Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate centers on the age-old argument of nature verses nurture. This book presents the argument that both factors play a major part in the makeup of individuals. Along the way, the author takes on what he contends is a pervasive but invalid view that most human behavior is based upon culture and has almost nothing to do with biological evolution.

First, the book sets out to prove the point that biological evolution impacts human behavior in a major way. Pinker outlines how human violence, cooperation, family structure, sexuality and many other aspects of human behavior all have their origins in survival strategies and thus evolution.

Pinker is not arguing that culture is not an important factor. Instead, he is arguing what he contends is a common belief that environment is the only driver of human personality. The author presents evidence that human actions and cultures are, to a great extent, driven by evolutionary biology. Furthermore, many differences between people also stem from the particular sets of genes that we posses. Pinker describes the tendency for biology and evolution to influence behavior by the ubiquitous term “human nature.”

Pinker describes the central augment of this work in a nutshell,

“about half of the variation in intelligence, personality, and life outcomes is heritable— “

Next, the author sets out to highlight how, throughout the twentieth century and even earlier, various scientists, political movements and ideologies have advocated a counter narrative. That alternate interpretation is that individuals and society are one hundred percent malleable and can adopt any patterns or customs based entirely upon the environment, particularly culture. Thus, the term “The Blank Slate” is the book’s title.

Pinker tries to paint a picture of the social sciences, political and social movements, etc. that are dominated by folks hostile to the idea that human evolution has had a great impact upon our culture. He attributes much of this resistance to political and social motives that have overridden the scientific method and rational thinking.

Pinker highlights some of our worst policies and social theories propagated by both the political Right and Left to be based on the Black Slate. He argues that many pernicious ideologies, including Nazism and Communism, are based on it. He contends that at the core of these thought systems is the belief that the human mind is infinitely malleable.

Pinker spends a lot of time addressing how certain scientists have perpetuated this myth. He is particularly critical of the many who have done so for reasons that he contends are political. He also highlights the unfair attacks on scientists and philosophers who have tried to argue that many human differences as well as activity stem from biology. The author also describes how certain scientists who advocated for the validity of a biological evolutionary view have been unfairly and outrageously stigmatized as racists and Nazi sympathizers.  

Finally, the author argues against what he contends is the false assertion that biological causes of human behavior will allow folks to somehow excuse immoral acts. He makes a strong defense of morality in a world where morality is part of our genetic makeup.

Pinker is very fair. He takes both the political and cultural Right and Left to task for what he contends is untenable denial of the genetic origins of behavior. He points out that, ideologically, both sides have expended a lot of energy in pushing the validity idea of the Blank Slate to the detriment of society.

I am very much with Pinker on his view of human behavior being influenced by evolutionary biology. It seems clear for anyone who has studied evolution and human behavior that human personality and actions are the result of a combination of nature and nature. A lot of our culture as well as the things that humans do can be linked to survival strategies that humans evolved with. I also agree with him that such conclusions in no way invalidate the value of ethics, morality and decency.

However, as Rachel of Hibernator's Library points out here, one question arises: does Pinker overstate how much resistance there has been to this balanced view of human nature? Many books, articles and popular opinions seem to support the notion that we are a combination of nature and nature. Perhaps Pinker is trying a little too hard to prove this point.

Yet, Pinker has a point that we have a lot of ideologies, as well as scientific thought, that seems to deny any connection between biology and behavior. Furthermore, in recent decades, unfair and slanderous attacks have been conducted on proponents of the theory of biological factors driving behavior.

Having read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, I can describe that book as a kind of follow up to this one. In it, the author outlines how certain human characteristics that have roots in human evolution are expressing themselves more and more as society progresses. Positive behavioral traits such as cooperation, empathy, nonviolence, etc. are winning out as societies throughout the world change. My commentary on that book is here.

This book is full of ideas. Though I have some disagreements with him, I find that Pinker’s view of humanity is very close to my own. I believe that this is one of the books that is important for anyone who wants to understand humanity and our cultures. It helps us understand who we are and why we are the way we are. I highly recommend it for folks who are curious about these subjects.


James said...

Steven Pinker has an impressive ability to explain cutting-edge scientific ideas. I enjoy reading his books and like you I find a lot of points of agreement. This book is no exception and I am open to the idea that much of our behavior is the result of evolution rather than environment. However there is also room and perhaps a need to consider the cultural and environmental impact on each person's development. This is an exciting area of knowledge and your commentary was insightful and helpful for continuing to think about these issues.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph, I enjoyed reading your review--excellent commentary! I think it's wonderful to discover that an author's view of humanity is similar to our own. Pinker seems to emphasize and value a combination of nature and nurture, and a strong sense of morality. This book sounds fascinating!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James - Pinker is a believer in environmental influence which he attributes about half of who we are.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

The morality is important. People often misinterpret views like Pinker's to be immoral. To the contrary, they affirm that morality is inside of us.

Resh Susan said...

is not this the same author who has written The Language instinct? I have read a few chapters of it from a friend who is doing her masters in Linguistics

thecuecard said...

