A Review of the Book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (by Steven Pinker; New York: Penguin Books, 2002; 509 pages)

Although no ally of believers in the God of the Bible, Steven Pinker, in his book The Blank Slate, is also clearly at odds with the triple mantra of contemporary social science, modernism, and post-modem philosophy. This so-called “Holy Trinity,” which arose out of the Enlightenment, regards the newborn human being as a “Blank Slate” without inborn limitations or inequalities. It also espouses concepts such as “the Noble Savage,” who is good, happy, and at peace until corrupted by the outside world, and “the Ghost in the Machine,” Pinker’s term for the soul (or inner, eternal, conscious, non-material essence), of which he denies the existence. A recognized expert in cognition and language who taught for 21 years at MIT before moving to Harvard, Pinker here summarizes vast areas of research in biology, cognition, genetics, and the humanities and the social sciences to demonstrate that the dictates of the “Holy Trinity” are not only untenable, but harmful.

In doing so, Pinker describes how the concepts of the “Blank Slate,” “the Noble Savage,” and “the Ghost in the Machine” became dominant in intellectual circles and how research increasingly calls each into question. He then explains why the concept of a “human nature”—in which each individual is born with specific and unequal gifts, talents, and abilities—is strongly resisted by the scholarly world. Pinker next identifies four fears surrounding the potential loss of the “Holy Trinity” of beliefs, each of which threatens one or more dearly held public policy positions.

First, secular arguments for human equality have been based on the concept of the “Blank Slate”; if this concept is nullified, discrimination might be justifiable. Second, if the assumption (stemming from the notion of “the Noble Savage”) that what is natural is good is demonstrated to be untrue, the ideals of moral progress and perfectibility might be cast aside as people recognize that human beings are innately immoral. The last two fears are that, if human capabilities and behaviors are biologically determined by the brain without being influenced by a supernatural soul, individuals and society will judge that people have no truly free will or responsibility for their actions, nor a higher purpose or meaning to their lives. Pinker addresses each of these fears in tum to show that the logic behind each assumption is wrong. He further asserts that denying the essence of human nature can be more dangerous than accepting it, since it leads to false conclusions and ineffective public policy.

Pinker then shifts his focus to several “hot buttons” (issues of politics, violence, gender, children/education, and the arts) in an attempt to find common ground, based on empirical evidence. Unlike those on the extreme “left” or the “right,” Pinker seeks a balance that would accommodate positions held by both sides. For example, he forcefully argues that, while much of the variance in certain traits and behaviors of individuals is biologically or genetically determined, much of this variance is not determined this way; thus, neither extreme determinism nor extreme environmental behaviorism is valid. Pinker concludes by describing how rejection of the “Blank Slate” hypothesis need not have the extreme effect on society and social policy that many fear. He supports his arguments by citing nearly 30 pages of publications.

In defending the view that human beings have different gifts but that all of humanity is inherently flawed, The Blank Slate has much to offer Christian ethicists. However, the author forcefully decries both the Christian and intelligent design explanations for human nature. Although raised in a Canadian Jewish community, Pinker is an atheist who strongly supports the theory of evolution. The book’s greatest flaws are that Pinker dismisses intelligent design without serious examination, and that he fails to see that his evolutionary interpretations of empirical findings about human beings are just as philosophical scientifically unfalsifiable as is Judeo-Christian belief.