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Nature versus nurture

Weekend Edition featured an interview with psychologist Steven Pinker this morning, about his new book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker's avowedly anti-social constructionist agenda is to debunk the notion of tabula rasa human character. Disclaimer: I have not read the book, but being of a vaguely social constructionist bent I nonetheless feel obliged to offer some thoughts on the subject in general. Pinker's thesis is that all our understandings of human learning, even the most constructionist, are founded on some biologically-centered assumptions about cognitive mechanisms. These mechanisms, he argues, are rooted in neurological things like perception and emotion, and Pinker marshals evidence that these phenomena are universal, cross-cultural, and timeless. Pinker extends these biological characteristics to explain, for example, fundamental differences in gender behavior: Boys punch and kick and girls do not, he argues, and claims that this difference is not explained by socialization. Therefore, he argues, all claims for varying kinds of social construction -- which he calls the "blank slate," "noble savage," and "ghost in the machine" perspectives -- are defeated by biology, by inherent and built-in characteristics.

Pinker argues that ideology should be separated from biology; biological inequality should not translate to discrimination because we should commit ourselves to a moral and political position against discrimination. While such a committment seems reasonable to me, the construction of it seems no more strongly defensible than a perspective that comes from a non-biological basis. To put it differently: Pinker wants to use science to separate, for example, differential treatment of men and women from the causes of the differences between men and women. The differences, he argues, are biological and unavoidable, while the way we treat those differences is ... a social and moral decision? Does this approach not require that we socially construct an understanding of the differences between people? It seems that Pinker simply shifts the location of socialization, away from behavior and towards perception of behavior.

Finally, Pinker's approach seems to be based on attacking a lot of straw men. When was the last time you read a truly tabula rasa-based account of behavior and learning? "Noble savage?" "Ghost in the machine?" If, as Pinker claims, these explanations of behavior are more philosophical than scientific, why does he work so hard to marshal scientific evidence against them? Pinker instead ought to work with the research in behavioralism, deviance, and culture, on their merits, not as representatives of particular moral philosophies.