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
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.