The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

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by Steven Pinker

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Our conceptions of human nature affect every aspect of our lives, from the way we raise our children to the political movements we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the very idea. They fear that discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify…  See more details below


Our conceptions of human nature affect every aspect of our lives, from the way we raise our children to the political movements we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the very idea. They fear that discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert social change, to dissolve personal responsibility, and to strip life of meaning and purpose. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, bestselling author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked dogmas: the Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits), the Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology). Each dogma carries a moral burden, so their defenders have engaged in desperate tactics to discredit the scientists who are now challenging them.

Pinker injects calm and rationality into these debates by showing that equality, progress, responsibility, and purpose have nothing to fear from discoveries about a rich human nature. He disarms even the most menacing threats with clear thinking, common sense, and pertinent facts from science and history. Despite its popularity among intellectuals during much of the twentieth century, he argues, the doctrine of the Blank Slate may have done more harm than good. It denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces hardheaded analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of government, violence, parenting, and the arts. Pinker shows that an acknowledgment of human nature that is grounded in science and common sense, far from being dangerous, can complement insights about the human condition made by millennia of artists and philosophers. All this is done in the style that earned his previous books many prizes and worldwide acclaim: wit, lucidity, and insight into matters great and small.

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Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
Bestselling author Steven Pinker plunges into the fray with this wide-ranging look at the seemingly intractable debate on nature versus nurture. Well known for his popular works on language and cognition, Pinker takes on an even bigger subject here, going to the heart of what it means to be human. Ideas that have permeated our culture, such as John Locke's "blank slate," are now known to be misleading. An infant's mind is not simply a tablet waiting to receive a blueprint for whatever we want the child to become. Rather, the infant enters the world as a highly complex being with an agenda already mapped out by its genes. Unfortunately, in Pinker's view, new findings in this area from the biological sciences are attacked ferociously by commentators on both the left and the right who believe that acknowledging any innate human qualities amounts to racism, sexism, nihilism, and/or a reactionary view of human development.

Pinker argues that scientific insights into human nature need to be separated from political and moral issues, and that the ideals of equality, compassion, and social progress need not depend on the idea that individual development is exclusively determined by education and environment. Indeed, he believes that a refusal to recognize that our true natures are influenced by both instinct and culture will leave us unequipped to analyze pressing issues. Passionately argued but never shrill, Pinker's manifesto is a compelling, highly accessible, and elegantly constructed synthesis of current thinking about human nature that avoids the traps of reductionism and political correctness and is sure to inspire much comment and debate. Deirdre Mullane

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The Blank Slate

The Modern Denial of Human Nature
By Steven Pinker

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2003 Steven Pinker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0142003344

Chapter One

Everyone has a theory of human nature. Everyone has to anticipate the behavior of others, and that means we all need theories about what makes people tick. A tacit theory of human nature-that behavior is caused by thoughts and feelings-is embedded in the very way we think about people. We fill out this theory by introspecting on our own minds and assuming that our fellows are like ourselves, and by watching people's behavior and filing away generalizations. We absorb still other ideas from our intellectual climate: from the expertise of authorities and the conventional wisdom of the day.

Our theory of human nature is the wellspring of much in our lives. We consult it when we want to persuade or threaten, inform or deceive. It advises us on how to nurture our marriages, bring up our children, and control our own behavior. Its assumptions about learning drive our educational policy; its assumptions about motivation drive our policies on economics, law, and crime. And because it delineates what people can achieve easily, what they can achieve only with sacrifice or pain, and what they cannot achieve at all, it affects our values: what we believe we can reasonably strive for as individuals and as a society. Rival theories of human nature are entwined in different ways of life and different political systems, and have been a source of much conflict over the course of history.

For millennia, the major theories of human nature have come from religion. The Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, offers explanations for much of the subject matter now studied by biology and psychology. Humans are made in the image of God and are unrelated to animals. Women are derivative of men and destined to be ruled by them. The mind is an immaterial substance: it has powers possessed by no purely physical structure, and can continue to exist when the body dies. The mind is made up of several components, including a moral sense, an ability to love, a capacity for reason that recognizes whether an act conforms to ideals of goodness, and a decision faculty that chooses how to behave. Although the decision faculty is not bound by the laws of cause and effect, it has an innate tendency to choose sin. Our cognitive and perceptual faculties work accurately because God implanted ideals in them that correspond to reality and because he coordinates their functioning with the outside world. Mental health comes from recognizing God's purpose, choosing good and repenting sin, and loving God and one's fellow humans for God's sake.

