Book Summary: “Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” by Steven Pinker


Title: Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Author: Steven Pinker
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Pinker argues that the dominant belief among social scientists that there is no human nature and that the human mind is a “blank state” is incorrect.

My Comments

Any theories of history and progress must be grounded in a sound understanding of human psychology and biology. Pinker makes the compelling case that current social science is based on assumption that are very inaccurate, so they should be dispelling. As with all of Pinker’s books, this one is extremely wide-ranging and thought-provoking.

I highly recommend this book!

Key Take-aways

  • The dominant belief among social scientists that there is no human nature based upon biology and the human mind is a “blank state” is incorrect.
  • Breakthroughs in cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics show that this assumption is incorrect.
  • The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don’t do anything
  • The human brain is a computational device that evolved to enable humans to survival in the real world.
  • Cultures vary much less than they seemingly appear. Universal mental mechanisms underlie superficial variation across cultures.
  • All the potential for thinking, learning, and feeling that distinguishes humans from other animals lies in the information contained in our DNA.
  • Identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike (though far from identical) in just about any trait one can measure.
  • Simple logic says there can be no learning without innate mechanisms to do the learning.
  • Computers and robots programmed to do humanlike feats are invariably endowed with many complex modules.
  • Evolutionary biology has shown that complex adaptations are ubiquitous in the living world, and that natural selection is capable of evolving them, including complex cognitive and behavioral adaptations.
  • Anthropological surveys have shown that hundreds of universals, pertaining to every aspect of experience, cut across the world’s cultures.
  • Developmental psychology has shown that these distinct modes of interpreting experience come on line early in life: infants have a basic grasp of objects, numbers, faces, tools, language, and other domains of human cognition.
  • In a growing number of cases, particular genes can be tied to aspects of cognition, language, and personality.84 When psychological traits vary, much of the variation comes from differences in genes:
  • Both personality and intelligence show few or no effects of children’s particular home environments within their culture: children reared in the same family are similar mainly because of their shared genes.
  • Finally, neuroscience is showing that the brain’s basic architecture develops under genetic control. Brain systems show signs of innate specialization and cannot arbitrarily substitute for one another.
  • All of these discoveries about human nature are denied by social scientists because they were thought to threaten progressive ideals

Important Quotes from Book

This book is about the moral, emotional, and political colorings of the concept of human nature in modern life. I will retrace the history that led people to see human nature as a dangerous idea.

My goal in this book 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 is seen as extreme.

Why is it important to sort this all out? The refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians‘ embarrassment about sex, only worse: it distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse, and our day-to-day lives. Logicians tell us that a single contradiction can corrupt a set of statements and allow falsehoods to proliferate through it. The dogma that human nature does not exist, in the face of evidence from science and common sense that it does, is just such a corrupting influence.

First, the doctrine that the mind is a blank slate has distorted the study of human beings, and thus the public and private decisions that are guided by that research.

The denial of human nature has spread beyond the academy and has led to a disconnect between intellectual life and common sense.

The problem is not just that these claims are preposterous but that the writers did not acknowledge they were saying things that common sense might call into question. This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety. That mentality cannot coexist with an esteem for the truth, and I believe it is responsible for some of the unfortunate trends in recent intellectual life. One trend is a stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence. Another is a hypocritical divide between what intellectuals say in public and what they really believe.

And the conviction that humanity could be reshaped by massive social engineering projects led to some of the greatest atrocities in history.

Everyone has a theory of human nature. Everyone has to anticipate the behavior of others, and that means we all need theories about what makes people tick. A tacit theory of human nature — that behavior is caused by thoughts and feelings — is embedded in the very way we think about people.

Every society must operate with a theory of human nature, and our intellectual mainstream is committed to another one. The theory is seldom articulated or overtly embraced, but it lies at the heart of a vast number of beliefs and policies… For intellectuals today, many of those convictions are about psychology and social relations. I will refer to those convictions as the Blank Slate: the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.

That theory of human nature — namely, that it barely exists — is the topic of this book. Just as religions contain a theory of human nature, so theories of human nature take on some of the functions of religion, and the Blank Slate has become the secular religion of modern intellectual life. It is seen as a source of values, so the fact that it is based on a miracle — a complex mind arising out of nothing — is not held against it…  And just as many religious traditions eventually reconciled themselves to apparent threats from science (such as the revolutions of Copernicus and Darwin), so, I argue, will our values survive the demise of the Blank Slate.

