"Man will become better when you show him what he is like."
     - Chekhov

"Perhaps the book from this year that will be longest remembered in the years ahead is 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature' by best-selling author Steven Pinker, who is also a professor of neurosciences at MIT. It is a huge book on a huge subject.
When David Hume wrote a treatise on human nature two centuries ago, he did not have to argue that there was such a thing as human nature because everyone took that for granted. But in the intervening time, and especially in our own times, much of the intelligentsia has argued that the human mind begins as a blank slate - which is to say, that there is no such thing as human nature.
That assumption is crucial to all sorts of attempts to mold and control others. But Pinker pulls the rug out from under this assumption, in a way that is often both profound and amusing. 'The Blank Slate' is a tour de force. Where else can you find an analysis of the brain along with a discussion of the philosophy of Hobbes and the cartoons of Calvin and Hobbes?"
        - Thomas Sowell


I think that there is a quasi-religious theory of human nature that is prevalent among pundits and intellectuals, which includes both empirical assumptions about how the mind works and a set of values that people hang on those assumptions. The theory has three parts.

One is the doctrine of "the blank slate": that we have no inherent talents or temperaments, because the mind is shaped completely by the environment—parenting, culture, and society.
The second is "the noble savage": that evil motives are not inherent to people but come from corrupting social institutions.
The third is "the ghost in the machine", that the most important part of us is somehow independent of our biology, so that our ability to have experiences and make choices can't be explained by our physiological makeup and evolutionary history.

These three idea ideas are increasingly being challenged by the sciences of the mind, brain, genes, and evolution, but they are held as much for their moral and political uplift as for any empirical rationale. People think that these doctrines are preferable on moral grounds and that the alternative is a forbidden territory that we should avoid at all costs.


1. The Modern Denial of Human Nature
3. The Last Wall to Fall
8. Human Nature with a Human Face
10. The Fear of Determinism
11. The Fear of Nihilism
12. In Touch with Reality
13. Out of our Depths
14. The Many Roots of our Suffering
15. The Sanctimonious Animal
16. Hot Buttons - Politics
17. Hot Buttons - Violence
18. Hot Buttons - Gender
19. Hot Buttons - Children
20. Hot Buttons - The Arts


Everyone has a theory of human nature. Everyone has to anticipate the behavior of others, and that means we all need theories about what makes people tick. A tacit theory of human nature - that behavior is caused by thoughts and feelings - is embedded in the very way we think about people.
Our theory of human nature is the wellspring on much in our lives. We consult it when we want to persuade or threaten, inform or deceive.

The doctrines of the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine - or, as philosophers call them, empiricism, romanticism, and dualism - are logically independent, but in practice they are often found together.

The doctrine of Social Darwinism ought to be called Social Spencerism, for Darwin wanted no part of it.

(Read an excerpt from the first chapter via The Washington Post)


In most cases the correct explanation will invoke a complex interaction between heredity and environment: culture is crucial, but culture could not exist without mental faculties that allow humans to create and learn culture to begin with.

We might all be equipped with a program that responds to an affront to our interests or our dignity with an unpleasant burning feeling that motivates us to punish or to exact compensation. But what counts as an affront, whether we feel it is permissible to glower in a particular setting, and what kinds of retribution we think we are entitled to, depend on our culture.

People may dress differently, but they may all strive to flaunt their status via their appearance. They may respect the rights of members of their clan exclusively or they may extend that respect to everyone in their tribe, nation-state, or species, but they all divide the world into an in-group and an out-group. They may differ in which outcomes they attribute to the intentions of conscious beings, but all of them explain certain events by invoking the existence of entities with minds that strive to bring about goals.

Humans are flexible because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software that can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior. Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary.

The conscious mind - the self or soul - is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief. Often our conscious minds do not control how we act but merely tell us a story about our actions.

When I was an undergraduate an exam question in Abnormal Psychology asked, 'what is the best predictor that a person will become schizophrenic?'. The answer was, 'Having an identical twin who is schizophrenic'.

