14 min read ⌚
The Modern Denial of Human Nature
No matter what they say, a large part of who you are is due to your genes – and there’s nothing you can do to change that.
Steven Pinker doesn’t think so.
And he explains why in:
Who Should Read “The Blank Slate”? And Why?
As you can infer from the subtitle, The Blank Slate is not one of your skim-on-the-beach or speed-read-in-your-bed just-to-pass-the-time-or-fall-asleep books.
After all, Steven Pinker’s objective in it is to challenge most of the modern views on what makes us human and to demonstrate that, due to modern politics and sociology, most of us are in denial when it comes to the basic building blocks of the human nature.
In a nutshell – as should be only obvious according to Pinker – these building blocks are the ones we’d describe as such literally: the genes. Pinker’s argument is not only that our genes play a large part in making us who we are; it’s that they play a much larger part than upbringing.
And in more than 500 pages, he offers so much evidence in favor of this idea that, whether you like him or not, he makes it impossible to ignore him.
And if you are a student of psychology, philosophy, history or biology – you couldn’t; if you are a teacher and an avid reader interested in what makes us our journey here worthwhile – you shouldn’t; finally, if you firmly believe, with Socrates, that “the unexamined life is not worth living” – you mustn’t.
About Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist and linguist, one of the most renowned popularizers of science of the 20th and 21st century.
Highly influenced by Noam Chomsky, Pinker has authored numerous books in which he argues that the human aptitude for language is, more or less, preprogrammed in our brains by evolution and natural selection.
The most well-known among these is, perhaps, The Language Instinct, the first of Pinker’s (so far) eight books aimed at the general public; published in 1994, the book was followed by How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Stuff of Thought, and The Sense of Style – four more books which explore similar language-related problems.
The other three popular science books by Pinker – The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Enlightenment Now – are much broader in scope; both optimistic and controversial, they argue that humans are continually progressing toward a better future and that they owe this progress to their genetically predefined nature.
Winner of many awards, Pinker has been listed as one of the most influential intellectuals of today by numerous publications.
Find out more at https://stevenpinker.com/.
“The Blank Slate PDF Summary”
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker attempts to refute the theory that we are all born as a tabula rasa and to demonstrate to which extent human behavior is shaped by evolutionary and psychological adaptations.
In other words, as far as Pinker is concerned, nature beats nurture by a country mile.
And he provides a lot of evidence to corroborate this claim.
Part I: The Blank Slate, The Noble Savage, and the Ghost in The Machine
In the first part of The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker introduces us to the three most influential theories about human nature ever developed; and then he examines their flaws.
The Blank Slate: Empiricism
As the title itself reveals, this explanation of human nature is the one Pinker is interested in the most. It is also one of the earliest ones, first posited by John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding back in 1690.
According to Locke, there is no inherent human nature: the mind is nothing more but a blank slate at birth (tabula rasa in Latin) and, throughout life, experience fills it with relevant information and data.
In other words, if you were switched at birth and raised by a different set of parents, you would have developed into a completely different person.
When it was discovered in 2001 that the human genome contains several times fewer genes than what neuroscientists and geneticists initially believed, the blank slate defenders were all but sure to have won a resounding victory.
At least as far as they are concerned, our complex minds are developed gradually, via two powerful mechanisms: connectionism (the neural networks grow connections – and that’s how we learn) and neural plasticity (the brain changes its form over a lifetime).
The main problems?
Well, if this is the case, then why do computers (aka AI) don’t learn as well as we do? Why are even children capable of recognizing that both Garfield and your neighbor’s Siamese are cats, and yet the most powerful computers need millions of images to make that connection?
Moreover, why do twins grow to look so much like each other even when separated at birth?
The Noble Savage: Romanticism
Little more than half a century after John Locke developed the tabula rasa model of humans – namely, that we are products of our experiences – Jean-Jacques Rousseau came up with yet another theory, the idea of the Noble Savage.
In his “Second Discourse,” Rousseau argued that prehistoric humans would have completely obliterated each other if their minds were blank slates and they acted in that famous Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all manner.