The Blank Slate metaphor helps me understand his ideas and what he's arguing against. His main idea seems pretty persuasive to me. I guess I haven't thought about it too much (nature vs. nurture), but perhaps I should when trying to evaluate a mass shooter or such.

JoAnn said...

This is such a fascinating topic! I was not familiar with this author or book, but will add it to my list. Thanks for your review.

Guy Savage said...

I think twin studies are very useful here. Take twins and then watch them in two vastly different environments.

Tracy Terry said...

Always fascinated b the nature versus nurture debate, it sounds to me like this author puts forward some interesting arguments.

Sharon Henning said...

Hi Brian. This is a very well-written review and I believe it gives the reader a clear understanding of what Pinker's argument is.

As you know we have different beliefs and convictions about human nature and morality.

When I consider man's inhumanity to man, such as Pol Pot, the 25 million Chinese killed by the Japanese in WWII or the millions starved to death by Stalin not to mention the Holocaust or racism or slavery, or the terrorism and blood baths occurring through out Africa, I see willful evil not a byproduct of evolution. No other animal treats its own like this. If evolution produced a moral code, why don't people follow it? You'll need to explain to me how evolution produces a moral sense in humans.

We have judges to punish crime in this reality. As a Christian I know that one day all evil will be judged by God and He will bring this imperfect world to its final conclusion. I know your hope is that evolution is going to develop humanity beyond evil. My hope is in a life everlasting with a perfect and righteous God.

Take care and have a good week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Great comment as always.

It seems clear that for organisms to be successful in their efforts to survive and reproduce, that a combination of traits, what we consider good and bad, would be successful. Sometimes it pays to cooperate, to help others, to band together in associations and families. At other times it pays to be violent, to hurt others, to cheat, etc, That is why we seem to be a combination of good and bad.

The good news, as Pinker points out in Our Better Angels, the better tendencies are winning out as our societies improve. I believe strongly in morality. I believe that it is vital that we promote it. But I believe that it comes from within us.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I agree that Pinker's view makes sense, that we are a combination of both nature and nurture.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Pinker references twin studies a lot. He looks at twins raised apart and those raised together.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi JoAnn - If you read this book I would love to know what you thought of it. I also highly recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - this is the second book that I have read by Pinker. I also sometimes read his essays. He is always into something interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Resh - Thanks for stopping by.

It is the same Steven Pinker who wrote The Language Instinct.

I have not read that book but it looks good.

Citizen Reader said...

Brian Joseph,
I agree that this is a very comprehensive and interesting review! I've started many Pinker books but never been able to finish them--never seem to have the time to concentrate on them in the way they deserve. I still want to read this one, though.

What I can't believe is how long everyone persisted in the idea that it must be ONE or the other--either only environment, or only genes, affected our personalities and lives. Wouldn't it have made more sense to start with thinking both affected us? What does that say about humanity, that we must always have the most simple and singular explanation, rather than accepting more variables?

Deepika Ramesh said...

Hi Brian, this is an enlightening review. Thank you. :)

Having been born, and brought up in India, I always get mired in discussions about, "Man for culture, or culture for man..." So many developments, and burning questions are suppressed in the name of culture here (like I mentioned in my blog about the book 'Sleeping on Jupiter', women are forcefully put in a straitjacket in the name of culture. That's is that one part.)

This book sounds intriguing. I am curious to learn more about the argument.

Stefanie said...

Pinker is a really interesting fellow though I can;t always agree with him. I've not read this one, but I would have thought most people have come to believe that nature AND nurture mix together to make us who we are. So it does sound like Pinker is making more out of a resistance that might not really be there. When was the book published?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - The book was published in 2002.

I agree that most individuals tend to agree that we are a mix of nature and nature. However, there seem to be a lot of political ideologies that still resist our genetic origins. A lot of things that I read from folks on one side insist that "gender is a social construct". The other side insists that sexual orientation is a choice. There seem to be a lot of other instances of this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sarah - Indeed it stands to reason that we would be a combination of the two. Pinker does delve into the ideological motivations that drive people toward an all environmental view.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Deepika.

This is such an old debate. It seems that throughout the world it is topic of interest.

Nothing that Pinker believes negates the great and interesting influence cultural differences have on us.

Maria Behar said...

As always, you have penned a very insightful, brilliant review, Brian!

This is a fascinating subject, one that encompasses not only science, but theology, as well. Those who believe in God, for instance, will point to the concept of humanity's sinful nature, while those who do not, or who consider themselves agnostics, will prefer the scientific view of evolutionary biology.

The truth might very well lie somewhere in between. As you know, I was brought up Catholic, although, due to my having attended a Protestant church for some time, I have become critical of some of the Catholic Church's dogmas. Years ago, I asked a Jesuit priest what he thought of evolution, and what the Church's position was on it. He replied that there was no reason why God could not have created the world through the process of evolution. This seemed a perfectly reasonable answer to me at the time, and it still is.

