Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.5

November 6, 2003


Harvard academic debunks outdated theories

by Sylvain Comeau

Photo of Pinker

Steven Pinker
Photo by Harry Borden

The academic as rock star: The crowd to hear Steven Pinker speak overflowed the 570-seat Oscar Peterson Concert Hall last Thursday, spilling into the lobby of the Vanier Library, where a monitor showing his lecture had been set up.

Pinker, Harvard Psychology professor and cognitive scientist (formerly of MIT), best selling author and former Montrealer (a graduate of McGill), re-capped much of his career as a debunker of cherished but outdated scientific and pseudo-scientific theories of human nature and the workings of the human mind.

One of the linchpins of his arguments is the research on identical twins.

“Numerous studies have shown that adopted children who are raised together are not similar at all – much less similar than identical twins raised apart.”

This research consistently shows that genetics are a much greater influence than environment (nature rather than nurture) on a child’s development and character.

The findings on identical twins are a serious challenge to the Blank Slate theory, which states that the mind has no innate traits. That theory is the target of Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which has garnered critical accolades and numerous awards since its release last year.

Pinker contends that the theory has proven to be not only inaccurate but dangerous, a favorite of social engineering style tyrants, who wanted to reshape their society in some arbitrary, idealized image. The danger is that the blank slate theory implies that humans are perfectible, if the right things are “written” on the slate.

“The temptation for leaders is to think that if people are blank slates, they damn well better control what gets written on those slates. Indeed, some of the worst totalitarian despots of the 20th century explicitly embraced the blank slate theory, including Mao Zedong, who said ‘a blank page is where the most beautiful poems are written.’ The Khmer Rouge, who murdered a quarter of their country, had a slogan: ‘only the new born baby is spotless.’”

By contrast, democracy, which has clearly led to a more benevolent outcome, is based on a rather jaundiced theory of human nature, captured in a quote from Father of the U.S. Constitution James Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, no controls on government would be necessary.”

Idealization also infects the Noble Savage view of human nature, which states that people are born pure and good, but are then corrupted by society. Once again, scientific observation has punched holes in an antiquated theory. Pinker cites anthropological findings from the book War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley: 15-60% of male deaths are due to warfare in hunter-gatherer societies, while only 2-3% of male deaths are due to warfare in the U.S. and Europe in the 20th century, a figure that includes both world wars.

Pinker also challenges the Ghost in the Machine view of human nature, which says that each person has a soul that makes choices free from biology. Many of Pinker’s foes in this intellectual battle are on the religious right, who oppose the growing belief among scientists that the purpose of life is to pass on our genes to the next generation.

“Why are we here? To pass on our genes. Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfying answer, to a large number of people. There is a fear of nihilism at work here. People on the religious side of this debate seem to believe that if we lose our belief in the soul, all hell will break loose, and we will see the total eclipse of all values.”

But belief in the soul, a ghost in the machine, and in its continued existence after the death of the material body, “is not as benevolent a doctrine as it might appear, because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Think about why we sometimes remind ourselves of the cliché, ‘life is short’. That is an impetus to renew a friendship, to use your time productively, not to squander it. I think one can argue that nothing gives life more meaning than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious gift.”

In addition, “God’s purpose always seems to be conveyed by human beings. I think that belief opens the door to a certain amount of mischief,” Pinker pointedly understated, before referring to the September 11 suicide attacks as an extreme example.

Pinker concluded by pointing out that the scientific findings he references have come from diverse disciplines, which have converged to undermine the theories he is attacking.

“In human history, the Blank Slate, Noble Savage and Ghost in the Machine have been the dominant theories of human nature in modern intellectual life. These doctrines have been challenged by the modern sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. These challenges have been seen, by opponents on both the left and the right, as a threat to moral values, but, in fact, that doesn’t follow. On the contrary, a better understanding of what makes us tick can clarify those values. It can show that political equality does not require sameness, but rather policies that treat people as individuals with rights.”

Pinker is also the author of the books The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works.