The Blank Slate

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker

Now that I’ve finished Steven Pinker’s momentous 2002 book, The Blank Slate, I find it somewhat hard to write about.  It’s not that I didn’t have a strong reaction.  I did: I loved it.  It’s that there’s so much: The Blank Slate is an exhaustive, many-avenued, in-depth, provocative work – friendly and caustic all at once – such a dense, rich mixture of such variety and depth that it’s almost hard to know what I think of it after one reading.  There are small chapters – even halves of chapters – that could set me thinking for months.  For example, one of my favorite recent books, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, comes up partway through one chapter, is given the most virtuosic analysis imaginable, and then stowed away, just one single prong in an extensive, many-layered argument that Pinker’s making in just one small quadrant of this tour-de-force.  It’s a massive work, a memorable one, but a hard one to come away from with a coherent take.

Pinker’s main theory is that there are three pervasive cultural myths that we employ to deny the possibility of an innate human nature: the notion that humans are born as Lockean blank slates (with no innate capacities or predilections), the conception of humans as Rousseauian noble savages (innately gentle, peaceful, and only corrupted by social constructionism and civilization), and the belief in a Cartesian “ghost in the machine” – the belief that we possess a mind or a soul that is phantasmic in substance rather than biological, unbound by the dictates of regular physiology (and nature).

Lurking behind all of this is the notion of social constructionism, which Pinker calls the Standard Social Science Model: the belief that human beings are almost entirely shaped by their environment (or “culture).  Men are made violent as little boys as a result of the pernicious cultural influences that teach them to be violent.  Humans are made racist by the “racial water” (as Robin DiAngelo would say) in which they swim, which causes them to develop an “implicit bias” against other groups and races.  All of this is entirely decided by culture, by stereotypes consciously or unconsciously passed down to children.  Culture in this sense is seen as something largely independent of human beings, a being with a life of its own, whose organizations, myths, norms, and pervasive beliefs exist somewhat independently of (and often unknown by) actual humans.

This position became ascendant, according to Pinker, partway through the 20th century, in response to the use of evolutionary biology (such as Darwin) to support theories justifying racial discrimination, the horrors of imperialism, social Darwinism, and even eugenics or genocide.  As the West increasingly became horrified by the biological justifications for atrocities and inequalities – as well as increasingly committed to the Progressive-era reforms of education and social improvement – the pendulum swung back to the primacy of “nurture” to explain human behavior.  This vision seemed to promise the best path toward a more just world, and much improved human societies.  Pinker traces this vision through the 20th century, to the dominance of psychology by the behaviorists, who build on Lockean “associationism” with their own ideal of an infinitely “conditionable” human mind, to the postmodernists, who believe that not only are all of our norms mere figments of social constructionism, but that there is no actual reality for human beings to comprehend whatsoever; instead all that we believe is real is really just a perception, a single “way of knowing,” or a construct of language itself.  

The advantage to this position, says Pinker, is that it supports the Utopian Vision of humanity.  If human beings are blank slates, all of our biggest problems are solvable by education.  Boys can be taught to be less aggressive, humans can be taught not to be biased, the vast majority of people can be taught to share, be tolerant, and think of others before themselves.  The “noble savage” ideal that human beings are by nature peaceable and loving only supports this belief further.

More than that, if we start to conceded too much ground to an innate human nature, if we begin to admit that our problems aren’t learned by are hardwired into our DNA as a species, we’re sliding down a slippery slope toward all sorts of disastrous possibilities, each of which Pinker devotes a whole chapter to: the fear of inequality, the fear of imperfectability, the fear of determinism, and the fear of nihilism.  Essentially, if we’re admitting that we’re bound by an innate human nature, we’re seemingly admitting defeat: that our most intractable problems can’t be solved.

But this is a non sequitur, says Pinker, and his book is largely an extended meditation on this particular logical fallacy.  The admission that we do have some innate characteristics as a species is hardly an admission of failure.  Instead, it’s the most knowledgeable starting point possible to have any hope of improving a world dominated by human, all-too-human, actors.  

