In this important book, Steven Pinker makes a compelling case against three persistent and mutually interconnected myths that he calls “the blank slate”, “the ghost in the machine” and “the noble savage” respectively. The first is the idea that we are all born “empty”. That is, without any innate features. The second covers the idea of a (immaterial) “soul”, the idea or a (contra-causal) “free will”, and the idea of a “me” as something over and above brain and body. The third is the idea associated with Rousseau that man is a peaceful and moral being in his natural state, and that he has somehow been corrupted by society. Collectively, he calls the three ideas “the holy trinity” (but unholy trinity would perhaps be a better term!). In every case, Pinker shows that these ideas (both in their naïve and in their more sophisticated versions) are simply untenable in the light of reason and modern science. He appeals extensively to what he calls the sciences of human nature that include cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology.
The book has five parts. In the first, Pinker presents the three myths and debunks them. In parts two (Fear and Loathing) and three (Human Nature with a Human Face), he argues that abandoning the blank slate and its two sister ideas is entirely benign and does not deserve neither fear nor loathing nor do they imply or legitimate inequality, imperfectability, determinism or nihilism (in any pernicious senses of these terms). Indeed, he argues that it is the blank slate, the ghost in the machine and the noble savage that are the pernicious (and often socially, politically and scientifically dangerous) ideas. Where one stands in this debate turns out to be highly relevant for the social and political sciences. Pinker is highly critical (and rightly so) of postmodernism, cultural relativism and so-called “radical science” – the preposterous idea to base science on Marxist principles. He is equally critical (and equally rightly) of crude Social Darwinism. Indeed, he shows that utopian political ideologies on the left (Communism) and on the right (Nazism) have a great deal in common (both in theory and in practice). Religious ideologies also share the same type of utopian features that have led to many mass killings in the past.
For some people, Pinker’s message will probably be controversial and provocative (despite Pinker’s subtle and humble prose) while for others it will be obvious and almost trivial. I did read the first three parts of the book with great pleasure, but in honesty I did not need much convincing. In part four, entitled Know Thyself the book moves from agreeable to highly interesting. Chapter 13 in particular should be read by everyone who knows how to read! Here, Pinker points out that there may be a mismatch between the purposes for which our cognitive faculties evolved and the purposes to which we put them today.
Our minds keep us in touch with aspects of reality – such as objects, animals, and people – that our ancestors dealt with for millions of years. But as science and technology open up new and hidden worlds, our untutored intuitions may find themselves at sea.
These ways of knowing and core intuitions are suitable for a lifestyle of small groups of illiterate, stateless people who live off the land, survive by their wits, and depend on what they can carry. Our ancestors left this lifestyle for a settled existence only a few millennia ago, too recently for evolution to have done much, if anything, to our brains. Conspicuous by their absence are faculties suited to the stunning new understanding of the world wrought by science and technology. For many domains of knowledge, the mind could not have developed dedicated machinery, the brain and genome show no hints of specialization, and people show no spontaneous intuitive understanding either in the crib or afterward. They include modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and mathematics. It’s not just that we have to go to school or read books to learn these subjects. It’s that we have no mental tools to grasp them intuitively.
Understanding in these domains is likely to be uneven, shallow, and contaminated by primitive intuitions. And that can shape debates in the border disputes in which science and technology make contact with everyday life. […] with all the moral, empirical, and political factors that go into these debates, we should add the cognitive factors: the way our minds naturally frame issues. Our own cognitive makeup is a missing piece of many puzzles, including education, bioethics, food safety, economics, and human understanding itself.
Pinker then goes on to discuss just these things in more detail. We are not cognitively well equipped to understand modern science. The blank slate and the noble savage leads to bad policies regarding education and the treatment of criminals; the ghost in the machine distorts debates about abortion and euthanasia; “essentialist” beliefs lead to irrational fears of artificial and genetically modified foods, etc. There are simply too many interesting points here to comment on, but let me focus on our “intuitive economics” for a while. Pinker points out first that people are prone to commit “the physical fallacy”: “the belief that an object has a true and constant value, as opposed to being worth only what someone is willing to pay for it at a given place and time”.
The belief that goods [and, I would like to add, services] have a “just price” implies that it is avaricious to charge anything higher, and the result has been mandatory pricing schemes in medieval times, communist regimes, and many Third World countries [as well as minimum wage laws in many countries today]. Such attempts to work around the law of supply and demand have usually led to waste, shortages, and black markets.
The same fallacy is involved in the (stupid) practice of outlawing interest. Pinker points out that the reason why people borrow money at one time to repay it at another is that the money is worth more to them at the time they borrow it than it will be at the time they repay it. “So when regimes enact sweeping usury laws, people who could put money to productive use cannot get it, and everyone’s standard of living go down.” This is, of course, old news to say the least. What might be new is that we now can show why people still have these counterproductive biases centuries after they were first identifies as clear examples of economic fallacies; simply, human beings make bad economists.
Because money lenders and middlemen do not cause tangible objects to come into being, their contributions are difficult for us to grasp, and these productive actors are perceived as parasites and skimmers. Pinker further points out that “ghettoization, confiscation, expulsion, and mob violence against middlemen, often ethnic minorities who learned to specialize in the middleman niche” is a recurring and tragic theme in human history. The Jews in Europe is a familiar example. One obvious way to counteract the cognitive biases with which we are born is education and Pinker concludes that a modern education should give high priority to economics, evolutionary biology, probability theory and statistics. I would like to add critical thinking and argumentation analysis to his list.
