2000s >> 2003 >> no-1184-april-2003

Human nature and human behaviour

Steven Pinker is a leading representative of the school known as “evolutionary psychology”. Their basic position is that humans today still have, not just the same physical brain as the first members of homo sapiens (which is uncontroversial), but also the same mental make-up, i.e. that we think and react as if we were still primitive hunter-scavenger-gatherers living in small bands on the open grasslands of East Africa (where, again, it is generally agreed our species first evolved). In fact, they go further and argue that Darwinian principles apply just as much to these psychological traits as to our physical anatomy and physiology and that they, too, evolved through natural selection – the survival of the most fitted – out of those of that particular line of ape-like creatures from which homo sapiens is descended. Hence their name of “evolutionary psychologists”.

In itself this hypothesis is unobjectionable. Insofar as psychological traits are inheritable (and some will be) then they would have a physical basis (in the brain) and so would have been subject to the same evolutionary selection as the rest of our bodies. The argument is about precisely which psychological and behavioural traits might be heritable. However, geneticists and neuroscientists are nowhere near discovering the mechanisms by which any personality traits would be inherited, let alone which are and which aren’t. So any claims in this area at the moment are highly speculative.

Not that this deters Pinker and his fellow thinkers from indulging in the wildest speculation (but psychology has always been prone to this). For instance, as he repeats in his latest book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, humans all over the world like pictures of “open grassland dotted with trees and bodies of water and inhabited by animals and flowering and fruiting plants” because they have inherited through their genes “a search image” of what was, when we first evolved, “the optimal human habitat”. This of course is a claim that certain specific ideas can be inherited. It is a revival of the old idea that humans are born with certain ideas; that certain ideas are innate. Which is highly controversial.

According to Pinker, the Blank Slate is “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves”. He interprets this as meaning that there is no such thing as human nature as it implies that there are no biological limits to how humans can be taught or can learn to behave. This is “the modern denial of human nature” that he sets out to criticise.

The ignoble savage
His tactics, however, are not that honest since he claims that the Blank Slate theory has two “companion doctrines”: the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. The first is associated with the 18th century French philosopher, JJ Rousseau, and holds that pre-civilised humans were innately “good”. The second is the view, held by all religions, that mind and matter are two completely different things and that the mind is to be equated with the “soul” which exists in a quite different dimension from the body. This view tends to see humans as inherently sinful, i.e. “bad”.

What is dishonest about Pinker’s approach here is that there is no link between the theory of the Blank Slate – which, presumably, holds that human nature is neither good nor bad but dependent on external circumstances – and theories which hold either that human nature is good or that it is bad. Pinker’s main enemy is in fact not so much the Blank Slate as the Noble Savage. To back up his particular speculative explanation of current human behaviour he has to defend the opposite view – that of the Ignoble Savage whose males go around seducing or raping as many females as possible and killing without compunction rival males, just so that their particular set of genes will survive.

Pinker does, however, write as an open materialist and atheist and the best part of his book is where he demolishes the dualist theory of the mind and shows that the mind is both a product and a part of the rest of the material world.

His main argument, however, is not with the Ghost in the Machine brigade but with a rival materialist school, the American Behaviorists, whose founder, JB Watson, notoriously wrote in 1924 that he would like to be able to claim:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talent, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors”.

Pinker attributes this view to Marx but only on the basis of the views of Zedong, Pol Pot and O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984. He also attributes it to the school of Cultural Anthropologists, as represented by writers such as Margaret Mead, Ashley Montagu and Leslie A White, which did so much work in the 1940s and 1950s to throw light on human behaviour.

The straw man
We are not required to defend everything that Marx or the Cultural Anthropologists said or did. However, neither thought that the mind had no structure or that there was no such thing as human nature.

Both Marx and the Cultural Anthropologists rejected Blank Slatism for one of the reasons Pinker advances for knocking down his straw man who believes in it: “That the mind can’t be a blank slate, because blank slates don’t do anything”. Precisely. The brain is not just a passive receptor of sense-impressions (experience) but plays an active role in organising these impressions so as to make sense of them (understand them). This capacity to organise sense-impressions is part of human biological nature.

Clearly, before humans could develop culture – “accumulated local wisdom: ways of fashioning artifacts, selecting food, dividing up windfalls, and so on”, as Pinker defines it, which is learned and passed on by non-biological means – they had to have brains capable of learning and of using language and of thinking abstractly with symbols representing parts of the outside world. These brains had to have evolved and are just as much a part of “human nature” as walking upright and stereoscopic colour vision. So, there’s no denial of human nature here.

