Temperament and the Fear of Imperfectibility

The “Fear of Imperfectibility is the second of the four reasons that Steve Pinker* suggests as the motivation for rejecting the idea of innate temperament, and clinging to alternative explanations for human nature.  Last week I looked at the first–the Fear of Inequality, but I would like to start here by looking at the rivals to innate temperament.

The principle alternative is the Blank Slate–the concept that we arrive in the world literally as an empty tablet to be written upon, or as a ball of clay, ready to be shaped in any direction by the events we encounter as we grow and develop. Pinker quotes an almost perfect description of this written by a modern day scientist,   Geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote on a book jacket “our genetic endowments confer a plasticity of psychic and physical development, so that in the course of our lives, from conception to death, each of us, irrespective of race, class, or sex can develop virtually any identity that lies within the human ambit.” So our genetic endowment is for total plasticity.

A secondary version of the blank slate is what Pinker calls the Noble Savage.  I think of it as the pretty nice blank slate.  Here the idea is more that we are born peaceable and kind, rather than completely blank, but commonly corrupted by civilization.  Pinker cites the philosopher Rousseau as saying in 1755 that “So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.”  This view has a large chicken or egg problem since you have to wonder where the stupid brutes and the pernicious civilized man came from.  Presumably we were all in that primitive state at the beginning–so where, in this model, is the source of the corruption?

A third alternative Pinker calls the “ghost in the machine”. He attributes the beginning of this idea to the philosopher/mathematician, Rene Descarte, who proposed that all humans had both a body and a mind or soul, that lived on after death.  This has religious implications, of course, but it also has had lots of non-religious uses in assuming that we are perfectible by our own wills and actions.  Pinker notes that “a ghost in the machine is the ultimate liberator of human will, including the will to change society…”  This idea fills in a logical problem about free will and self-improvement in both the Blank Slate and Noble Savage models.  A blank slate could certainly be changed by personal experiences and social forces, but it is hard to see what agency would produce “self” improvement.  Similarly the pleasant Noble Savage does not seem to have a driving inner force since the corruptions of civilization may simply turn off all this gentle kindness.  Non-religious scientists that follow this model immediately fall into a logical conflict.  If you do not believe in an immortal soul, and a great many scientists do not, then whence cometh this will or force or ghost?

So, back to the alternative–innate temperament.  In my opinion, only when you assume that the basics of human nature are built into our DNA can you come up with a logical model for a being that could  struggle toward behavioral changes.  With that assumption you can imagine an organism that strives for its own well-being.  Just as evolutionary theory assumes that all creatures fight to survive and propagate, it is not unlikely that creatures also strive to survive well.  At the level of humans, who do clearly aggress and hate, love and attach, relish sensations, strive to accomplish, envy the success of others, etc. it is reasonable to suggest that “self-improvement” is simply the result of a motivation to get many different needs satisfied, as well as possible. Depending on the balance of genetic needs and drives in the individual, this might be very good for the larger society or very bad, but for any one person, the aim would be surviving well.

And yet, Pinker suggests with respect to fear number two: Fear of Imperfectability, we tend to reject the idea of innate temperament because we see it as leaving us stuck in the mud of life, just as we are–no hope of improvement.  Reflecting on this, I have the same feeling that I expressed about the Fear of Inequality–that it is not so much an individual fear (if my temperament and my abilities are genetically controlled, then I personally am stuck) as much as it is a fear about humans collectively.  Millions of people have cheerfully taken the MBTI, for example, and happily accepted themselves as ESTJs, INTPs etc. without apparently feeling doomed.

Pinker, himself, stresses the social, rather than individual concerns about Imperfectability.  He notes a common, but unnecessary assumption that if you once say that violence, selfishness, rape, adultery, etc. are natural, that you are also saying that these things are inherently good.  And if they are inherently good, that automatically justifies these actions.  All who accept the equation that natural = good, and are repulsed by war, destructive selfishness, male sexual aggression, and related behaviors, would wish to believe that such qualities are not innately given.  The problem is that this whole view is way too simplistic.

If you understand that aggressive drives for self-preservation exist hand in hand with needs and desires for community and for social acceptance in the same individuals, then you realize that people can and do behave well because it is in their long range interest to do so.  This is not merely avoidance of short-run consequences (police, jails, prisons), but a seeking for maximizing a variety of needs, including those for trusting, sharing and intimacy.  Doing this well requires both intelligence and maturity, and maturity, itself, is a process of long-term developmental self-improvement.  In our book Parenting by Temperament, **we describe the self-centeredness of the infant and toddler this way:

…young children are both cooperative and selfish and demanding–depending on the circumstance of the moment.  This is not only okay, it is absolutely necessary.  Because they really have to motivate themselves, children also come equipped with determination, perseverence and a perfectly useful sense that their needs are the most important thing in the world….

Writers may describe this as self-centered, or that even more dreadful sounding word–egotistical.  Of course it is.  What you may or may not have considered is that this is a good thing.  Nature sees to it that children have the tools, first to motivate parents to feed and care for them, and then to allow them to master everything they come upon, as fast as their little neurons can get it together.  The wet or hungry baby who lay there thinking “oh dear, I wonder if anyone would get upset if I cried?” would be at serious risk of malnutrition or at least a lot of soggy diapers.

And a little later we add, concerning a toddler in trouble:

If your two-year-old could tell you what her true value system is at this point it would go something like “I want you to love me completely, totally, all of the time, no matter what I do–and let me get my hands on that !#&% vase when I want to.”

