Steven Pinker shoots from the hip, asking and answering the

tough questions behind the nature vs. nurture debate


Reviewed by Nancy Jeannette Friedlander


September 29, 2002


This book may infuriate you. Or

it may make you shout, "Thank

heavens at last!" In this

provocative work about human

nature, Steven Pinker launches

himself headfirst into one of the

most controversial, taboo-ridden debates of our time and takes

the less popular side.


The issue ultimately comes down to nature vs. nurture in humans:

whether our minds are "blank slates" to be written on solely by

culture and upbringing, or whether biology also plays an important

role in what it means to be human.


Pinker, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

who has written extensively on language and cognition, was a

Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998 for his book "How the Mind Works."

In this new book, while managing also to be colorful, lively and

entertaining, he constructs a tightly reasoned and thoroughly



argument that we are not blank slates at birth, that both biology

and culture play important roles in who we are and how we

behave, and that there is indeed such a thing as innate human

nature. He does not hesitate to dive into even more turbulent

waters, discussing controversies about whether innate

characteristics may underlie certain differences between groups.

(He is meticulous about discussing individual variation, statistical

probability and exceptional circumstances.)


Whether or not one ends up agreeing with Pinker, "The Blank

Slate" deserves to be read carefully and with an open mind,

especially by those who would forbid certain kinds of research, or

believe that it is immoral (or sexist or fascist or racist or just plain

evil) even to ask certain kinds of quest ions.


In discussing the two extreme positions that culture is everything,

or that biology is everything Pinker's expressed goal "is not to

argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing no one

believes that but to explore why the extreme position (that

culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the

moderate position [involving both biology and culture] is seen as



The Blank Slate doctrine that culture is everything is not only

politically correct, but also appeals to popular ideals and beliefs: If

humans are blank slates at birth, then we can be whatever we

want to be; all it takes is hard work and belief in oneself. We find

ourselves inspired by people who overcome severe odds and

discouragement to achieve treasured goals, and we use such

stories to motivate our children. Similarly, if someone turns out

badly, it is generally believed to result from factors such as poverty

or mistreatment during childhood. Such arguments frequently

underlie courtroom defense tactics.


What has happened to bring this about? Why does a biological

understanding of human nature seem so threatening, so

dangerous? If it is really dangerous, how can we defuse that

danger? And if it is not dangerous, how can we change people's

perspectives? What is the latest research relevant to the question

of nature vs. nurture? And how can this be applied to some of the

"hot buttons" of our time?


Pinker deals with all this and much more. He follows a logical

progression, laying groundwork and building on what has come

before. The titles of the major sections are informative, and reveal

both the color and humor that accompany the details and logical



In Part I, "The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in

the Machine," Pinker provides extensive background from a wide

variety of perspectives, including philosophy (the metaphor of a

"blank slate" is commonly attributed to John Locke),

anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science (including a description

of the influence of the Department of Cognitive Science at

UCSD), neuroscience, behavioral genetics and evolutionary

psychology, to name only a few.


Part II, "Fear and Loathing," describes some of the horror stories

that have befallen researchers espousing views on the wrong side

of the politically correct research fence. Pinker presents detailed

analyses of two of the worst: 1) The denunciations and protests

that followed E.O. Wilson's publication of "Sociobiology" in 1975;

criticism covered a wide range, but Wilson's main heresy was the

concept that biologically evolved needs and drives could play an

important role in human social behavior. And 2), the recent

vilification of research conducted by anthropologist Napoleon

Chagnon and geneticist James Neel among the Yanomamo in

this case, the accusations involved such alleged behaviors as

fabricating data, causing violence among the Yanomamo and

deliberately infecting the Yanomamo with potentially fatal disease

and withholding medical treatment in order to test genetic theories.


In both cases, accusations ranged far afield, even involving attacks

on the researchers' alleged personal and political motivations. For

both of these controversies, Pinker expresses strong and clear

support for the researchers, and denounces the extreme claims

and tactics that were used against them.


