Smilodon fatalis, the official state fossil of California, leans forward poised on his toes and ready to spring. Pity a poor pronghorn on the other side of that leap; even without his fabled incisors, this saber-tooth cat was a killer. Yet for all his might, smilodon is definitively fatalis. Extinct. Gone forever. Wandering among the Page Museum‘s fossils, these crystalized remembrances of creatures past, one cannot help but muse on the fleetingness of life.
The fossil record is a relentless chronicle of death, a geological library of nature’s discarded dreams. At the same time, fossils are a testimony to life preserving in rock the irrepressible creativity of a superabundant imagination in a constant state of play. How else to interpret the ludicrously plated stegosaurus; Australia‘s megamarsupials, including kangaroos 16 feet tall; and the surreal forms of the Precambrian Ediacaran biota, whose bizarre body plans defy classification. Fossils record a terrifying tale of transience, but since death, like fire, clears the way for new life, these petrified forms also encode nature’s great secret — that creation is an ongoing process.
Well, that‘s one interpretation at any rate. In the heartland of our nation, polls continue to show that the majority of Americans reject this evolutionary view, believing along scriptural lines that the Earth was created between five and 10 thousand years ago. To Biblical literalists, Creation was a one-time effort in which each species was fashioned by God and has maintained its integrity ever since.
Fundamentalism is usually associated with religious faith, but reading Steven Pinker’s new book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking) reminds us that fundamentalists come in many shades, including scientific. Where Creationists reject the idea of evolution granting total generative power to God, Pinker turns the tables, denying God and attributing all generative force to evolution. The specific agents of this force are genes, which for Pinker become the final cause and ultimate explanation for all living phenomena. Call it genetic creationism. Pinker‘s faith in the power of genes is as fervent as the passion of any Bible-thumping Baptist. And he also has a sacred text whose every word is pored over with literal precision — the genome carried in each living cell, the so-called “book of life.”
The Blank Slate is not so much a pedagogical text as a sermon, a full-throttle polemic against the evils of “cultural determinism” and a celebration of man’s supposedly innate psychological nature. Over the past decade, Pinker has styled himself as the leading evangelist of what is now termed “evolutionary psychology,” formerly known as “sociobiology.” Attempting to apply the insights of Darwinian evolution to the realm of the mind, Pinker and evolutionary psychologists posit that human behavior, including most of our customs and culture, derives from the conditions of our hunter-gatherer past and is encoded in our genes. Kinship relations, differences between men‘s and women’s attitudes to marriage and children; violence, jealousy, aesthetic tastes, concepts of beauty, altruism, rape — all these are explained in terms of genes duking it out for survival within the genome.
The patron saint of this movement is Richard Dawkins, who brilliantly encapsulated this new philosophy of life in his concept of the “selfish gene.” Evolution has always had its extreme proponents, but Dawkins and his followers take Darwinism to its materialistic conclusion. Where evolutionary champion T.H. Huxley was famously known as Darwin‘s bulldog, Pinker might be seen as Dawkins’ pitbull.
The impediment to this new materialistic model of behavior is, of course, the old humanist model, the secular Enlightenment vision which sees human behavior deriving from an interrelationship between individuals and their surrounding cultural matrix. Throughout The Blank Slate, Pinker rails indignantly against humanist practitioners of the social sciences and cultural-studies disciplines. All these fields, he says, are founded on myths, deceptions and outright lies, the chief being John Locke‘s idea of the newborn mind as a “blank slate” on which any set of behaviors might be imprinted.
No mind is ever blank, Pinker asserts — we come into the world with an innate nature, and to ignore this fact is dishonest and morally reprehensible. “The refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians’ embarrassment about sex, only worse,” he writes. “It distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse and our day-to-day lives.” Like other proponents of evolutionary psychology, Pinker portrays himself at the epicenter of a titanic battle for the soul of the academy — for the very future of knowledge and learning. The prize is “man” himself. Evolutionary psychologists themselves cast this struggle in religious terms — in The Blank Slate, Pinker refers continually to the “sacred doctrines” of humanist views. Against this prevailing “theology,” he and his cohorts paint each other as the new Galileos, fearless champions of Truth who alone have the courage to look at human nature as it truly is.
They claim, for instance, that their science will revolutionize our understanding of the arts. Pinker tells us that “psycho-acoustics” will enrich the study of music, that “mental image research” will explain the techniques of narrative prose, and that “the study of visual attention and short-term memory can help to explain the experience of cinema.” But beyond the hype, there is precious little substance. About the best Pinker can come up with is this: As people explore their environment, they seek patterns which help them to negotiate it, such as perpendicular lines and axes of symmetry; vision researchers “have suggested that the pleasing visual motifs used in art and decoration exaggerate these patterns, which tell the brain that the visual system is functioning properly and analyzing the world accurately.” Which may well be true, but is hardly of earth-shattering significance for art criticism.
There is in all this a terrible kind of frozenness. As with biblical Creationists, evolutionary psychologists want to limit genesis to a long-ago event, after which human development is basically arrested. This chill goes even deeper, for we see here an almost pathological insistence on a literal material foundation for knowledge. Human behavior cannot be subject to the vicissitudes of something as ephemeral as culture, it must be founded in a solid base — ergo, genes. Again this parallels biblical fundamentalism in which literalism serves to stave off the unbearable problem of interpretation — once any word is questioned, the whole shebang is up for grabs. The only sure-fire solution is to take each word, every word, as a material fact.
Genetic literalists, like biblical literalists, cannot bear ambiguity. Hence the obsession on both fronts with Truth and the endless assertions that We have it. Desire for Literal Truth is, of course, a recurring motif in human history, especially in ages of anxiety, like ours. Across the religious spectrum, fundamentalism is on the rise as people search for solidity and simply the courage to go on. We would be mistaken to think that scientific communities are not also subject to such psychological pressures.
One of the very strengths of modern science is its tremendous flexibility; its methodologies and mindsets have been applied to phenomena as diverse as galaxies and sunflowers. It has even been taken up by biblical literalists who have now developed a so-called “creation science,” which purports to demonstrate through geological evidence that formations such as the Grand Canyon are just a few thousand years old. With enough faith and ingenuity, almost anything can be “proved” through science. Like fossils, genes encode a record of the development of life on Earth, but, as with biblical texts, how we interpret that record is a matter of choice. You can‘t always believe what you read. Literalism itself is just one option.