Natural selection is the morally indifferent process in which the most effective replicators outreproduce the alternatives and come to prevail in a population. The selected ones will therefore be the 'selfish' ones, more accurately, the megalomaniacal ones, those that make the most copies of themselves.

"We, the lineal representatives of the successful enactors of one scene of slaughter after another, must, whatever more pacific virtues we may also possess, still carry about us, ready at any moment to burst into flame, the smoldering and sinister traits of character by means of which they lived through so many massacres, harming others, but themselves unharmed."
         - William James

Though chimpanzees and other primates have a reputation as imitators, their ability to imitate in the way people do - replicating another person's intent rather than going through the motions - is rudimentary, because their intuitive psychology is rudimentary.

Eurasia conquered the world not because the Eurasians are smarter but because they could best take advantage of the principle that many heads are better than one. The 'culture' of any of the conquering nations of Europe, such as Britain, is in fact a greatest hits collection of inventions assmbled across thousands of miles and years.  The collection is made up of cereal crops and alphabetic writing from the Middle East, gunpowder and paper from China, domesticated horses from Ukraine, and many other.

Language is re-created every generation as it passed through the minds of the humans who speak it.


"Today, many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is 'the opium of the people'; they add a heartfelt, 'Thank God!'.

        - Ronald Bailey

"I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents... for experience proves, that the moral and physical qualities of man, whether, good or evil, are transmissable in a certain degree from father to son."

        - Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, 1813.

The idea that political equality is a moral stance, not an empirical hypothesis, has been expressed by some of history's most famous exponents of equality. The Declaration of Independence proclaims,'We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal'. The author, Thomas Jefferson, made it clear that he was referring to an equality of rights, not a biological sameness.

Discrimination - in the sense of using a statistically predictive trait of an individual's group to make a decision about the individual - is not always immoral, or at least we don't always treat it as immoral. Decisions that have to made with finite time and resources, and which have high costs for certain kinds of errors, must use some trait as a basis for judging a person. And that necessarily judges person according to a stereotype.
We have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the discrimination is justifiable. Denying driving and voting rights to young teenagers is a form of age discrimination that is unfair to responsible teens. But we are not willing to pay either the financial costs of developing a test for psychological maturity or the moral costs of classification errors, such as teens wrapping their cars around trees.

Can one really reconcile biological differences with a concept of social justice? Absolutely. In his famous theory of justice, the philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine a social contract drawn up by self-interested agents negotiating under a veil of ignorance, unaware of the talents or status they will inherit at birth. He argues that a just society is one that these disembodied souls would agree to be borm into, knowing that they might be dealt a lousy social or genetic hand.

A nonblank slate means that a tradeoff between freedom and material equality is inherent in all political systems. The major political philosophies can be defined by how they deal with the tradeoff. The Social Darwinist right places no value on equality; the totalitarian left places no value on freedom. The Rawlsian left sacrifices some freedom for equality; the libertarian right sacrifices some equality for freedom. While reasonable people may disagree about the best tradeoff, it is unreasonable to pretend that there is no tradeoff.

"Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble, and his conscience devoured him. Yes, ebem iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology."
        - Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, "The Gulag Archipelago"

Contrary to the belief spread by the radical scientists, eugenics was for much of the 20th century a favourite cause of the left, not the right. It was championed by many progressives, liberals and socialists.

An idea is not false or evil because the Nazis misused it. If we censored ideas that the Nazis abused, we would have to give up far more than the application of evolution and genetics to human behaviour. For example, we would have to suppress the germ theory of disease. The Nazis repeatedly cited Pasteur and Koch to argue that the Jews were like an infectious bacillus that had to be eradicated to control a contagious disease.

People have steadily expanded the mental dotted line that embraces the entities considered worthy of moral consideration. The circle has been poked outward from the family and village to the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race and most recently, to all of humanity. It has been slackened from royalty, aristocracy and property holders to all men. It has grown from including only men to including women, children and newborns.