In Part III, "Human Nature With a Human Face," Pinker explores

why so many people find a biological component of human nature

to be a dangerous idea. What are we afraid of? The four chapters

in this section explore four fears: the fear of inequality, of

imperfectibility, of determinism and of nihilism. For example, the

author notes that "fear of the terrible consequences that might arise

from a discovery of innate differences has ... led many intellectuals

to insist that such differences do not exist ..." but he says other

approaches are possible: "The problem is with the line of

reasoning that says that if people do turn out to be different, then

discrimination, oppression, or genocide would be OK after all."

He then demonstrates why he believes that reasoning is flawed.


Part IV, "Know Thyself," investigates human nature still more

deeply: what it seems to be, and how and why it may have

developed that way. Pinker's evolution-based discussions explore

intriguing topics such as kinship, sexuality and love, morality,

conflict and gamesmanship.


He engages the reader in dialogues that heighten interest while

emphasizing the point at hand. For example, consider this stunning

question regarding parenthood, from a chapter entitled "The Many

Roots of Our Suffering:" "Moral philosophers play with a

hypothetical dilemma in which people can run through the left door

of a burning building to save some number of children or through

the right door to save their own child. If you are a parent, ponder

this question: Is there any number of children that would lead you

to pick the left door?"


Part V, "Hot Buttons," examines five controversial topics in light of

what has been previously discussed: politics, violence, gender,

children and the arts. Each is explored in depth in its own chapter,

and Pinker presents detailed and fascinating analyses of these

thorny issues.


In the concluding section, Part VI, "The Voice of the Species,"

Pinker uses five works of literature to reprise five main themes of

the book. This chapter includes often lengthy excerpts from Emily

Dickinson, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Mark Twain and

Isaac Bashevis Singer. All are enlightening and thought-provoking.


I was struck most strongly by the excerpt from George Orwell's

"1984," which Pinker uses to illustrate a theme that he has

frequently discussed: that the true danger is not if there is an innate

(i.e., biological) human nature, but if there is not one. At the end of

the excerpt, the agent of the omnipresent totalitarian government

says to the hero, "We control life ... at all its levels. You are

imagining that there is something called human nature which will be

outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create

human nature. Men are infinitely malleable."


How about that for reversing the reasoning underlying the political

correctness of the Blank Slate doctrine? The mind is forced to

contemplate a 180-degree turn, to consider the possibility that

while there may be dangers inherent in the existence of innate

biological differences among humans, there may be far more

dangers if there is no innate human nature, which would mean that

humans can be trained from birth to accept fully whatever beliefs

and behaviors a controlling social force may wish upon them.


This landmark book makes an important contribution to the

argument about nature vs. nurture in humans. Whether or not most

readers end up on Pinker's side of the fence, one can hope that his

thoroughness and reasoning will shed light into the darker corners

where research has been suppressed by taboos, and where

freedom of thought and speech have been inhibited by fear of

consequences for asking forbidden questions.


Nancy Jeannette Friedlander is a biological anthropologist at



Excerpts from The Blank Slate


Behavioral science is not for sissies. Researchers may wake up to

discover that they are despised public figures because of some

area they have chosen to explore or some datum they have

stumbled upon. Findings on certain topics daycare, sexual

behavior, childhood memories, the treatment of substance abuse

may bring on vilification, harassment, intervention by politicians,

and physical assault. Even a topic as innocuous as left-handedness

turns out to be booby-trapped. In 1991 the psychologists Stanley

Coren and Diane Halpern published statistics in a medical journal

showing that lefties on average had more prenatal and perinatal

complications, are victims of more accidents, and die younger than

righties. They were soon showered with abuse including the

threat of a lawsuit, numerous death threats, and a ban on the topic

in a scholarly journal from enraged left-handers and their





Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.