The Judeo-Christian theory is based on events narrated in the Bible. We know that the human mind has nothing in common with the minds of animals because the Bible says that humans were created separately. We know that the design of women is based on the design of men because in the second telling of the creation of women Eve was fashioned from the rib of Adam. Human decisions cannot be the inevitable effects of some cause, we may surmise, because God held Adam and Eve responsible for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, implying that they could have chosen otherwise. Women are dominated by men as punishment for Eve's disobedience, and men and women inherit the sinfulness of the first couple.

The Judeo-Christian conception is still the most popular theory of human nature in the United States. According to recent polls, 76 percent of Americans believe in the biblical account of creation, 79 percent believe that the miracles in the Bible actually took place, 76 percent believe in angels, the devil, and other immaterial souls, 67 percent believe they will exist in some form after their death, and only 15 percent believe that Darwin's theory of evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on Earth. Politicians on the right embrace the religious theory explicitly, and no mainstream politician would dare contradict it in public. But the modern sciences of cosmology, geology, biology, and archaeology have made it impossible for a scientifically literate person to believe that the biblical story of creation actually took place. As a result, the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature is no longer explicitly avowed by most academics, journalists, social analysts, and other intellectually engaged people.

Nonetheless, every society must operate with a theory of human nature, and our intellectual mainstream is committed to another one. The theory is seldom articulated or overtly embraced, but it lies at the heart of a vast number of beliefs and policies. Bertrand Russell wrote, "Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day." For intellectuals today, many of those convictions are about psychology and social relations. I will refer to those convictions as the Blank Slate: the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.

That theory of human nature-namely, that it barely exists-is the topic of this book. Just as religions contain a theory of human nature, so theories of human nature take on some of the functions of religion, and the Blank Slate has become the secular religion of modern intellectual life. It is seen as a source of values, so the fact that it is based on a miracle-a complex mind arising out of nothing-is not held against it. Challenges to the doctrine from skeptics and scientists have plunged some believers into a crisis of faith and have led others to mount the kinds of bitter attacks ordinarily aimed at heretics and infidels. And just as many religious traditions eventually reconciled themselves to apparent threats from science (such as the revolutions of Copernicus and Darwin), so, I argue, will our values survive the demise of the Blank Slate.

The chapters in this part of the book (Part I) are about the ascendance of the Blank Slate in modern intellectual life, and about the new view of human nature and culture that is beginning to challenge it. In succeeding parts we will witness the anxiety evoked by this challenge (Part II) and see how the anxiety may be assuaged (Part III). Then I will show how a richer conception of human nature can provide insight into language, thought, social life, and morality (Part IV) and how it can clarify controversies on politics, violence, gender, childrearing, and the arts (Part V). Finally I will show how the passing of the Blank Slate is less disquieting, and in some ways less revolutionary, than it first appears (Part VI).

The Official Theory

"Blank slate" is a loose translation of the medieval Latin term tabula rasa-literally, "scraped tablet." It is commonly attributed to the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), though in fact he used a different metaphor. Here is the famous passage from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience.

Locke was taking aim at theories of innate ideas in which people were thought to be born with mathematical ideals, eternal truths, and a notion of God. His alternative theory, empiricism, was intended both as a theory of psychology-how the mind works-and as a theory of epistemology-how we come to know the truth. Both goals helped motivate his political philosophy, often honored as the foundation of liberal democracy. Locke opposed dogmatic justifications for the political status quo, such as the authority of the church and the divine right of kings, which had been touted as self-evident truths. He argued that social arrangements should be reasoned out from scratch and agreed upon by mutual consent, based on knowledge that any person could acquire. Since ideas are grounded in experience, which varies from person to person, differences of opinion arise not because one mind is equipped to grasp the truth and another is defective, but because the two minds have had different histories. Those differences therefore ought to be tolerated rather than suppressed. Locke's notion of a blank slate also undermined a hereditary royalty and aristocracy, whose members could claim no innate wisdom or merit if their minds had started out as blank as everyone else's. It also spoke against the institution of slavery, because slaves could no longer be thought of as innately inferior or subservient.

During the past century the doctrine of the Blank Slate has set the agenda for much of the social sciences and humanities. As we shall see, psychology has sought to explain all thought, feeling, and behavior with a few simple mechanisms of learning. The social sciences have sought to explain all customs and social arrangements as a product of the socialization of children by the surrounding culture: a system of words, images, stereotypes, role models, and contingencies of reward and punishment. A long and growing list of concepts that would seem natural to the human way of thinking (emotions, kinship, the sexes, illness, nature, the world) are now said to have been "invented" or "socially constructed."

The Blank Slate has also served as a sacred scripture for political and ethical beliefs. According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences-by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards-and you can change the person. Underachievement, poverty, and antisocial behavior can be ameliorated; indeed, it is irresponsible not to do so. And discrimination on the basis of purportedly inborn traits of a sex or ethnic group is simply irrational.