"What this astonishing variety suggests is that man's way of life is largely determined by culture rather than by genes. However, it is still possible that human males in general have a tendency towards promiscuity, and females a tendency to monogamy, as we would predict on evolutionary grounds. Which of these tendencies wins in particular societies depends on details on cultural circumstance, just as in different animal species it depends on ecological details."

        - Richard Dawkins, "The Selfish Gene"

In the precise sense in which mathematicians use the word, a 'deterministic' system is one whose states are caused by prior states with absolute certainty, rather than probabilistically. Neither Richard Dawkins nor any sane biologist would ever dream of proposing that human behaviour is deterministic, as if people must commit acts of promiscuity, aggression, or selfishness at every opportunity. Among the radical scientists and the many intellectuals they have influenced, 'determinism' has taken on a meaning that is diametrically opposed to its true meaning. The word is now used to refer to any claim that people have a tendency to act in certain ways in certain circumstances. A probability greater than zero is equated with a probability of 100%.

The last thing we want in a soul is freedom to do anything it desires. If behaviour were chosen by an utterly free will, then we really couldn't hold people responsible for their actions. That entity would not be deterred by the threat of punishment. We could not hope to reduce evil acts by enacting moral and legal codes, because a free agen, floating in a different plane, would be unaffected. We could punish a wrongdoer, but it would be sheer spite, because it could have no predictable effect on the future behaviour of the wrongdoer or other people aware of the punishment.
On the other hand, if the soul is predictably effected the prospect of esteem and shame or reward and punishment, it is no longer truly free, because it is compelled (at least probabilistically) to repsect those contingencies.

"To undertand is not to forgive."
        - David Hume

Something has gone terribly wrong. It is a confusion of explanation with exculpation. Contrary to what is implied by critics of biological and environmental theories of the causes of behaviour, to explain behaviour is not to exonerate it. If behaviour is not utterly random, it will have some explanation; if behaviour were utterly random, we couldn't hold the person responsible in any case. If we ever hold people responsible for their behaviour, it will have to be in spite of any causal explanation we feel is warranted, whether it involves genes, brains, evolution, media images, self-doubt or bringing-up. Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced (that is, someone held a gun to his head), we should consider his actions to actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull.

"If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged, I should say, 'I don't dounbt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.'"
        - Oliver Wendell Holmes, US Supreme Court Justice

"The criminal law bears the same relation to the urge for revenge as marriage does to the sexual urge."
        - James Stephen, Victorian jurist


The alternative to the religious theory of the source of values is that evolution endowed us with a moral sense, and we have expanded its circle of application over the course of history through reason, knowledge and sympathy.

Would life lose its purpose if we ceased to exist when our brains die? On the contrary, nothing invests life with more meaning than the realization that every moment of sentience is a precious gift. How many fights have been averted, how many friendships renewed, how many hours not squandered, how many gestures of affection offered, because we sometimes remind ourselves that 'life is short'?

Sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is to wire unselfish motives into a human brain - heartfelt, unstinting unselfishness. The love of children (who carry one's genes into posterity), a faithful spouse (who genetic fate is identical to one's own), and friends and allies (who trust you if you're trustworthy) can be bottomless and unimpeachable as far as we humans are concerned (proximate level), even if is self-serving as far as genes are concerned (ultimate level).

Many of our mental faculties evolved to mesh with real things in the world. Our perception of
depth is the product of complicated circuitry in the brain, circuitry that appears to be absent in other species and even in certain impaired people. But that does not mean that there aren’t real trees and cliffs out there or that the world is as flat as a cartoon.
And this argument can be carried over to more abstract properties of the world. Humans (and many other animals) appear to have an innate sense of number, which can be explained by the utility of reasoning about numerosity in our evolutionary history. That is perfectly compatible with the Platonist theory of number believed  by many mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics, according to which abstract mathematical entities such as numbers have an existence independent of minds.
According to this view, the number sense evolved to mesh with real truths in the
world that in some sense exist independent of human knowers. A similar argument can be made for morality. According to the theory of moral realism, right and wrong have an existence and an inherent logic that licenses some chains of argument and not others. If so, our moral sense evolved to mesh with the logic of morality. The crucial point is that something can be both a product of the mind and a genuinely existing entity.

