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Steven Pinker

The Blank Slate

The modern denial of human nature

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Is there such a thing as human nature, found in all members of our species, or are we infinitely malleable, born with minds that are the blank slate of Pinker's title? His book is a sustained, and I think mainly successful, attempt to show that the blank slate notion is intellectually bankrupt, disproved by a huge amount of research that demonstrates the contrary.

Pinker finds that the Blank Slate is often linked with two other ideas. One is the myth of the Noble Savage, which implies that people in their natural state are intrinsically virtuous and peaceable; it is "civilization" that renders them otherwise. While he may be right about this connection, there seems to be an implicit contradiction here, because surely the Noble Savage idea presupposes an innate human nature, albeit a peaceful one, and hence is incompatible with the Blank Slate. If you believe in the Noble Savage you ought also to believe in an intrinsic propensity to be virtuous.

The second myth is the Ghost in the Machine: the implicit though usually unstated assumption that there is an inner self that is separate from the body and brain and therefore not subject to genetic and physiological influences. The self, in other words, is supposed to stand outside evolution.

These interlinked beliefs, Pinker claims, underlie much contemporary theory and practice in all sorts of fields: politics, education, child rearing, sociology, gender, and even art. Nevertheless, he insists, they are deeply mistaken and also harmful. "The refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians' embarrassment about sex, only worse: it distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse, and our day-to-day lives."

The book has six sections. The first considers the reasons why people believe in the blank slate and its associated ideas and concludes that they are without foundation. Pinker refutes pretty convincingly the arguments that are intended to disprove the existence of inbuilt human characteristics. The most recent form such arguments have taken comes from evidence of neural plasticity in the brain. Some people, including some scientists, have interpreted these findings as showing that there cannot be any innate struture in the mind, but Pinker finds that the facts prove just the opposite.

The modern science-based understanding of human nature is largely founded on two ideas: Richard Dawkins's selfish gene hypothesis and Edward Wilson's sociobiology. Both have been violently attacked by critics and both, according to Pinker, are now so much part of the scientific outlook that they are simply assumed without needing to be explicitly stated. "The question is not whether human nature will increasingly be explained by the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution, but what we are going to do with the knowledge."

Part three looks at some implications of this way of thinking for our notions of social justice, equality, responsibility, and the meaning of life. All these will survive, he thinks, provided that we understand our situation correctly. Indeed, he holds that it is the denial of human nature that poses the greatest threat.

Part four is about the relevance of our understanding of human nature for the way we conduct our affairs and organize our lives. Many of the decisions we make are based on emotion, and although this is inevitable and even desirable, there needs to be a counterbalance of factual knowledge about how our minds work.

Part five has chapters on politics, violence, gender, children, and the arts. The prevailing wisdom on much of these topics is characterized by sentimentality (or cant, as Dr Johnson would have described it). Pinker robustly demonstrates that violence and war have always been present in history and prehistory, that men and women do innately differ psychologically from each other on average, and that children's characters owe little to parental influence but a lot to genetics and to peer pressure. In art, modernism and postmodernism have failed to make contact with the essentials of human nature.

In his brief concluding sixth section Pinker acknowledges that the Blank Slate doctrine was an attractive vision that became part of a secular faith and appeared to offer a basis for common decency in our age. Some have even held that we ought to maintain it as a belief even if it is not true, in order to promote a more equitable society. But Pinker thinks that its influence has been the very opposite of benign; it has, for instance, underpinned the construction of totalitarian states.

My own view is that Pinker has made a pretty unanswerable case for his main thesis here. If from nothing else, the case for the innateness of many of our psychological characteristics receives abundant suport from numerous twin studies. For a well-argued dissenting view of the role of genetics and Darwinism in shaping human nature, however, see Kenan Malik's Man, Beast and Zombie.

%T The Blank Slate
%S The modern denial of human nature
%A Steven Pinker
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0-713-99256-5
%P xvi + 509 pp
%K psychology

10 September 2006

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