The Blank Slate
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a best-selling 2002 book by Steven Pinker arguing against tabula rasa models of the social sciences. Pinker argues that human behavior is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations. The book was nominated for the 2003 Aventis Prizes and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Pinker argues that modern science has challenged three "linked dogmas" that constitute the dominant view of human nature in intellectual life:
- the blank slate (the mind has no innate traits)—empiricism
- the noble savage (people are born good and corrupted by society)—romanticism
- the ghost in the machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology)
Much of the book is dedicated to examining fears of the social and political consequences of his view of human nature:
- "the fear of inequality"
- "the fear of imperfectibility"
- "the fear of determinism"
- "the fear of nihilism"
Pinker claims these fears are non sequiturs, and that the blank slate view of human nature would actually be a greater threat if it were true. For example, he argues that political equality does not require sameness, but policies that treat people as individuals with rights; that moral progress doesn't require the human mind to be naturally free of selfish motives, only that it has other motives to counteract them; that responsibility doesn't require behavior to be uncaused, only that it respond to praise and blame; and that meaning in life doesn't require that the process that shaped the brain must have a purpose, only that the brain itself must have purposes. He also argues that grounding moral values in claims about a blank slate opens them to the possibility of being overturned by future empirical discoveries. He further argues that a blank slate is in fact inconsistent with opposition to many social evils since a blank slate could be conditioned to enjoy servitude and degradation.
Evolutionary and genetic inequality arguments do not necessarily support right-wing policies. Pinker writes that if everyone was equal regarding abilities it can be argued that it is only necessary to give everyone equal opportunity. On the other hand, if some people have less innate ability through no fault of their own, then this can be taken as support for redistribution policies to those with less innate ability. Further, laissez-faire economics is built upon an assumption of a rational actor, while evolutionary psychology suggests that people have many different goals and behaviors that do not fit the rational actor theory. Raising living standards, also for the poor, is often used as an argument that inequality need not be reduced, while evolutionary psychology may suggest that low status itself, apart from material considerations, is highly psychologically stressful and may cause dangerous and desperate behaviors, supporting a society reducing inequalities. Finally, evolutionary explanations may also help the left create policies with greater public support, suggesting that people's sense of fairness (caused by mechanisms such as reciprocal altruism) rather than greed is a primary cause of opposition to welfare, if there is not a distinction in the proposals between what is perceived as the deserving and the undeserving poor.
Pinker also gives several examples of harm done by the belief in a blank slate of human nature:
- Totalitarian social engineering. If the human mind is a blank slate completely formed by the environment, then ruthlessly and totally controlling every aspect of the environment will create perfect minds.
- Inappropriate or excessive blame of parents since if their children do not turn out well this is assumed to be entirely environmentally caused and in especially due to the behavior of the parents.
- Release of dangerous psychopaths who quickly commit new crimes.
- Construction of massive and dreary tenement complexes since housing and environmental preferences are assumed to be culturally caused and superficial.
- Persecution and even mass murder of the successful who are assumed to have gained unfairly. This includes not only individuals but entire successful groups who are assumed to have become successful unfairly and by exploitation of other groups. Examples include Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust; kulaks in the Soviet Union; teachers and "rich" peasants in the Cultural Revolution; city dwellers and intellectuals under the Khmer Rouge.
Psychologist David Buss stated "This may be the most important book so far published in the 21st century." Psychologist David P. Barash wrote "Pinker's thinking and writing are first-rate ... maybe even better than that." Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins stated "The Blank Slate is ... a stylish piece of work. I won't say it is better than The Language Instinct or How the Mind Works, but it is as good—which is very high praise indeed."
Philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote "[Pinker] wades resolutely into the comforting gloom surrounding these not quite forbidden topics and calmly, lucidly marshals the facts to ground his strikingly subversive Darwinian claims—subversive not of any of the things we properly hold dear but subversive of the phony protective layers of misinformation surrounding them."
Behaviorist Henry D. Schlinger wrote two more critical reviews of the book that emphasized the importance of learning. Behaviorist Elliot A. Ludvig criticized Pinker's description of behaviorism and insights into behaviorist research. Philosopher John Dupré argued that the book overstated the case for biological explanations and argued for a balanced approach. Biologist H. Allen Orr argued that Pinker's work often lacks scientific rigor, and suggests that it is "soft science".
Anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen argued that most of Pinker's arguments were flawed since they employed a strawman fallacy argumentation style, and selectively picked supporting evidence as well as foils. He wrote "perhaps the most damaging weakness in books of the generic Blank Slate kind is their intellectual dishonesty (evident in the misrepresentation of the views of others), combined with a faith in simple solutions to complex problems. The paucity of nuance in the book is astonishing."
Like Eriksen, Louis Menand, writing for The New Yorker, also claimed that Pinker's arguments constituted a strawman fallacy, stating "[m]any pages of 'The Blank Slate' are devoted to bashing away at the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian scarecrow that Pinker has created." On Pinker's persistent downplaying of socialization versus evolution, Menand writes "[t]he insistence on deprecating the efficacy of socialization leads Pinker into absurdities that he handles with a blitheness that would be charming if his self-assurance were not so overdeveloped." Menand claims that Blank Slate selectively uses science to reaffirm current social norms that have developed only very recently in human history, writing "... the views that Pinker derives from 'the new sciences of human nature' are mainstream Clinton-era views: incarceration is regrettable but necessary; sexism is unacceptable, but men and women will always have different attitudes toward sex; dialogue is preferable to threats of force in defusing ethnic and nationalist conflicts; most group stereotypes are roughly correct, but we should never judge an individual by group stereotypes; rectitude is all very well, but 'noble guys tend to finish last'; and so on. People who share these beliefs probably didn't need science to arrive at them, but the science is undoubtedly reassuring." Menand also observes that Pinker misquotes Virginia Woolf as saying "In or about December 1910, human nature changed," when in fact the actual Woolf quote reads "On or about December 1910 human character changed." He also claims Pinker takes the quote out of context.
- Steven Pinker. "Steven Pinker - Books - The Blank Slate". Pinker.wjh.harvard.edu. Retrieved 2011-01-19.
- Dr. David M. Buss (January–March 2003). "Book Review - The Nature of Human Nature: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature". Pathways: The Novartis Journal.
- David P. Barash (2002). "Turning the Tables on the Tabula Rasa". Human Nature Review.
- Steven Pinker. "Steven Pinker - Books - The Blank Slate - Review Excerpts". Pinker.wjh.harvard.edu. Retrieved 2011-01-19.
- Schlinger, Henry D. (July–Dec 2004). "The Almost Blank Slate". Skeptic Magazine 11 (2).
- Orr, H. Allen (2003-02-27). "Darwinian Storytelling". New York Review of Books 50 (3).
- Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2007). "Tunnel vision". Social Anthropology 15 (2): 237. doi:10.1111/j.0964-0282.2007.00015.x.
- Menand, Louis (2002-11-22). "What Comes Naturally". The New Yorker.
- Pinker's website on The Blank Slate
- Steven Pinker (2002) MIT video lecture for book tour
- Meet the Flintstones by Simon Blackburn, a critical review of The Blank Slate.
- 'The Science and Politics of the Human Mind', review in the Oxonian Review
- The Great Debate Articles - Newcastle University debate on The Blank Slate and other topics.
- The Blank slate - Article by Pinker in General Psychologist, Vol. 41, No.1, Spring 2006