So Close . . . So Far

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Steven Pinker, the MIT professor and popular science commentator, has written a new book that won’t make him any friends in the politically correct crowd. But before you get too excited, you need to know that Pinker, who believes in evolutionary psychology, gets the most important question wrong: the "why" behind the "what" he is describing.

In his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker rebuts the most widely held explanations of why people behave as they do—that is, what we call human nature.

These explanations include the "blank slate," which holds that we are almost entirely a product of our environment and are infinitely malleable. Another explanation, the "noble savage," imagines primitive cultures as peaceful and naturally cooperative as against the conflict and competition of civilization.

For Pinker, much of human nature is intrinsic, "hard-wired" into us—that is, we’re the product of our genes. He asserts that people, irrespective of environment, behave similarly in similar situations.

Pinker’s rejection of the blank slate is most forceful in his chapter on gender. Men and women, he tells us, are psychologically, not just physically, different. They have different aptitudes, they see the world differently, and they have different approaches to solving problems. These differences aren’t learned; they’re inherent and rooted in biology.

Thus, attempts to ignore these differences, such as trying to have both sexes equally represented in all academic fields, are doomed to failure. Likewise, claims that women earn only three-quarters what men do for so-called similar work ignore real differences between the sexes—differences that arise from women’s role as child-bearers. (You can imagine how feminists are reacting to this book.)

Ideas about the "noble savage," says Pinker, are equally wrongheaded. Studies of primitive tribes show that deaths from warfare are between three and thirty times as high as in the civilized West. Rape and murder are also more prevalent. So much for cultural relativism.

This skewering of political correctness and postmodernism makes Pinker’s failure to identify the source of human nature all the sadder. Pinker’s book brings to mind something that Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionist, once wrote: "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." In other words, as Pinker sees it, we should ignore what nature itself seems to be telling us.

Human nature, the way Pinker describes it, conforms neatly to Christian ideas about human nature: male and female, a capacity for good, and a fallen capacity for evil. Yet, like Dawkins, whom he quotes in the book, Pinker attributes human nature to evolution.

Pinker’s Darwinism leaves him unable to provide a coherent explanation for things like self-sacrifice, true altruism, or mercy—what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Despite his efforts, readers are left with no basis for why we should do good and not evil and no alternative to the nihilism that Darwinism brings in its wake.

This turns The Blank Slate into a case of "so close, yet so far away." Pinker is right: We aren’t blank slates. But it isn’t evolution that did the writing. It’s the Author of life.

By Charles Colson