A few weeks ago I received an invitation to get a trial subscription to
the Nation Magazine. What the hell, I said. This would give me a chance
to see what the red-baiters were up to first-hand, as well as work on
their nifty crossword puzzles. When my last subscription was winding
down during Clinton's first presidency, the puzzles and Cockburn's
column were the only things that kept me going. When they cut Cockburn
back to one page and then went into a full-tilt boogie for Clinton, I
said to hell with them.
When I got my first complementary copy this morning, I was reminded why
I let this awful magazine lapse. Starting out with an editorial
admonition to its readers against wasting a vote for the Green Party in
tomorrow's elections, it then proceeds to a defense of sociobiology of a
kind that I've never seen in a left publication.
In Steven Johnson's review of Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate", we
discover that E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins were right
all along. Biology is destiny. Women's brains differ from men's, hence
accounting possibly for men's superiority in theoretical physics among
other things. (Don't worry, gals, your brains might just as easily
prepare you for "social interactions" and "empathy".)
While reading through this crapola, one gets no sense of what Pinker
stands for politically. Johnson assures us that Pinker presents his
views on the political and social implications of neo-Darwinism with his
characteristic "eloquence" and "humor" but one would get no sense from
the review what ideas this humor and eloquence is actually mustered to
Let's look at a few of them:
--Males have a stronger tolerance for physical risk and a stronger drive
for anonymous sex.
--Women have stronger emotions and are better at reading emotions on the
faces of others.
--Pinker states "A variety of sexual motives, including taste in men,
vary with the menstrual cycle."
--He also states that "in a sample of mathematically talented students,
boys outnumbered girls by 13 to one" but that women maintain more
eye-contact, and smile and laugh more often.
--Humans are hard-wired to think in stereotypes and to prefer kin.
--Some people, most of them men, are born with criminal tendencies.
--Turning to the big questions of social transformation that have vexed
Great Thinkers for the millennium, we learn from Pinker that "Biological
facts are beginning to box in plausible political philosophies."
Communism may work for insects, but humans are programmed for economic
exchange and "reciprocal altruism." (Is that the reason I used to climb
across the ceilings and consume a pound of sugar at a time when I was in
the Trotskyist movement, I wonder?)
When you stop and think about it, the title of Pinker's book sets up a
straw man, namely that radicals of one sort or another believe that the
mind is a "blank slate" and that human nature is infinitely malleable.
It is of no small importance that Pinker ultimately finds backing in
Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories, mediated through anthropologist
Donald Brown who adapted Chomsky's idea of a "universal grammar" to
"social patterns, beliefs and categories" shared by all human societies.
We discover that Pinker (and presumably the feckless reviewer) are so
impressed by Brown that he devotes an entire appendix to such categories
worked out in alphabetical order. The c's include cooking, cooperation,
and copulation (all of my favorite activities, it turns out.)
With such basic activities underpinning all human societies, and human
nature implicitly, one might easily conclude that it is risky business
to tamper with the eternal nature of things, like sending your daughter
to MIT. You might end up with Pol Pot, Stalin, the Animal Farm or women
running around burning their bras. Pinker quotes Chomsky just to show
that this kind of hostility to revolution has respectable defenders:
"A vision of a future social order is&based on a concept of human
nature. If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely
plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs
of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the
'shaping of behavior' by the State authority, the corporate manager, the
technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the
human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the
intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual
development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement and
participation in a free community."
While respect must be paid to Chomsky for his fearless critique of US
foreign policy, it would be a big mistake to write a blank check for his
ideas on human nature, etc. As his biographer Robert Barsky has pointed
out, many of Chomsky's ideas on human nature and society owe much more
to 18th century rationalism than any more recent emancipatory
philosophies, including Marxism. Indeed, what permeates much of
sociobiology and Chomsky on his worst days is a kind of Hobbesian
skepticism about the human animal, who would need to be restrained from
wanton violence, rape and warfare by a protective state.
For all of Pinker's animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular,
there is very little evidence that he understands how historical
materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond
the scope of this article to trace its development through the years,
suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship
It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined
traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and
freedom in a *materialist* context. In other words, revolutionary
socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can
reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge,
Pinker's "Blank Slate," with its discussions about the difference
between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker,
they are "nearly as distinct as their bodies") seems little more than
"Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" geared to readers of the New
York Review of Books.