The whole process of growing up, from that point on, is learning how to get as much as possible of the things and experiences that attract you, while maintaining the love and approval of those around you by learning to respect their rights and needs.  It is tough and slow going but far more creative and far more true to the real process in the human world than the scenarios of those who suffer from the fear of imperfectability.

The belief that if a quality is inherent in human nature we are forced to accept it as always good is an idea that Pinker calls the “naturalistic fallacy”.  He suggests that there is an opposite error at work that he calls the “moralistic fallacy” saying that “if a trait is moral it must be found in nature.  That is, not only does “is” imply “ought,” but”ought implies “is”.  Nature, including human nature is stipulated to have only virtuous traits (no needless killings, no rapacity, no exploitation), or no traits at all, because the alternative is too horrible to accept.”

This might be seen most easily in the extremes of feminist belief.  Men and women may look a bit different, may even be a bit different in reproductive functions, but in-all-other- functions, there-are-no-differences.  Like the noble savage, little boys are all kind and peaceloving, until social expectations lead them to play with trucks, then guns and other forms of mayhem. (This raises the noble savage question as to how society developed these destructive expectations.)  Male and female brains are identical (well, except for some tiny-teeny areas devoted to reproduction).  Men and women have identically powerful sex drives, and men only participate in rape more often as form of power assertion.   Are these all firmly established facts?  Not really.  In particular the differences in male and female brains are turning up with greater and greater frequency as research proceeds.  The important point is that these things are believed to be true because they “ought” to be, not because the evidence for them is overwhelming.

Collectively it is certainly true that men have dominated women throughout most of history.  Changes here have been desperately needed and profoundly welcome.  But to go from that historical truth to a position that insists that there are no important differences between men and women, is a destructive overshoot.

And that brings me back around to the idea that the Fear of Imperfectability is primarily found at the social or group level, not at the level of private individuals.  It is the fear that things which we (or some of us) strongly feel ought to be true, perhaps are not true. And–if they are not true, then our world truly is not (absolutely) perfectible.  There is no question but what this is a major reason for rejection of innate temperament among scholars, activists, and to a much lesser degree–the general public.  I think, however, that it is the passion for perfectibility that is really scary.  There is an old saying that The Best is the Enemy of the Good, meaning that in our frantic search for perfection we fail to see the very real possibilities for improvement.  By distorting the reality of innate temperament and the resulting individual differences, we undermine some of the very changes that we seek.

Coming next:  The Fear of Determinism

Selected references:

Harkey, N. & Jourgensen, T. (2009). Parenting by Temperament:  The New, Revised, Raising Cuddlebugs and BraveHearts.  (Found at Amazon.com)

Pinker, S. (2002).  The Blank Slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature.   New York:  Viking


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3 Responses to Temperament and the Fear of Imperfectibility

  1. Dannie says:

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  2. INTJ says:

    Hi Lars,

    I enjoyed your thoughts about this. I don’t see the point in worrying about these fears either, on a personal level, but Pinker spends most of his arguments on the implications for society. I may not be doing a good job of getting his ideas across. Maybe you just have to read the book! On this idea that everything “natural” is good, I think his reasoning is something like this: ‘Since many people get very upset when evolutionary psychologists say that human aggression, or male adultery, etc. is natural, they seem to be interpreting those findings as meaning that those are good things that should be allowed in society.’

    I am not sure that this makes sense but at least roughly, I think that is what he suggests.


  3. Lars says:

    Hm, i think one central problem of all these fears is that we always want to be better than others. Or at least, not worse than others. If you hear 10% of all people are smarter than you, thats no problem. But if you hear 60% of all others are smarter than you, you feel bad. Here in germany, for example, most people think they are better car drivers than others, which in itself is impossible, because of course everyone can’t be better than everyone. Or ist it possible? If you look at strenghts and weaknesses, everyone should find some things where he is better than others and some where he is worse than others.
    The unscientific solution to this problem would be to tell all people they are smarter than the average ;). Or at least say everyone CAN be smarter than the average, if he works on it. Because regardless of how much influence inborn temperament really has, you can always influence it yourself in one way or the other.
    Because of that, those “Blank slate” and completely inborn temperament views are both much too rigid. Surely there are some things inborn and some things influenced. The question for science should be how much and what is each?
    The question for the people interpreting science is more a philosophical one. A long time ago some people where shocked that we are not the center of the universe. A not so long time ago people where shocked that we descended from apes. This shocks are not to blame on science, but on the people, what we make out of this science. How we react if it rattles on our believe system. If we fear it and make it a big issue, or if we see how we can fit it in our believe system without doing any harm.

    I for myself don’t see the real problem with those fears, because, even if there are people who are (innately) more intelligent than me, more physically fit or whatever, I don’t really care. I like what i am, and i know, i as well as every other person have my own strenghts and weaknesses. Some of them may come from innate temperament, some from enviromental influences, some from experiences and some from more or less hard work. So what?
    Instead of fearing what we or others are, we should try to improve ourselves. Not to be better than others, but to be better ourselves. And we should help others improving themselves, regardless of their temperament.
    On a side note, i never heard of the idea that everything “natural” is good. Is this a religious thing? How can someone come to such a conclusion? Obviously there are natural viruses, diseases, disasters and on and on. Nature has many bad things to offer, as well as good things. And we shouldn’t forget that nature isn’t here for us, but for the sake of evolving itself. Nature itself doesn’t know whats good or bad.

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