The Bible states that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh. Of course, the Bible is not a scientific textbook. Theologians have explained that what it refers to as a "day" was really thousands of years, in God's timing. So it's not that far-fetched to state that God actually created THROUGH the process of evolution. Therefore, it was His divine design that actually set up the biology that drives human behavior.

A more problematic point is that of the existence of evil, as well as where it originated. According to the Bible, it was humanity's willful disobedience that brought evil into the world, thereby twisting human nature from what God had originally designed it to be. I must confess to having a problem with this concept myself. If humans, as originally created by God, were perfect, then how could they have sinned in the first place?

Be that as it may, the fact remains that evil does exist. Some scientists explain its existence through biology. I know I have a book somewhere in my library that explains it through the existence of "evil genes". And I have read somewhere that there have been studies done of the brains of psychopaths. These studies show that their brains are different from those of people who have no psychopathic tendencies.

It's great that Pinker is objective and fair-minded enough to take to task both the Right and the Left. People do seem to be biased in terms of defending their favorite ideologies. This is probably determined by biology, as well, ironically enough. It's always bothered me, though, that those on the Right will demonize the ones on the Left, and vice versa, when BOTH have problematic areas in their ideologies.

This topic also brings in the concept of free will. Just how free are we, if we are biologically determined to a high degree? There's certainly much food for thought here.

Thanks for the great review!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the great comment Maria.

I think that the Jesuit Priest that you mentioned raised a good point. Though I am not a believer I do not think any of these scientific truths invalidate someone;s belief in God. If there is a God it is obvious that he or she created a Universe where physical laws work the vast majority of the time. We see these laws working everywhere. Evolution and genetic differences are just the result of these laws.

Pinker does talk about possible genetic differences between folks on the Right and the Left.

Indeed both sides of the political spectrum have questionable beliefs, as you know I am Progressive who has been very critical of the Left recently.

So many books, so little time said...

Nature vs nurture has been debated up and down for such a long time. I think this would be an interesting read!


Citizen Reader said...

I enjoyed your comment so much. I'll never forget my Dad and I talking about evolution and the Bible and the creation of the world, and my Dad made it very simple for me by asking, well, how do we know how long the "day" is that is referenced?
It's one of my proudest memories of my Dad, and made me appreciate our Catholic faith for being somewhat open-minded on the subject. I find it so disheartening that it is always assumed if you believe in evolution, you are not religious, and vice versa.
I've got to read this Pinker book, clearly. Even the comments on it have been fascinating!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - It is such an age old debate, As Pinker has pointed out, science has finally given us some answers.

Priya said...

The thing I like about these kinds of books, and about social science in general, is that the topic is usually very commonplace and we all already have opinions on it. So when the views expressed corroborate ours, with evidence and everything, we get this great sense of satisfaction! You said it right, Pinker is very fair in whatever he writes. I am more acquainted with him through his books on pop linguistics but I have wanted to properly read The Blank Slate for years now. Thanks for reminding me! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Priya - I have not read Pinker's linguistic books. They look really good.

Pinker really does seem to grasp many truths about the world.

JaneGS said...

I really like books like this, and find the discussion of nature vs nurture to be so interesting and relevant. I'm almost done with Quiet, about introversion, and this topic comes up repeatedly in the book. My own belief is that personality is biologically based, but biology doesn't have to be destiny. One's environment can enable the person to learn to compensate for what biology has preordained so that people can stretch and grow outside what is comfortable in order to achieve their dreams and utilize their talents.

Sounds like a good book, that I'll have to add to my library!

Maria Behar said...

Citizen Reader:

I just came back to read Brian's reply to my comment, and saw yours. So sorry I had not replied until now... Thank you so much for your kind words!

I agree -- we Catholics are indeed more open-minded when it comes to certain topics, such as evolution. And really, why should science and religion be opposed to each other? Instead, they should be in harmony.

I really like how your Dad approached this topic. Like the Jesuit priest I spoke with, he pointed out that a "day" for God is not the same as a day for us human beings.

I want to read Pinker's book myself. Brian always posts reviews of all these fascinating books! And the time to read them all is so short....

Thanks again for your reply to my comment!! : )

Hibernators Library said...

As you know from my review, I loved this book (even if I had some complaints as well as compliments). It was my first Pinker book, and I look forward to reading more by him. I'm glad I got to read someone else's intelligent thoughts on this book. Thanks for sharing!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Rachel.

In my opinion, As I have mentioned before, Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" is a must read. It helped me better understand humanity's past, present and future. It is the perfect follow up to this book.

Harvee Lau - Book Dilettante said...

Makes sense to me that both nurture and nature would influence an individual.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Indeed a combination seems logical and there is plenty of evidence to support the idea. It is striking how many people reject this however.

The Bookworm said...

Nature vs nurture is always an interesting topic. I think it is a combination of both myself. But then in some extreme cases like with serial killers, some scientists say they are wired wrong, and no matter what kind of upbringing they would have, they would still turn out the same way.