Pinker's Natural Approach to

Pinker's Natural Approach to Human Nature — During the audience question period of the AFF biotech debate, I was surprised to discover that some conservatives took Julian and me to be denying that there is a human nature. I was perplexed. I had made a very strong statement to the effect that there is a human nature, and that we learn about it by studying biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and the various sciences that study human behavior. Indeed, I was promoting the picture of human nature, almost to a tee, that is described in Steven Pinker's wonderful new book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
Now, the naturalistic conception of human nature does radically depart from the Greco-Judeo-Christian conception of human nature. An accurate conception of human nature does not depend on the notion that humanness is an Aristotelian metaphysical essence. Indeed, an unorthodox, but philosophically compelling, view in the philosophy of biology, defended by Hull and Ghiselen, is that species are not natural kinds at all. Species are complexly bounded historically and spatially distributed individuals. Very, very roughly you are a member of a species S, just in case you are the offspring of members of species S. That is, you're a member of S just in case your heriditary line is traced back to a particular ancestral individual who divided off, through mutation or drift, from a different “mother” species. This provides for a kind of essentialism, but one very different from traditional essentialism, since here the essence of humanity has to do with location of a particular branch on the evolutionary tree. If, through a massively improbably series of events, a group of organisms genetically identical to human beings, evolved from, say, chimps, they would not be members of our species, even though there would be no feature whatsoever to distinguish them from humans. (Analogy: To use chimps a different way, if a chimp happened to type out a document word-for-word identical to Hamlet, it would not be Shakespeare.)
Anyway, back to Pinker. Pinker's new book is intended to refute the common liberal dogma that human beings are nothing in particular, but can be socialized into anything at all. However, it is also useful for those who worry that if the religious conception of human nature is false, then there is no human nature at all. Indeed, Pinker's vision of human nature can support a broadly classical liberal politics. Anyone who cares about defending classical liberal values ought to take it as a project to defend those values on the basis of our best scientific picture of humanity, not on the basis of a picture of Man totally devoid of rational merit.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

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