Consequently, the first humans must have been peaceful and uncompetitive, because, in addition to the fact that there weren’t that many of them, they were also living in a world which provided everything in abundance.
It was civilization that made everything worse, promoting greed and violence as a way to deal with the scarcity of resources.
Few modern authors – such as James Suzman, for example – still believe that Rousseau was right.
However, a number of studies have shown that people are naturally inclined to some things because they seem to inherit them, aggression and violence included.
The Ghost in the Machine: Dualism
The third theory of human nature was first devised as a cogent theory by René Descartes, even though it is as old as some of the earliest religious and philosophical thinkers.
In Descartes’ opinion, we are composed of two different systems, one of which is our physical/material body, and the other one which is our mind.
And as much as the former can be explained in terms of simple physics and mechanics, the latter is just too complicated to be translated into terms ordinary humans understand, because, well, it’s beyond our rational comprehension.
Modern science backs some of these claims, referring to this latter part as the adaptive unconscious.
However, even this division fails to explain why separated twins often grow to prefer the same brand of cigarettes!
Part II: Fear and Loathing
If a few simple experiments with twins are enough to put a question mark next to these three prevalent theories, then why are they still resiliently alive?
Steven Pinker thinks he knows why.
It isn’t because of science, he says; it is because of politics and religion, which – as you should be aware by now – are the two least scientific aspects of human existence.
Simply put, the ideology of the political left would crumble to pieces if human nature can’t be explained in terms of the blank slate or the noble savage theory.
Contrarywise, the political right and many religious groups prefer “the ghost in the machine” model of human nature, because, otherwise, their notions of the world would prove to be scientifically faulty.
Consequently, as soon as modern researchers started pointing out that the natural human state is a bit more complicated than what Locke and Rousseau believed, radical Marxists attacked the ideas as “discriminatory.”
Because if humans are biologically different, and if violence is in their blood, then the idea of a utopian society where everyone is equal is, well, utopian; even more – fairytale-like, having nothing to do with reality.
On the other hand, if we think and feel due to nothing more than some chemical processes happening inside our brains, and if the mind isn’t able to live without (aka after) the body, then most of the religions of the world make no sense whatsoever.
In conclusion, it seems that we hold on to certain beliefs of what human nature is like due to our fears that if it is any different, the world should collapse.
Part III: Human Nature with a Human Face
In the third part of The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker examines further these fears; he deduces that they all boil down to four fundamental fears.
The Fear of Inequality
The Blank Slate theory, admits Steven Pinker, is morally appealing; after all, if every single difference is the result of nurture and upbringing, then we merely need to change the society and humans should change as well.
The Blank Slate, he says, serves as “a guarantor of political equality;” dismissing it, say its defenders, would unavoidably lead to three evils:
• Prejudice: “if groups of people are biologically different, it could be rational to discriminate against the members of some of the groups.”
• Social Darwinism: “if differences among groups in their station in life—their income, status, and crime rate, for example—come from their innate constitutions, the differences cannot be blamed on discrimination, and that makes it easy to blame the victim and tolerate inequality;”
• Eugenics: “if people differ biologically in ways that other people value or dislike, it would invite them to try to improve society by intervening biologically—by encouraging or discouraging people’s decisions to have children, by taking that decision out of their hands, or by killing them outright.”
According to Steven Pinker, all of these are nonsequiturs, since “equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.”
Pinker says that all of our societies are based on a tradeoff between freedom and material equality; and “the major political philosophies can be defined by how they deal with the tradeoff”:
The Social Darwinist right places no value on equality; the totalitarian left places no value on freedom. The Rawlsian left sacrifices some freedom for equality; the libertarian right sacrifices some equality for freedom. While reasonable people may disagree about the best tradeoff, it is unreasonable to pretend there is no tradeoff.
The Fear of Imperfectability
Now, if our genes influence our behavior to such a great extent, and if violence and immorality are natural in this sense – then how are we supposed to go on living?
