Selected journal, newspaper and magazine publications
by Nicholas Nicastro

"Ecce Homo"— a review of Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate, for The Bookpress, December 2002
—by Nicholas Nicastro

Ecce Homo

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
By Stephen Pinker
Viking Press
509 pages, $27.95, cloth

It's been an eventful season in the culture wars. In October, an important re-examination of the data for Franz Boas' 1912 survey of immigrants and their children was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1). Boas' original study supposedly proved environmental effects on human cranial shape to be far more important than heredity, and has been cited for ninety years by sociocultural anthropologists to argue that racial types have no physical basis. But Corey Sparks and Richard Jantz's re-examination of the original data, using modern statistical techniques, shows that Boas got it wrong. Indeed, he may even have "shaded" his analysis to reach the politically palatable conclusion. Boas, of course, was the mentor of Margaret Mead, that key promulgator of cultural determinism whose own ethnographic work has also been critically reconsidered in recent years (2). Boas was undoubtedly correct to oppose the explanatory relevance of racial types in fin de siècle anthropology. But the new study does prompt the question, as The New York Times suggests, whether "…an earlier generation's efforts to play down the role of genetics in fields like behavior and racial variation may not have been carried to extremes." (3).

The Sparks/Jantz study bears direct implications for the controversial legal case over the so-called Kennewick Man, which was finally decided in August after six long years. In that case, a 9,400 year old skeleton accidentally discovered on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, was the object of a bitter court fight between several Indian tribes and the U.S. Department of the Interior on one side, and eight physical anthropologists on the other. Citing evidence of extreme antiquity and cranial characteristics that diverge significantly from modern Native Americans, the scientists sued to prevent the Department of the Interior from handing the skeleton over to the tribes. The tribes, asserting that Kennewick Man was their direct ancestor, wanted the bones reburied without further study. They were abetted in this view by certain currents in sociocultural anthropology, wherein all knowledge claims about the past, from those based on empirical science to tribal oral history, are equally valid expressions of culturally embedded "value orientation." But in his ruling, federal magistrate John Jelderks upheld the scientists' suit and sharply rebuked the Department of the Interior (4). Where Interior and the tribes had argued that under current law only the Indian claimants' version of history had standing, the judge ruled that nothing in the law subordinated what actually happened in the past to what certain groups find congenial to believe happened.

Last, and by no means least, we have a new and inevitably best-selling broadside by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works). Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a polemic against what he (among others) calls "the secular religion of modern intellectual life." This doctrine, "…seldom articulated or overtly embraced…" is specifically "…the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves." Pinker attributes belief in the blank slate to a considerable number of academics in anthropology, cultural studies, certain elements within psychology, gender studies, and an extended cohort of like-minded advocates, activists, critics, and policy-makers.

Of course, nobody would ever admit to believing that the human mind begins as straight pudding. What Pinker seems to be attacking is what might be called a blank-slate ideology, which tends to play down explanation due to the traits, affordances, constraints, et al. of our natural endowment (whether from genetic, developmental, or environmental invariants) in favor of socio-cultural factors. It is, moreover, a predisposition to suspect the political motives of anybody who "naturalizes" the study of human beings. In practice, it is often tantamount to a kind of moral exhibitionism, where the hypotheses of evolutionary psychologists are stamped as dangerously immoral, though they may be right, in favor of a "culturalizing" anthropology, which may be wrong but is self-evidently "good:"

The thrust of the radical science movement was to moralize the scientific study of the mind and to engage the mentality of taboo. Recall…the indignant outrage, the punishment of heretics, the refusal to consider claims as they were actually stated, and moral cleansing through demonstrations and manifestos and public denunciations. [Radical computer scientist Joseph] Weizenbaum condemned ideas "whose very contemplation ought to give rise to feelings of disgust" and denounced the less-than-human scientists who "can even think of such a thing." But of course it is the job of scientists to think about things, even if only to make it clear why they are wrong. (5)