It is a bad idea to say that discrimination is wrong only because the traits of all people are indistinguishable. It is a bad idea to say that violence and exploitation are wrong only because people are not naturally inclined to them. It is a bad idea to say that people are responsible for their actions only because the causes of those actions are mysterious. And tt is a bad idea to say that our motives are meaningful in a personal sense only because they are inexplicable in a biological sense.These are bad ideas because they make our values hostages to fortune, implying that someday factual discoveries could make them obsolete.


The brain evolved fallible yet intelligent mechanisms that work to keep us in touch with aspects of reality that were relevant to the survival and reproduction of our ancestors. And that is not just true of our perceptual faculties but of our cognitive faculties. The fact that our cognitive faculties (like our perceptual faculties) are attuned to the real world is mot obvious from their response to illusions: they recognize the possibility of a breach with reality and find a way to get at the truth behind the false impression.

With some important exceptions, stereotypes are in fact not inaccurate when assesses against objective benchmarks such as census figures or the reports of the stereotypes people themselves. People who believe that African-Americans are more likely to be on welfare than whites, that Jews have higher average incomes than WASPs, that business students are more conservative than students in the arts, and that women are more likely than men to want to lose weight, are not being irrational or bigoted. Those beliefs are correct.

Linguists are familiar with a phenomenon, which may be called the euphemism treadmill. People invent new words for emotionally chared referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found. Water closet becomes toilet, which becomes bathroom, which becomes restroom, which becomes lavatory. The treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people's minds. Names for minorities will continue to change as long as people have negative attidtues towards them. We will know that we have achieved mutual respect when the names stay put.


Most people are familiar with the idea that some of our ordeals come from a mismatch between the source of our passions in evolutionary history and the goals we set for ourselves today. People gorge themselves in anticipation of a famine that never comes, engage in dangerous liaisons that conceive babies they don't want, and rev up their bodies in response to stressors from which they cannot run away.

Education is neither writing on a blank slate nor allowing the child's nobility to come into flower. Education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. Children don't have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written languages, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.

Virtually every animal and vegetable sold in a health-food store has been "genetically-modified" for millennia by selective breeding and hybridization. The wild ancestor of carrots was a thin, bitter white root. Plants are Darwinian creatures with no particular desire to be eaten, so they did not go out of their way to be tasty, healthy, or easy for us to grow and harvest. On the contrary: they did go out of their way to deter us from eating them, by evolving irritants, toxins, and bitter-tasting compounds. So there is nothing especially safe about natural foods.


The effect of being raised by a given pair of parents within a culture is surprisingly small: children who grow up in the same home end up no more alike in personality than children who were separated at birth; adopted siblings grow up to be no more similar than strangers.

Natural selection should have equipped children with psychological tactics allowing them to hold their own in a struggle with their parents, with neither party having a permanent upper hand.

The biological tragedy of the sexes is that the genetic interests of a man and a woman can be so close that they almost count as a single organism, but the possibilities for their interests to diverge are never far away. The biologist Richard Alexander points out that if a couple marry for life, are perfectly monogamous, and favour their nuclear family above each spouse's extended family, their genetic interests are identical, tied up in a single basket containing their children. Under that idealization, the love between a man and a woman should be the stongest emotional bond in the living world.

As Jong lamented elsewhere, there are never just two people in bed. They are always accompanied in their minds by parents, former lovers, and real and imagined rivals. Third parties have an interest in the possible outcome of a sexual liaison.

On strictly rational grounds, the volatility of sex is a paradox, because in an era with contraception and women's rights these archaic entanglements should have no claim on our feelings. We should be ziplessly loving the one we're with, and sex should inspire no more gossip, music, fiction, raunchy humour, or strong emotions than eating or talking does. The fact that people are tormented by the Darwinian economics of babies they are no longer having is testimony to the long reach of human nature.


