Biological Universals as Authenticity, or, What’s the Matter with Steven Pinker?

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(Crossposted at Arcade.)

In a fascinating parable, “A Story In Two Parts, With An Ending Yet To Be Written,” posted on the National Humanities Center’s On the Human Web site, Paula Moya tells the tale of a researcher named Kitayama who travels from the land of Interdependence to the land of Independence, conducts research into the way that culture shapes perception, and finds his results grossly misinterpreted by journalists (as reinforcing racist narratives of essential ethnic differences). Kitayama’s basic finding is that those of an Independent cultural disposition tend to commit the “fundamental attribution error” when judging actions, overvaluing the importance of personality as an explanation of action, whereas Interdependent folk are likely to consider situational factors when judging human action and agency. [1]

The mistranslation of Kitayama’s work from culture to race in Moya’s story is a not-so-disguised allegory of the journalistic framing of forthcoming research by Jinkyung Na and Shinobu Kitayama, specifically their article “Spontaneous Trait Inference is Culture Specific: Behavioral and Neural Evidence.” This mistranslation (from culture to race; from Those Reared in an “Asian” Cultural Context to simply Asians) is presented as an example of what Moya and her collaborator Hazel Markus call “doing race,” “creating ethnic groups based on perceived physical and behavioral characteristics, associating differential power and privilege with these characteristics, and then justifying the resulting inequalities.” The comments following Moya’s article are well worth reading in their entirety, as is Andrew Goldstone’s great Arcade reply, “Race, Ethnicity, Brains: Some Marginalia.”

There is much to say about Moya’s post, but I want to point to a reference she makes to the pop science journalism of Steven Pinker. In Moya’s allegory, Kitayama achieves a measure of success, getting together with Recognition (Connie), only to come home to the following scene:

All was going well, that is, until one day Kitayama came home in the middle of the afternoon and found Connie in the bedroom, looking flushed and breathing heavily as she shoved a book under the pillow. “What are you doing?” demanded Kitayama. “Since when do you hide your reading material from me?” Connie avoided his gaze as she handed him the book she’d been reading. Kitayama felt an arrow pierce his heart as he gazed at the title: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “How could you?” he cried, “Don’t you know that Pinker believes that human behavior is generated by the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that may be universal and innate? He claims that culture is epiphenomenal to more basic psychological processes! It’s everything I’ve worked so hard to overturn!”

“I’m sorry, dear,” replied Connie, looking genuinely apologetic. “It’s just so scientific,” she offered. “There’s something so wonderfully hard about cognitive neuroscience,” she added with an appreciative shiver.

I am no fan of Steven Pinker, least of all his attempts to write about the arts, but I would not characterize his views on culture in the way the fictional Kitayama does. In The Blank Slate, Pinker does not argue that culture is epiphenomenal so much as claim that there are a list of human universals that transcend cultural difference. He writes, “My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing–no one believes that–but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme.” That is, in his view certain aspects of human existence are culturally variable–though no less biological for their variation–and other aspects of humanity can be found among all cultures. The fictional nature of Moya’s story might suggest that delving into “Kitayama’s” error is beside the point, but I think looking at what Pinker is really arguing will yield some interesting insights into the significance of Na and Kitayama’s real research.

At this level of abstraction, it seems to me that Pinker’s claim is hard to dispute, but the problem is that it is also hardly very interesting from the perspective of the human sciences. What Pinker fails to tell us with any level of precision is where we can find the boundary between difference and identity and what the significance of that boundary is. Pinker’s appendix listing human universals is so free of relevant discussion and context as to leave the reader scratching his head–though it seems perfectly plausible that human universals, like the language faculty, exist and might tell us something about the arts. His discussion of evolutionary psychology, for this head-scratching reader at least, fails to convince, though this is more the fault of contemporary evolutionary psychology than Pinker, whose own area of expertise is linguistics.

As many reviewers have pointed out, The Blank Slate‘s discussion artistic production (in genetic or evolutionary or biological terms) borders on the ridiculous, quickly and problematically moving from fact to norm, abandoning science very quickly for poorly thought through moralizing. From arguments about universal human capacities to appreciate symmetry or tonality Pinker claims priority for artworks that make use of symmetry and tonality.