The blank-slate ideology, along with its typical correlates, the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine, has real consequences. To take two disparate examples, it is what once blamed the disorder of autism on "frigid" parenting, to the sorrow of many mothers. It is also what informed the political philosophy of totalitarians like Mao Zedong, whose regime was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Mao rhapsodized, "A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it." (6)

Against this diverse and somewhat amorphous enemy, Pinker deploys the full range of his knowledge of modern evolutionary theory and cognitive science. Several chapters are devoted to summarizing what psychology since the so-called "cognitive revolution" has taught us about innate or universal structures of the mind. Against the environment-centered behaviorism that dominated the discipline for decades (and consequently had a significant influence on the humanities and anthropology), modern psychology is predicated on the idea that mental representations and processes are not only accessible to study, but indispensable to understanding behavior. Pinker likewise enlists evolutionary psychology, which sees the mind, like any other living system, as possessing traits that are the products of natural selection.

Though this discussion certainly works to Pinker's strengths as an explicator, the initial chapters of The Blank Slate will probably prove the dullest to most readers. Sociocultural anthropologists and their ilk, if they read the book at all, would undoubtedly find discussions of visual perception and comparative genomics irrelevant to their concerns. Psychologists, for their part, already know this stuff, and might even be put off by Pinker's inability to resist sniping at those (mostly West Coast-based) researchers who might wholeheartedly sympathize with his beef against cultural determinism, but remain skeptical about Chomskian universal grammar, Fodorian mental modules, and other notions of innate mental furniture. For these reasons, though the main text comes in at just over 400 pages, many will find this a long-seeming book.

Pinker surveys more interesting territory when he argues that blank slate ideologues don't really deserve the moral high ground they so frequently claim. Where sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson have been loudly decried as facilitators of crypto-fascist pseudo-science, it was extreme cultural determinism that informed the genocidal ideologies of the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia. Conversely, the findings of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science have not necessarily been conducive to proponents of the "invisible hand" of unfettered markets. Instead, psychologists have systematically deconstructed the rational chooser at the center of classical economic theories, revealing him or her to be profoundly influenced by self-deception and the cognitive baggage of evolutionary history. While some cultural determinists are convinced that the political implications of evolutionary psychology are odiously right-wing, the truth is not nearly so neat. Important figures in the field, such as Robert Trivers (a one-time supporter of the Black Panthers) and John Maynard Smith (a lapsed Marxist) would hardly qualify as darlings of the National Review or the Fox News division.

Pinker predicts that the behavioral sciences will prompt a necessary evolution of the ancient dichotomies of political left and right. Citing Thomas Sowell's notion of opposing "tragic" and "utopian" (or "constrained" vs. "unconstrained") visions of human nature, Pinker grants that evolutionary psychology seems more consonant with the former. That is, where the "tragic" vision (exemplified by the Hobbes-Burke-Smith intellectual tradition) sees human affairs as inevitably a clash of opposing interests, with the best we can hope for a kind of refereed equilibrium, the "utopian" (exemplified by Rousseau, Condorcet, and to some degree Marx) sees history as prologue to a program of culturally-driven social improvement that will one day do away with inequality, war, ignorance, all the old demons. Pinker acknowledges that "…the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook…" But this does not necessarily dispose of the goals of the Utopian left. Along with the "selfish" genes, humans have also evolved "a moral sense" in conjunction with "an open-ended combinatorial system, which in principle can increase its mastery over human affairs, just as it has increased its mastery of the physical and living worlds." Granted the practical reality of what John Alcock has called "the triumph of sociobiology" through most of academia, the stage may finally be set for a radical rethinking of the old ideological contrasts. Pinker observes:

The ideologies of the left and the right took shape before Darwin, before Mendel, before anyone knew what a gene or a neuron or a hormone was. Every student of political science is taught that political ideologies are based on theories of human nature. Why must they be based on theories that are three hundred years out of date?

