Steven Pinker and the limitations of Darwinian theory
limitations of the theory of natural selection in this respect were not
always recognised by Darwin himself and they have certainly not always
been recognised since. These limitations have frequently led to the
formulation of extreme hereditarian theories of human behaviour such as
the ‘hard-core’ model of human nature which was put forward in
uncompromising terms by the biologist C. D.
to inborn characters we live in different worlds even though we live side
by side. We see the world through different eyes, even the part of it we
see in common ... The materials of heredity contained in the chromosomes
are the solid stuff which ultimately determines the course of history’
D. Darlington, quoted in T. H. Dobzhansky , Mankind Evolving: The Evol-
Ution of the Human Species, Yale University Press, 1962, p.
recent years a number of influential ethologists and sociobiologists have
attempted to explain human behaviour in terms of similarly narrow
hereditarian categories. In doing so they have contrived – as scientists
frequently do – to disregard what some would see as one of the most
important of all scientific principles. For instead of sceptically testing
out their theories against the hardest and most refractory forms of
evidence, some biologically oriented thinkers have sought out just those
aspects of human behaviour which can be fitted most easily into crude
forms of genetic determinism. Ethologists frequently observe that primates
copulate; they do not frequently observe that some primates publish
poetry, that other primates worship the Virgin Mary, and that others still
are professional philosophers. It is just such facts as these, however,
which remain anomalous and unaccounted for in neo-Darwinian biology. If we
wish tacitly to maintain a theistic view of the world, this will not, of
course, disturb us. But if we wish to use the theory of natural selection
in order to illuminate human nature, then it is just these mysteries which
must be turned into problems.
Comfort is undoubtedly correct when, writing as a biologist, he reminds us
that ‘if we reject Mendel as bourgeois, we find that we have no
(Darwin and the Naked Lady: Discursive Essays on Biology and Art,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961, p. 8). But
what we must always bear in mind is that Mendel’s theories were designed
to explain how the peas in his monastery garden reproduced their species,
and not why the monks in the chapel within had renounced the opportunity
to reproduce theirs. The fact that neither our ascetic and religious
behaviour nor our complex non-reproductive sexual behaviour can be
explained by the existing theory of natural selection appears to indicate
that some crucial element is missing from that theory.
should be said that one of the factors which has made it easier for some
theorists to put forward extreme versions of genetic determinism
successfully has been the biological naivety of many social scientists in
the first half of . the twentieth century. In what has been called the
‘Standard Social Science Model’, championed by many influential
anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists, including Margaret Mead
and J. B. Watson, human nature was held to be almost infinitely malleable.
Human beings were treated as though they were biologically empty, their
behaviour and temperament being almost entirely the product of culture.
To say all this, however, is not to accept Pinker’s argument in its entirety. One of the most questionable parts of his book is that in which he uses his carefully worked out argument about language as the basis for a series of speculations about other specialised neural networks which he believes may have evolved within the human brain. He suggests that there may be ‘innate modules’ or ‘families of instincts’ for many facets of human behaviour including ‘intuitive mechanics: knowledge of the motions, forces, and deformations that objects undergo’ and ‘intuitive biology’. He even suggests that there may be a brain module for ‘justice’ through which human beings inherit a specific neural basis for a ‘sense of rights, obligations and deserts’ (p. 420).
Not all Pinker’s guesses about the genetic make-up of human nature should, I believe, be dismissed out of hand. But the suggestion that there may be something which resembles a ‘gene for justice’ is one which many will find alarming. One of the great dangers of indulging in this kind of genetic guesswork is that what Pinker presents as speculation will be treated by others as science. Unsubstantiated speculations such as those he presents only play into the hands of those who advocate the kind of extreme genetic determinism whose excesses Pinker himself generally manages to avoid. In particular they are liable to lend support to a tendency which seems to be widespread among biologically orientated thinkers who make pronouncements about human nature – the tendency to assume that the aspects of human behaviour which can be shown to be genetically determined are the ‘real’ substratum of human nature, and that what is added by nurture is little more than a superficial cultural ‘dressing’.
of the characteristics of thinkers who adopt this approach is that they
tend to manifest considerable interest in any feature of human nature
which could be deemed instinctual while simultaneously showing an almost
complete disregard for the complexities of human behaviour and cultural
history which are not susceptible to this kind of explanation. In this
respect the more extreme proponents of genetic determinism resemble the
navigator who decides to delete the land from his charts on the grounds
that he is interested only in the ocean. Where the navigator goes wrong is
in failing to recognise that the ocean is actually defined by land.
Similarly the influence of genetic factors on human behaviour can be
studied and assessed properly only by including a detailed and meticulous
exploration of the role which is played by nurture.
thinkers who neglect to study the role of nurture sometimes attempt to
justify their approach by characterising it as ‘scientific’. Yet the
attempt to explain human nature by directing attention away from the
observable details of human behaviour and towards invisible and largely
inscrutable entities is not the monopoly of modem genetic determinists.
Something very similar was done for centuries by priests, prophets,
theologians and other ‘spiritual determinists’ working within the
mainstream of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. One of the reasons that
sociobiology, like psychoanalysis before it, has found such an
enthusiastic following in Puritan America is that it possesses many of the
characteristics of the religious ideology which preceded it. It too
frequently seeks to explain the visible by reference to the invisible. It
too can be used to justify the economic, political or sexual status quo
by appealing to unseen powers which supposedly control our destiny.
Not only this but it also frequently provides what some have seen in
religious faith – an excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate
evidence. Sociobiology, in all these respects at least, is perhaps best
seen as one of the new spiritualisms of our age – a form of hard-centred
mysticism which, like that created by Freud himself, has managed to
reintroduce a traditional religious ideology in a disguised form, safe
from the criticism of scientists (or some scientists at least) precisely
because it is itself offered as a contribution to science. Although some
forms of ‘evolutionary psychology’ may be more subtle than the
sociobiology they derive from, others merely continue the same kind of
biological reductionism under another name.
Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, opening of
Chapter 22 plus note 1.
© Richard Webster, 2002