“The dread of a permanently wicked human nature takes two forms,” clarifies Pinker.
The first form is rather practical: if human nature is unchangeable, then it’s a waste of time to try and change some individuals.
The second is even deeper: if it comes naturally to someone to rape someone else, then, by which measures, have we decided that this individual is fit for jail?
Hold your horses, says Pinker: if something is natural, it doesn’t mean that it’s good or that it must be tolerated.
Because just as natural as it comes to the rapist to rape someone, it comes to the raped one to defend himself/herself and to not want to be forced into having sexual intercourse.
That’s why we have a society: to decide which of the things that come naturally to some people can be tolerated and which should not.
The Fear of Determinism
The second fear is related to the third one, possibly the shallowest one and the one least related to the blank slate.
Namely, the fear of determinism, the “gaping existential anxiety: that deep down we are not in control of our own choices.”
Now, if that’s the case, then why shouldn’t I use it to excuse my behaviors, no matter how immoral they are?
The answer is much the same as the one above: because we’re talking about two different systems, muddled by the Romantic idea that what’s natural is good.
Not only this most certainly is not the case, but it should also influence not one bit our legal and penitentiary institutions.
Explaining someone else’s behavior doesn’t excuse it.
Think of it this way: even though, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov has a perfectly cogent, logical explanation as to why he has murdered two fellow human beings, he still ends up in Siberia.
It makes no difference whether the explanation is biological or a philosophical one.
The Fear of Nihilism
“The final fear of biological explanations of the mind,” writes Pinker, “is that they may strip our lives of meaning and purpose”:
If we are just machines that let our genes make copies of themselves, if our joys and satisfactions are just biochemical events that will someday sputter out for good, if life was not created for a higher purpose and directed toward a noble goal, then why go on living? Life as we treasure it would be sham, a Potemkin village with only a façade of value and worth.
To go back to Dostoyevsky and a question he posited in another one of his classics (The Brothers Karamazov): is not, in a world without God, everything permitted?
Pinker thinks that this argument is blown out of proportions, due to at least two different reasons:
• Everything is permitted in a world with God as well; only, in that case, it is to a selected number of people (the ones who interpret God’s message better than the rest); after all, both Hitler and the terrorists who crashed into the WTC believed they were carrying out a divine mission;
• There is a difference between “ultimate causation (why something evolved by natural selection)” and “proximate causation (how the entity works here and now).”
“Sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is wire unselfish motives into a human brain—heartfelt, unstinting, deep-in-the-marrow unselfishness,” explains Pinker.
And he goes on: “The love of children (who carry one’s genes into posterity), a faithful spouse (whose genetic fate is identical to one’s own), and friends and allies (who trust you if you’re trustworthy) can be bottomless and unimpeachable as far as we, humans, are concerned (proximate level), even if it is metaphorically self-serving as far as the genes are concerned (ultimate level).”
Part IV: Know Thyself
Even centuries after the three visions of the human nature described in Part I above were first proposed, people still think of humans along these lines.
For classical economists, for example, humans are still those rational self-interested people who base all of their decision on whether they benefit them personally; utopian socialists, on the other hand, are even surer that humans are biologically nothing less than noble savages who’d much rather live in peace than die by violence.
Science has conclusively shown, however, that neither of these views is accurate: we are neither selfish egoists nor selfless altruists.
We are something in-between.
We prefer to live in harmony with others because, evolutionary, this has helped us survive; misanthropes never stood a chance in ancient societies, and tribes thrived.
However, there are limits to our desire to live in a community, and you can discover those limits if you take a look at the history of the Israeli kibbutzim, collective communities envisioned as utopian a century ago.
However, in time, this vision evolved since, for example, mothers wanted to sleep next to their children and didn’t want them to be raised communally.
When you think about it, as much as classical economists say that humans are by nature competitive, they almost never steal food from their children, loved ones or close relatives – even when very hungry.
However, they might even kill someone they don’t know in that situation.