Pinker's recurrent point is that the finding of biologically based differences between individuals, groups, or genders is not the same as granting license for oppression based on those differences. Human dignity and equality of opportunity are moral ideals that nothing discovered in a lab can ever discredit. What science can weaken, however, are phony, politically motivated models of human nature. Better to pin our convictions on "a realistic, biologically informed humanism" than bad models that might crumble tomorrow.

But as much as Pinker is on the side of the angels in this fight, his book will probably change few minds. After all, cultural determinists rarely deny there is something biological about people. They simply assert that the biology is trivial, obvious, and/or irrelevant to what makes people particularly interesting.

Indeed, what qualifies as "interesting" in some disciplines can have less to do with grand intellectual traditions than with the petit politics of academe. In anthropology, the self-interest of area studies (with respect to funding and otherwise) naturally promotes a preoccupation with distinctions between cultural areas. The need to be different, to justify a discipline's intellectual existence, can by itself promote notions in some departments that are roundly rejected elsewhere. It is precisely the failure of the blank-slate doctrine in economics and psychology that may make it so attractive to a number of anthropologists. Their reaction then becomes self-perpetuating: students of sociocultural anthropology, as currently educated in many universities, are no longer trained to evaluate claims of human universality rooted in biology. The natural response, then, is to ignore them. Pinker shows no interest in this important aspect of his thesis, quite possibly because talking about academic politics is a good way to put the general reader to sleep.

But the biggest reason The Blank Slate won't convince anybody is that Pinker never engages the intellectual core of the opposition. He never gets on the level of his sociocultural antagonists, never addresses their ideas in a detailed fashion. He doesn't really explore what culture is as a concept, and where it came from. We just get the same old talking points, such as Marshall Sahlins's gaffe on fractional relations, or Richard Lewontin's consistent pattern of misquoting Richard Dawkins.

Compared to other treatments of these issues, such as in Donald E. Brown's Human Universals, Pinker does a poor job of framing the intellectual history of blank-slate ideology. Brown's book is far shorter, but at least attempts to grapple with the foundational texts of modern sociocultural anthropology (Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, Mead, Benedict, A.L. Kroeber, et al.). Brown cogently argues that Kroeber's depiction of culture as "superorganic," or dwelling on a plane of causation not reducible to "mere psychology," emerged from the context of a well-meaning reaction against racial science, but has since been pressed to doctrinal extremes not even Kroeber would recognize. For it was Kroeber himself who wrote that modern anthropology put the "protean X of the mind to the rear…," but did "not abolish the X":

…[t]he X, or its relation to the Y of culture, does remain our ultimate problem. This fact…we tend to forget; and probably more than we know, we are bringing up our students and successors in an ultra-behavioristic attitude…If there is a human mind, it has a structure and constitution, and these must enter into its phenomenal products…[I]t is well to remember that we are making a deliberate omission for practical purposes for the time being; and above all we have not yet proved that X equals 0. (7)

Of Kroeber's promissory note, Brown comments "I think it also fair to say that for many anthropologists a very long period of stressing cultural determinants in practice has made them think that biological determinants are out of the question in principle. They may think that Kroeber was one of those who established the principle, but this is not so." (8)

It is understandable that Pinker prefers to bombard his adversaries from the safety of his own field than engage them "hand-to-hand." Agonists—especially of the scholarly kind—always prefer to compete on their home fields. Still, it might be useful to consider how Pinker might have taken the argument straight to the opposition.

Cultural anthropologist Tim Ingold has been widely cited by skeptics of evolutionary psychology such as anthropologist Terence Turner (e.g., his discussion of the Darkness at El Dorado affair in the Bookpress last year and in an Anthropological Association of America [AAA] roundtable forum on that subject in 2001.) Indeed, Turner has specifically named Ingold, along with Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, as among those "respected authorities" whose "reasonable arguments…should be engaged, and if possible, refuted after taking due account of their strengths." (9) Though they aren't cited in The Blank Slate, Ingold's comments may be taken as fairly representative of what Pinker is arguing against. (I have discussed Lewontin's work previously in the Bookpress, October, 1997; contra Turner, criticism of Gould's ideas have been nearly as voluminous as his writings, and are not hard to find.)

