Sunday, March 05, 2006

evolutionary biology, behavioural genetics and some common sense

Here are a few disparate thoughts on reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate.

With a light-headed ambition, Pinker tackles every controversy – educational methodology, the GM debate, abortion and the genesis of the soul, hyper-reality and cultural theory, and that’s all in one short chapter. I agree with much of what he says, so the whirlwind-tour approach doesn’t bother me too much, but, as with that other ideas populist Daniel Dennett, his slickness occasionally seems glib, and his elitism is just a little suspect. Dennett’s book Elbow Room, a defence of ‘soft determinism’ (in which you can have your determinism and your free will too) was a reasonable book as far as it went, but as I recall it was quite dismissive of what might be called ‘social determinism’, the possibly ‘hard determinist’ view that people who commit crimes often do so because of their social and family background, the cycle of violence they’re in, their entrapment, their lack of alternatives, role models and the like. Of course, Dennett, along with his soul-mate Pinker, accepts that these are issues, and he makes all the right liberal noises about improvements in education and living standards and nutrition, but doesn’t dwell on the matter for too long. He wants to make the point that the criminal can always choose to do otherwise, in line with soft determinism. I would want to make the point that the fact that, for whatever reasons, people in these ‘trapped’ environments so often choose not to do the ‘right’ thing, in spite of the near-inevitability of severe punishment, is a far more important issue than the question of whether soft or hard determinism is correct.

With Pinker, also, there's an apparent need to score points and victories which leads him on occasion to deal with important issues with a crassness and inhumanity that makes my blood boil.

Take this passage from The Blank Slate, which I feel, could only have come from someone born in a world cushioned from real deprivation and stultification:

The most risible pretexts for bad behaviour in recent decades come not from biological determinism but from environmental determinism: the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defense, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics, and different cultural mores…. Just in the week I wrote this paragraph, two new examples appeared in the newspapers. One is from a clinical psychologist who ‘seeks out a dialogue’ with repeat murderers to help them with mitigation, clemency, or an appeal. It manages to pack the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, the moralistic fallacy, and environmental determinism into a single passage:

Most people don’t commit horrendous crimes without profoundly damaging things happening to them. It isn’t that monsters are being born right and left. It’s that children are being born right and left and are being subjected to horrible things. As a consequence, they end up doing horrible things. And I would much rather live in that world than in a world where monsters are just born.

I have to wonder why Pinker directs such scorn at a passage like this. To me, there’s nothing exceptional about it. In fact, all of my observations and experience prompt me to agree with it, more or less completely. Further, Pinker’s claim that it is a prime example of the blank slate, the noble savage, moralistic fallacy and environmental determinism, all of these claims are either demonstrably false or damnably questionable.

Let’s take the blank slate first. This is the idea that there’s no innate human nature, that all is learned and can be unlearned. The above passage points out what all the evidence points out, that most people who do enormous damage are themselves enormously damaged. And the term ‘enormously damaged’ is in no way an indicator that children are blank slates that you pour lots of damage into so that they come out doing damaging things. The damage largely consists of neglect. It’s perfectly true what Pinker states elsewhere in the book, that toddlers are far more inherently violent than adolescents. Their emotions, and their venting of emotions is more extreme, and were they able to handle firearms at that age, the carnage would be incalculable. So, just about the worst thing you can do with toddlers is to leave them to their own devices. They need to be watched, corrected and to have their energies positively channelled. It’s called child-rearing, and it’s by no means easy – certainly not as easy as it would be if they were blank slates.

This does not mean, of course, that they’re monsters. They’re simply children, as the passage says. And to say that children are not monsters hardly implies subscribing to the myth of the noble savage. To me, the passage simply points out that all children are vulnerable to having their worst tendencies exacerbated by neglect and by role models who, as children, had their worst tendencies exacerbated by neglect and by role models… and so on.

So nothing in the passage Pinker quotes is directly supportive of the blank slate or the noble savage views of the world. Does the passage commit a ‘moralistic fallacy’? Pinker elsewhere defines the moralistic fallacy as the converse of the naturalistic fallacy – the view that whatever occurs in nature is automatically good. The moralistic fallacy declares that what is good is bound to be found in nature. Neither fallacy is exhibited in the quoted passage, because children are not ascribed any value at all, unless to be described as ‘not-monsters’ is an example of a value, which would surely be stretching it.

So how could Pinker have got this so incredibly wrong? Perhaps he picked out the wrong quote, and the clinical psychologist displayed these beliefs elsewhere? For there’s no doubt that the quote itself doesn’t justify his bludgeoning attack upon it. Nor do I want to suggest this is a typical ploy from Pinker, who, though always tendentious, usually balances and qualifies his arguments, indeed bends over backwards to appear a liberal democrat type, which perhaps he even is.

So this appears to be a lapse, but a most telling one. I think it’s indicative of his eagerness to present himself as a clever crusader, righting wrong thinking everywhere. It’s perhaps inevitable that he would over-reach himself and impute wrong-thinking to innocent people before vanquishing them. That he should have over-reached himself in the field of ‘environmental determinism’ is not at all surprising, because, like Dennett, he’s clearly a child of privilege, to whom the issue is largely academic, rather than a pressure point within his own inmost being.

I wouldn’t want to call myself an environmental determinist, and I of course accept that there’s much genetic inheritance, and that this is the most vital factor in intelligence, sexual preference, physical attractiveness and much much else, but I also keep my eyes and ears open. Lately I’ve been going to court, and inevitably observe the many other accuseds being processed alongside myself, along with their lawyers, and the various judges and court officials. It’s painfully obvious that I’m witnessing distinct strata of society there. It’s evident in their language, their dress, the way they walk, the way their eyes move about in their heads. Those who appear before the courts look unhealthy and uneasy. Whatever toughness they display seems brittle and unconvincing in such a setting. It’s true that being set on the wrong side of the law will inevitably put them at a disadvantage and make them nervous and agitated, but the difference I see cuts much deeper and speaks of an environment of social deprivation, poverty and struggle.

Their lawyers on the other hand – though many choose to work with the socially disadvantaged and may strongly sympathise with their plight for a variety of reasons – have an air of confidence and belonging which goes far beyond their years of working within the court system. It speaks of family backgrounds littered with academics, lawyers and professionals.

I myself was brought up in the poorest sections of Elizabeth, in the Downs and Davoren Park, some of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, and in my early teens fellow-travelled with and, when I could, joined forces with vandals, drunks and thieves. I witnessed family brawls and break-ups routinely, I was bashed up more than once, I sold dud marijuana cigs to even younger and dumber kids than myself, and mostly I was happy as a pig in shit. There I wallowed, I could do no other.

The point is that neither I nor the kids around me had the option of plugging into role models who were lawyers, professors or entrepreneurs, and of course it wasn’t because they didn’t have the right genes. Environment doesn’t rigidly determine a person’s destiny, but my experience tells me that those, like Pinker, who make light of the role of environment (and he doesn’t do it throughout the book, only when he gets carried away with his crusade), are always those born into the right side of the social divide. The impact of violent and neglectful upbringings on people who grow up to commit criminal acts is too serious a matter to be the subject of cheap academic point-scoring.


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