Saturday, October 6, 2007

More on Pinker's Missing Genes

Here's the piece I was looking for in the previous/following post: Louis Menand, What Comes Naturally, originally from The New Yorker, November 22, 2002.

I would simply link this (do read the whole thing if you haven't already), but can't resist quoting some exerts here.

Pinker's idea is that it explains much more than some people�he calls these people "intellectuals"�think it does, and that the failure, or refusal, to acknowledge this has led to many regrettable things, including the French Revolution, modern architecture, and the crimes of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals deny biology, according to Pinker, because it interferes with their pet theories of mind and behavior. These are the Blank Slate (the belief that the mind is wholly shaped by the environment), the Noble Savage (the notion that people are born good but are corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that there is a nonbiological agent in our heads with the power to change our nature at will). The "intellectuals" in Pinker's book are social scientists, progressive educators, radical feminists, academic Marxists, liberal columnists, avant-garde arts types, government planners, and postmodernist relativists. The good guys are the cognitive scientists and ordinary folks, whose common sense, except when it has been damaged by listening to intellectuals, generally correlates with what cognitive science has discovered. I wish I could say that Pinker's view of the world of ideas is more nuanced than this.

The key, it is no surprise, is the denial of human nature. "The giveaway may be found," Pinker advises, "in a famous statement from Virginia Woolf: 'In or about December 1910, human nature changed.' " She was referring, he says, to "the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism," which is "more Marxist and far more paranoid," and which gave us "Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine), Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung," and similar outr� fare. But "Woolf was wrong," he tells us. "Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter."

It seems that aesthetics, unlike cognitive science, is not a body of knowledge worth acquiring. Pinker thinks that any moral sophistication derived from exposure to �lite art can be instilled much more effectively by "middlebrow realistic fiction or traditional education." So if people want to hang a painting of a red barn or a weeping clown above their couch, he says, "it's none of our damn business." The preference for red-barn and weeping-clown paintings has been naturally selected. In fact, the "universality of basic visual tastes" has been proved, Pinker points out, by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who, in 1993, surveyed people's artistic preferences for color, subject matter, style, and so on. They proceeded to make a painting that incorporated all of the top-rated elements: it was a nineteenth-century realist landscape featuring children, deer, and the figure of George Washington. Pinker notes that the painting exemplifies "the kind of landscape that had been characterized as optimal for our species by researchers in evolutionary aesthetics."

Jesus wept. To begin with, Virginia Woolf did not write, "In or about December 1910, human nature changed." What she wrote was "On or about December 1910 human character changed." The sentence appears in an essay called "Character in Fiction," which attacks the realist novelists of the time for treating character as entirely a product of outer circumstance�of environment and social class. These novelists look at people's clothes, their jobs, their houses, Woolf says, "but never . . . at life, never at human nature." Modernist fiction, on the other hand, because it presents character from the inside, shows how persistent personality is, and how impervious to circumstance. Woolf, in short, was a Pinkerite.

Pinker needed only to have looked through any trot on modernist writing to see his error. One of Woolf's principal specimens of the new, post-realist fiction was Joyce's "Ulysses," a novel about twentieth-century Dublin whose characters are all based on characters in the Odyssey. You can't get a much finer tribute to universal human nature than that. The modernists were obsessed with the perdurability of human nature. This is, as Woolf said, precisely what distinguishes them from the realists and romantics who preceded them. It's why Kandinsky "invented" abstraction (to help preserve, he said, "the element of pure and eternal art, found among all human beings, among all peoples and at all times"). It's why Picasso put African masks on the prostitutes in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." "Heart of Darkness," "Women in Love," "A Passage to India," "Sweeney Erect," "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop"�they are as explicitly about the intractability of human aggression and desire as an evolutionary psychologist could wish. There is nothing Marxist about them. The preferred mode of orthodox Marxism was not modernism; it was realism.


  1. You might have been thinking of Dan Green in Scott's Quarterly Conversation, which I link to in this post.

  2. Not the one, but thanks for the link!

    I thought The Language Instinct was quite good--though Pinker seemed to close the case for generative linguistics a bit too tight, perhaps overstating his argument in the heat of polemical battle. I remember recommending the book to friends and buying a copy for my son. When The Blank Slate first came out, I picked up a copy from a table at Borders, and leafing through it, happened on the art and literature section. I was astonished. The man doesn't know how to read!

    And this 'blank slate' straw man he throws up--he doesn't get it, that the very condition of living in a world where nothing is as it seems, that those writers, poets, artists who don't take this into account, don't allow themselves to respond to the fact of living in a world where reality--the reality of particle physics and biology--makes a lie of everything our senses tell us--those who pretend everything is as it has always seemed, they are the one's in denial! They are the ones drawing their diversions out of the blank slate!

    I have a poem, "The Cricket Sings its DNA," that ends with the lines,

    Now we know/ it is the replication of the double helix at the heart that draws the dancer to his dance/ that makes the criket sing... who weaves/ the tangled calculus of love."

    The split between the world reported by our senses, our emotional life, and that given to us by science--this bifurcated reality is fused into our consciousness--how not respond to it in our art? The art and literature that emerged out of the late 19th and 20th century, the stuff Pinker finds so offensive--is the art and literature most driven by awareness of what Pinker tells us it denies.

    He is just dead wrong.

    Menand gives him what he deserves.