In a short essay in the journal Anthropology Today, Ingold shares that he is "viscerally angry" at "selectionists" (including "sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, gene-culture coevolutionists and memeticists") who attempt to account for cultural behavior without due reference to traditional sociocultural approaches:

Indeed, I have often been taken aback by the strength of my own reaction…Part of the problem, perhaps, lies in the sheer hubris with which selectionists advance their claims…the naivety, ethnocentricity and sheer prejudice of their understanding, at times, beggar belief, but far worse is their refusal to countenance the legitimacy of approaches other than their own. Surely the one thing we should not tolerate, in scholarly debate, is intolerance (10).

According to Ingold, these nameless selectionists (he makes no reference to anyone in particular) have succeeded in explaining exactly nothing of interest to anthropologists. One reason for this is that evolutionary psychology is stuck in yesterday's understandings of what's interesting about culture: "…for me, reading their work is like stepping into a time machine, and going back to the days, long before I was born, when issues of culture traits and their diffusion were all the rage," he declares. Modern sociocultural anthropology apparently sees culture not as an agglomeration of static representations, rules, conventions or practices, but as a process (italics in original) of "unfolding relations" among people and between people and their environments:

…what people do is embedded in lifelong histories of engagement, as whole beings, with their surroundings, and is not the mechanical output of interaction between pre-replicated instructions (whether genetic or cultural) and prespecified environmental conditions, as selectionists would have us believe.

Indeed, selectionism is "bad science," engaged in "shoddy thinking," because "neo-Darwinists" merely redescribe cultural phenomena in their own particular terms (in terms of gene or meme-selection, one presumes) and then claim they have explained them. Selectionists legitimate their approach with promises that their hypotheses may be tested, but in fact " 'testing hypotheses' is merely a cover for using natural selection as a logical device to turn description into explanation." (It is ambiguous whether Ingold means the adjective "logical" in an evaluative sense here, or just as a synonym for "rhetorical".)

Sociocultural anthropologists have been studying and theorizing about cultural behavior for generations, yet selectionists never avail themselves of this literature. Instead, the latter "flaunt their ignorance" as a badge of "intellectual virility." Ingold grants "perhaps we should not get too hot under the collar about this," but then proceeds to fulminate against "[the selectionists'] antediluvian notions of culture and their strip-cartoon sociology in the name of a brave new science."

"Social and cultural anthropologists, I believe, cannot afford to maintain a stance of studied indifference to selectionism," he rounds up "…What is required is a policy not of appeasement but of vigorous, principled and public opposition" (emphasis added).

To so-called "selectionists," Ingold's blast seems like a transmission from a bizarre alternate universe, like that twin Earth beloved of science fiction writers that is forever on the far side of the sun and where everything is exactly reversed. Considering the socioculturologists' sanctimonious hostility first to sociobiology, now to evolutionary psychology, Ingold's statement that "surely the one thing we should not tolerate, in scholarly debate, is intolerance" has an ironic ring. For it is the "selectionists" who have been persistently vilified in this debate, typically as contemporary Nazis (note Ingold's choice of the word "appeasement"). As Pinker recounts, it has been people like E.O. Wilson whose public lectures have been shouted down, classrooms invaded by placard and bull-horn toting mobs, persons physically abused, reputations stained by charges of promoting hatred, slavery, sexism, racism, and murder. The University of New Mexico's Kim Hill, who has done much important ethnographic work among the Ache of Paraguay, has written of his own experience as an anthropology graduate student interested in biological influences on social relations:

When I entered graduate school I was forced to transfer out of cultural anthropology and then to another university because faculty and students at my first institution were so openly hostile to sociobiological research. When I applied for research grants I was told by reviewers that my research was immoral, unethical and dangerous. I have been called a Nazi, a fascist, a sexist, a racist, and a mindless reductionist…For years I heard graduate students working with me complain that others in the department (including faculty) openly lectured that research such as mine should not be allowed. (11)