After embarassingly misquoting Virginia Woolf, and fundamentally misunderstanding her views on human nature, Pinker disparages “the [then] 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 seized control in its later decades.” Modernism’s problem is that it allegedly denies human nature, which is a mistake because “[a]rt is in our nature–in the blood and in the bone… in the brain and in the genes… In all societies people dance, sing, decorate surfaces, and tell and act out stories.”

Of course, Pinker is aware enough of how problematic his argument is to feel the need to explain the prestige of artworks (elite artworks, as I’m sure Sarah Palin would not hesitate to note) that fail to meet his Fact-Backed-Norm, and so he whips out his shopworn Bourdieu. “The conviction that artists and connoisseurs are morally advanced is a cognitive illusion, arising from the fact that our circuitry for morality is cross-wired with our circuitry for status…” We are also informed that the avant-guard tendency to “sneer[] at the bourgeoisie” is

a sophomoric grab at status with no claim to moral or political value. The fact is that the values of the middle class–personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidance of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy–are good things, not bad things [as presumably postmodernists thing]. Most of the world wants to join the bourgeoisie, and most arrests are members in good standing who adopt a few bohemian affectations.

Humans who appreciate modernist or avant-garde artworks only pretend to do so because of an ultimately (in an evolutionarily psychological sense) cynical desire to gain acclaim and prestige (and fitter sexual partners, which is what the game often boils down to) or because we are “cross-wired” in weird ways:

As Bourdieu points out, only a special elite of initiates could get the point of the new works of art. And with beautiful things spewing out of printing presses and record plants, distinctive works need not be beautiful. Indeed, they had better not be, because now any schmo could have beautiful things.

We can all be grateful that Pinker doesn’t have his moral-circuitry cross-wired with his status-circuitry. Certainly, none of us could imagine that there is any advantage Pinker might gain (in either a proximate or ultimate sense) in condemning the menace of Sneering Sophmoric Status-Grabbing Bohemian Modernist/Postmodernist Beauty-Haters in these terms, especially since those of us who enjoy ugly artworks (how can I deny that I am a hater of schmos?) are so powerfully dominant.

It goes without much saying, especially for anyone with even a remote understanding of the history of the arts, that there is reason to be skeptical of Pinker’s account of how and why we appreciate difficult and avant-garde artworks–let’s break out the brain scanners, people, and prove him wrong!–but even more troubling is Pinker’s not-so-tacit claim that we should appreciate art along lines he approves of.

Even for the sake of argument granting his claims, who is to say that our evolutionarily psychological status-seeking response to art is invalid or a complicated form of cynicism? As I noted in my previous post, where I discuss the attempt of neuromarketers to use brain scanners as a means of breaking through social dissemblance to understand what we really want from our advertisements, our films, and (I’m sure some day soon) our literature, Pinker’s invocation of alleged aesthetic universals assumes what it needs to argue for: the superiority or desirability of the universals he celebrates.

After all, rage is a human universal, as is sickness, as is the genetic programming that leads us all inexorably toward death [2], but the fact of their universality is in no way an argument for their desirability. Indeed, given that we’re all biology all the way down–our universals and our differences, our aesthetic sense and our social sense, our fated deaths and our desire to transcend death are all by Pinker’s account proximately or ultimately expressions of or bound by biology [3]–we are very quickly back to square one even if we grant the validity of his argument. Pinker’s rhetoric honors a certain element of our biology (universals) as authentic while granting other aspects (cultural differences, social motivations, a distaste for the popular) an almost unnatural or diabolical power, but why should we?

I would tenatively contribute to the discussion Moya has provocatively begun by suggesting that, in a sense, humans are cultural all the way down precisely because we’re biological all the way down, as Pinker’s errors help us see more clearly. Returning to the research that prompted Moya’s parable, Kitayama argues that cultural differences are “deep,” that they go “much deeper” than we previously thought, engaging in a move that might be viewed as the reverse of Pinker’s (biological difference or variability seems now to be the authentic or valorized term). But what if these differences turned out to be “shallow”? What if cultural differences were actually “skin deep”? What, if anything, would follow? After all, our shallowness too would be no less biological than our depths.

(Note: This post has been slightly modified.)

[1] I will blithely ignore the degree to which the “fundamental attribution error” should be considered an error, though I should note that Kitayama doesn’t use the term.

[2] Mysteriously, in the appendix of The Blank Slate, which reproduces Donald E. Brown’s list of human universals, death is not listed as a human universal, though there is an entry for “death rituals.”

[3] Also, chemistry and physics and many other physical processes.