'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
*The brain as an organ -- its evolution and
structure, its electrical and biochemical
properties, and its function within a living
*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
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: