Steven Pinker no longer pisses me off

May 26, 2009

As long as I’m eating crow, let it be in an area in which I supposedly have some expertise. I finished reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (The Modern Denial of Human Nature), and I have to say he’s made a pretty convincing argument that a) we often take for granted the idea that a person’s behavioral tendencies are primarily learned, in particular learned from culture, and b) although some of the forms those behaviors take may reflect our cultural context, the tendencies themselves probably do not.

I could quibble with Pinker on some points. He could have strengthened his argument, and expanded the scope of his audience, by acknowledging that culture can and does reinforce the idea that some universal behaviors are more valuable than others. Without that proviso, I think it’s easy for the concept of a “human nature” to end up reinforcing hurtful stereotypes. I also think he glosses over some problems in the field of evolutionary psychology — in particular, an over-reliance on adaptive rationales — for the sake of streamlining his argument for a human nature.

That 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 the book’s final chapter:

I suspect that few people really believe, deep down, that boys and girls are interchangeable, that all differences in intelligence come from the environment, that parents can micromanage the personalities of their children, that humans are born free of selfish tendencies, or that appealing stories, melodies, and faces are arbitrary social constructions. … Scholars who publicly deny intelligence is a meaningful concept treat it as anything but meaningless in their professional lives. Those who argue that gender differences are a reversible social construction do not treat them that way in their advice to their daughters, their dealings with the opposite sex, and their unguarded gossip, humor, and reflections on their lives. … The alternative [to acknowledging human nature] is to make intellectual life increasingly irrelevant to human affairs, to turn intellectuals into hypocrites, and to turn everyone else into anti-intellectuals.

Like I mentioned, I hope to find some time in coming weeks to explain how Pinker turned me around.

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