Steven Pinker and original
Anyone who wishes to gain an insight into the
life-style of the modern media academic would do well to visit the website
of the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker.
Click on 'Lectures' and
'Current and Pending Media events' and it will soon become clear why, as
we learn elsewhere on the site, Pinker is on sabbatical leave for this
academic year. On Monday 15 September 2002 he began his UK tour by
engaging in a 'public conversation' with
Ian McEwan held at the Old Vic Theatre. On Tuesday he gave a
lecture in London after which he flew to Edinburgh for another public
conversation, this time with somebody called Alan Taylor. On Friday he
came here to Oxford where, since
there was presumably no lecture theatre large enough to hold the
expected audience, he appeared instead at the Oxford Playhouse, where he
was introduced by Richard Dawkins.
it would seem, is blissfully free of engagements. But respite is
brief. 2pm on Tuesday 24 September will see him address the Fifth Annual
Thinking Skills Symposium in Birmingham, whence he will be transported to
Manchester to give another lecture that same evening at 7pm. On Wednesday
evening he will be in Newcastle to engage in another public
conversation with Matt Ridley, from where he will fly (presumably) to
Dublin to address the Royal Dublin Society on Thursday. And this is is
only the beginning. Then it's back across the Atlantic for the really
gruelling part of the itinerary . . .
No doubt during all this
time there will be journalists in attendance, seeking interviews or
writing profiles. The Financial Times indeed, has already
sent Ben Schrank ahead of the herd to interview
Pinker over lunch in Cambridge
He's a handsome man with high cheekbones and a
shock of blond and grey hair worn in a style that works equally well for
Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant. He's dressed in worn cowboy boots and
khakis. His shirt is a short-sleeved button-down, of a colour that's
arguably lavender. His eyes glitter.
But Pinker does not simply
have the looks of a rock star; he has a messianic fervour about his ideas
and a facility for imparting them to a wide audience He is, it
is generally agreed, a brilliant
Why though, is this
particular teacher drawing such crowds to the meetings he addresses?
Perhaps the best way of answering this question is to consider that
charismatic prophets have toured this country on earlier occasions, and
have themselves been introduced to enthusiastic audiences by dissenters
just as zealous in their beliefs as Richard
Almost 250 years ago on Friday 23 November 1759, John
Wesley and his horse, having travelled across slippery roads, reached
Bedford. 'We had a pretty large congregation,' he recorded in his journal,
'but the stench from the swine under the Room was scarce supportable. Was ever a
preaching-place over a hog-sty before? Surely they love the Gospel, who
come to hear it in such a place . . .'
The particular version of the Gospel which Wesley's congregations flocked to hear rested heavily on his own dissent from the attempts of rationalist and enlightenment figures all around him to deny the truth which traditional Christianity had once held to be self-evident. This was the view that there is such a thing as human nature and that human life itself is nothing but a constant battle between the pure angel of the soul and the beast which is within us all.
It was because the new
rationalist theorists had threatened to abolish the bestial nature of
mankind and to assert the limitless possibilities of rational human
progress that John Wesley sought to reassert the traditional Christian
theory of human nature. Indeed his longest written work, published just
two years before he preached above the Bedford
hog-sty, actually took the name of that theory as its
title - The Doctrine of Original
Wesley was by no means the last of the
great expounders of this doctrine. A century-and-a half later Sigmund
Freud found himself surrounded in Vienna by theories of human nature
which proclaimed just the kind of rationalist optimism which Wesley had
opposed. He too sought to reintroduce the traditional beast-angel
theory of human nature by subtly re-stating the
doctrine of original sin in the form
of psychoanalytic theory.
The movement which he founded was
extraordinarily successful, particularly in the United States. 'Its
insistence on the evil in man's nature,' wrote Harvard
McClelland in 1960, 'and in particular on the root of that evil, suited
the New England temperament well which had been shaped by a similar
Puritan emphasis. In fact, to hear Anna Freud speak of the criminal
tendencies of the one and two-year-old is to be reminded inevitably of
Calvinistic sermons on infant
there have been other revivalist movements which have emerged to fight the
traditional fight and it should
surprise that one
of the most significant of these arose in America in the latter part of
the twentieth century.
Originally called 'sociobiology', it has been overhauled and
relaunched under the new name of 'evolutionary psychology'. The
reason that Steven Pinker now has an autumn schedule ahead of him
which might have daunted even John Wesley and his horse, is that he has
written what is undoubtedly one of its most powerful and persuasive
The book in question is The Blank Slate: The
Modern Denial of Human Nature. One of the reasons that it has been
received in some quarters so enthusiastically is that it contains a
great deal of truth and expresses that truth trenchantly.
all, and not before time, it attacks in uncompromising terms one of the
greatest of all rationalist delusions - the delusion that there is no such
thing as human nature and that we are born as a kind of tabula
rasa ready for culture to inscribe upon us the structure which it
The theme is not an entirely
new one, for a similar argument played a key role in Pinker's
earlier book, The Language Instinct, where he criticises the
'Standard Social Science Model' of human beings in similar
is right to divine in what he calls 'the modern denial of human
nature' a profoundly irrational ideological position and he is right,
just as John Wesley and Jonathan
Swift before him were right, to
point both to the folly of this position and to its dangers.
problem is that, although Pinker is absolutely correct when he insists
that the blank slate doctrine has distorted the study of
human beings, he does not himself have a new theory of human nature
to put in its place. The point is made well by philosopher Simon
Blackburn. In his review of the book in the New Scientist, he praises the
cogency of what Pinker has to say about the denial of human nature: 'All
this is very sound. But is the breathless deference to the new sciences of
the mind and brain appropriate? . . . If we read carefully, the
contributions of evolutionary theory, psychology or neuroscience appear to
be either little or controversial.'