“Our understanding of ourselves and our cultures can only be enriched,” he writes, “by the discovery that our minds are composed of intricate neural circuits for thinking, feeling, and learning rather than blank slates, amorphous blobs, or inscrutable ghosts” (72).


The book is very much worth reading just because it does remind us, even those of us inclined toward a belief in human nature, just how much biological truth there is to this.  Yes, humans are shaped by their environments, but only so much.  It’s easy to forget, says Pinker, just how deeply “programmed” we all are as a species.  Chimpanzees, even those brought up among humans, as Pinker reminds us, will never learn to speak.  On the other hand, human toddlers learn language at astonish rates.  Yes, we’re shaped by our environments, but only as we are endowed with a large number of innate cognitive, psychological, and social “hardware” that very much shapes our ability to extract what we need from the environment.  Any animal that was truly a “blank slate,” Pinker reminds us, would’ve been easily manipulated and quickly weeded out by rivals.  Moreover, the belief that the environment somehow sends us signals that program us is also clearly wrong:  “To one species, a snatch of human speech is a warning to flee; to another, it is an interesting sound to incorporate into its vocal repertoire; to a third, it is grist for grammatical analysis.  Information in the world doesn’t tell you what to do with it” (75).  

Instead, human beings are set up to adapt and to exploit their environment – or at least the one our ancestors thousands of years ago were used to (evolution, Pinker often writes, moves slowly).  Combinatorial patterns exist in the mind which order our thoughts, and they are remarkably consistent across cultures.  We’re not so much blank slates as we are very efficient processors – and we (all humans) are quite similar in this.  There is no “blank slate.” 

Nor is there a “noble savage.” Pinker provides some truly eye-open data about the rate at which hunter-gatherer societies war and kill – far more destructive in their affairs than even the most murderous periods of our own history.  The ghost in the machine comes in for serious doubt as well, given the frankly biological nature of our brain tissues.

The notion of social constructionism – particularly the idea of an anthropomorphic conception of “culture” as an autonomous being that shapes human nature – also comes in for heavy criticism.  Instead of culture as a shaper of humans, Pinker flips it around: cultures are primarily shaped by human nature.  Much of our culture – its rites, its rituals, its norms – are based on the real need to pass along what is valuable and necessary (materially, and informationally) for human beings.  “Culture, then,” writes Pinker, “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” (65).  

More than that, the notion of each individual culture as precious and unique and in need of passively “appreciating” is an evolutionary non sequitur.  Instead, cultures are always evolving, competing, and adopting.  Pinker cites the historian Jared Diamond, noting that “The ‘culture’ of any of the conquering nations of Europe, such as Britain, is in fact a greatest-hits collection of inventions assembled across thousands of miles and years; each culture borrows and takes what it can from the others.”

In a particularly fascinating passage, Pinker cites Diamond’s analysis of why some cultures were able to advance and to conquer others: geographical factors which allowed the Eurasian cultures to grow crops, domesticate animals and – thanks to its east-west-oriented landmass – to share their inventions – whereas the cultures of Africa, the Americas, and Australia, because of their geographical isolation and north-south orientation, were unable to promote such cross-cultural sharing and innovation.  As Pinker puts it, geography was destiny.  I thought this was fascinating in itself, but it’s wrapped in Pinker’s larger point, which is that culture is not so much a shaper of human desires as a product of them.


Pinker takes on a number of specific arguments in favor of the blank slate, and my overriding sense from the book is that he makes them all look pretty silly.  “The idea that a single generic substance can see in depth, control the hands, attract a mate, bring up children, elude predators, outsmart prey, and so on, without some degree of specialization, is not credible,” he writes (75).

“Saying the brain solves these problems because of its ‘plasticity’ is not much better than saying it solves them by magic” (75).


The second part of the book is devoted to outline the basic fears that Pinker believes keep us tethered to an outmoded conception of human nature as a blank slate: the four “fears” I described above.  Once again, the aim of this section is to demonstrate that these fears are unfounded, that the new discoveries in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and the like do not undermine humanist or progressive values, but actually sharpen our sense of ethics, putting our ethical beliefs on a firmer foundation.  