The Blank Slate is often accompanied by two other doctrines, which have also attained a sacred status in modern intellectual life. My label for the first of the two is commonly attributed to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), though it really comes from John Dryden's The Conquest of Granada, published in 1670:

I am as free as Nature first made man,]BRK Ere the base laws of servitude began,]BRK When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists' discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization. In 1755 Rousseau wrote:

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. . . .

The more we reflect on this state, the more convinced we shall be that it was the least subject of any to revolutions, the best for man, and that nothing could have drawn him out of it but some fatal accident, which, for the public good, should never have happened. The example of the savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species.

First among the authors that Rousseau had in mind was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who had presented a very different picture:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. . . .

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes believed that people could escape this hellish existence only by surrendering their autonomy to a sovereign person or assembly. He called it a leviathan, the Hebrew word for a monstrous sea creature subdued by Yahweh at the dawn of creation.

Much depends on which of these armchair anthropologists is correct. If people are noble savages, then a domineering leviathan is unnecessary. Indeed, by forcing people to delineate private property for the state to recognize-property they might otherwise have shared-the leviathan creates the very greed and belligerence it is designed to control. A happy society would be our birthright; all we would need to do is eliminate the institutional barriers that keep it from us. If, in contrast, people are naturally nasty, the best we can hope for is an uneasy truce enforced by police and the army. The two theories have implications for private life as well. Every child is born a savage (that is, uncivilized), so if savages are naturally gentle, childrearing is a matter of providing children with opportunities to develop their potential, and evil people are products of a society that has corrupted them. If savages are naturally nasty, then childrearing is an arena of discipline and conflict, and evil people are showing a dark side that was insufficiently tamed.

The actual writings of philosophers are always more complex than the theories they come to symbolize in the textbooks. In reality, the views of Hobbes and Rousseau are not that far apart. Rousseau, like Hobbes, believed (incorrectly) that savages were solitary, without ties of love or loyalty, and without any industry or art (and he may have out-Hobbes'd Hobbes in claiming they did not even have language). Hobbes envisioned-indeed, literally drew-his leviathan as an embodiment of the collective will, which was vested in it by a kind of social contract; Rousseau's most famous work is called The Social Contract, and in it he calls on people to subordinate their interests to a "general will."

Nonetheless, Hobbes and Rousseau limned contrasting pictures of the state of nature that have inspired thinkers in the centuries since. No one can fail to recognize the influence of the doctrine of the Noble Savage in contemporary consciousness.


Excerpted from The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker Copyright © 2003 by Steven Pinker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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"Steven Pinker has written an extremely good book-clear, well argued, fair, learned, tough, witty, humane, stimulating." (The Washington Post)

"Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read. It's also highly persuasive." (Time)