"The infliction of cruelty is a delight to moralists - that is why they invented hell."
        - Bertrand Russell

The problem with Homo sapiens may not by that we have too little morality. The problem may be that we have too much. What leads people to deem an action immoral ("Killing is wrong") as opposed to disliked ("I hate broccoli"), unfashionable ("Don't wear stripes with plaids"), or imprudent ("Avoid wine on long flights")? People feel that moral rules are universal, and that others who commit immoral acts ought to be punished.

Our moral sense licenses aggression against others as a way to prevent or punish immoral acts.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, four-fifths of the respondents in one poll said that the country should pursue greater environmental protection "regardless of cost". Taken literally, that meant they were prepared to shut down all schools, hospitals, and police and fire stations, stop funding social programs, medical research, foreign aid, and national defence, or raise the income tax rate to 99%, if that is what it would have cost to protect the environment.

Any politician who honestly presented the inexorable tradeoffs would be crucified for violating a taboo. He would be guilty of "tolerating poisons in our food and water", or worse, "putting a dollar value on human life".


"What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?"
        - James Madison

"To try to so something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise."
        - Michael Oakshott

"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."
        - James Madison

Liberalism and conservatism have not just genetic roots, of course, but historic and cultural ones. The two political philosophies were articulated in the 18th century in terms that would be familiar to readers of the editorial pages today, and their foundations can be traced back millennia to the political controversies of ancient Greece.

The clash between the sociological and economics traditions can explain some of the heat ignited by the sciences of human nature, but it is not identical to the firefight between the political left and the political right.

The right-left axis aligns an astonishing collection of beliefs that at first glance seem to have nothing in common. If you learn that someone is in favour of a strong military, for example, it is a good bet that the person is also in favour of judicial restraint rather than judicial activism. If someone believes in the importance of religion, chances are she will be tough on crime and in favour of lower taxes. The opposing positions cluster just as reliably: if someone is sympathetic to rehabilitating offenders, or to affirmative action, or a tolerance to homosexuality, chances are good that he will also be a pacifist and an environmentalist.
Why on earth should people's beliefs about sex predict their beliefs about the size of the military? What does religion have to do with taxes?

The most sweeping attempt to survey the underlying dimension is Thomas Sowell's "A Conflict of Visions". Not every ideological struggle fits his scheme, but as we say in social science, he has identified a factor that can account for a large proportion of the variance. Sowell explains two "visions" of the nature of human beings.

In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. "Mortal things suits mortals best," wrote Pindar; "from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made," wrote Kant. Human nature has not changed. Traditions such as religion, family, social customs, sexual mores, and political institutions are a distillation of time-tested techniques that let us work around the shortcomings of human nature. However imperfect society may be, we should measure it against the cruelty and deprivation of the actual past, not the harmony and affluence of an imagined future. We are fortunate enough to live in a society that more or less works, and our first priority should be not to screw it up.
The Tragic Vision looks to systems that produce desirable outcomes even when no member of the system is particularly wise or virtuous... The intelligence of the system is distributed across millions of not-necessarily intelligent producers and consumers, and cannot be articulated by anyone in particular.

In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be "Some people see things as they are and ask why, I dream things that never were and ask why not?"

EO Wilson, the world's expert on ants, may have had the last laugh in his verdict on Marxism: "Wonderful theory. Wrong species."

The modern concept of democracy emerged in 17th and 18th century England and was refined in the frenzy of theorizing that surrounded the American independence movement.

Liberal democracies appear to be the best form of large-scale social organizaton our sorry species has come up with so far... this relative success of constitutional democracy... suggests that something may have been right about the theory of human nature that guided its architects.


"The story of the human race is war. Except for brief and precarious interludes there has never been peace in the world; and long before history began murderous strife was universal and unending."
        - Winston Churchill

The statement that "violence is learned behaviour" is a mantra repeated by right-thinking people to show that they believe that violence should be reduced. It is not based on any sound research. The sad fact is that despite repeated assurances that "we know the conditions that breed violence", we barely have a clue. Wild swings in crime rates - up in the 1960s and late 1980s, down in the late 1990s - continue to defy any simple explanation.

