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, here