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The Crooked Timber of Humanity

THE BLANK SLATE: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, By Steven Pinker, Viking: 510 pp., $27.95

September 29, 2002|FREDERIC RAPHAEL | Frederic Raphael has written widely on philosophy. His most recent book is "Personal Terms," edited notebooks, 1950-69.

"Philosophy," Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, "leaves everything as it is." It was not his wisest remark. Man has always been eager for--and is often alarmed by--new theories about the world: why and how it came to be and where it is going. Philosophers--from Democritus through Plato to Marx and Nietzsche--have rarely left things as they were. Marx, for instance, alleged that previous philosophers had only described the world; his mission was to change it. In fact, earlier philosophers had, in various ways, shaped the world he now proposed to revolutionize.

Would Marx ever have believed that mankind was ripe for radical remodeling if John Locke, two centuries earlier, had not maintained, with liberating plausibility, that men are born with minds like blank slates? Experience alone, Locke insisted, loads them with the information from which they later compose images of reality. A consequence of the blank slate was that there could be no inherited nobility. How could one newborn blank reasonably claim to be innately better than another?

Locke came at the right moment for democracy. His views emboldened America's Founding Fathers when it came to "self-evident" truths. He seemed to promise that everyone began life at the same starting line. Although challenged in detail, his empiricism appeared, for many decades, both common-sensical and scientific. It may still appear the first; it is not the second. Science and common sense seldom tell the same story.

Genetics has now established what Locke's contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz, had immediately suspected: Men's and women's (and animals') minds are elaborately "wired" long before they are born. And some have capacities that others do not. In their "selfishness," genes do not invest in level playing fields or universal human rights. Justice and fairness may be desirable; they are not natural.

If the theory of the blank slate is no longer tenable, must democratic theory collapse with it? Fortunately, and unarguably, there is no logical connection between how the world is and what values man chooses to impose on it and on himself. The only link between ethics and facts is that "ought entails can": We should not require of ourselves, or others, what it is beyond human capacity to achieve. It is not within our power, for instance, to be identical to our neighbors, neither more intelligent nor more comely; not even if our neighbor is our clone. Absolute equality is contrary to human nature. Why would anyone have to watch his back when saying something so matter-of-fact?

Steven Pinker, best-selling author of "The Language Instinct" and "How the Mind Works," has written a big book, "The Blank Slate," that is built like a bouncer, and it needs to be. "Human nature is human nature" is not the kind of tautology some people are willing to take lying down. For ideological reasons, clever people can still deny that their brains--but not their eventual contents or use--are shaped by their parents' genes. The unreasonable fear is that to concede unwanted truths will leave mankind with no logical resistance to fascism, capitalism, racism, religious obscurantism, male dominance and the rest. If Locke's theory generated democracy, how can rejecting it not rehabilitate tyranny? Part of Pinker's mission is to repeat that there is no inescapable correlation between facts and human value systems, good or bad.

Darwin's theory of natural selection was, in important ways, irrefutably right. Yet its perversion, so-called social Darwinism, did not follow logically from it. Natural selection--which involved what Richard Dawkins called, metaphorically, the "selfish gene"--is not a warrant for genocide nor even for human selfishness (altruism, like love, can be good for the future of you and your genes). Opposition to genocide in no way requires us to deny undeniable evidence for natural selection or for genetically programmed variety.

The use of new knowledge to challenge false theories (which are incompatible with it) is what many of us call intellectual progress. Communism depends on the idea that man is infinitely malleable ("The working classes are to Lenin what minerals are to the metallurgist," said Maxim Gorky, toady-in-chief to the Bolsheviks). If, therefore, it can be shown that men are not pieces of elemental putty ready to be molded by Those Who Know, communism cannot be--as dialectical materialism asserted--an inevitable result of the scheme of things.

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