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Steven Pinker and original sin

22 September

ANYONE WHO WISHES to gain an insight into the life-style of the modern media academic would do well to visit the website of the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker.

Click on 'Lectures' and 'Current and Pending Media events' and it will soon become clear why, as we learn elsewhere on the site, Pinker is on sabbatical leave for this academic year. On Monday 15 September 2002 he began his UK tour by engaging in a 'public conversation' with Ian McEwan held at the Old Vic Theatre. On Tuesday he gave a lecture in London after which he flew to Edinburgh for another public conversation, this time with somebody called Alan Taylor. On Friday he came here to Oxford where, since there was presumably no lecture theatre large enough to hold the expected audience, he appeared instead at the Oxford Playhouse, where he was introduced by Richard Dawkins.

The weekend, it would seem, is blissfully free of engagements. But respite is brief. 2pm on Tuesday 24 September will see him address the Fifth Annual Thinking Skills Symposium in Birmingham, whence he will be transported to Manchester to give another lecture that same evening at 7pm. On Wednesday evening he will be in Newcastle to engage in another public conversation with Matt Ridley, from where he will fly (presumably) to Dublin to address the Royal Dublin Society on Thursday. And this is is only the beginning. Then it's back across the Atlantic for the really gruelling part of the itinerary . . .

No doubt during all this time there will be journalists in attendance, seeking interviews or writing profiles. The Financial Times indeed, has already sent Ben Schrank ahead of the herd to
interview Pinker over lunch in Cambridge Massachusetts:

He's a handsome man with high cheekbones and a shock of blond and grey hair worn in a style that works equally well for Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant. He's dressed in worn cowboy boots and khakis. His shirt is a short-sleeved button-down, of a colour that's arguably lavender. His eyes glitter.

But Pinker does not simply have the looks of a rock star; he has a messianic fervour about his ideas and a facility for imparting them to a wide audience He is, it is generally agreed, a brilliant teacher.

Why though, is this particular teacher drawing such crowds to the meetings he addresses? Perhaps the best way of answering this question is to consider that charismatic prophets have toured this country on earlier occasions, and have themselves been introduced to enthusiastic audiences by dissenters just as zealous in their beliefs as Richard Dawkins..

Almost 250 years ago on Friday 23 November 1759, John Wesley and his horse, having travelled across slippery roads, reached Bedford. 'We had a pretty large congregation,' he recorded in his journal, 'but the stench from the swine under the Room  was scarce supportable. Was ever a preaching-place over a hog-sty before? Surely they love the Gospel, who come to hear it in such a place . . .'



.................John Wesley ...............................Steven Pinker


The particular version of the Gospel which Wesley's congregations flocked to hear rested heavily on his own dissent from the attempts of rationalist and enlightenment  figures all around him to deny the truth which traditional Christianity had once held to be self-evident. This was the view that there is such a thing as human nature and that human life itself is nothing but a constant battle between the pure angel of the soul and the beast which is within us all.

It was because the new rationalist theorists had threatened to abolish the bestial nature of mankind and to assert the limitless possibilities
of rational human progress that John Wesley sought to reassert the traditional Christian theory of human nature. Indeed his longest written work, published just two years before he preached above the Bedford hog-sty, actually took the name of that theory as its title - The Doctrine of Original Sin.

Wesley was by no means the last of the great expounders of this doctrine. A century-and-a half later Sigmund Freud found himself surrounded in Vienna by theories of human nature which proclaimed just the kind of rationalist optimism which Wesley had opposed. He too sought to reintroduce the traditional beast-angel theory of human nature by subtly re-restating the doctrine of original sin
in the form of psychoanalytic theory.

The movement which he founded was extraordinarily successful, particularly in the United States. 'Its insistence on the evil in man's nature,' wrote Harvard psychologist 
David McClelland in 1960, 'and in particular on the root of that evil, suited the New England temperament well which had been shaped by a similar Puritan emphasis. In fact, to hear Anna Freud speak of the criminal tendencies of the one and two-year-old is to be reminded inevitably of Calvinistic sermons on infant damnation.'


Periodically there have been other revivalist movements which have emerged to fight the traditional fight and it should be no surprise that one of the most significant of these arose in America in the latter part of the twentieth century. Originally called 'sociobiology', it has been overhauled and relaunched under the new name of 'evolutionary psychology'. The reason that Steven Pinker now has an autumn schedule ahead of him which might have daunted even John Wesley and his horse, is that he has written what is undoubtedly one of its most powerful and persuasive tracts.

The book in question is The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. One of the reasons that it has been received in some quarters so enthusiastically is that it contains a great deal of truth and expresses that truth trenchantly.

Above all, and not before time, it attacks in uncompromising terms one of the greatest of all rationalist delusions - the delusion that there is no such thing as human nature and that we are born as a kind of tabula rasa ready for culture to inscribe upon us the structure which it determines. The theme is not an entirely new one, for a similar argument played a key role in Pinker's earlier book, The Language Instinct, where
he criticises the 'Standard Social Science Model' of human beings in similar terms.

Steven Pinker is right to divine in what he calls 'the modern denial of human nature' a profoundly irrational ideological position and he is right, just as John Wesley and
Jonathan Swift before him were right, to point both to the folly of this position and to its dangers.

