The Blank Slate

by Steven Pinker

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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 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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