In his latest and by far his most ambitious work, Steven Pinker tells us, in a lively but dispassionate voice of sweet reason, that the answer is yes. His demolition of cultural relativism may well make him a lot of enemies. He's touched on many of these same ideas before, but now he is spelling out the consequences - and the incompatibility of those consequences with the received wisdom of most of the last century.
His fundamental message is: Yes, Virginia, there is a human nature. People of all cultures are born with a host of inborn predispositions - to acquire language and music, to favor kin over strangers, to desire sex and to be ashamed of it, to value even trades and to punish cheaters, and dozens more. Our common nature springs from our common biology; it is not very malleable, and it is not "socially constructed." Cultural diversity is marvelous, but it is all a variation on an immutable theme; and there have never been any human cultures free of war, of greed, or of prescribed gender roles. (Any more than there have ever been any free of conflict resolution techniques, altruism, and shared parenting.)
His secondary theme is that the differences between people, so much smaller than what we have in common, are also primarily biologically determined. A juggernaut of data has finally put the nature/nurture controversy to rest, at least from a scientific standpoint, and the final score is pretty much nature one, nurture zero. Fifty to seventy percent of the variation between individuals - in intelligence, in personality, in political leanings, or just about any other mental character you care to name - derives from the genes; zero to ten percent derives from the home environment; and the mysterious remainder is due to chance or to non-parental environment.
We have been conditioned in recent decades to think of both these contentions as shocking. They violate two precepts Pinker designates the "sacred doctrines in modern intellectual life." He calls them The Blank Slate (with a nod to Locke), and The Noble Savage (with a nod to Rousseau.) The first holds that ideas, likes, dislikes, and personalities are all the result of what Locke called "sense impressions", that is, they are all imprinted on us by our environments. The second is a little more modest, but forms the seductive core of the first, because we'd all like it to be true. It holds that all our unpleasant ideas, likes, dislikes, and neurotic tics are forced by a wicked society upon an infant slate which is, if not blank, devoid of all blemish.
Pinker spends the first hundred pages tracing the lineage of these sacred doctrines (and of a third, neither so carefully examined nor so carefully defined, which he calls The Ghost in the Machine. The philosophers who originated the phrase were trying to deny the reality of consciousness, but what Pinker is trying to deny turns out to be narrower - essentially, the doctrine that whatever biological nature we may have can be overriden by a soul or self with a free will independent of biology.) He explores what has made the three doctrines attractive to all of us, but especially to the academic left, and the deep fears which have made it taboo, as E.O. Wilson found to his cost, to contradict them.
He then explains, carefully and (at least with respect to the first two) convincingly, why the fears in question are groundless - and why we should rather fear the ill effects of suppressing this new knowledge about human nature.
Finally, he takes up in a series of individual chapters several of the hot-button political and social issues that are affected by the existence of an objective human nature, and by the largely genetic basis of most human differences: the source of the left/right divide in politics, the root causes of violence, what objective gender differences (and the biological influences bearing on rape) do and do not mean for public policy, the coming irrelevance of the child-rearing advice industry, and a rather curmudgeonly take on what he sees as the well-deserved unpopularity of avant-garde art.
The child-rearing chapter is particularly eye-opening, while the violence chapter offers some fairly fresh ideas, not so much on its origins, which are the same for us as for chimpanzees, but on the variables affecting its expression. Also notable is Pinker's calm, complete demolition, on strictly biological grounds, of the notion that an embryo is "ensouled" at the moment of conception. (Perhaps still more notable, and indicative of the book's even tenor for all its polemics, is his refusal to draw any pro-choice conclusion from that.)
It's a joy to see some of Pinker's more irrational targets, from die-hard Marxism to the rejection of science itself by "critical theory" to the bromide that rape isn't "about" sexual desire, skewered with such swift and classical neatness. The longer lasting pleasures will come from a leisurely unpacking and sifting of all his positive conjectures, conclusions, and insights. It's a book you can zip through in a couple of nights, or return to for thought-fodder for years.
Pinker does himself credit, though, by anticipating this objection in the very first sentence of his premise, and goes on to effectively demonstrate that, no, this battle isn't quite over yet, as is seen in the oft rabid reaction to such recent books as "A Natural History of Rape" and "The Nurture Assumption." Pinker's main rhetorical flaw in "How The Mind Works" was structure -- he saved the tastiest bits for the latter half, frontloading the book with abstruse information on computational processing and vision research that, while valuable, probably drove away half of his potential audience.
The same phenomenon occurs here, but to a lesser extent -- the first half of the book isn't going to tell Bolling anything he didn't already suspect, but it does a good job of presenting a readable history of the whole "Blank Slate" fallacy. Pinker cuts some corners -- he conflates the Blank Slate with "The Noble Savage," which isn't precisely the same thing, but the thrust is there, and as the book goes on and he draws closer and closer to the controversies of the present, the stakes start to rise in a quite page-turning manner.
It's the second half of the book that's really worth your money, though, in which Pinker nimbly inverts virtually every Social Constructionist theory to demonstrate that what superficially seem like noble and idealistic (if misguided) principles -- that people are "born good" and it's society/parents/the media that ruins them -- are actually far more nihilistic and bleak in their implications than the much more likely thesis: we're incredibly complex animals whose instincts, while able to be subverted or counteracted by our conscious minds, cannot be completely ignored. To me -- an nth generation leftist who nearly ended up a Republican by the end of college, thanks to the truly ludicrous theories being bandied about in the early 90s -- the most valuable thing this book does is provide a basis for maintaining a progressive ideology without having to subscribe to pie-in-the-sky theories about how men and women are precisely identical other than their reproductive organs, violence is entirely a product of a dysfunctional culture, rape could not possibly have an evolutionarily adaptive purpose, and all children who end up doing wrong as adults are the products of shoddy parenting. As Pinker points out over and over, the problem with this sort of conflation of Is and Ought (i.e., nature and morality) is that you wind up painting yourselves into a corner -- if it turns out that, say, rape does have an evolutionary adaptive source, one would be forced to conclude that therefore it's okey-dokey. Better to separate the two and conclude that rape is evil because it's a horrific act of violence that can scar the victim for life, not because it's "unnatural," and to try to figure out how the circumstances that cause it to arise can best be prevented.
Pinker has his flaws, of course -- he can be glib at times, he doesn't always attempt to be even-handed, his cultural references are hit-or-miss (if anything, Public Enemy is an _anti-_gangsta rap group, and Borges and Wallace are certainly examples of modernist/postmodernist writers that don't fail to account for human nature and aren't merely products of stylistic oneupsmanship), and he fails to address the pressing issue of how evolution could possibly have selected for his goofy-ass Geddy Lee mullet. But flaws aside, this is an incredibly valuable work that points to where the Left is going to have to go in the 21st century if it doesn't want to wind up eating its tail as it did at the end of the 20th. As Peter Singer put it in his essential treatise, "A Darwinian Left": "Wood carvers presented with a piece of timber and a request to make wooden bowls from it do not simply begin carving according to a design drawn up before they have seen the wood. Instead they will examine the material with which they are to work, and modify their design in order to suit its grain. Political philosophers and the revolutionaries or reformers who have followed them have all too often worked out their ideal society, or their reforms, and sought to apply them without knowing much about the human beings who must carry out, and live with, their plans. Then, when the plans don't work, they blame traitors within their ranks, or sinister agents of outside forces, for the failure. Instead, those seeking to reshape society must understand the tendencies inherent in human beings, and modify their abstract ideals in order to suit them." Or, as King of Ants E.O. Wilson more succinctly said of Marxism: "Wonderful theory. Wrong species."