Steve Pinker‘s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a wonderful book, not only for its wide reach and deep discussion, but also for the lively and opinionated language. Like The Economist, Pinker writes obectively with a view – though he clearly has an a opinion, well thought out and researched, in the nature-vs-nurture debate, he is careful to examine evidence and give the other side its due. Not that there is much.
Articulated, polemic and with more than a whiff of exasperated sarcasm, Steven Pinker attacks three misconceptions in modern culture: The Blank Slate, the idea that nurture, not nature, is the main shaping force behind human behavior; The Noble Savage, that the badness of the modern condition comes from the modern conditions – and things were somehow better before we got modern technology and transportation; and the Ghost in the Machine, that human thought is somehow an unexplainable superset of the machinery of the brain. Pinker starts out by describing these ideas, showing how they are founded not on scientific evidence but rather because of wishful thinking and deeply held beliefs about how the world should be. Scientific studies find that our genetic makeup to an uncomfortable degree shapes who we are and what we will do. The good old days, especially in the jungle and on the savannah, turn out to be just another myth. And increasingly sophisticated models of the many complex mechanisms in our brains makes it easier to understand, if not accept, the idea that our soul essentially is "the program that runs on our brain’s computer", to quote Daniel Dennett (in Consciousness Explained).
Pinker then goes on to what for me was the first new part of the argument – showing that there is no inherent moral position in either nurture or nature – in fact, showing that taken to extremes, they are both as bad. He positions Nazism as the ultimate genetic extremism – the belief that a certain race or other group of people has inherent superiority over others. Then he argues that the communism of Pol Pot – who killed a third of Cambodia’s population – is the ultimate environmental extremism, arguing that anyone who exposed to the corrupting influences of modern ideas, such as education or even urbanism, should be killed ("Only the children are innocent"). (I suppose Mao’s cultural revolution was based on some of the same thinking.) He mocks the idea that either stance frees us from responsibility for our actions. The beliefs, for instance, that criminals, as a group, are incorrigible or redeemable depending on whether you see them as monsters born to rob or innocent victims of unfortunate circumstances are both wrong.
Pinker attributes the anxiety about human nature – especially the idea that we may be more shaped by genes that we like to think – to four fears (p. 138):
- The Fear of Inequality: if people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified
- The Fear of Imperfectibility: if people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile
- The Fear of Determinism: if people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions
- The Fear of Nihilism: if people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose
In the subsequent four chapters, he deals with each of these fears, laying out a foundation for a humane moralism that does not rely on myths as its foundation, making humans responsible for their fate no matter their genetic setup. The downside of the misconceptions of the blank slate and the other ideas lies in their consequences: "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." (p.193)
The fourth part of the book takes as its starting point that much of our world-view is based on intuitions that served us well in a small society – nomadic hunter-gatherers – but which may no longer be true in a modern society, such as our fear of advanced science, of genetically modified food (all our food is genetically modified – by selective breeding through hundreds of years). We are prone to misinterpreting images, to misunderstanding evolution, and to overindulging in sanctimony, reasoning by moralism rather than sense.
The fifth and last part of the book deals with certain "hot buttons" that Pinker criticizes science for refusing to discuss, such as politics (why left and right fall into patterns), violence (humans are violent), gender (there are physical differences, notably that while the mean is the same, men have a larger variance than women, i.e., more idiots and more geniuses), children (shaped by genes and peers rather than parents, though the parents play a part in selecting the environment), and the arts (threatened less by lack of funding and quality than by "…a surfeit of of Ph.D.s pumped out by graduate programs that failed to practice academic birth control." (p401)). I especially liked his digs at postmodernism, which makes challenging of its authority impossible.
Wonderful stuff, deeply researched, fantastic language, strong arguments – what’s not to like? Nothing. Read it.
Update 18 jan 2006: Here is a video of Pinker presenting and discussing his book at MIT.