The Blank Slate Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker picks up an idea he began to describe in The Language Instinct (1994) and How the Mind Works (1997): that there is a set of characteristics hard- wired in all human brains. Pinker proved that language is an instinct because all healthy children learn the logic of language in the same way and because the capacity to use language is found in an identifiable part of the brain. In other words, children do not learn language because adults teach it to them, but because they are genetically wired to do so. In The Blank Slate, Pinker presents evidence that humans are not entirely unique or entirely formed by their environment; they share a universal human nature. The idea of a human nature has been explored before by philosophers, artists, psychologists, and ethnographers, and Pinker described their work in his earlier books. Here he builds on and moves beyond the work of the anthropologist Donald E. Brown, who identified a list of “human universals,” or behavioral traits observed in all cultures around the world, to identify “deeper universals of mental structure that are revealed by theory and experiments.”

Part 1, comprising the first five chapters, is devoted to explaining and debunking three theories or doctrines—the blank slate, the noble savage and the ghost in the machine—that guided common understanding of human cognition and personality before the discoveries of new sciences, including cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and sociobiology. The blank slate is the idea that at birth the human brain is a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper waiting to be written on, with no innate knowledge or personality traits—no universal human nature. Everything individuals become can be traced to their environment: the way they are raised, their economic situation, illnesses that might befall them, and so on. According to this model, which can be traced back to the seventeenth century philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), all healthy children have the potential to grow up smart, or musical, or kind, or violent, if only they are brought up that way. Locke was arguing against the idea that societies should be shaped by divine right or by hereditary rulers; rather, he argued, all people started out equal and free, and should have equal chances to develop their talents.

A related idea is the notion of the noble savage, a term that comes from a seventeenth century poem by John Dryden (1631-1700). According to this theory, there is such a thing as human nature, an innate universal personality. This innate nature is good and strong and selfless; any violent or competitive urges humans might feel have been impressed upon them by a cruel modern world. Legends abound of supposedly peaceful societies in the wilds of undiscovered lands, and these stories can be traced back as far as the European explorers in the New World. Unexposed to technology and “civilization,” these mythical people live or lived without war, without wage gaps, without greed, and with intact nuclear families. If negative influences (for example, violent song lyrics) could be eliminated, the natural nobility of humans could be recaptured.

A third idea, which Pinker deals with less than with the others, is the ghost in the machine, which Pinker labels a “sacred doctrine.” The notion of the ghost in the machine, attributed to seventeenth century scientist René Descartes (1596-1650), splits human beings into two separate parts: the body and the mind or soul. The body is a machine and acts according to physical laws of electricity or chemistry. Within or above that body is the mind, or what some religions would call the soul. It is a distinct thing from the body, and it is what makes humans moral or immoral, and what gives a person “personality.”

Pinker draws on examples from several contemporary scientific studies in cognitive science (his own field), sociobiology, and genetics to make the case that the slate is far from blank, that there is indeed a universal human nature. If the mind were truly blank, he reasons, it would not be able to learn from its environment, because there would be no way for it to know how to learn (rather like a computer hard drive that cannot run even...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)