During the past century the doctrine of the Blank Slate has set the agenda for much of the social sciences and humanities. As we shall see, psychology has sought to explain all thought, feeling, and behavior with a few simple mechanisms of learning. The social sciences have sought to explain all customs and social arrangements as a product of the socialization of children by the surrounding culture: a system of words, images, stereotypes, role models, and contingencies of reward and punishment. A long and growing list of concepts that would seem natural to the human way of thinking (emotions, kinship, the sexes, illness, nature, the world) are now said to have been ―invented‖ or ―socially constructed.

The Blank Slate has also served as a sacred scripture for political and ethical beliefs. According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences — by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards — and you can change the person.

The Blank Slate is often accompanied by two other doctrines, which have also attained a sacred status in modern intellectual life… The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists‘ discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization.

The other sacred doctrine that often accompanies the Blank Slate is usually attributed to the scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650): ―the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.

Descartes rejected the idea that the mind could operate by physical principles. He thought that behavior, especially speech, was not caused by anything, but freely chosen.

The doctrines of the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine — or, as philosophers call them, empiricism, romanticism, and dualism — are logically independent, but in practice they are often found together.

More generally, social scientists saw the malleability of humans and the autonomy of culture as doctrines that might bring about the age-old dream of perfecting mankind. We are not stuck with what we don’t like about our current predicament, they argued. Nothing prevents us from changing it except a lack of will and the benighted belief that we are permanently consigned to it by biology.

New ideas from four frontiers of knowledge — the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution — are breaching the wall with a new understanding of human nature. In this chapter I will show how they are filling in the blank slate, declassing the noble savage, and exorcising the ghost in the machine. In the following chapter I will show that this new conception of human nature, connected to biology from below, can in turn be connected to the humanities and social sciences above. That new conception can give the phenomena of culture their due without segregating them into a parallel universe.

The first bridge between biology and culture is the science of mind, cognitive science.

Here are five ideas from the cognitive revolution that have revamped how we think and talk about minds:

The first idea: The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.

A second idea: The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don’t do anything.

A third idea: An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind.

Once one starts to think about mental software instead of physical behavior, the radical differences among human cultures become far smaller, and that leads to a fourth new idea: Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variation across cultures.

Familiar categories of behavior — marriage customs, food taboos, folk superstitions, and so on — certainly do vary across cultures and have to be learned, but the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate.

A fifth idea: The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts.

The mind is modular, with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action. It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules. Cutting across these data-processing systems are mental faculties (sometimes called multiple intelligences) dedicated to different kinds of content, such as language, number, space, tools, and living things.

Humans behave flexibly because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software that can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior. Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary.

The second bridge between mind and matter is neuroscience, especially cognitive neuroscience, the study of how cognition and emotion are implemented in the brain.

The Third bridge between the biological and the mental is behavioral genetics, the study of how genes affect behavior. All the potential for thinking, learning, and feeling that distinguishes humans from other animals lies in the information contained in the DNA of the fertilized ovum.

Identical twins think and feel in such similar ways that they sometimes suspect they are linked by telepathy. When separated at birth and reunited as adults they say they feel they have known each other all their lives. Testing confirms that identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike (though far from identical) in just about any trait one can measure. They are similar in verbal, mathematical, and general intelligence, in their degree of life satisfaction, and in personality traits such as introversion, agreeableness, neucriticism, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. They have similar attitudes toward controversial issues such as the death penalty, religion, and modern music. They resemble each other not just in paper-and-pencil tests but in consequential behavior such as gambling, divorcing, committing crimes, getting into accidents, and watching television. And they boast dozens of shared idiosyncrasies.

Identical twins are far more similar than fraternal twins, whether they are raised apart or together; identical twins raised apart are highly similar; biological siblings, whether raised together or apart, are far more similar than adoptive siblings.

Most psychological traits are the product of many genes with small effects that are modulated by the presence of other genes, rather than the product of a single gene with a large effect that shows up come what may. That is why studies of identical twins (two people who share all their genes) consistently show powerful genetic effects on a trait even when the search for a single gene for that trait is unsuccessful.

The fourth bridge from biology to culture is evolutionary psychology, the study of the phylogenetic history and adaptive functions of the mind. It holds out the hope of understanding the design or purpose of the mind — not in some mystical or teleological sense, but in the sense of the simulacrum of engineering that pervades the natural world.

