Why Steven Pinker pisses me off

April 10, 2009

I made the mistake of clicking on some links last night related to whether we are mostly born who we are, and more specifically whether parents “matter that much” for who we turn out to be. Let me tell you why the discourse around this subject, and specifically Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker’s contribution to it, gets me riled up.


I spent eight years surrounded by people who took it as a given I’m supposed to be a good liberal Democrat, with no sympathy for conservative arguments of any kind. Which was good for me, really. I came to enjoy WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate. But I’m also a science writer living in the aftermath of Steven Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate, which I’m only now digging through and which is beating me over the head with this argument that our behavioral tendencies are to a good extent heritable (“innate” or genetically derived).

The idea is that although the home environments we find ourselves in may have an indirect effect on how we turn out, on which more below, we come out of the womb largely equipped with our particular cognitive skill-set. Pinker even has this great line in Curious Minds: “Rather than childhood experiences causing us to be who we are, who we are causes our childhood experiences.”

That’s beautiful, actually. I like that it treats a person as a sniffing, seeking agent, and not this bundle of conditioned reactions. Because embracing agency – choice – seems to separate those who flame out, which frightens and intrigues us, from those who hold down a job, a family and an otherwise Normal Life. There’s even supposedly some (lots of?) evidence that as we get older the heritable aspect of our identities comes more to the fore. To poke around for brain-imaging studies that are supposed to bear that out, use “Giedd” as a search term on PubMed.

And I bet Pinker is basically right. But I part ways with the statement that our parents “don’t matter that much” to who we are – that it’s mostly peers, genetics and schools, as in this interview with Pinker’s fellow traveler Judith Rich Harris. I mean, how can anyone who had parents say that with a straight face? Less stridently, were they an only child or did they have siblings close in age?

To be fair, I have no argument with Judith Rich Harris, for reasons that should become obvious. And I know I’m conflating meanings, which is what discourse is all about anyway. I am completely willing to believe the influence I think my parents had on my identity was some combination of the following: a) genetic complement (I refuse to say “genes”) and its accompanying innate tendencies; b) birth order (my brother is five years younger, which makes me a quasi-only child, and I know this because I asked Frank Sulloway about it); c) site of upbringing – until age 15 I lived in Midland, MI, where members of my school-selected peer group (including this guy) had siblings going to college so I never even questioned whether I would go, even as my parents were struggling to break in to the managerial class.

Still, it’s hard for me to shake the idea that my parents had some influence on how I turned out beyond the tendencies I inherited form them. What’s missing for me is a sophisticated notion of imprinting. My anecdotal evidence is simple: My dad was an alcoholic. It’s not fun having an alcoholic parent. Pinker would presumably say it’s a disease – the term “alcoholism” doesn’t appear in his index so it’s hard for me to confirm – and he’d be right. To me, though, it was like being caged up with a monster. Like Mitch Hedberg said, alcoholism is the only disease you can be yelled at for having.

Of course my reaction to my dad’s alcoholism – being freaked the fuck out – was mediated by my own innate behavioral tendencies, inherited from him and my mom. So, am I innately who I am? Yes. And did my peer group influence my SES-related values? Sure. But did the attitudes and behaviors of my parents, or what you would call their environmental contribution, influence my *subjective experience of being who I am* for the past 30 years? Hell yes.

I guess I should thank Steven Pinker. What he’s really offering is some long-term framing to normalize the idea that we are all individual agents. And when we’ve fully normalized that idea, we may even end up talking about giving kids the vote. But we don’t live in a culture that treats kids as agents. We live in a culture where my dad can read Pinker’s book, as he did – into the night, smoking and drinking at the kitchen table – and then tell me and anyone else who’ll listen that parents have no effect on how their kids turn out.

At the time I took it as a cop-out. I’ve come to see it as more like a sick joke. Gee, thanks, Dad. So I was *born* feeling like a freak in a cage? That’s super. When I’m really stoned I can see his bluster about metaphysical impotence as a message from his inner agent, trapped like mine, to the me that would eventually come to understand the way of the world. A smoke signal of sorts, courtesy of Marlboro.

Pinker was born in 1954. Maybe what you learn by the time you get to his age is that everybody goes through a sorting out period, where they come to reconcile the identities of their parents with their own. I’m even willing to buy there’s some kind of physio-genetically determined stage of development in which the self is suddenly able to shake all that dust off its wings.

But if that’s what Pinker is trying to tell us, I wish he’d frame his argument differently; and maybe open up a little about his subjective experience of being who he is. Then all this discourse about the biological construction of our identities might go down easier.


6 Responses to “Why Steven Pinker pisses me off”

  1. JScarry Says:

    “I mean, how can anyone who had parents say that with a straight face?”
    Surely you jest. As a scientist you know that anecdotes are not evidence. If I recall he bases his statement on twins studies and data on non-related individuals living in the same household. And over a wide range of condition, environment isn’t as important as heredity.

  2. […] into an harmonious science-dominated whole. Sadly, Goldstein doesn’t name names. We have our suspicions, […]

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    Hello sir (ma’am?),

    Not being a scientist, I am at liberty to say whatever I please about the nature of reality. The idea that environment “isn’t as important” as heredity is my entire point. Isn’t as important to whom and for what? But see also my follow-up posts formally acknowledging my utter lack of objectivity on the subject, which is of course implicit in the above.

  4. […] being said, I disavow my earlier line of argument that Pinker is letting parents off the hook, for reasons I hope to get into soon. And in general, I am starting to agree with his statement in […]

  5. […] am about oversharing, sticking my foot in my mouth, backpedaling like a spineless jerk, and then loathing myself for not […]

  6. […] The Blank Slate to decide what he would have to say about the Time story, but I’m guessing he would approve of the following: We marvel at the resilient child who survives the most toxic […]

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