The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Our conceptions of human nature affect everything aspect of our lives, from child-rearing to politics to morality to the arts. Yet many fear that scientific discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert social change, and to dissolve personal responsibility.
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker 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 and instead have embraced three 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 provides calm in the stormy debate by disentangling the political and moral issues from the scientific ones. He shows that equality, compassion, responsibility, and purpose have nothing to fear from discoveries about an innately organized psyche. Pinker shows that the new sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution, far from being dangerous, are complementing observations 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: irreverent wit, lucid exposition, and startling insight on matters great and small.
Barnes and Noble
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