Evolution is central to the understanding of life, including human life. Like all living things, we are outcomes of natural selection; we got here because we inherited traits that allowed our ancestors to survive, find mates, and reproduce. This momentous fact explains our deepest strivings.

Evolutionary psychology also explains why the slate is not blank. The mind was forged in Darwinian competition, and an inert medium would have been outperformed by rivals outfitted with high technology — with acute perceptual systems, savvy problem-solvers, cunning strategists, and sensitive feedback circuits. Worse still, if our minds were truly malleable they would be easily manipulated by our rivals, who could mold or condition us into serving their needs rather than our own. A malleable mind would quickly be selected out.

I will lay out an alternative to the belief that culture is like a lottery. Culture can be seen instead as a part of the human phenotype: the distinctive design that allows us to survive, prosper, and perpetuate our lineages. Humans are a knowledge-using, cooperative species, and culture emerges naturally from that lifestyle. To preview: The phenomena we call ―culture‖ arise as people pool and accumulate their discoveries, and as they institute conventions to coordinate their labors and adjudicate their conflicts. When groups of people separated by time and geography accumulate different discoveries and conventions, we use the plural and call them cultures.

Much of what we call culture is simply accumulated local wisdom.

Culture, then, is a pool of technological and social innovations that people accumulate to help them live their lives, not a collection of arbitrary roles and symbols that happen to befall them.

The most obvious cultural difference on the planet is that some cultures are materially more successful than others. 

The ultimate irony of the Standard Social Science Model is that it failed to accomplish the very goal that brought it into being: explaining the different fortunes of human societies without invoking race. The best explanation today is thoroughly cultural, but it depends on seeing a culture as a product of human desires rather than as a shaper of them.

History and culture, then, can be grounded in psychology, which can be grounded in computation, neuroscience, genetics, and evolution. But this kind of talk sets off alarms in the minds of many nonscientists. They fear that consilience is a smokescreen for a hostile takeover of the humanities, arts, and social sciences by philistines in white coats.

Good reductionism (also called hierarchical reductionism) consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them. The building blocks used by one field are put under a microscope by another.

Here is my summary of the evidence for a complex human nature:

Simple logic says there can be no learning without innate mechanisms to do the learning. Those mechanisms must be powerful enough to account for all the kinds of learning that humans accomplish.

Computers and robots programmed to do humanlike feats are invariably endowed with many complex modules.

Evolutionary biology has shown that complex adaptations are ubiquitous in the living world, and that natural selection is capable of evolving them, including complex cognitive and behavioral adaptations.78 The study of the behavior of animals in their natural habitat shows that species differ innately from one another in their drives and abilities, some of them (like celestial navigation and food caching) requiring complicated and specialized neural systems.

Anthropological surveys have shown that hundreds of universals, pertaining to every aspect of experience, cut across the world’s cultures.

Developmental psychology has shown that these distinct modes of interpreting experience come on line early in life: infants have a basic grasp of objects, numbers, faces, tools, language, and other domains of human cognition.

The human genome contains an enormous amount of information, both in the genes and in the noncoding regions, to guide the construction of a complex organism. In a growing number of cases, particular genes can be tied to aspects of cognition, language, and personality. When psychological traits vary, much of the variation comes from differences in genes: identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins, and biological siblings are more similar than adoptive siblings, whether reared together or apart.85 A person’s temperament and personality emerge early in life and remain fairly constant throughout the lifespan. And both personality and intelligence show few or no effects of children’s particular home environments within their culture: children reared in the same family are similar mainly because of their shared genes.

Finally, neuroscience is showing that the brain’s basic architecture develops under genetic control. The importance of learning and plasticity notwithstanding, brain systems show signs of innate specialization and cannot arbitrarily substitute for one another.

Rather than detach the moral doctrines from the scientific ones, which would ensure that the clock would not be turned back no matter what came out of the lab and field, many intellectuals, including some of the world’s most famous scientists, made every effort to connect the two. The discoveries about human nature were greeted with fear and loathing because they were thought to threaten progressive ideals. All this could be relegated to the history books were it not for the fact that these intellectuals, who once called themselves radicals, are now the establishment, and the dread they sowed about human nature has taken root in modern intellectual life.

