Rod Dreher

After liturgy yesterday, I was talking to a friend who was pleased to learn that I’d been at a dinner the other night with Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. My friend, though an Orthodox Christian, finds reading the atheist scientist Pinker intellectually thrilling. He said that Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” is must-reading, because in it, Pinker uses scientific findings to demolish some popular ideas about human nature. I found this excerpt of an interview from Reason, in which Pinker discusses the ideas his book purports to debunk:

Reason: You talk about three modern “myths” in the book: the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. Explain them briefly.
Pinker: The blank slate is the doctrine that the mind has no unique structure and that its entire organization comes from the environment via socialization and learning. The blank slate mentality is popular with people who believe that any human trait can be altered with the right changes in social institutions. It’s popular in the more radical branches of feminism, although not with the original core of feminism that stressed the drive for equity between the sexes. I think it allies to some degree with Marxist approaches to society. Not that Marx literally believed in a blank slate, but he certainly believed that you could not intelligently discuss human nature separate from its ever-changing interaction with the social environment.
The doctrine of the noble savage is that people have no evil impulses, that all malice is a product of social institutions. The noble savage myth is behind the sensibility that violence is learned behavior, a slogan that is repeated endlessly whenever violence is chronicled in the news. It’s also behind the Romantic idea that violent nonconformists are actually seeing the hypocrisy of society and challenging social institutions from a marginalized viewpoint, as opposed to the idea that such people are psychopaths and that we should prevent them from wreaking havoc on everyone else.
The doctrine of the ghost in the machine is that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus of free will and choice and which can’t be reduced to a function of the brain. The ghost in the machine [idea] lies behind the religious and cultural right — literally in the case of people who want to couch the stem cell debate in terms of when ensoulment occurs.
But it’s there in a vaguer way, too, among others who fear that a materialist viewpoint — the idea that human experience and choice are products of a physical organ called the brain — is corrosive of morality, meaning, and ultimate purpose.
Reason: Why do you call these ideas myths?
Pinker: Because they’re wrong. Let’s talk about the blank slate. Just on logical grounds, blank slates don’t do anything. They just sit there. Human beings do things. They make sense of their environment, they acquire language, they interact with one another. They use reasoning to bring about things that they want. Even if you acknowledge, as you have to acknowledge, that learning, socialization, and culture are indispensable aspects of human behavior, you have to admit that you can’t have culture unless you have some kind of innate circuitry that can invent and acquire culture to begin with.
The noble savage [myth] has been refuted by studies of hunter-gatherers and societies more generally that show how violence and warfare are a human universal. The reports of tribes out there somewhere who never heard of war have turned out to be urban legends. I think many Western intellectuals had always been impressed that in many battles among hunter-gatherers, the battle is called off as soon as the first couple of people are killed. That led to the idea that warfare among pre-state societies was largely ritualistic. But in fact, if you do the numbers and count the bodies, two deaths in a band of 50 people are much bigger than the September 11th casualties in a society our size.
Careful studies show that hunter-gatherers are dead serious about war. They make weapons as destructive as their ingenuity permits. And if they can get away with it, they massacre every man, woman, and child. In our own society, which is far more peaceful than the native groups, if you ask people whether they have ever fantasized about killing someone, anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of the men and about 40 percent to 60 percent of women say that they have.

This brought to mind a chilling passage from Wade Davis’s “The Wayfinders” in which he discussed the ritual complexity and beauty of Inca society, and spoke of child sacrifice with the same sense of appreciation with which one might speak of liturgical Christian prayer in Cranmerian cadences.
Anyway, I’m not going to venture commentary about a book I haven’t read, but for the sake of generating conversation, I’ll mention a couple of things. It seems to me that both the blank slate and the noble savage myths are two concepts that can be disproved by raising kids and/or reading the daily newspaper. For a religious believer, the “ghost in the machine” myth is plainly more problematic. Again, I underscore that I have not read the Pinker book, but if he’s saying that science shows that human moral behavior can be adequately explained by biology, without reference to a soul, my response is, “Possibly.”
I don’t know any religious person who believes that people have perfect control over their bodily impulses leading to immoral behavior. Even St. Paul wrote of how hard he struggled to rein in his impulses (the “thorn in the flesh”). I doubt, though, that Pinker believes that the faithful hold such a crude understanding of the struggle between flesh and spirit, to use the Biblical formulation. My guess is that he contends that we don’t need a concept of “soul” to account for the innate moral sense that makes us categorically different from the animals — that biology can explain this adequately, even if it doesn’t seem intuitively right to us.
I wonder, though, about whether Pinker imposes a dualistic view of human nature onto the human person — that is, if he believes that religious belief compels accepting a radical mind-body split. Because it doesn’t. In Christian orthodoxy (certainly in Orthodoxy), the body cannot be understood as separate from the mind (or, as we see it, the soul). It is all part of the human person; the “ghost in the machine” concept is seen as anthropologically and theologically incorrect. That said, Christians do believe that individual consciousness continues to exist after the death of the body, but I’m not sure what the implications of that are for moral behavior in this life.
Until I get my hands on a copy of “The Blank Slate,” I don’t want to say anything further. I do think that it’s exciting, and comforting, to learn that science can establish that there is a such thing as an essential (but not rigidly fixed) human nature. The “blank slate” myth has been by far the most destructive of our time, and will continue to be in this century, as technology grants us greater mastery over our biology. Whether you are a religious believer or not, the idea that we can eventually overcome our nature is a dangerous deception — and if we could do so, if we could genetically engineer future generations to be non-violent, for example, would we really want to do that? Who would do the engineering, and how would it benefit them with power or wealth?
Any of you read Pinker’s book? What did you think of it?

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