- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

Philosophers, scientists, theologians and just about everyone who studies human development has asked: What is human nature?
Are we part of a larger, spiritual scheme? Is our intuitive moral sense a response to a higher power? Or is our behavior mechanistically determined? Are we flesh-and-blood machines that involuntarily respond to physical stimuli?
Steven Pinker, author of a best-selling new book, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature," lays out some controversial ideas about the subject of human nature and applies them to new cognitive and brain sciences.
A psychology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Pinker believes denial of the power of genes has led to some notably deficient thinking about parenting and, more generally, what makes all of us behave the way we do.
The debate over human nature whether a singular one exists and whether and how it's shaped by culture and environment isn't just for laboratory-bound researchers or armchair-bound navel-gazers.
Beliefs about it obviously have broad public-policy implications, including how criminals are punished and how children are educated.
A gloomily realistic view of human nature also underpins America's political foundations.
Ever heard of the Federalist Papers? Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, it's a collection of the contemporary equivalent of Op-Ed columns to persuade the state of New York to ratify the Constitution.
They include this famous statement by Madison: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."
While that may seem like a homely proverb, it's really a lapidary expression of Madison's worldview: Human beings are notoriously badly behaved, and the American political system should reflect this intractability.
As the chief architect of the Constitution, Madison set up a complex, almost scientific, system of checks and balances designed to prevent American democracy the rule of a majority of us badly behaved humans from devolving into tyranny.
On a more personal level, theories on human nature influence parenting methods: How much influence do parents actually have over their offspring?
Not as much as they might think or wish, Mr. Pinker says.
Parents provide their children not just with an environment, he says, but with a gene-driven personality that isn't necessarily as malleable as many parenting experts claim.
Ignoring the sway of the genome "leads to mothers blaming themselves [if their children do something wrong] when it really is not the mothers' fault," Mr. Pinker says in a phone interview.
He gives the example of autism, which is genetic disorder that produces disturbing, unlearned behavior.
With "The Blank Slate," Mr. Pinker has sought to dispel what he believes are three fallacies about human nature:
The "blank slate" the idea that people are formed exclusively by their environments, their parents, peers, etc.
The "noble savage" a term minted by the 17th-century English writer John Dryden that Mr. Pinker uses to describe the belief that humans are naturally good and peaceful but civilization makes them violent, jealous and greedy.
The "ghost in the machine" the dualistic assumption that mind and body are separate, that human consciousness exists on a different spiritual plane from the physical world inhabited by the body.
"Denying human nature can be a dangerous thing," he says. "Look at China or Stalinist Russia, all the social engineering that went on there."
Mr. Pinker also cites the urban-renewal nightmares of the 1960s, such as the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago. City planners ignored people's desires for an aesthetic quality of life and penned low-income families in unappealing cement high-rises.
Though many people commonly associate arguments about the stubbornness of human nature with fatalism, Mr. Pinker strikes an optimistic note.
"It's one of our fears. We're afraid of imperfectibility, but this is not a reason to despair," he says. Human nature consists not only of brutish, aggressive instincts, but also of love and compassion, he says.
Tim Sedgwick, professor of ethics at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, doesn't think Mr. Pinker's arguments which are decidedly atheistic negate the tenets of Christian faith.
"Debunking those myths" about human nature, he says in a phone interview, is a concern for Christians, too. "That's been the challenge for Christian theology ever since the Enlightenment," he says.
If there's one thing that Christianity does not teach, he continues, it's the idea that human beings are basically good in nature.
Nor do Christians deny the physical interaction between mind and body, Mr. Sedgwick says. In fact, he adds, most Christians believe humans are born with a hard-wired predisposition to sinful behavior hardly the stuff of blank-slate theory.
Mr. Sedgwick says theologians welcome the kind of data that brain science offers and don't think it's a threat to Christianity.
To explain his overall mission, Mr. Pinker is fond of quoting the Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov, who said, "Man will become better when you show him what he is like."
However, Simon Blackburn, a University of Cambridge philosophy professor who reviewed "The Blank State" for the New Republic, doesn't buy Mr. Pinker's hype about the new cognitive and brain sciences.
He doesn't think they have shown terribly much about ourselves that we didn't already know at least not yet.
Mr. Blackburn says humanity owes its progress, such as it is, to politics and culture and to traditional physical sciences. Newfangled disciplines such as evolutionary psychology, neurophysiology and behavioral economics, he says, have not yielded the insights into human nature that the economist Adam Smith and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes provided centuries ago.
"The new science is exciting and interesting, but it doesn't give us a whole lot of control over things," he says in a phone interview. "It won't deliver a lot of magic bullets."
He offers the example of cholera, a gastrointestinal illness. The fact that the disease was passed on through the genome "didn't stop public health workers from eradicating cholera," he says.
Those kinds of achievements, he says, had little to do with our understanding of the genome or brain sciences.
Mr. Blackburn, moreover, thinks Mr. Pinker overstates both the explanatory power of genetics and the influence of the fallacies about human nature that "The Blank Slate" tries to debunk.
Though Mr. Pinker says violent behavior is often genetically driven, Mr. Blackburn insists that the M.I.T. professor "ignores countervailing evidence."
Mr. Blackburn writes that a study by the authors of "Television and the American Child," Haejung Paik and George Comstock, "found in 1994 that media violence affects young peoples' chance of being violent about as much as smoking affects the chance of lung cancer."
Mr. Blackburn dismisses Mr. Pinker's example of an application of the "noble savage" myth: that some people believe natural and organic foods are inherently superior to mass-produced foods.
Maybe they think that simply because "artificial food tastes horrible," Mr. Blackburn says, not because of an exalted opinion of pristine nature.
Such has been the debate kicked off by "The Blank Slate." The nature-versus-nurture argument may seem like an old one, but it's far from settled.
Mr. Pinker insists it's a topic human beings can't afford to avoid.
"Reality is always better than fantasy," he says. "We're better off knowing how the world really is, contrary to how we want it to be."
Staff writer Gabriella Boston contributed to this article.


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