Part V: Hot Buttons
In the final part of his book, Steven Pinker tries to show how science can help us reach some common ground in relation to some of the most hotly debated topics in all times and all places:
• Politics. Unfortunately, it seems that a large part of our political beliefs is in our blood: twins, separated at birth, share 0.62 (out of 1) of their political beliefs; it is because of the rest 0.38 that there are changes; education may help;
• Violence. Once again, violence is hereditary, and it is an inseparable trait of the human nature; prehistoric societies were violent, and no matter how much we progress, future societies will be violent as well; interestingly enough, economic equality seems to stifle violence;
• Gender. Male and female brains aren’t interchangeable: they are different; while women are better at spelling, reading body language and matching shapes, men have a stronger capacity to manipulate 3D objects mentally; but science has found no reason whatsoever to believe that one gender is more superior than the other;
• Children. According to Eric Turkheimer, three things influence how children turn out to grow up in the end: their genes, their family environment, their unique environment (friends and neighborhood); we don’t know the ratio, but these are the estimates: genes: 40%, family: 10%, unique environment: 50%.
• The Arts. Art is in our nature – in the blood and in the bone, in our brains and in our genes. However, we seem to be evolutionarily programmed to prefer traditional art and beauty to their modern counterparts; art, in other words, is not in decline; conventional art is – and this has to be remedied as soon as possible.
Key Lessons from “The Blank Slate”
1. There Are Three Theories of the Human Nature – and All Are Flawed
2. The Blank Slate Is a Political Vision of the Human Nature
3. Facing the Facts Doesn’t Mean Tolerating Them
There Are Three Theories of the Human Nature – and All Are Flawed
Throughout history, there have been three attempts to describe the human nature:
• The blank slate (empiricism): experience makes us who we are: at birth, we are all equal;
• The noble savage (romanticism): human nature was originally benevolent and cooperative – civilization ruined us;
• The ghost in the machine (dualism): our body can be explained in matters of mechanics; the same isn’t true in relation to our brain.
According to Steven Pinker – and science – none of these three theories makes sense.
The Blank Slate Is a Political Vision of the Human Nature
The most resilient of these three theories seem to be the Lockean: the blank slate. However, the main reason why we still believe it is an accurate depiction of human nature is political.
Put simply, believing that we are biologically one way or another is, on the surface, much more dangerous than believing that society makes us who we are; if the latter is true, then we can still talk about equality and sexual freedom; however, the former seems too restricting.
Facing the Facts Doesn’t Mean Tolerating Them
However, Pinker shows that all of those fears of biologically determined human nature – the fears of inequality, of imperfectability, of determinism, and of nihilism – are nonsequiturs.
The fact that we’ve got to here is evidence enough.
We don’t need to be same to be equal, nor do we need to be inherently altruistic to start caring about some other people in a more rational manner; finally, if our biological constitution is purposeless in terms of grand meaning – then why shouldn’t we just invent one?
We’re good at doing that.
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“The Blank Slate Quotes”Much of what is today called ‘social criticism’ consists of members of the upper classes denouncing the tastes of the lower classes (bawdy entertainment, fast food, plentiful consumer goods) while considering themselves egalitarians. Click To Tweet Disgust is intuitive microbiology. Click To Tweet We are all members of the same flawed species. Putting our moral vision into practice means imposing our will on others. Click To Tweet Nothing invests life with more meaning than the realization that every moment of sentience is a precious gift. Click To Tweet Behavioral science is not for sissies. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Nominated for the 2003 Aventis Prize and a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer Prize, The Blank Slate has been one of the most talked-about books of the past two decades, at least as good as The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works (to paraphrase a review by Richard Dawkins).
Dubbed by some “the most important book… published in the 21st century” (psychologist David Buss) and criticized by others as a mere bashing of “the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian scarecrow that Pinker has created,” The Blank Slate is, to quote a review by The Washington Post, ‘an extremely good book – clear, well argued, fair, learned, tough, witty, humane, stimulating.”
Like it or hate it, chances are you’ll be a much richer and smarter human being once you read it.
So, please do.