Sociobiology in the Nation Magazine


posted to on Nov. 4, 2002


A few weeks ago I received an invitation to get a trial subscription to the Nation Magazine. What the hell, I said. This would give me a chance to see what the red-baiters were up to first-hand, as well as work on their nifty crossword puzzles. When my last subscription was winding down during the beginning of Clinton's second term, the puzzles and Cockburn's column were the only things that kept me going. When they cut Cockburn back to one page and then went into a full-tilt boogie for Clinton, I said to hell with them.


When I got my first complementary copy this morning, I was reminded why I let this awful magazine lapse. Starting out with an editorial admonition to its readers against wasting a vote for the Green Party in tomorrow's elections, it then proceeds to a defense of sociobiology of a kind that I've never seen in a left publication.


In Steven Johnson's review of Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate", we discover that E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins were right all along. Biology is destiny. Women's brains differ from men's, hence accounting possibly for men's superiority in theoretical physics among other things. (Don't worry, gals, your brains might just as easily prepare you for "social interactions" and "empathy".)


While reading through this crapola, one gets no sense of what Pinker stands for politically. Johnson assures us that Pinker presents his views on the political and social implications of neo-Darwinism with his characteristic "eloquence" and "humor" but one would get no sense from the review what ideas this humor and eloquence is actually mustered to support.


Let's look at a few of them:


--Males have a stronger tolerance for physical risk and a stronger drive for anonymous sex.


--Women have stronger emotions and are better at reading emotions on the faces of others.


--Pinker states "A variety of sexual motives, including taste in men, vary with the menstrual cycle."


--He also states that "in a sample of mathematically talented students, boys outnumbered girls by 13 to one" but that women maintain more eye-contact, and smile and laugh more often.


--Humans are hard-wired to think in stereotypes and to prefer kin.


--Some people, most of them men, are born with criminal tendencies.


--Turning to the big questions of social transformation that have vexed Great Thinkers for the millennium, we learn from Pinker that "Biological facts are beginning to box in plausible political philosophies." Communism may work for insects, but humans are programmed for economic exchange and "reciprocal altruism." (Is that the reason I used to climb across the ceilings and consume a pound of sugar at a time when I was in the Trotskyist movement, I wonder?)


When you stop and think about it, the title of Pinker's book sets up a straw man, namely that radicals of one sort or another believe that the mind is a "blank slate" and that human nature is infinitely malleable.


It is of no small importance that Pinker ultimately finds backing in Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories, mediated through anthropologist Donald Brown who adapted Chomsky's idea of a "universal grammar" to "social patterns, beliefs and categories" shared by all human societies. We discover that Pinker (and presumably the feckless reviewer) are so impressed by Brown that he devotes an entire appendix to such categories worked out in alphabetical order. The c's include cooking, cooperation, and copulation (all of my favorite activities, it turns out.)


With such basic activities underpinning all human societies, and human nature implicitly, one might easily conclude that it is risky business to tamper with the eternal nature of things, like sending your daughter to MIT. You might end up with Pol Pot, Stalin, the Animal Farm or women running around burning their bras. Pinker quotes Chomsky just to show that this kind of hostility to revolution has respectable defenders:


"A vision of a future social order is based on a concept of human nature. If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the 'shaping of behavior' by the State authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement and participation in a free community."


While respect must be paid to Chomsky for his fearless critique of US foreign policy, it would be a big mistake to write a blank check for his ideas on human nature, etc. As his biographer Robert Barsky has pointed out, many of Chomsky's ideas on human nature and society owe much more to 18th century rationalism than any more recent emancipatory philosophies, including Marxism. Indeed, what permeates much of sociobiology and Chomsky on his worst days is a kind of Hobbesian skepticism about the human animal, who would need to be restrained from wanton violence, rape and warfare by a protective state.


For all of Pinker's animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular, there is very little evidence that he understands how historical materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace its development through the years, suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship dialectically.


It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and freedom in a *materialist* context. In other words, revolutionary socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge, Pinker's "Blank Slate," with its discussions about the difference between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker, they are "nearly as distinct as their bodies") seems little more than "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" geared to readers of the New York Review of Books.