In the twentieth century the Blank Slate became a sacred doctrine that, in the minds of its defenders, had to be either avowed with a perfect faith or renounced in every aspect. Only such black-and-white thinking could lead people to convert the idea that some aspects of behavior are innate into the idea that all aspects of behavior are innate, or convert the proposal that genetic traits influence human affairs into the idea that they determine human affairs.

A second reason is that ―radical‖ thinkers got trapped by their own moralizing. Once they staked themselves to the lazy argument that racism, sexism, war, and political inequality were factually incorrect because there is no such thing as human nature (as opposed to being morally despicable regardless of the details of human nature), every discovery about human nature was, by their own reasoning, tantamount to saying that those scourges were not so bad after all. That made it all the more pressing to discredit the heretics making the discoveries. If ordinary standards of scientific argumentation were not doing the trick, other tactics had to be brought in, because a greater good was at stake.

We are now living, I think, through a similar transition. The Blank Slate is today’s Great Chain of Being: a doctrine that is widely embraced as a rationale for meaning and morality and that is under assault from the sciences of the day. As in the century following Galileo, our moral sensibilities will adjust to the biological facts, not only because facts are facts but because the moral credentials of the Blank Slate are just as spurious.

The anxiety about human nature can be boiled down to four fears:

• If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified.

• If people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile.

• If people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions.

• If people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose.

I will then show that in each case the logic is faulty; the implications simply do not follow. But I will go farther than that. It’s not just that claims about human nature are less dangerous than many people think. It’s that the denial of human nature can be more dangerous than people think.

The greatest moral appeal of the doctrine of the Blank Slate comes from a simple mathematical fact: zero equals zero. This allows the Blank Slate to serve as a guarantor of political equality. Blank is blank, so if we are all blank slates, the reasoning goes, we must all be equal. But if the slate of a newborn is not blank, different babies could have different things inscribed on their slates. Individuals, sexes, classes, and races might differ innately in their talents, abilities, interests, and inclinations.

So could discoveries in biology turn out to justify racism and sexism? Absolutely not! The case against bigotry is not a factual claim that humans are biologically indistinguishable. It is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups to which the individual belongs.

The dread of a permanently wicked human nature takes two forms. One is a practical fear: that social reform is a waste of time because human nature is unchangeable. The other is a deeper concern, which grows out of the Romantic belief that what is natural is good.

I have shown why new ideas from the sciences of human nature do not undermine humane values. On the contrary, they present opportunities to sharpen our ethical reasoning and put those values on a firmer foundation. In a nutshell:

• It is a bad idea to say that discrimination is wrong only because the traits of all people are indistinguishable.

• It is a bad idea to say that violence and exploitation are wrong only because people are not naturally inclined to them.

• It is a bad idea to say that people are responsible for their actions only because the causes of those actions are mysterious.

• And it is a bad idea to say that our motives are meaningful in a personal sense only because they are inexplicable in a biological sense.

These are bad ideas because they make our values hostages to fortune, implying that someday factual discoveries could make them obsolete. And they are bad ideas because they conceal the downsides of denying human nature: persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth.

Our minds keep us in touch with aspects of reality — such as objects, animals, and people — that our ancestors dealt with for millions of years. But as science and technology open up new and hidden worlds, our untutored intuitions may find themselves at sea.

Here is a tentative but defensible list of cognitive faculties and the core intuitions on which they are based:

• An intuitive physics, which we use to keep track of how objects fall, bounce, and bend. Its core intuition is the concept of the object, which occupies one place, exists for a continuous span of time, and follows laws of motion and force.

• An intuitive version of biology or natural history, which we use to understand the living world. Its core intuition is that living things house a hidden essence that gives them their form and powers and drives their growth and bodily functions.

• An intuitive engineering, which we use to make and understand tools and other artifacts. Its core intuition is that a tool is an object with a purpose — an object designed by a person to achieve a goal.

• An intuitive psychology, which we use to understand other people. Its core intuition is that other people are not objects or machines but are animated by the invisible entity we call the mind or the soul. Minds contain beliefs and desires and are the immediate cause of behavior.

• A spatial sense, which we use to navigate the world and keep track of where things are. It is based on a dead reckoner, which updates coordinates of the body’s location as it moves and turns, and a network of mental maps. Each map is organized by a different reference frame: the eyes, the head, the body, or salient objects and places in the world.

• A number sense, which we use to think about quantities and amounts. It is based on an ability to register exact quantities for small numbers of objects (one, two, and three) and to make rough relative estimates for larger numbers.