Another all too common and tragic human fallacy is that of Malthus; that natural resources will run out as our populations grow larger. Pinker writes that:
The immediate problem with Malthusian prophecies is that they underestimate the effects of technological change in increasing the resources that support a comfortable life. […] needs don’t have to be satisfied by increasing the availability of physical resources. They can be satisfied by using new ideas – recipes, designs, or techniques – to rearrange existing resources to yield more of what we want.
At least in principle, the exponential power of human cognition works on the same scale as the growth of the human population, and we can resolve the paradox of the Malthusian disaster that never happened.
As Pinker wisely points out, this does not license complacency. But it does show “that our understanding of humans’ relation to the material world has to acknowledge not just our bodies and our resources but also our minds”. Again, that Malthus was wrong is not news at all. The puzzle is thus not that the Malthusian disaster has not happened the puzzle is rather that people still widely commit the same fallacy over and over, often in the face of having had it pointed out to them more than once. The first step towards a solution is to resolve this latter puzzle. And we can begin to do so by raising awareness of the reason for which we commit such fallacies: we are prone to do so in virtue of our human nature; in virtue of innate mental faculties that evolved in a time very different from that of the modern world in which we now live.
Another thing that Pinker discusses is equality. He observes that
It is a brute fact that greater rewards will go to people with greater inborn talent if other people are willing to pay more for the fruits of those talents. The only way that cannot happen is if people are locked into arbitrary castes, if all economic transactions are controlled by the state, or if there is no such thing as inborn talent because we are blank slates.
He quotes Hayek saying that if we treat people equally the result must be material inequality and that the only way to get material equality is to treat people differently - equality before the law and material equality are, therefore, not only different but in conflict with each other. Examples of unequal treatment in the name of equality mentioned by Pinker are progressive taxes on the rich, quotas that favor certain races, prohibitions against private medical care or other voluntary transactions. Pinker notes that Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and Robert Nozick have made similar points. One could add to this that this is the reason why equality of opportunity is an impossible and therefore spurious ideal. The only way to realize equality of opportunity would be to make it the case that we are all identical both in innate talent and in our environment, which would require (if it is possible at all) extremely draconian measures. Indeed, Pinker points out that many atrocities have been committed in the name of egalitarianism, “targeting people whose success was taken as evidence of their criminality”.
To continue further on this line of thought, we ought to conclude that the only ideal of equality that is realistic given the kind of creatures we are and the kind of world in which we live is that of equal (negative) rights (that is, the equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, as it is often called). Since innate talents (and luck) are unequally distributed, equal rights will inevitably lead to material inequality. This we will have to live with. But not only is this something that we have to live with, in a free market economy (in virtue of its positive-sum nature) it is better for all of us as talented people will use their talents to provide goods and services that otherwise would not exist.
It would be a mistake though to think that Pinker is arguing for libertarianism. He argues only that
A nonblank slate means that a tradeoff between freedom and material equality is inherent to all political systems and that the major political philosophies can be defined by how they deal with the tradeoff. The Social Darwinist right places no value on equality; the totalitarian left places no value on freedom. The Rawlsian left sacrifices some freedom for equality; the libertarian right sacrifices some equality for freedom. While reasonable people may disagree about the best tradeoff, it is unreasonable to pretend there is no tradeoff. [Knowledge about innate differences among people] might help us decide on these tradeoffs in an intelligent and humane manner.
Indeed, he is concerned to show that insights from the sciences of human nature are compatible with a progressive politics (referring to Peter Singer’s book A Darwinian Left in chapter 16) and feminism (in chapter 18) and does not, by itself, lead to or legitimate discrimination. He is concerned to show that progressive politics and feminism are not necessarily in opposition to the application of evolution, genetics and neuroscience to the human mind despite being seen as such in much of modern intellectual life. He admirably points out, though, that discrimination is not always wrong. One could add that discrimination is a necessary component of all choice and that prohibiting some discrimination is equivalent to reducing choice. The fact that people sometimes make choices on grounds that in others’ eyes are not the best ones does not automatically give them the right to restrict their freedom of choice. Insofar as we are liberals in the broad sense, we ought to acknowledge that any person has the right to make choices on whatever grounds she sees fit (without restricting the similar rights of others). Pinker does not explicitly embrace this view, presumable since he wisely does not want to commit himself to any controversial claims over and above the main theses of the book.
In chapter 15, Pinker talks about our moral sense. He says that
The design of the moral sense leaves people in all cultures vulnerable to confusing defensible moral judgments with irrelevant passions and prejudices.
Such irrelevant passions and prejudices can, he argues, lead people to condemn so-called “victimless crimes”. He does not, however, apply this latter insight to the abovementioned tradeoff between freedom and equality. I think we can say more than just that we will have to make a tradeoff between equality and freedom. A large part of the intuitive appeal of equality is, I take it, based on just such “irrelevant passions and prejudices” that are present in our innate moral sense, primarily envy. Once we see this, I think, the (substantial) ideal equality loses much of its appeal.
Overall, this is a rich and significant book full of important insights into human nature. We can no longer pretend as if these insights into who we are does not bear on a whole range of moral, social, political and scientific issues.