In reality, as Blackburn
suggests, Pinker has nothing to fill the vacuum which he abhors.
He has only a number
of ideas drawn from evolutionary biology, or the neurosciences, or
cognitive psychology, which have relatively little of interest to say
about human nature and human history.
A similar view has been taken
Midgley who was shrewdly chosen to
review Pinker's book in the Guardian. She welcomes Pinker's
'careful' and 'sensitive' attempt to rehabilitate the idea of human nature
and his argument that this nature is 'a rich and legitimate
heritage, not an extraneous tyrant'. 'All this is surely fine,' she
writes, 'indeed I have said much of it myself.'
sceptical, however, about the kind of Darwinian speculations Pinker now
advances as 'science':
proposes that we should discover the details of our nature, first by
inferring them from the social conditions that prevailed when it was
formed in the Stone Age, and, second, by atomising it, dividing it into
separate "modules" that determine distinct particles of behaviour.
Despite Pinker, these are desperate strategies that have produced
very few results of any interest . . . However gravely we need a notion of
human nature, this isn't the way in which we are going to find
It might well be said that,
instead of putting forward a
new theory, Pinker ends by reaffirming an old one. Although the register
in which he writes is very different from that of John Wesley, or
even of that latterday revivalist, Sigmund Freud, the underlying gospel
which he preaches is in reality little different from theirs. For
what he too calls upon us to recognise is the bestial nature of
mankind and the limitations which go with that bestial nature. As
John Gray puts it in his review of the book in the New Statesman: 'Both genetics and
research in the advancing science of the brain show the human mind to be
rooted firmly in the biology of the human animal.'
ends his review with this observation:
In an interesting aside,
Pinker notes that the view of human nature which is emerging from science
has more in common with that defended by Christian thinkers and by Freud
than it does with theories such as Marx's. This is a point worth further
elaboration, because it suggests another curious turn in the history of
ideas. Enlightenment thinkers took up the scientific study of human
behaviour in the hope of transforming the human condition. The result of
scientific inquiry, however, is to vindicate a secular version of the idea
of original sin.
place some trust both in
social orthodoxies, and in the truth claims made on behalf of sociobiology
or evolutionary psychology,
may well choose to believe that scientific inquiry has
'vindicated' the doctrine of original sin. Those of a more
sceptical disposition will recognise that, in the very midst of our
twenty-first century secularism, we have been caught up once again in
a revivalist movement.
When Matt Ridley, the author of
Genome, endorses The Blank Slate by saying that it is
'The best book on human nature that I or anyone else will ever read', he
speaks the language not of science but of faith. In this regard it is
reassuring to learn from a profile in Publishers' Weekly a couple of years
ago that Ridley, who was trained as a zoologist, actually believes
that 'the scientific, psychological understanding of human nature still
lags behind literature in terms of explaining human nature. I still think
that William Shakespeare and Jane Austen were better psychologists than
anyone who is actually a psychologist.'
The problem is that when
new scriptures are handed down from sufficiently high places
religious enthusiasm sometimes tends to overcome sound sense such as this.
Ridley himself should know. When Publishers' Weekly interviewed
him for its profile two years ago, it caught up with him beside an unmade
bed in a Manhattan hotel room in the middle of a frenetic east
coast publicity tour for his book Genome. 'There's
a bit of an evangelical fervour about all of this,' he tellingly observed
When Matt Ridley settles
down next Wednesday in Newcastle to engage in his public conversation with
Steven Pinker we need have no doubt that, though they may well attract an
even larger congregation than John Wesley, they will not be oppressed by
the stench of swine from the room beneath. In other respects, however, as
Ridley's own words suggest, the parallel will hold.
This is not to
say that there will be any display of religious fervour of any kind,
least of all any sermon on human wickedness. If Steven Pinker's Oxford
lecture is anything to go by, the atmosphere will be casual and there will
be an almost studied air of laid-backness. Intellectual cool will
rule. But the audience, having listened
to a series of pronouncements of no shattering import, will applaud with
passionate intensity, and at inordinate length as though a great
revelation has been vouchsafed.
Then they will resume
their air of detached neutrality, begin to express the kind of
agnostic doubts which characterise the adherents of modern secular faiths
and file out into the evening
Such, it would seem, is the
way that modern revivalist meetings are
MORE REVIEWS and
Matt Ridley in the Sunday
Telegraph, 8 September 2002.
Robin Mackie and
Vanessa Thorpe in the Observer on the row between Steven Pinker and Oliver
James about the roots of violence, 22 September 2002.
Steven Pinker on the
Edge website (run by Pinker's literary
agent, John Brockman).
In what is perhaps the
best of all the reviews of Pinker's book to have appeared, the philosopher
Simon Blackburn, having reviewed The Blank Slate once in the
New Scientist (see above), returns to review it again in the New Republic. His second and
longer review is subtle, profound and highly
Note added February 2008:
See also the review by the geneticist H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books. You have to pay for access to this but, at a modest $3 for a 5000 word review, it's well worth it.
© Richard Webster, 2002