Your new book argues the importance of human
nature in the way we think about ourselves. Why have you
called it ''The Blank Slate''?
The common belief is that the mind is just that, a blank
slate -- that people are born with no talents or temperaments
and that the entire mind is a product of culture and
socialization. More specifically, the book is an attempt to
confront the phobia that people have of discussions of human
What's at the heart of that phobia?
That a biological understanding of human nature threatens
fundamental values of political equality, social progress,
personal responsibility and meaning and purpose. And you can't
advance research in psychology without confronting these often
unspoken but very powerful feelings. There are fears that if
you acknowledge that people are born with anything, it implies
that some people have more of it than others, and therefore it
would open the door to political inequality or oppression, for
Which makes it more comfortable to think of humans as
characterless meatloaves imprinted by culture.
I don't think anyone who's had more than one child believes
that children are indistinguishable lumps of putty waiting to
be shaped. There's this enormous body of work on parenting
that looks at the correlation of what parents do and how
children turn out: parents who speak to their children have
children with advanced language skills, parents who spank have
children that grow up to be more violent and so on. This could
be, but correlation does not prove causation. The fact is that
parents provide their children not just with an environment
but also with genes. The same genes that make parents
talkative could make their children more advanced in language
skills. The original studies are rarely done with adopted
Is even nurture an outgrowth of nature, then? Is all of
it, even culture itself, reducible to evolutionary
I prefer the word unification to reduction. An analogy is
that even though we know that sand and mountains and dirt and
so on are nothing but molecules -- they're not special kinds
of stuff -- a physicist couldn't explain the geography of
Europe, even though Europe is nothing but a bunch of protons,
neutrons and electrons. Likewise, with human history and
politics and cultural affairs, that level of analysis isn't
going to tell you the best way to organize a society or how to
change a law or try to influence a social value. An
understanding of history and culture can only benefit from a
better understanding of human emotion and thought. But you
don't get much insight into day-to-day behavior by thinking
about a person as a hundred billion neurons firing in
complicated patterns. It doesn't buy you anything in figuring
out how to please your boss or how to get a date or how to win
friends and influence people.
Where does that leave our sense of agency and free
Agency, personal responsibility and so on can all be tied
to brain function, but these are brain functions that are so
staggeringly complex that there is no danger that they're
going to be reduced to some simple reflex anytime soon, if
ever. It's a fallacy to think that hunger and thirst and a sex
drive are biological but that reasoning and decision making
and learning are something else, something nonbiological.
They're just a different kind of biology. If
biological processes are all, then it's hardly outrageous to
claim that individuals are predisposed to having greater or
lesser intelligence. Do you worry about becoming co-opted by
the ''Bell Curve''-oisie?
I think that would be a big leap. Rather than constructing
a bomb, I hope the book is about how to defuse it. The
explosiveness comes from a fear that certain empirical
possibilities open the door to social and political evils.
That's not the case. We can have an honest science of human
nature without a Pandora's box of negative consequences.
Anyone who's read the book can't attack it by saying, ''If we
accept what you're saying about human nature, then all hell
will break loose.'' The point of the book is that all hell
won't break loose.