Meta Reviews



Meta Review: Reaction to a Review of The Blank Slate

by Jeff Miller & Alice Andrews


The New York Review of Books
Volume 50, Number 3 · February 27, 2003
Darwinian Storytelling: A review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
H. Allen Orr


After reading H. Allen Orr's review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate in The New York Review of Books, a friend — political philosopher,  Jeff Miller — wrote:


EP <Evolutionary Psychologist>: The desire to rape is evolutionarily hard-wired. It's an inescapable part of ourselves.

RP <Reasonable Person>: Okay, that sounds plausible, seeing how widespread the phenomenon is. It's a good thing that we have an ethical system, grounded in certain conceptions of the person that stem from Enlightenment philosophers, which allow us to morally condemn rape and attempt to prevent it from happening.

EP: That's a result of evolutionary development, too!

RP: Oh . . . Well, would the desire for human autonomy — which in its current articulation I would trace back again to the Enlightenment — also be hard-wired? Would the desire, for example, of African-Americans for freedom prior to the Civil War and equal treatment during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s also be something linked to hard-wired traits?

EP: Definitely.

RP: Ah. Okay. So could the attempt to dominate others (on the part of any number of different groups or races across history) be linked to certain survival strategies that were naturally selected?

EP: Yep.

RP: So both the urge for autonomy and the urge for domination are explained through an adaptationist description?

EP: Now you're starting to see the true genius of evolutionary psychology!


And my (less amusing) response to Jeff and Orr:


It seems to me that H. Allen Orr's contention that Steve Pinker is using Blank Slate ideology to champion his cause that we can rise above our dark nature, seems a little off — and probably would to Pinker. Orr even hints at this possibility not much before his conclusion — that Pinker's view of our moral sense is something that is hardwired. 

Orr's conclusion has some degree of truth — the fact that we are able to adopt a liberal stance; that we are able to say it is morally repugnant to rape because it infringes on a woman's right to have control over her body is in large measure due to historical, political and social factors/reasons. But there would have been no historical, social or political movements without this capacity in the first place, and that capacity is borne out of nature.

Pinker believes it's in our nature (somewhere — perhaps in our prefrontal lobes?) to be able to just say No to rape, for instance. Additionally, perhaps it looks like "Blank Slate liberal values" when Pinker says we should not accept rape. But here's how he arrives at it:

"Suppose rape is rooted in a feature of human nature, such as that men want sex across a wider range of circumstances than women do. It is also a feature of human nature, just as deeply rooted in our evolution, that women want control over when and with whom they want sex. It is inherent to our value system that the interests of women should not be subordinated to those of men, and that control over one's body is a fundamental right that trumps other people's desires." (p.146)

 So, Pinker certainly does not think he acquires his ethical principles via the BS (Blank Slate) model. Rather, he seems to extract his morality from biology and human nature (in addition to the fact that he probably views the capacity to be moral as hardwired anyway). I suppose one could argue that he's been influenced by the Enlightenment, but Enlightenment values regarding rights does not necessarily translate to anti-nativism/'Blank Slatism'. Orr's conclusion seems to be saying that if your moral principles state that one has a fundamental right to have control over one's body, then one is being informed by the ideology of the Enlightenment and therefore informed by "Blank Slate liberal values." I think something's wrong with this conclusion.

Pinker's point that we can go against our dark, programmed nature is very important. I guess it's equally important for Orr to show that this capacity and view comes from 'culture' — from 'Blank Slate liberal values.' (Just as Pinker tries to derive a general moral capacity, as well as his particular moral view, from biology.) But we all know it's both nature and nurture. And of course Pinker knows this deeply and brilliantly. His point in TBS is to try to shift things more toward biology, not to deny culture's impact etc. And anyway, the very nature of an adaptionist view is the interplay between the environment and biology.

I think what's more interesting than all of this is what comes first. And we still don't know. Just as a person can accept the theory of evolution and natural selection but maintain a less assured sense of a 'first mover' etc., I think that one can adopt an EP model about how the human mind has been shaped by evolution/natural selection. But that still doesn't answer what came first. And at a certain level, of course there is no answer. Because at every step of the way it is an epigenetic process — nature and nurture, mind and body, doing a cyclical, weaving dance.

 A male student asked the other day in class whether the notion that women are better at detecting facial expressions is due to nature/biology, or whether they are better at it because they care more about it. A wonderful question! Now, an EP explanation can attempt to answer such a question. Perhaps our female ancestors had all sorts of kinds of brains at one point. But the brains of females which were wired to be more discriminating and to help detect lies and deception and dishonest signals of commitment, perhaps survived. Their children would have gotten more care from investing fathers. They would have had stronger alliances with women and men. And so now it is in our "nature." But it was from the process of what was needed in the environment that shaped the structure of the female brain, over time, by the process of natural selection.

 Now, it seems that there are even more interesting questions, though:

The EP/natural selection argument says that you start with all sorts of "programs" and that the ones that "work" in the environment survive. And I'm willing to believe this, I suppose. But my artistic, unscientific side is more Lamarckian. What were my ancestors like in the EEA? (And before the EEA?) Were their brains shaped by what their daily life had them do?: Rear children and gather food — as opposed to hunt? And why weren't we women out hunting between babies and gathering? Is the answer a practical one? Or was there some kind of a female nature before the environment started to act on women?


I see a difference (and I think Orr tries to get at this, too, when he writes about the commonsense notion that psychopathology could just be a mutation, etc.) between how EP works overall to shape human nature and how the process works in smaller bits of time. That is, were we originally tabula rasas and the environment shaped our biology to leave us with these hardwired modules which are fairly plastic? Or did we come with some 'nature' even back then, millions of years ago, but that our environment shaped us even then? Or did we come pre-packaged with all sorts of ways of being from the beginning, and that what was adaptive got selected for and persists today, and what wasn't, perished?

 There's no way to reconcile this or know.

 But I am sympathetic to Pinker. For instance, I grew up in the ‘70s hearing from my parents that there was really no fundamental difference between girls and boys. The Blank Slate paradigm is still real — though I think much less so than, say, 10-30 years ago. I guess the thing to remember is that language, culture, and biology are all real and powerful. Language, of course, can shape the way we see things and view things and feel about things — it can change us to some degree. But as Orr points out in a positive Pinker note, no language games and power/culture rhetoric can take away from the strength of biology, say in questions of things like rape. Rape is a violent, aggressive act, it's true, but it is most clearly and obviously a sexual act. I sympathize with the feminists who only see the social constructionist/cultural view, but I also see its inherent problems. Of course, I would also be suspicious of a 'biological' EP view of rape that didn't take into consideration the social/cultural questions of male domination, power and control. And I'd like to think Pinker would be suspicious as well. g



Jeff Miller is an Assistant Professor in the Political Science and International Relations Department at the State University of New York
at New Paltz
, where he also directs the Honors Program. He teaches political theory and conducts his research on fourth-century BCE democratic theory.

Alice Andrews has taught both writing and psychology (and sometimes both at the same time) with an evolutionary lens for over a decade. Currently she's teaching "Psychology of Women" at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and "Psychological Principles" at SUNY/Dutchess Community College. In the fall of 2004 at DCC, she will be teaching an interdisciplinary seminar called "Writing Psychology." Alice is also an editor and writer (books and magazines), and was the associate editor of Chronogram from 2000-2002. She is the author of Trine Erotic, a novel which explores evolutionary theory.

Copyright by Alice Andrews & Jeff Miller,  2004.  All rights reserved.
Copyright   ©   2004    Entelechy: Mind & Culture.  All rights reserved.