As to Marx, of course Mao Zedong and Pol Pot as state-capitalist dictators were the opposite of everything Marx ever stood for and can in no way be considered as exponents of his point of view. Marx’s views on “human nature” were mainly expressed in his philosophical writings in the 1840s. At that time, although human anatomy and physiology were fairly well understood, neither how this had evolved nor the functioning of the brain were. Darwin was still digesting the notes made during his voyage on The Beagle and some comrades of Marx and Engels in the Communist League of Germany felt there might be something in phrenology, the theory that bumps on the head were a guide to someone’s personality.

So Marx’s approach was inevitably philosophical. For him, human nature was the “normal” mode of behaviour and mental outlook in any given society at any given period and, being determined by external material circumstances (physical but above all social), varied over type of society, time and place.

For him, then, human nature was not fixed, but variable. Actually, what he was talking about was what we would now call rather “human behaviour”. Thus, when he wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847 that “all history is nothing but the continuous transformation of human nature” he was really talking not about human nature in the biological sense but about human behaviour.

To say that human behaviour is variable is not to say that it is infinitely malleable. Nor that it is passively determined. To accuse Marx of attributing a purely passive role to the mind/brain is to demonstrate a complete ignorance of where he was coming from. Marx was brought up in the German philosophical tradition which attributed a very active role to the mind. He took this over and purged it of its idealism, while keeping an active role for the mind in ordering experiences in order to understand them. This, in fact, this is his criticism of some of his contemporary materialists such as Robert Owen who could be seen as having a passive, blank-slate theory of the mind. Here, for instance, is his 1845 criticism of “contemplative materialism” as he called it:

“The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism — which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such” (Theses on Feuerbach).

The defender of capitalism
Once a distinction is made between human nature (biological, and which can hardly have changed since homo sapiens evolved) and socially and culturally determined human behaviour (which has changed throughout pre-history and history), then the issue becomes clearer. It can be seen, not to be about whether or not there is such a thing as biological nature which is inherited and determined by genes (of course there is, so there’s “no denial of human nature”), but about the extent of this and in particular whether or not it includes specific ideas or behaviour patterns.

Pinker, who is a specialist in the psychology of language acquisition, himself inadvertently brings out the distinction between human nature and human behaviour. He only claims that humans inherit, through the genes that govern the structure and physiology of the brain, a capacity to learn a language. He does not claim that humans inherit the ability to speak a particular language. In other words, the capacity is biologically determined (“nature” if you like) but the content arises from learned experience (“nurture” if you like). The same can be said about culture: the capacity to acquire and develop it is biological but the content is learned.

So what’s the argument all about then? Basically, about how many of these various biologically inherited “capacities” there might be. Pinker wants to go much further than most neuroscientists and argue that there are separate biologically inherited capacities for a whole range of things, such as a capacity to seek social status or a capacity for aggressive behaviour or a capacity for men to seek to have as many children as possible. Even if true, their content – how they were expressed – would still be determined by learning, by culture, by the specific form of society in which humans were bought up and lived.

But is it true? In the end, this is a question about the precise nature and structure of the human brain; which is a matter of scientific research. There are two schools of thought amongst neuroscientists. Pinker writes that “many cognitive scientists believe that human reasoning is not accomplished by a single, general purpose computer in the head”. The word “many” disguises the fact that just as many, if not more, take the opposite view, i.e. that the brain is “a general purpose learning device”. We will have to let neuroscientists settle this themselves as their researches advance.

Pinker, however, is not really writing as a scientist. His book is a work of moral and political philosophy rather than biology. He wants the one school of neuroscientists to be right rather than the other because, otherwise, his whole case collapses for a biological human nature that does not allow human behaviour to be sufficiently flexible to allow a socialist society to work.

For Pinker is writing as a clear opponent, not just of Russian or Chinese-style state capitalism but also of socialism properly understood. On two occasions he criticises the idea that society could function on the basis of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, once explicitly rejecting it in favour of Adam Smith and the profit motive. He argues that society can only function on the basis of equal exchange, which he calls “reciprocity” but which Marxists call “the law of value”. In other words, he’s an ordinary defender of capitalism in its present form as the best, and in fact the only possible, form of society.

Not that he has properly understood what socialism is about. He seems to think that it means state-imposed equality and criticises this for not recognising that people are not equal in capacities. But whoever said they were? The very socialist slogan he criticises recognises that individual humans differ in both abilities and needs. Socialism is not a society where we would all be issued with equal rations, but one in which we would all be considered of equal worth and be able to have an equal say in the way things are run; and in which we recognise ourselves as members of an interdependent community where different people perform different functions and where everybody, irrespective of their function, has access to what they need to live and enjoy life just because they are members of the human race. And this doesn’t require us to be any less selfish or more altruistic than we are today – it’s not about changing human nature but about changing the basis of society.

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