When I arrived at Jerome L. Greene Hall last week at 6:20 for a 7:00 lecture, I found a large mob already milling around the doors. This can’t be for Steven Pinker, I thought, although he is psycholinguist with, as some linguists would have me say, an emphasis on the “psycho.”
But by the time the doors open, the Harvard psychology professor had indeed managed to fill the entire room and half of a second—as it turns out, the lecture would be projected onto a screen. But my disappointment quickly vanished, as Pinker’s high-pitched voice and sheer glee proved entertainment enough.
Pinker, author of The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature, has made his name by arguing against the Lockean notion of tabula rasa, which dictates that all men are born blank and are shaped by their environment. We are not all born blank, nor are we born equal, claims Pinker-our behavior is the sole product of the genes we are born with, unalterable by parenting or environment. A tricky idea to introduce to a public raised on behavioral psychology.
He did give a convincing lecture, shaking his long curls hypnotizingly and making reference to such divergent characters as U.S. Representative Tom DeLay and the Bloodhound Gang. “All my opposition today is based on three doctrines, each of which can be associated with a dead, white, European male.” he said, mentioning by name Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes. “Only a newlywed believes he or she can change the behavior of his or her spouse.”
Well, newlyweds and supermoms—the newest crop of behavioral extremists, whom he addresses directly. Ritzy preschools will not make your children smarter. Traumatic experiences will not turn them gay or give them schizophrenia. Pinker, childless and twice divorced, claimed that when mothers are told they do not have the power to shape their growing child’s behavior, they respond confusedly, “if that’s so, why should I be nice to my kids?”
The post-lecture Q & A gave skeptics a chance to raise the objections laying heavy in the room. One would-be spoiler announced that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a less serious type of autism which inhibits a person’s ability to understand and empathize with others. “I was born with limitations, and my environment helped me to overcome them,” he protested. “Does a mental illness allow a person fewer degrees of freedom in the arena of how much their genes allow or constrain them?”
Pinker turned the question on its head. “Syndromes such as Asberger’s are not constraints, but rather productive creative mechanisms,” he replied. There is no more or less free, he explained—just different angles from which people experience their surroundings.
Another audience member wondered why homosexuality exists if all behavior is determined by natural selection. Pinker, obviously relieved at the softball question, declared this a rare instance in which political correctness and the innatist view intersect. He spoke of the possible existence of a “gay gene” which has been tentatively identified in both women and men. When found in women, it has been shown to cause them to menstruate an average of six months earlier, allowing a woman to have almost an entire extra child. And as long as the gene doesn’t cause exclusive homosexuality, this leads to higher rates of reproduction. One more question down.
But despite his smooth presentation, Pinker’s view has not yet been assimilated into mainstream psychology and linguistics. Boris Gasparov, director of the linguistics department at Columbia, prefaced his lecture on Pinker with this disclaimer: “When someone uses neurons and linguistics in the same sentence I just stop taking them seriously.” Pinker caused a stir in January 2005, when he defended Larry Summers’ suggestion that females may lack the same degree of intrinsic ability for math and science as men.
It is hard to say what kind of an effect Pinker had on his audience. My own personal response was probably best summed up by the Brothers Karamazov, also quoted by Pinker: “It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science…and yet I am sorry to lose God.”
Pinker closed his lecture by reciting slowly and carefully the lyrics to the Bloodhound Gang’s “Ain’t Nothin’ But Mammals”: “You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” He left us with a slightly more depressing view on life, and we all went home to procreate and otherwise follow the paths predetermined by our genes.
I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.
—Sara Maria Hasbun