'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of

                      Human Nature' by Stephen Pinker

 

                      Pinker argues that human nature exists

 

                      Sunday, October 06, 2002

 

                      By Fred Bortz

 

                      In two intriguing earlier books, "The Language Instinct" and "How the Mind

                      Works," Steven Pinker examined the capabilities made possible by the brain.

 

                      In his newest book, he expands his terrain in

                      two directions:

 

                      *The brain as an organ -- its evolution and

                      structure, its electrical and biochemical

                      properties, and its function within a living

                      organism.

 

                      *The entity known as human nature that

                      emerges from the brain's activity.

 

                      The second of these is controversial and always has been.

 

                      How much of the brain and a person's nature are determined by genes and

                      how much by environment? Can a person's nature or, more generally, human

                      nature be changed?

 

                      Is there even such a thing as human nature, or does every newborn human's

                      head house an initially unprogrammed, infinitely malleable living computer?

 

                      Pinker's answer to that question is in his title and subtitle. In light of current

                      science, he argues, the concept of a blank slate is an untenable hypothesis.

                      More important, it has become dangerous, leading to misguided, often

                      counterproductive, social and political policies.

 

                      From the beginning, Pinker's usual audience is put on notice: This is not strictly

                      a science book but one with clear political and social viewpoints. Since they

                      know him to be an engaging author, they are willing to grapple with him in that

                      new arena, especially when they have scientific threads to follow.

 

                      But for most readers, that willingness quickly fades. In the first of five major

                      sections, Pinker discusses not only the blank slate but also its close

                      philosophical relatives, the "noble savage" and the "ghost in the machine."

 

                      Is it really worth spending so much time on old doctrines that modern science

                      has long since laid to rest? Our brain is the product of evolution, and that

                      means our human propensities have had survival value.

 

                      The reason for those chapters, Pinker would argue, is that those doctrines,

                      though discredited by science, continue to play important roles in current

                      political thinking, especially on the extremes, and have led us to risky social

                      engineering and policy.

 

                      For the rest of the first three sections, making up nearly half the book, science

                      takes a back seat to a blow-by-blow description of unseemly academic

                      squabbling.

 

                      Readers are transported back to the late 1960s and 1970s, when political

                      agendas, primarily on the left but also on the right would -- for some

                      academics -- trump both scientific discovery and common sense.

 

                      Even worse, though not surprising given "human nature," the arguments turn

                      heated and personal. Accusations and name-calling, spoken in cultured tones

                      by people with sophisticated vocabularies, take political mud-slinging to a

                      new level of repugnance.

 

                      It's enough to make even a politically liberal reader agree with George

                      Wallace's description of academics as "pointy-headed intellectuals."

 

                      It's enough to make many readers dismiss the book just as the good part is

                      about to get started.

 

                      And the good part is very good indeed. After slogging through the sewers of

                      academe, Pinker, whose previous work is so lively and thought-provoking,

                      emerges with fascinating common-sense humanity.

 

                      He presents, without the usual heavy political overtones of the genre, his own

                      manifesto on human nature, leaving readers the opportunity to challenge and

                      debate his cogent arguments.

 

                      Those who endured the first half of the book, squirming in their chairs

                      wondering when Pinker would get to the point, are now rewarded with

                      discussions that make the book difficult to leave behind.

 

                      Pinker's thoughts on hot-button issues, especially, can lead to lively and

                      productive debates about politics, violence, gender, children, and the arts --

                      assuming, of course, the conversations capitalize on the best of "that

                      infuriating, endearing, mysterious, predictable, and eternally fascinating thing

                      we call human nature."

 

                      Fred Bortz, a physicist and children's author, is the winner of the 2002

                      American Institute of Physics Children's Science Writing Award.

 

                      Steven Pinker will speak tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in the Carnegie Music

                      Hall, Oakland, as part of the Drue Heinz Lectures. Tickets:

                      412-622-8866.