understand the self-deception required to do so.
The social organization seems to have resolved to a politically-correct web of lies it is agreed upon that all will/must believe, with the proffering of contradictory evidence considered taboo. We have reentered the age of Romanticism, where the veracity of thing is determined by the depth with which it is believed, so the harder we believe in the lies we promulgate as values, the truer the lies become. The emotional indulgence of a revived Romanticism has arisen from the vast wealth created through centuries of engaging the world with objective rationality. We grew rich, vastly rich, apparently in order that we might become stupid. In some age to come, once our emotional indulgence bears the inevitable fruit of our impoverishment, perhaps some observer of the human condition who is confused as to why things are so miserable will pull Pinker’s The Blank Slate off some dusty, forlorn library shelf (if we haven’t burnt all the books for warmth by then) and rediscover truths about human nature that we knew all along but refused, in the lap of luxury, to acknowledge