As for Judy Harris, I am completely persuaded by her argument that socialization takes place in the peer group rather than in the family. This is not a banal claimmost child psychologists won't go near it. But it survives one empirical test after another. To take a few examples: kids almost always end up with the accent of their peers, never their parents. Children of culturally inept immigrants do just fine if they can learn the ropes from native-born peers. Children who are thrown together without an adult language to model will invent a language of their own. And many studies have shown that radical variations in parenting practice, such as whether you grow up in an Ozzie and Harriet family or a hippie commune, whether you have two parents of the same sex or one of each, whether you spent your hours in the family home or a day care center, whether you are an only child or come from a large family, or whether you were conceived the normal way or in a laboratory dish, leave no lasting marks on your personality, as long as you are part of a standard peer group.
What Harris's theory has not explained to my satisfaction, at least not yet, is the missing variation in personality per se. Personality and socialization aren't the same thing. Socialization is how you become a functioning person in a societyspeak the language, win friends, hold a job, wear the accepted kinds of clothing and so on. Personality is whether you're nice or nasty, bold or shy, conscientious or lackadaisical. Here's the problem. Let's to go back to our touchstone: identical twins brought up together, who share both their genes and their environment, but nonetheless are not identical in personality. They almost certainly will have grown up in the same peer groups, or at least the same kinds of peer groups, and their personalities and physical characteristics will tend to place them in the same niches within those peer groups. So peer groups by themselves can't explain the unexplained variation in personality.
To be fair, Harris points out that which niche you fill in a peer groupthe peacemaker, the loose cannon, the jester, the facilitator, and so onmight partly be determined by chance: which niche is left open when you find a circle of buddies to hang out with. I think there's something to that, but it's a special case of what might be an enormous role for chance in the shaping of who we are. In addition to which niche was open in your peer group, there are other unpredictable events that happened to each of as we grew up. Which twin got the top bunk bed, which got the bottom bunk bed? Did you get chased by a dog, or dropped on your head, or infected by a virus, or smiled on by a teacher?
And there are even more chance events in the wiring of the brain in utero and the first couple of years of life. We know that there isn't nearly enough information in the genome to specify the brain down to the last synapse, and that the brain isn't completely shaped by incoming sensory information either. Based on studies of the development of simple organisms like fruit flies and roundworms, we know that much in development is a matter of chance. You can have genetically homogeneous strains of roundworm brought up in the same monotonous laboratory conditions, and find that one lives three times as long as the other. Or two fruitflies from inbred strains, which are in effect clones, can be physically differentthey can have different numbers of bristles under each wing, for example. If in simple organisms like worms and flies can turn out differently for capricious and unpredictable reasons, then surely chance plays an even bigger role in the way our brains develop.
EDGE: Who influenced you to go down this path?
PINKER: When I was an undergraduate, I read Chomsky, who was one of the first to break the taboo against explanations that appeal to human nature. Decades ago he argued that our capacity for language is an innate ability of the human mind, and he connected his theories to enlightenment philosophers and political thinkers who acknowledged the importance of human nature. In graduate school my mentors were Steve Kosslyn, who trained me to be an experimental psychologist, and Roger Brown, who invented the modern science of language acquisition and got me interested in the topic. Roger was also a gifted writer, with a great wit and panache. He certainly inspired me to pay attention to clarity, style, and breadth in writing. Joan Bresnan, a brilliant linguist, was my postdoctoral adviser, and she sharpened my formal and computational and mathematical competence. Aside from these mentors, I was influenced by cognitive scientists like Warren McCullough, Herb Simon, Allen Newell, Marvin Minsky, George Miller, Gordon Bower, and John Anderson, who developed the computational theory of mind. Later, I was influenced by the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and Don Symons, who got me to read the work of George Williams, Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and John Maynard Smith. I have been interested in behavioral genetics ever since I read about the work of Tom Bouchard and David Lykken in Science in the late 1980s, but it was Judy Harris who really forced me to think through the implications of that work, and of work in social and personality development more generally.
EDGE: Who will be your critics?
PINKER: Certainly the postmodernists in the humanities. Also, many of the child psychologists who are still stuck on parents as the shapers of childrens' personality and intelligence. Third, the neural network modelers who have tried to revive the laws of association as an explanation for all aspects of language and cognition. Fourth, some of the more extreme enthusiasts of neural plasticity, who believe that the brain is infinitely malleable, and that this holds great promise for education and child-rearing and successful aging. Fifth, people with sympathies for the romantic revolutionary politics of the 60s and 70s, which is where the initial opposition to sociobiology came from. They have always been enraged by the claim that limitations on human nature might constrain our social arrangements.
EDGE: What about implications for other fields?
PINKER: The blank slate has had an enormous influence in far-flung fields. One example is architecture and urban planning. The 20th century saw the rise of a movement that has been called "authoritarian high modernism," which was contemporaneous with the ascendance of the blank slate. City planners believed that people's taste for green space, for ornament, for people-watching, for cozy places for intimate social gatherings, were just social constructions. They were archaic historical artifacts that were getting in the way of the orderly design of cities, and should be ignored by planners designing optimal cities according to so-called scientific principles.
Le Corbusier was the clearest example. He and other planners had a minimalist conception of human nature. A human being needs so many cubic of air per day, a temperature within a certain range, so many gallons of water, and so many square feet in which to sleep and work. Houses became "machines for living," and cities were designed around the most efficient way to satisfy this short list of needs, namely freeways, huge rectangular concrete housing projects, and open plazas. In extreme cases this led to the wastelands of planned cities like Brasilia; in milder cases it gave us the so-called urban renewal projects in American cities and the dreary highrises in the Soviet Union and English council flats. Ornamentation, human scale, green space, gardens, and comfortable social meeting places were written out of the cities because the planners had a theory of human nature that omitted human esthetic and social needs.
Another example is the arts. In the 20th century, modernism and post-modernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, and lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shockingagain, on the assumption that people's tastes for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any now that any schmo can afford a Mozart CD or can go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. And so art became baffling and uninterpretable without acquaintance with arcane theory.
By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don't think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. By denying people's sense of visual beauty in painting and sculpture, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, plot and narrative and character in fiction, the elite arts wrote off the vast majority of their audiencethe people who approach art in part for pleasure and edification rather than social one-upmanship. Today there are movements in the arts to reintroduce beauty and narrative and melody and other basic human pleasures. And they are considered radical extremists!
EDGE: Why do people still treat art and literary critics as the wisest and most relevant intellectuals? In terms of literature, why is it that in the leading cultural magazines, you can still find a lot more of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and Bloomsbury, than discussions about the issues you and other scientists are raising?
PINKER: One reason for the canonization of artists is a quirk of our moral sense. Many studies show that that people hallucinate moral virtue in other people who are high in statuspeople who are good-looking, or powerful, or well-connected, or artistically or athletically talented. Status and virtue are cross-wired in the human brain. We see it in language, where words like "noble" and "ugly" have two meanings. "Noble" can mean high in status or morally virtuous; "ugly" can mean physically unattractive or morally despicable. The deification of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. are obvious examples. I think this confusion leads intellectuals and artists themselves to believe that the elite arts and humanities are a kind of higher, exalted form of human endeavor. Anyone else having some claim to insights into the human condition is seen as a philistine, and possibly as immoral if they are seen as debunking the pretensions of those in the arts and the humanities.