Another notable low was Patrick Tierney's book Darkness at El Dorado, where geneticist James Neel and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon were accused of committing and enabling genocide, respectively, by a journalist who has candidly called himself "an advocate…[for whom] traditional, objective journalism was no longer an option…"(12). Critics like Hill have subsequently demolished Tierney's most sensational charges point by point. Yet Tierney's highly questionable screed received a generous reception in certain sociocultural-anthropological quarters. In what sense, then, have the latter been "tolerant?"

Be that as it may, it is reasonable to demand scrutiny of Ingold's particular criticisms. For instance, it may well be granted that some selectionists (his word, but I'll use it for convenience) are not conversant with the latest modes of sociocultural discourse, and are insufficiently versed in latter day "processual" understandings of culture. But what does this mean? If we take language as a key example of cultural behavior as even Ingold defines it, then nothing in his argument obviates the relevance of evolutionary biology to culture. Cognitive scientists have illuminated much in recent decades about how the brain acquires and processes language. Some of what psychologists and linguists have learned bears directly on why we see certain manifestations of language in the ethnographic record, and not others. Neuroscientists have outlined the variations and commonalities, on the individual and group levels, of language function. Aspects of language have been observed or taught to non-human animals, helping to define exactly what is different about the universal human facility. By modeling the exchange of information in evolving virtual communities, quantitative studies of communication have thrown light on why language takes the form it does, with meaningful morphemes built out of meaningless phonemes. (Indeed, our understanding of social cooperation in general has been fostered by such "selectionist" simulations, with obvious implications for anthropology (13).) Twin studies and case histories of individuals and families with genetic abnormalities have suggested the heritability of certain cognitive traits necessary for language (if not for language itself). Like other aspects of culture, language amounts to contextual knowledge in dynamic context, as Ingold insists. Yet empirical approaches that don't presume the wholly "superorganic" nature of culture have already contributed significantly to our knowledge of language. Those empirical approaches, in turn, make little sense beyond the context of the Darwinian synthesis.

Ingold makes much of culture as a continually changing process. We might easily accept this, but still ask what propels the process, what substrate the process works upon, and what the wider consequences of the process might be. Otherwise, his discourse seems to boil down to special pleading, along the lines of insisting that human social behavior merits special status because it's so awfully complicated. There are rumors that people in other sciences work on complicated problems, too.

At the risk of sounding uncharitable, it might also be said that just because sociocultural anthropologists have forged beyond the founding assumptions of their discipline doesn't guarantee those old assumptions are correct. One imagines medieval astronomers rarely disputed the validity of their ancient earth-centered universe by the time Copernicus came along. Instead, they were on to some very sophisticated elaborations of it, with epicycles within epicycles. But for Ptolemaic astronomers to then demand that Copernicus take a stance on those elaborations—after he has already disposed of their core justification—would be a very lame defense indeed.

Ingold argues that selectionism is "bad science" because it confounds description with explanation. In other words, he asserts that claiming a trait exists because of selection is really no explanation at all, presumably because that doesn't explain the immediate motive for the selection. There are at least three possible reasons to dismiss this charge. First, Ingold presents a straw man version of evolutionary psychology that does not accurately reflect the state of the art, where in fact the kind of "just so stories" decried by Gould and Lewontin are commonly greeted with skepticism and even ridicule in the field. Adaptive stories need to do far more than simply evoke selection to cut the mustard. Second, Ingold's own field is vulnerable to a similar charge: taking the sociocultural level as unique and autonomous sui generis is all too often the endpoint of discussion of cultural difference among sociocultural anthropologists. As Brown has noted, "…any outrageously different custom or belief can get the same explanation: it's because of their culture"(14). Listening to culturologists talk about their subject, there seems to be a lot of what Clifford Geertz calls "thick description," but not much interest in explanation.