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Blank Slate 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A book as ambitious and comprehensive as Steven Pinker¿s ¿The Blank Slate¿ deserves an extensive review. This is only an attempt to suggest some of its impressive scope and excellence. The title would be more descriptive if it were simply ¿Human Nature¿. The ¿blank slate¿ is merely one of three fallacious myths which, Pinker shows, obscure the true understanding of human nature that evolutionary biology affords. (Pinker is one of a trio of modern philosopher- scientists, along with Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett, who eloquently examine the full implications of Darwinism for society). The ¿blank slate¿ is the notion that every aspect of human behavior is the product of experience, including socialization and education. A corollary is that the human mind is infinitely malleable. The ¿noble savage¿ is the belief that primitive people untouched by civilization are naturally peaceful and virtuous, that violence, greed and the host of other evils are in no way inherent in man but are the product only of corrupt society. The ¿ghost in the machine¿ is the conviction that science, such as biology and its branches, is inadequate to explain the operation of the human mind¿that the mechanistic approach to comprehending consciousness profoundly diminishes and demeans the human condition, and therefore supernatural explanations must be invoked. Pinker¿s achievement is to demolish these fallacies with clarity and temperateness. For me, this book is the most awesomely lucid and intelligent explication I have ever read of a thesis which touches on such an enormous range of contentious issues. What does science, free of the wishful thinking, misunderstanding, superstition, and error represented by the three fallacies allow us to comprehend about racism, human aggression, politics, international relations, language, abortion, world trade, love & sex, gender, child-rearing, and the arts? That Pinker had the audacity or courage to take on all these ¿hot button¿ issues is not the most impressive fact about this book what is most stunning is that he meets the challenge by having important insights to share in all these matters, and more. For instance, his discussion of the ¿gender gap¿ is the most thorough, cogent, and constructive that I have seen. All these weighty matters are not merely personal opinions of the author. His erudition is evident. He cites examples, case studies, quotations from sources as different as Calvin & Hobbes cartoons and René Descartes. His notes run over 19 pages of fine print. His references take up 29 pages of the same fine print. And yet, though his subject matter could not be more serious, Pinker wields a witty and lively pen.The thinking is deep, but its expression is as clear and refreshing as spring water. Here he is on genetics: ¿...all this talk about genes that influence behavior does not mean that we are cuckoo clocks or player pianos, mindlessly executing the dictates of DNA. The genes in question are those that endow us with the neural systems of conscience, deliberation, and will, and when we talk about the selection of such genes, we are talking about the various ways those faculties could have evolved.¿ A thoughtful reading of ¿The Blank Slate¿ could not only evaporate the fallacies that have misled and confused so many, including some scientists, but it should allay fears that Darwinism, evolutionary biology, and genetics are somehow dehumanizing, for Pinker shows that they are truly humanizing in the deepest sense.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, attempts to debunk three linked but separable dogmas: that the human mind has no innate traits but can be treated as if it were a blank slate to be written upon by parents and society, that human beings in a precivilized state of nature are good but these noble savages are corrupted by civilization, and that the human mind (or soul - the Ghost in the Machine) exists apart from the body and is able to make choices free from biologic control. Pinker proposes instead that we naked apes have inherited our current mental abilities through natural processes that govern all life on this planet and mostly have arisen through the inexorable process of Darwinian selection. In doing so, Pinker addresses the core question of philosophy: what does it mean to be human? Biologists recognize four agents of evolution: Darwinian selection, mutation, gene drift and gene flow. But there is a fifth method for perpetuating biological genetic information, overlooked by many contemporary biologists, including Pinker. Perhaps 5000 to 10000 generations ago, a catastrophe of earth-shaking proportions occurred. Somewhere in Africa, a female naked ape gave birth to the world's first psychopath. Unlike other members of his species, at some stage in his growth to adulthood he became self-aware. This first psychopath passed on to his progeny whatever biological characteristics that had enabled him to become self-aware. But this itself was not a catastrophe. One of his descendants became aware that not only was she self-aware, but that others of her kind were also self-aware. This was the catastrophe. This awareness of the awareness of others helped her offspring to organize their affairs in such a way as to out-reproduce their psychopathic kin and their non-self-aware brethren. They spread like a plague upon the planet. Mutually self-aware beings possess a fifth method of affecting evolution: societal control over nature. This results from deliberate willful acts of individual members of the society, acting alone or in concert, to control the way in which both they and other species reproduce. These willful beings bent nature to their purpose: they developed agricultural. They developed language that could be used to transfer information from one individual to others outside of the family group, even from one generation to another. They developed art. They developed science. Eventually, they developed the mind of Steven Pinker. Steven Pinker can willfully choose to ignore the Ghost in the Machine and propose that free will does not exist. The very act of making such a choice, however, only proves that it does. To err is human. Two out of three isn't so bad. Indeed, this book should be a required text for every student of philosophy. We need to reconcile what it means to be human with the biological baggage with which we have been endowed. Steven Pinker goes a long way toward exploring and explaining our biological underpinnings. But the Ghost remains in the Machine.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dr. Pinker has written the last book we need about 20th century evolutionary psychology. That field has now been replaced by 21st century Cultural Biology, as explained in the new book 'Liars, Lovers, and Heroes' about the new developmental neuroscience of brain and behavior. The history of these paradigm shifts in the science of human nature is described well in another new book, 'Sense and Nonsense' (about evolution of humans). So Dr. Pinker has provided a nice and readable conclusion to the old approach that was called evolutionary psychology. This makes his book a "must read" for those who want to understand the origins of the new Cultural Biology movement. Overall, I am happy that psychological human science is finally becoming more realistic and constructive.
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Kim_Duppy More than 1 year ago
This book shaped (or I should say re-shaped) much of my thinking about human nature. The chapter entitled "Culture Vultures" was especially enlightening, as it provides a solid scientific study of what many in my humanities field continue to bandy about without structure. I also loved the "Hot Buttons" chapters, as the analyses led me to other influential books. Well worth multiple readings.
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RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
This book covers a lot of ground: philosophy, genetics, cognition, sociology and academic infighting. Steven Pinker, writing with persuasiveness and craft, shows why the doctrine of the "Blank Slate" became so important to 20th century intellectuals that they were willing to lie, cheat, libel and even threaten those who dissented. Yet, the dissenters were right. Given what science now knows of genetics, the idea that people are blank slates at birth is simply untenable. getAbstract finds that the author, despite a few hints of personal prejudices (ah, there's human nature again), does an excellent job of grappling with enormously challenging subjects.