A Brief Review of Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate

EverydayThomist sheepishly admits that she was simply unaware of the height, breadth, and depth of the human nature debate until reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. I was obviously aware of nature/nurture debates, in which the idea of the blank slate is rooted. Quite simply, the debate boils down to whether you think human behavior is socially conditioned (blank slate, nurture) or biologically conditioned (marked slate, nature). The phrase “blank slate” refers to the idea that human nature is born formless, without prior inclinations and dispositions, and becomes “written on” by one’s surroundings—family, social environment, geography.

What I did not realize was what was at stake in “blank slate” arguments, and why arguments about a universal human nature and a biological foundation of morality were so politically suspect. Pinker’s book is concerned more with the political implications of arguments against the blank slate than he is with scientific arguments. He targets his adversaries on both sides, with the right’s fear that arguments about the biological foundation of behavior will undermine religion and is in danger of slipping into a dangerous amoralism or biological determinism, and the left’s insistence on the inherent equal potential of all people and the importance of social conditioning to form good people.

It is the left’s attachment to the blank slate that I found most interesting. Pinker argues that the good intentions of the left lead them to embrace bad science. If traits like intelligence, aggression, and passivity are heritable, not environmentally determined, this means that not everybody is equal, and subsequently, that some people are better than others. Some people are naturally smarter, some people are naturally disposed towards criminal behavior, some people are naturally disposed towards being a pushover. This means that anti-social behavior cannot be explained away by a troubled childhood, or an under-achieving adult cannot be excused by parents who did not read to him enough. We have to accept, says Pinker, that our human biology can explain a lot of our selfishness, violence, bigotry, and irrationality.

This means parents can relax a little about trying to provide the perfect environment for their kids. Reading to your child or playing Mozart CDs is likely to be futile, according to Pinker, in making a child more intelligent. Frequent hugging will likely not change a child’s biological disposition towards violence. Letting a boy play with dolls will not make him gay.

It also means that most forms of social conditioning will be unsuccessful. We cannot, Pinker argues, form a society free of hatred, violence, rape, and ignorance, and furthermore, any attempts to try and impose “equality” from the top-down will be unsuccessful. Pinker blames many failed Marxist regimes of embracing the blank slate mentality in their assumption that there is no essential human nature, only a human history. Pinker is also critical of what he calls “radical feminist agendas” which try and argue that gender is a social construct, without a biological foundation, and that rape is more about violence and patriarchy than it is about sex. Not only are such theories wrong, but they are also dangerous. By failing to recognize the inherent differences in the sexes and attempting to create a utopian society through social engineering, you end up suppressing the natural talents people are born with and oppressing huge segments of society. He draws on Orwell and Vonnegut for fictional support, and oppressive communist regimes like Mao for historical support.

Pinker is not, as you might suspect, attempting to undermine free will. He uses the example of language to explain how free will and biological causality can be maintained. Language, argues Pinker, emerges from a fixed, determined universal grammar. But as he stated in Reason Magazine, “Even if we’re equipped with a fixed set of grammatical rules and a fixed vocabulary, we can spin out a mind-boggling array of sentences that have never been uttered before. Each one of those sentences corresponds to a distinct thought. The open-ended creativity of language is just a way of externalizing the open-ended creativity of thought. People can come up with new ways of resolving conflicts or attaining social goals in the same way that they can cook up new technological solutions to problems. You don’t need an unconstrained ghost in order to account for human ingenuity.” In a similar way, behavior, though emerging from a fixed starting point, has the same open-ended potential. “What we call free will,” Pinker goes on, “is a product of particular circuits of the brain, presumably concentrated in the prefrontal lobes, that respond to contingencies of responsibility and credit and blame and reward and punishment and alter their operations as a consequence. Our decision to hold people responsible for their behavior is itself part of the environment in which the brain works. The brain can respond to an environment in which people are held responsible, and that’s why we should continue to hold people responsible.”

The book would be a lot better if Pinker distinguished personality, which he claims is biologically determined and largely unaffected by conditioning, with character, which he implicitly argues can change and develop and is largely dependent on social environment. Clarifying this distinction is the task for another blog post.

In general, I would recommend the book mostly for a sort of “review of the literature.” Parts will make you angry. Feminists will not like his chapter on women, for example, and his arguments in favor of the common sense approach to preventing rape that women need to dress less provocatively in order not to entice men whose evolutionarily-evolved sexual appetite often gets the best of them. Pinker is also no fan of religion, and he could use a more nuanced, dare I say Thomistic understanding of the relationship between religion and science and theological anthropology. But all in all, a fine read.


1 comment so far

  1. Nick Firth on

    I have a criticism concerning your claim that “Pinker is not, as you might suspect, attempting to undermine free will.” Actually, that is exactly what he does. ‘The Blank Slate’ features an entire chapter – The Ghost In The Machine – which makes a case for a mechanistic, computational mind. As you mention, Pinker makes clear the evolved biological basis for this. However, no where does he “use the example of language to explain how free will and biological causality can be maintained.” Pinker makes clear that free will is an illusion, just as he also is quick to make clear that absence of free will does not make morality impossible.

    Additionally, I am interested to hear how ‘The Blank Slate’ would benefit from a “Thomistic understanding of the relationship between religion and science and theological anthropology.”

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