Third, what Ingold calls "mystification" among selectionists may actually reflect his own confusion about levels of analysis. A principle can indeed be an explanation and a description at the same time. For example, at the level of classical mechanics, Newton's laws of gravitation are adequate as explanations for how objects move. Knowledge of physical laws at the relativistic and quantum levels, however, reveals classical mechanics to be valid only as a description of what happens under very limited circumstances. The ultimate physical explanation shifts to a deeper level as physicists learn more about how the universe works. Yet few seriously dispute the enduring explanatory power of Newton's laws, or charge physicists with "shoddy thinking." What Ingold portrays as confusion really reflects a fundamental duality as selectionists grapple with description/explanation at different levels of analysis.

One can't help noticing that Ingold's essay is full of the standard scare-words: "hard-wired," "programmatic," "mechanical output." The fear, as usual, is that behavioral scientists want to objectify human social relations as output of some dumb, deterministic machine. Such misapprehensions get perpetuated when, as before the AAA roundtable on the Tierney affair, we hear sociocultural anthropologists make declarations like:

[Selectionism's] ideological character is underlined by its reduction of intrinsically social phenomena to expressions of intrinsically individual properties. It is of course for such reasons that most scientists [sic] (including anthropological social scientists) view sociobiology as a kind of ideology, not as "science." (15)

Statements like this attribute a form of simpleminded determinism to selectionists that no serious authorities, even the arch-reductionist Richard ("Selfish Gene") Dawkins, subscribe to. Testing whether genes or physical developmental mechanisms (or, for that matter, culture) influence social behavior is not the same as asserting the full complexity of the latter may be completely explained by such factors. It is worth noting, moreover, that the statement denies the status of science to "sociobiology" here not because of any particular empirical shortcomings, but because it gives truck to a taboo idea—that explanation of social phenomena may be contingent on properties of individuals. In fact, this would seem to be a matter for research to resolve.

Interestingly, even simple deterministic systems aren't thought of the way they used to be. As the science of non-linear dynamics (or "chaos" theory) has shown over the last thirty years, even quite straightforward systems like dripping faucets, pendulums, and spinning tops can show quite complex shifts of behavior based on minute differences in starting conditions. This is even more the case with complex systems like weather or populations of organisms. It is probable, then, that not even the most complete model of the genetic, economic, social and environmental determinants of cultural development would ever yield the kind of predictable "mechanical output" Ingold dreads. Yet this does not mean those factors—including biology—are not important influences on social behavior. In this publication at least, Ingold seems unaware of such developments.

In short, though this particular essay by Ingold has been cited for its "reasonable arguments" against selectionism, it seems more of a forlorn bleat. It shows no particular familiarity with what it criticizes, adduces no examples, and amounts, it seems, to an impassioned assertion that traditional socioculturology is not irrelevant. On the latter point, I happen to agree with him.

Pinker declines this opportunity to confront voices like Ingold's. A more thoughtful book might have circulated farther beyond the choir screen of the converted. Still, Pinker brings a lot of relevant material together here, and his overall message is the correct one: it is long past due to cash in Kroeber's promissory note.

Nicholas Nicastro is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, Cornell University.

References Cited
1- Sparks & Jantz (2002)
2- Freeman, D. (1983) Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press)
3- NY Times, 10/8/02, p. F3
5- Pinker, S. (2002) The Blank Slate (New York: W.W. Norton) p. 156
6- ibid, p. 279
7- quoted in Brown, D.E. (1991) Human Universals (New York: McGraw-Hill) p. 58
8. ibid, p. 58
9- Turner, T. (2001)
10- Ingold, T. (2000) "The Poverty of Selectionism," Anthropology Today, 16, 3, 1-2
11- Hill, K. (2001)
12- Tierney, P. (2000) Darkness at El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (New York: W.W. Norton) p. xxiv
13 Frank, S.A. (1998) Foundations of Social Evolution (Princeton U. Press, New Jersey)
14- Brown, p. 88
15- Turner, T. (2001)


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