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Steven Pinker and the limitations of Darwinian theory

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING, the contributions 
which Darwinian science has made to our conception of human nature have left a great deal to be desired. For although Darwin’s theory provides a solution to the problem of species and an account of the development of organic forms, the many attempts which have been made to apply it to human behaviour are by no means always persuasive. While incidental insights are plentiful, Darwinian theory cannot yet offer any adequate or comprehensive explanation of the development of human culture or the extraordinary complexity of human behaviour.

The 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. Darlington:

Owing 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’ (C. D. Darlington, quoted in T. H. Dobzhansky , Mankind Evolving: The Evolution of the Human Species, Yale University Press, 1962, p. 54).

In 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.

Alex 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 beef’ (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.

It 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.

It was the extremism of this argument, and its steadfast disregard for the biological evidence, which made it much easier for sociobiologists such as Edward O. Wilson to gain a hearing for their theories in the 1970s and 1980s. Partly because of the fierceness with which these theories were in turn attacked by other biologists, the extreme varieties of genetic determinism common a few decades ago are now much less prominent. They have been replaced, in part at least, by the arguments of evolutionary psychologists and other Darwinians – arguments which are both more moderate-seeming and, sometimes at least, more sophisticated.

An excellent example of this more nuanced approach has been provided by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. In his book The Language Instinct he argues cogently for the view that the human capacity for language is a part of our genetic endowment and that it is associated with the evolution through natural selection of specialised neural networks within the brain. Not
only does he argue this position powerfully and persuasively, but he also mounts an effective attack on the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ of human nature. All but the most sceptical readers of his book are likely to be persuaded that the capacity for language has, at least in some respects, been genetically programmed into the human brain throughout the many millennia of the evolution of our species. All but the most recalcitrant will concede that Pinker’s broadside against the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ has some justification. For it would seem almost beyond question that twentieth-century social scientists have, for ideological or rationalistic motives, tended to underestimate grossly the extent to which human nature is shaped and constrained by genetic factors.

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’.

One 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.

The main reason we can be confident that, however much our capacity for language is shaped by biological inheritance, there is no ‘gene for German (or for Japanese), is not because we have any knowledge of the particular genes which facilitate language. It is because we are intimately acquainted with the way in which people learn languages, and with the manner in which ‘nurture’ completely determines which particular languages individuals acquire. It follows that, paradoxically, the study of the role of ‘nurture’ – the complex effects of child-rearing behaviour, education and social conditioning – is actually a precondition of understanding the role of ‘nature’. To engage in such a study is not in any sense to neglect the realm of biology. For what many thinkers have failed to recognise is that ‘nurture’, far from being opposed to ‘nature’, is itself a part of nature. It is itself a biological process with a rich and complex natural history of its own which has yet be fully investigated.

Those 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.

From Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, opening of Chapter 22 plus note 1.


© Richard Webster, 2002