A review of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker and Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Applications, by Daniel N. Robinson

So here is the way it is: every same-sexed human being on Earth has essentially the same genes (99.9%). No "race" has a gene another "race" doesn't possess as well. No smart guy has a gene a dumb guy doesn't have. We are poured out of the same genomic bucket.

Our common genome, however, expresses itself differently through different allele combinations leading to all kinds of wondrous group and individual variations. Tall, short, attractive, ugly, smart, dumb, fast, slow, black, white, brown, bald, near-sighted, schizophrenic, hyperactive, cordial, athletic, musical, egotistical, intolerant, plus a few zillion other characteristics of our species are all influenced by our genes directly as they express themselves in a dynamic and changing environment. The interactions of genes and the environment together mold us—and are the new mantra. Of course it is true. It is also sort of obvious.

Against this backdrop of life comes the question of our humanness, our possible uniqueness, and our human nature. And here is where it gets interesting. Steven Pinker in his magnificent new book, The Blank Slate, looks at those and dozens of other issues from the perspective of evolutionary biology and psychology. A professor of psychology at MIT, he takes on the dominant opinion in contemporary Western culture that imagines that Darwinian natural selection means that we do not have a structured human nature. He convincingly shows that our common genome produces a species with morals and a host of other universal mental capacities. In making his argument Pinker doesn't draw a line in the sand, he draws a circle, with him and those he so eloquently speaks for in the middle. On the one hand, adherents to traditional religious and cultural views feel challenged by such sociobiological analysis and, on the other, the feel-good-we-can-fix-everything types loathe the concept of built-in constraints.

One of those people outside the circle is Daniel Robinson, a philosophical psychologist at Georgetown University, a hotbed for those committed to the idea derived from received wisdom, not evolutionary science, that there is something unique about the species. In his new book, Praise and Blame, Robinson defends the idea of what he calls a moral science, the idea that the great moral ideas of our culture are real properties of mind that can supervene any mechanistic or Humean view of human action. Robinson argues that like other mental properties, moral principles are irreducible to the biological mechanisms that enable them to exist. He hates the idea that one might be altruistic as a matter of genetic imperative. I guess he is saying that such morals are properties of the human mind—delivered from the factory. Unlike Pinker, Robinson doesn't probe how such a thing or system might work, or what its origins might be. One gets the idea that he seems to be taking on the old logical positivism of Ayer and others—the idea that there are empirical facts and mathematical-logical proofs, and anything else is literally nonsense. I am with Robinson on this point, but I get the feeling that really he is arguing for the notion that reason controls and produces our moral values, which can rule over our less gallant biological states, just like the Church says.

I sit on the President's Bioethics Council and I have come to appreciate that there is a serious distinction between secular or philosophical reasoning, which can lead to moral principles, and committed belief to religious-cum-moral views. To be sure, life is not so simple that the believers eschew reason or that the secularists are always reasonable. Add to the mix that those who hold religious beliefs are frequently representing social systems that have done and continue to provide the world with huge humanitarian good, such as the Catholic Church through its worldwide hospital networks, and one quickly learns there are no easy targets in the real social and cultural world. In the marketplace, one man's morality can be another man's opportunity.

Nevertheless, those of us working and living in ivory towers see the train wreck that is coming between increasing factual knowledge of the nature of man and steadfast, culturally permanent religious views. To some extent, the world is already divided between those who accept the received wisdom of their culture and religion, and those who view the nature of human experience in more scientific terms, informed by the last century of research and discovery. The issues Pinker and Robinson raise will only become more acute in the years ahead.

* * *

Undaunted by these realities and conflicts, Pinker begins by reviewing the development of the concept of the Blank Slate: the initial idea advanced by John Locke that all knowledge comes from experience; the Noble Savage, Rousseau's notion that humans were originally "selfless, peaceable, and untroubled"; and the Ghost in the Machine, a term advanced by Gilbert Ryle to capture the Cartesian account of dualism. In the rest of the book, Pinker lays out his argument for and against the predominant, feel-good belief in the standard social-science model of the blank slate—the idea that "cultures are arbitrary symbol systems that exist apart from the minds of individual people." He leaves no stone unturned, no topic unaddressed, including postmodernism, feminism—you name it.

Pinker doesn't get caught in simple, reductionistic traps, e.g., that a greater biological and mechanistic understanding of human nature means we must abandon human values. We are not overly determined zombies walking around possessing no personal responsibility. He also avoids the argument that genetics is destiny. He glides through these and dozens of other pointed issues and winds up, well, let me quote:

The Blank Slate was an attractive vision. It promised to make racism, sexism, and class prejudice factually untenable. It appeared to be a bulwark against the kind of thinking that led to ethnic genocide. It aimed to prevent people from slipping into a premature fatalism about preventable social ills. It put a spotlight on the treatment of children, indigenous peoples, and the underclass. The Blank Slate thus became part of a secular faith and appeared to constitute the common decency of our age.

But the Blank Slate had, and has, a dark side. The vacuum that it posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent these genocides. It perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering. It torments mothers
who work outside the home and parents whose children did not turn out as they would have liked. It threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering. Its corollary, the Noble Savage, invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of "a government of laws and not of men." It blinds us to our cognitive and moral shortcomings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions. 

This summary of Pinker's view in Pinker's words is to be contrasted with the Robinson approach. Here is a neat summary, stated in a way only he can do, of Robinson's defense of the independence of moral judgments as over against theories of biological determinism:

Ruled out by a theory of moral realism is that causal account of praise and blame by which moral appraisals are thought to be (somehow) produced in those making the judgment…. One is not "caused" to praise in any sense akin to being "caused" to be thirsty or tired. Neither does praise (or blame) cause its target to do something in the way that coercion or low blood pressure or hypnosis might cause one to drop a glass. In the face of such declamations as "Well done!" or "Shame on you!", the response of the recipient is not based on the acoustic achievements of the speaker but on the rich congeries of factors previously discussed. Finally, one is not correctly praised or blamed "luckily" for…it is one of the aims of praise and blame to extract from the target-actions and events precisely those ingredients falling beyond the agent's powers of control or even contemplation, and reserving moral appraisal to what remains.

It is impossible not to comment on the lucidity and style of these two books. It would be impossible for Pinker to obfuscate and be boring. His wit and intellect are always reflexively engaging. I once overheard a comment in one of those intellectual salons where we occasionally find ourselves. The pursed-lipped professor lamented, "If Pinker wasn't so damned animated and fun to read, he would win a Pulitzer Prize. His ideas are profound." It would seem that being opaque and pedantic is half the battle in today's academy. It is here that Robinson's preferred writing style lets him down. To my taste it is overly formal and rarely insightful. One of my favorite observations about writing and communicating comes from the great cognitive psychologist, George A. Miller. "There is," he says, "a difference between covering and uncovering a topic." Pinker does the latter and more.