• A sense of probability, which we use to reason about the likelihood of uncertain events. It is based on the ability to track the relative frequencies of events, that is, the proportion of events of some kind that turn out one way or the other.

• An intuitive economics, which we use to exchange goods and favors. It is based on the concept of reciprocal exchange, in which one party confers a benefit on another and is entitled to an equivalent benefit in return.

• A mental database and logic, which we use to represent ideas and to infer new ideas from old ones. It is based on assertions about what’s what, what’s where, or who did what to whom, when, where, and why. The assertions are linked in a mind-wide web and can be recombined with logical and causal operators such as and, or, not, all, some, necessary, possible, and cause.

• Language, which we use to share the ideas from our mental logic. It is based on a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of combinatorial rules.

These ways of knowing and core intuitions are suitable for the lifestyle of small groups of illiterate, stateless people who live off the land, survive by their wits, and depend on what they can carry. Our ancestors left this lifestyle for a settled existence only a few millennia ago, too recently for evolution to have done much, if anything, to our brains. Conspicuous by their absence are faculties suited to the stunning new understanding of the world wrought by science and technology. For many domains of knowledge, the mind could not have evolved dedicated machinery, the brain and genome show no hints of specialization, and people show no spontaneous intuitive understanding either in the crib or afterward. They include modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and mathematics.

Education is neither writing on a blank slate nor allowing the child’s nobility to come into flower. Rather, education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. Children don’t have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.

That requires not just inserting new facts and skills in children’s minds but debugging and disabling old ones. Students cannot learn Newtonian physics until they unlearn their intuitive impetus-based physics. They cannot learn modern biology until they unlearn their intuitive biology, which thinks in terms of vital essences. And they cannot learn evolution until they unlearn their intuitive engineering, which attributes design to the intentions of a designer.

The voices of the contemporary left and the contemporary right are both embracing evolutionary psychology after decades of reviling it shows two things. One is that biological facts are beginning to box in plausible political philosophies. The belief on the left that human nature can be changed at will, and the belief on the right that morality rests on God’s endowing us with an immaterial soul, are becoming rearguard struggles against the juggernaut of science.

The Blank Slate was an attractive vision. It promised to make racism, sexism, and class prejudice factually untenable. It appeared to be a bulwark against the kind of thinking that led to ethnic genocide. It aimed to prevent people from slipping into a premature fatalism about preventable social ills. It put a spotlight on the treatment of children, indigenous peoples, and the underclass.

The Blank Slate thus became part of a secular faith and appeared to constitute the common decency of our age.

But the Blank Slate had, and has, a dark side. The vacuum that it posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides. It perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering. It torments mothers who work outside the home and parents whose children did not turn out as they would have liked. It threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering. Its corollary, the Noble Savage, invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of ―a government of laws and not of men.‖ It blinds us to our cognitive and moral shortcomings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions.

The Blank Slate is not some ideal that we should all hope and pray is true. No, it is an anti-life, anti-human theoretical abstraction that denies our common humanity, our inherent interests, and our individual preferences. Though it has pretensions of celebrating our potential, it does the opposite, because our potential comes from the combinatorial interplay of wonderfully complex faculties, not from the passive blankness of an empty tablet.

Regardless of its good and bad effects, the Blank Slate is an empirical hypothesis about the functioning of the brain and must be evaluated in terms of whether or not it is true. The modern sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution are increasingly showing that it is not true. The result is a rearguard effort to salvage the Blank Slate by disfiguring science and intellectual life: denying the possibility of objectivity and truth, dumbing down issues into dichotomies, replacing facts and logic with political posturing.

Abandoning the Blank Slate, in any case, is not as radical as it might first appear. True, it is a revolution in many sectors of modern intellectual life. But except for a few intellectuals who have let their theories get the better of them, it is not a revolution in the world views of most people. I suspect that few people really believe, deep down, that boys and girls are interchangeable, that all differences in intelligence come from the environment, that parents can micromanage the personalities of their children, that humans are born free of selfish tendencies, or that appealing stories, melodies, and faces are arbitrary social constructions.   It means only taking intellectual life out of its parallel universe and reuniting it with science and, when it is borne out by science, with common sense. The alternative is to make intellectual life increasingly irrelevant to human affairs, to turn intellectuals into hypocrites, and to turn everyone else into anti-intellectuals.

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