The problem is that, although Pinker is absolutely correct when he insists that the  blank slate doctrine has distorted the study of human beings, he does not himself have a new theory of human nature to put in its place. The point is made well by philosopher Simon Blackburn. In his
review of the book in the New Scientist, he praises the cogency of what Pinker has to say about the denial of human nature: 'All this is very sound. But is the breathless deference to the new sciences of the mind and brain appropriate? . . . If we read carefully, the contributions of evolutionary theory, psychology or neuroscience appear to be either little or controversial.'

In reality, as Blackburn suggests, Pinker has nothing to fill the vacuum which he abhors. He has only a number of ideas drawn from evolutionary biology, or the neurosciences, or cognitive psychology, which have relatively little of interest to say about human nature and human history.

A similar view has been taken by
Mary Midgley who was shrewdly chosen to review Pinker's book in the Guardian. She welcomes Pinker's 'careful' and 'sensitive' attempt to rehabilitate the idea of human nature and his argument that this nature is 'a rich and legitimate heritage, not an extraneous tyrant'. 'All this is surely fine,' she writes, 'indeed I have said much of it myself.'

She is sceptical, however, about the kind of Darwinian speculations Pinker now advances as 'science':

Evolutionary psychology proposes that we should discover the details of our nature, first by inferring them from the social conditions that prevailed when it was formed in the Stone Age, and, second, by atomising it, dividing it into separate "modules" that determine distinct particles of behaviour.

Despite Pinker, these are desperate strategies that have produced very few results of any interest . . . However gravely we need a notion of human nature, this isn't the way in which we are going to find it.

It might well be said that, instead of putting forward a new theory, Pinker ends by reaffirming an old one. Although the register in which he writes is very different from that of John Wesley, or even of that latterday revivalist, Sigmund Freud, the underlying gospel which he preaches is in reality little different from theirs. For what he too calls upon us to recognise is the bestial nature of mankind and the limitations which go with that bestial nature. As John Gray puts it in his review of the book in the New Statesman: 'Both genetics and research in the advancing science of the brain show the human mind to be rooted firmly in the biology of the human animal.'

Gray himself ends his review with this observation:

In an interesting aside, Pinker notes that the view of human nature which is emerging from science has more in common with that defended by Christian thinkers and by Freud than it does with theories such as Marx's. This is a point worth further elaboration, because it suggests another curious turn in the history of ideas. Enlightenment thinkers took up the scientific study of human behaviour in the hope of transforming the human condition. The result of scientific inquiry, however, is to vindicate a secular version of the idea of original sin [italics added].

Those who place some trust both in social orthodoxies, and in the truth claims made on behalf of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, may well choose to believe that scientific inquiry has 'vindicated' the doctrine of original sin. Those of a more sceptical disposition will recognise that, in the very midst of our twenty-first century secularism, we have been caught up once again in a revivalist movement.

When Matt Ridley, the author of Genome, endorses The Blank Slate by saying that it is 'The best book on human nature that I or anyone else will ever read', he speaks the language not of science but of faith. In this regard it is reassuring to learn from a profile
in Publishers' Weekly a couple of years ago that Ridley, who was trained as a zoologist, actually believes that 'the scientific, psychological understanding of human nature still lags behind literature in terms of explaining human nature. I still think that William Shakespeare and Jane Austen were better psychologists than anyone who is actually a psychologist.'

The problem is that when new scriptures are handed down from sufficiently high places, religious enthusiasm sometimes tends to overcome sound sense such as this. Ridley himself should know. When Publishers' Weekly interviewed him for its profile two years ago, it caught up with him beside an unmade bed in a Manhattan hotel room in the middle of a frenetic east coast publicity tour for his book Genome. 'There's a bit of an evangelical fervour about all of this,' he tellingly observed to his interviewer.

When Matt Ridley settles down next Wednesday in Newcastle to engage in his public conversation with Steven Pinker we need have no doubt that, though they may well attract an even larger congregation than John Wesley, they will not be oppressed by the stench of swine from the room beneath. In other respects, however, as Ridley's own words suggest, the parallel will hold.

This is not to say that there will be any display of religious fervour of any kind, least of all any sermon on human wickedness. If Steven Pinker's Oxford lecture is anything to go by, the atmosphere will be casual and there will be an almost studied air of laid-backness. Intellectual cool will rule. But the audience, having listened to a series of pronouncements of no shattering import, will applaud with passionate intensity, and at inordinate length as though a great revelation has been vouchsafed.   

Then they will resume their air of detached neutrality, begin to express the kind of agnostic doubts which characterise the adherents of modern secular faiths and file out into the evening air.  

Such, it would seem, is the way that modern revivalist meetings are conducted.

MORE REVIEWS and articles

Matt Ridley in the Sunday Telegraph8 September 2002.
Robin Mackie and Vanessa Thorpe in the Observer on the row between Steven Pinker and Oliver James about the roots of violence, 22 September 2002.
Interview with Steven Pinker on the Edge website (run by Pinker's literary agent, John Brockman).

In what is perhaps the best of all the reviews of Pinker's book to have appeared, the philosopher Simon Blackburn, having reviewed The Blank Slate once in the New Scientist (see above), returns to review it again in the New Republic. His second and longer review is subtle, profound and highly recommended.


Note added February 2008:


See also the review by the geneticist H. Allen Orr in the New York Review of Books. You have to pay for access to this but, at a modest $3 for a 5000 word review, it's well worth it.

Richard Webster, 2002