For example, Pinker states, the belief that the blank slate is necessary because is the only way all humans can be considered equal is a shaky foundation on which to build rights, says Pinker.  Clearly not everyone is the same in all abilities, predilections, talents, and achievement, so to base our belief in equality on a fictional notion of sameness is to base it on an unstable foundation.  Instead, writes Pinker, we must redouble our belief in “natural rights” – the idea that all humans are inherently equal because they are humans, not because they are just the same genetically or biologically.

It’s also wrong, says Pinker, to believe that violence and exploitation are wrong simply because humans are noble savages, naturally disinclined to violence.  Nor is it right to believe that the only thing keeping us responsible for our actions is the fact that they’re controlled by a disembodied “ghost in the machine” that is in no way biological; the physical reality of our brains and decision-making does not excuse us for the consequences of our actions.


The next part of the book, Part IV, is really the meat of the book.  In this section, Pinker outlines the “design specs” of human nature.  The human mind is biologically-based, evolutionarily evolved to accomplish specific purposes, some of which are well suited to our modern world, and some of which no longer are.  

“This book is based on the estimation,” writes Pinker, “that whatever the exact picture turns out to be, a universal complex human nature will be part of it.  I think we have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome” (73).

In revealing human nature, Pinker begins by confronting the assumptions about cognition that “underlie recent relativistic movements in intellectual life” (199) – the notion that all of reality – particularly categorizations – are in fact socially constructed: genders, races, and so on.  “This whole enterprise,” he writes, “ is based on an unstate theory of human concept formation: that conceptual categories bear no systemic relation to things in the world but are socially constructed (and can therefore be reconstructed).  While granting that there are a number of concepts in the world that are socially constructed (the concept of money, the concept of the presidency of the United States), that doesn’t mean that all conceptual categories are social constructions.  Instead, our brains are wired for our ancestors to apprehend the elements of reality most necessary to their survival: being able to tell where the edge of a cliff is, or to sense when a predator approaches, for instance.  Part of this process is a highly developed ability of our brains to put things we see into categories: that animal is a duck, that animal is an elephant, etc.  

In fact, our brains have been found to be so naturally good at this, that it inspires Pinker to write a truly mind-bending, third-rail section that begins thus: “The idea that stereotypes are inherently irrational owes more to a condescension toward ordinary people than it does to good psychological research” (204).  

He continues: “With some important exceptions, stereotypes are in fact not inaccurate when assessed against objective benchmarks such as census figures or the reports of the stereotyped people themselves” (204).  Even more interestingly, while humans hold these accurate understandings about categorical groups, they have no trouble either overriding previously wrong information once they receive updates, or in making allowances for individual exceptions should they meet someone from a certain group who does not conform to the stereotype.  Pinker somewhat walks these assertions back by reminding us that stereotypes are least accurate when considering groups of others who seem to be pitted in hostile competition, but it’s still quite a section.

He also goes on to critique the ideas, represented in deconstructionism and media studies, respectively, that humans are passive receivers – gobs of amorphous clay – passively shaped by language and images.  “The view that humans are passive receptacles of stereotypes, words, and images is condescending to ordinary people,” Pinker writes (218).


In Chapter 13, “Know Thyself,” Pinker explicitly outlines a list of the cognitive faculties and core intuitions that we as humans all possess.  They include an intuitive physics, an intuitive sense of biology (in which objects grow according to an Aristotelian “essence” within; an intuitive engineering ability, an intuitive psychology (in which other people are animated by an invisible mind or soul); a spatial sense; a number sense; a sense of probability; a sense of economics based on “reciprocal exchange”; a mental database and logic; and the ability to use language.

The brain also possesses several other elements that are not quite cognitive: the ability to assess danger (with attendant sense of fear), a system of understanding contamination (which accompanying disgust), and a moral sense – to which Pinker later devotes an entire chapter.  

