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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373

In The Blank Slate, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker attempts to argue for a robust account of human nature that is based on the idea that human psychology ought to be understood as a series of specialized adaptations. The first part of the book is called "The Blank Slate, the Noble...

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In The Blank Slate, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker attempts to argue for a robust account of human nature that is based on the idea that human psychology ought to be understood as a series of specialized adaptations. The first part of the book is called "The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine." In this part, he talks about traditional accounts of human nature; these are accounts that held that characters like the "noble savage" untainted by civilization held the key to what human nature is. This is contrasted to the idea of the tabula rasa, the blank slate, which holds that human beings are born without any knowledge or instincts, and, thus, there is no such thing as innate human nature. Indeed, there are no innate characteristics at all. Pinker takes issue with the tabula rasa hypothesis. He describes, in part 1, the various people who try to attack the idea of human nature. In the second part, "Fear and Loathing," he takes this exploration further and discusses political science and natural scientists (such as Gould, Rose, and Lewontin) who use science to argue against the notion of a human nature.

In part 3, "Human Nature with a Human Face," Pinker begins to advance some positive arguments for his thesis. He identifies four fears that lead to the fear of human nature—inequality, imperfectibility, determinism, and nihilism—and argues that these fears are baseless and not founded in fact. If anything, they are founded in misconceptions about the science of human nature. In part 4, "Know Thyself," he discusses how scientific ideas about human nature have an impact on our moral and political practices and beliefs. In part 5, "Hot Buttons," Pinker deals with some specific "hot button" issues and their relation to "human nature." These include politics, gender, violence, children, and the arts. Not paying attention to the findings of evolutionary psychology has caused us to misunderstand what is at stake in many of these debates. Pinker concludes by arguing that a belief in human nature need not, as many have argued, be aligned with right-wing politics. If anything, argues Pinker, the blank slate theorists have done irrevocable political and social harm by defeating the very ideals they seek to defend.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1753

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 most basic software without a functioning operating system). Science has demonstrated that the brain is a data-processing system, and “the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures . . . were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design . . . to information in the genome.”

Putting to rest the blank slate and its two companion theories is only part of Pinker’s intention in this book. Of greater interest to the author is explaining why so many people have persisted in clinging to the old ideologies in spite of scientific evidence. Frequently, scientists who present evidence that human hard-wiring affects human behavior are denounced as racists, sexists, even Nazis. Pinker believes that the greatest motivation for those who deny the existence of a universal human nature is well-intentioned fear.

If, for example, it were shown incontrovertibly that intelligence is determined by genetics, would that not lead to stratification along race or gender lines? If it could be shown that one race or gender is genetically more or less intelligent than another, would that not sanction various forms of discrimination and undo decades and centuries of movement toward equality? Might it undermine the notion that hard work can lead to reward if a person’s status were biologically determined? Pinker tells horrifying anecdotes of scientists in several fields who presented research demonstrating how natural selection might shape human nature or how genetics might shape a human mind, only to be met with angry, fearful, and sometimes violent attacks (primarily from other academics) having much more to do with politics than with science.

Pinker claims that these fears are unjustified for several reasons. For one thing, saying that genetics affects intelligence is not the same thing as saying it determines intelligence. Put another way, biology might make a trait probable, but not inevitable. Further, observations about broad groups of people are not illuminating when considering individuals. Pinker repeats the lesson offered in earlier works that the concept of race is nearly meaningless for geneticists; there is no more observable difference in the genetic code between Caucasians and Africans, for example, than between any two randomly selected individuals. Men and women are genetically different and difference in abilities can be attributed in general terms to the sexes—it can be said that men are better at solving word problems and women are better spellers—but even the casual nonscientific observer knows that some women are better than some men at word problems, and some men spell well.

Most importantly, those who fear that science will uncover a universal human nature must keep in mind the difference between moral and natural. Even if rape or cheating could be shown to be biologically natural, the acts would still be immoral. Equality is a moral value, not something determined by “a factual claim that humans are biologically indistinguishable.” As Pinker argues, “Enlightened societies choose to ignore race, sex, and ethnicity in hiring, promotion, salary, school admissions, and the criminal justice system because the alternative is morally repugnant.”

Having attempted to dispatch the fear of evolutionary psychology, Pinker maps out the current state of knowledge about human nature and five “hot button” topics: politics, violence, gender, children, and the arts. In these chapters, perhaps the most fascinating in the book, he fiercely takes on gender feminists, the Christian Right, child psychologists, postmodernists, and others, making a plea they not misuse science in an attempt achieve ethical goals. For the generalist reader, the sections of The Blank Slate that deal with academic disputes will be either fascinating or baffling, reassuring or pointless. Pinker points out hypocrisy and errors in the writings of other scientists, including James Watson, Richard Lewontin, and the late Stephen Jay Gould. Will readers who have only vaguely heard of the nature/nurture debate find an account of a group of protesters turning violent over a presentation claiming that human nature includes a tendency toward aggression and violence puzzling or ironic?

The Blank Slate demonstrates why Pinker has a large following of readers outside the worlds of social science who simply admire and enjoy the breadth of his knowledge and his humor and wit. To explain complex technical ideas, he finds analogies and examples in such disparate places as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), John Huston’s film The African Queen(1951), the comedy of the Marx Brothers, the business philosophy of Walt Disney, Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, and the art of Paul Cézanne. Pinker is convinced that a universal human nature is present and scientifically verifiable and writes passionately about the potential harm caused by those who disagree with his position. However, there is no venom in him, and he uses humor to disagree agreeably. “Not to put too fine a point on it,” he writes, summing up a section on how parents are encouraged to guide their children toward higher intelligence, “but much of the advice from the parenting experts is flapdoodle.”

Still, there is disagreement surrounding these issues and Pinker has drawn his share of criticism for the ideas in this book. Several reviewers have found that Pinker overstates how much science knows about the mind. Also among The Blank Slate’s detractors are social scientists whose own research leads them to different conclusions, for example, experts for whom the empirical evidence demonstrates that repeated exposure to television violence does indeed lead to violent behavior in young people. Pinker might disagree with their findings, but he welcomes the conversation so long as it is based on science, not on emotion, ideology, or politics. It is imperative, he explains, “to examine claims about human nature objectively, without putting a moral thumb on either side of the scale.” Pinker sees his own book as an early stage in the discussion, not a set of final conclusions. “Human nature is a scientific topic,” he argues, “and as new facts come in, our conceptions of it will change.”

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews 70 (August 1, 2002): 1105.

New Scientist 175 (September 7, 2002): 56.

New Statesman 131 (September 16, 2002): 52.

New York 35 (September 30, 2002): 85.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (October 13, 2002): 9.

Publishers Weekly 249 (August 12, 2002): 292.

Science 297 (September 27, 2002): 2212.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 27, 2002, p. 10.

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