People were more violent in the centuries before television and movies were invented. Canadians watch the same television shows as Americans but have a fourth their homicide rate. When the British colony of St. Helena installed television for the first time in 1995, its people did not become more violent. Violent computer games took off in the 1990s, a time when crime rates plummeted.

It is not easy to show that more guns mean more crime. The Israelis and the Swiss are armed to the teeth but have low rates of violent personal crime, and among American states, Maine and North Dakota have the lowest homicide rates but almost every home has a gun.

Even among modern nation-states, raw self-interest is a major motive for war. The political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita analysed the instigators of 251 real world conflicts of the past two centuries and concluded that in most cases the aggressor correctly calculated that a successful invasion would be in its national interest.

Though there are many reasons why countries differ in their willingness to wage war, one factor is simply the proportion of the population that consists of men between the ages of 15 and 29.

Hobbes's observation that men fight over "a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue" is as true now as it was in the 17th century.
Because of the logic of deterrence, fights over personal or national honour are not as idiotic as they seem. Dialing 911 is an option not always available. It was not available to people in pre-state societies, or on the frontier in the Appalachians or the Wild West, or in the remote highlands of Scotland, or the Balkans.

School children are currently fed the disinformation that Native Americans and other peoples in pre-state societies were inherently peaceable, leaving them uncomprehending, indeed contemptuous, of one of our species' greatest inventions, democratic government and the rule of law.

With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.


"Once we observe that people sacrifice money income for other pleasurable things we can infer next to nothing by comparing the income of one person with another's."
        - Jennifer Roback

The gender gap is almost always analyzed in the following way. Any imbalance between men and women in their occupation or earnings is direct proof of gender bias - if not in the form of overt discrimination, then in the form of discouraging messages and hidden barriers. The possibility that men and women might differ from each other in ways that affect what jobs they hold or how much they get paid may never be mentioned in public.

The problem with this analysis is that inequality of outcome cannot be used as proof of inequality of opportunity unless the groups are identical in all of their psychological traits, which is likely to be true only if we are blank slates.

Mothers are more attached to their children, on average, than are fathers. That is true in socities all over the world and probably has been true of our lineage since the first mammals evolved some 200 million years ago.

Even if both sexes value work and both sexes value children, the different weightings may lead women, more often than men, to make career choices that allow them to spend more time with their children - shorter or more flexible hours, fewer relocations, skills that don't become obsolete as quickly - in exchange for lower wages or prestige.
Marriage can magnify sex differences, even if they are small to begin with, because of the law of comparitive advantage. In couples where the husband can earn a bit more than the wife, but the wife is a somewhat better parent than the husband, they might rationally decide they are both better off if she works less than he does.

Gender feminists blame violence against women on civilization and social institutions, but thus is exactly backwards. Violence against women flourishes in societies that are outside the reach of civilization, and erupts whenever civilization breaks down.

Women have a right to dress in any way the please, but the issue is not what women have the right to do in a perfect world but how they can maximize their safety in this world. The suggestion that women in dangerous situations be mindful of reactions they may be eliciting or signals they mad inadvertently be sending out is just common sense, and it's hard to believe any grownup would think otherwise.


The three laws of behavioral genetics may be the most important discoveries in the history of psychology. Here are the three laws:
~ The First Law: All human behavioral traits are heritable.
~ The Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
~ The Third Law: A substansial proportion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

Behavioral genetics methods do have built-in limitations. Studies of twins, siblings, and adoptees can help explain what makes people different, but they cannot explain what people have in common, that is, universal human nature. To say that the heritability of intelligence is .5, for example, does not imply that half of a person's intelligence (whatever that would mean); it implies that only half of the variation among people is inherited.

Adult siblings are equally similar whether they grew up together or apart. Adoptive siblings are no more similar than two people plucked off the street at random. Identical twins are no more similar than one would expect from the effects of their shares genes.
Whatever experiences siblings share by growing up in the same house makes little or no difference in the kind of people they turn out to be.