These traits we possess, writes Pinker, were evolved via evolution over millions of years for groups of hunter-gatherers, living in small, tribal groups, who were illiterate.  Yet evolution takes thousands and thousands of years to catch up with real conditions, meaning that our minds are not adapted to so many elements of the modern world.  Here we find ourselves back at Vygotsky, who Pinker largely seems to agree with when he writes that many subjects we are not intuitively evolved to understand – such as reading, writing, and math – we must be taught explicitly, by engaging elements of our natural talents or by building new capacities.  It’s just evolution lagging behind.  

“Education,” he writes, “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” (222). 

On one side are the blank-slaters (who Pinker identifies with traditional education) who think children are empty receptacles into whom we must pour (or deposit) knowledge.  Meanwhile, the Romantics, the progessive educators, are identified with the belief that humans are noble savages who are not just peaceful and harmonious in a state of nature, but are natural, universal learners if given their own space: they naturally want to acquire knowledge and are capable of doing so.  

For Pinker, children are equipped with certain tools that come naturally to them, while there are others (like an understanding of science or formal mathematics) that must be taught to them, often by either cleverly manipulating or sometimes “debugging” children’s innate, natural understandings.

Pinker’s whole section here on education is a little breezy, and a little quick, and when you slow things down and really look, you can see where he’s skating across the subtleties.  For example, it’s hard to imagine that most “traditional” educators don’t believe something akin to his ultimate conclusion: that humans are innately good at somethings, but must be taught others.  And conversely, it’s hard to imagine that most progressive educators don’t believe in some version of the blank slate.  That said, I like his final version of education as a process of helping students develop that which doesn’t come naturally for them.


The last thing I want to mention is that I see Pinker’s understanding of human nature as encompassing two somewhat different points:

First, that humans are biological creatures, with an innate system for understanding and learning about the world, which marks all human beings in relative similarity across the world.  We are creatures of evolution, and evolution occurs slowly.  Yes, the environment shapes us to a large extent, but only in so far as it shapes an innate internal “processor” and a biologically inclined organism.  

Second – and harder to accept for me – is the notion that genetics has a much greater influence on our outcomes than our environment.  This seemed like a larger argument as the book went on, especially in a fairly eye-raising section about children, in which Pinker claims that the environment children are raised in is far less important than their genes, which pass along a great deal that shapes who children are.

I must say, I winced at this second argument whenever it came up.  The fear of biological determinism is strong, I guess.  And it does seem as though Pinker undervalues, or at least leaves unspoken, the power and influence of one’s environment to shape a person.  Certainly anyone’s personality, anyone’s predilections, comprise a rich mix of the interactions between one’s innate nature, and one’s environment, along with one’s reactions to both poles.  These reactions in turn continue to shape who one is.

Overall though, I really enjoyed the book and largely agree with Pinker’s central premise: that we all could do with a larger dose of science when it comes to self-understanding.  We’d have more humane, better informed policies and dealings with each other if we more clearly recognized our own innate biological tendencies.  And we’d be wise to be wary of Cartesian, Rousseauian, and especially Lockean myths; while faith in the Blank Slate was an admirable egalitarian assertion, designed to pull the rug from under bigots, racists, and some types of fascists, it has also been used (as Pinker points out) by other types of fascists to justify remaking human beings and human societies.  Instead, Pinker reminds us, our vision of equality, fairness, and justice needs to rest on something firmer than a myth.

Ultimately, I think I still like Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions quite a bit more.  It’s more academic, which is more my style, more grounded in philosophy.  Pop science, which is what Pinker’s book ultimately is, is never my favorite genre.  There is something about Pinker’s great book that does skate along the surface a bit, and I can see that pretty clearly when he breezes along into the subject areas where I’m an “expert” (education).  The whole work is breathtaking in scope, but not in depth.  Pinker does well to remind us that the supremacy of the Blank Slate comes from a 20th century desire to steer clear of historical wrongs, but at the same time, Sowell’s analysis is wider: the battle between the constrained and unconstrained visions is as old as humanity itself, and all three of Pinker’s myths seem to fit comfortably into this debate.  Still, all the science that Pinker adds will stick with me, and only reinforce my opinion that human nature is a real concept, a freeing but confining influence on us all, a fact to be understood as the true apex of self-knowledge, and the best starting point for sane policy creation.

Worth reading, surely.