The other surprise is that we may have to make room for a pre-scientific explanatory concept in our view of human nature - not free will, but fate. It is not free will because among the traits that may differ between identical twins reared together are ones that are stubbornly involuntary. No one chooses to become schizophrenic, homosexual, or musically gifted. But the old idea of fate - in the sense of uncontrollable fortune, not strict predestination - can be reconciled with modern biology once we remember the many openings for chance to operate in development.


"In or about December 1910, human nature changed."
        - Virginia Woolf

She was referring to the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate elite arts and criticism for much of the 20th century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism, which seized control in its later decades. The point of this chapter is that the elite arts, criticism, scholarship are in trouble because Woolf was wrong. Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter.

In postmodernist literature, authors comment on what they are writing while they are writing. Postmodernist films contain sly references to the filmmaking process or to earlier films. In all these forms, irony, self-referential allusions, and the pretense of not taking the work seriously are meant to draw attention to the representations themselves, which (according to the doctrine) we are ordinarily in danger of mistaking for reality.

As cameras, art reproductions, radios, records, movies and paperbacks became affordable in the 20th century, ordinary people could buy art by the carload. The problem for artists is not that popular culture is so bad but that it is so good, at least some of the time. Art could no longer confer prestige by the rarity or excellence of the works themselves, so it had to confer it by the rarity of the powers of appreciation. Only a special elite of initiates could get the point of the new works of art.

One result is that modernist art stopped trying to appeal to the senses. On the contrary, it disdained beauty as saccharine and lightweight.

Western societies are good at providing things that people want: clean water, effective medicine, varied and abundant food, rapid transportation and communication. They perfect these goods and services not from benevolence but from self-interest, for the profits to be made in selling them. Perhaps the aesthetics industry also perfected ways of giving people what they like - art forms that appeal to basic human tastes, such as calendar landscapes, popular songs, and Hollywood romances and adventures. So even if an art form matured in the West, it may be not an arbitrary practice spread by a powerful navy but a successful product that engages a universal human aesthetic.

Literature has three voices, wrote the scholar Robert Storey: those of the author, the audience, and the species.

In today's intellectual climate novelists may have a clearer mandate than scientists to speak the truth about human nature. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which all loose ends are tied and everyone lives happily ever after. Life is nothing like that, we note, and we look to the arts for edification about that painful dilemmas of the human condition.
Yet when it comes to the science of human beings, this same audience says: Give us schmaltz! 'Pessimism' is considered a legitimate criticism of observations of human nature, and people expect theories to be a source of sentimental uplift.

"A writer of fiction, a professional liar, is paradoxically obsessed with what is true. The unit of truth, at least for a fiction writer, is the human animal, belonging to the species Homo sapiens, unchanged for at least 100,000 years."
        - John Updike

"We make, in many respects though not all, the same kinds of moral judgments as the Greeks did, and we recognize good or decent people in times and literature remote from our own. Patroclus, Antigone, Cordelia, Mr. Knightley, Alyosha. Patroclus' invariable kindness, Cordelia's truthfulness. Alyosha telling his father not to be afraid of hell. It is just as important that Patroclus should be kind to the captive women as that Emma should be kind to Miss Bates, and we feel this importance in an immediate and natural way in both cases in spite of the fact that nearly three thousand years divide the writers. And this, when one reflects on it, is a remarkable testimony to the existence of a single durable human nature."
        - Iris Murdoch


"With your fine principles you can make beautiful books, but they don't work in practice. You forget the differences in our positions. You only work in paper, which will put up with anything; while I, a poor Empress, have to work on men's skins, which are ticklish and easily irritated. Is it really certain that humanity is capable of perfection?"
        - Catherine the Great, conversation with Diderot

"Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is 'offensive' even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry."
        - Professor Pinker comments on furore over possible genetic differences between men and women

>> Professor Pinker is also the author of the excellent "How The Mind Works".

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