THE BLANK SLATE: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker

“Not another book on nature and nurture! Are there really people out there who still believe that the mind is a blank slate? Isn’t it obvious to anyone with more than one child, to anyone who has been in a heterosexual relationship, or to anyone who has noticed that children learn language but house pets don’t, that people are bom with certain talents and temperaments?

Haven’t we all moved beyond the simplistic dichotomy between heredity and environment and realized that all behavior comes out of an interaction between the two?”

This is the kind of reaction I got from colleagues when I explained my plans for this book. At first glance the reaction is not unreasonable. Maybe nature versus nurture is a dead issue. Anyone familiar writh current writings on mind and behavior has seen claims to the middle ground like these:

  • If the reader is nowr convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, wrc have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and environment have something to do with this issue. What might the mix be? We arc resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as wrc can determine, the evidence docs not yet justify an estimate.
  • This is not going to be one of those books that says everything is genetic: it isn’t. The environment is just as important as the genes. The things children experience while they are growing up are just as important as the things they are born with.
  • Even when a behavior is heritable, an individual’s behavior is still a product of development, and thus it has a causal environmental component…. The modem understanding of how phenotypes arc inherited through the replication of both genetic and environmental conditions suggests that… cultural traditions — behaviors copied by children from their parents — are likely to be crucial.

The idea that nature and nurture interact to shape some part of the mind might turn out to be wrong, but it is not wishy-washy or unexceptionable, even in the twenty-first century, thousands of years after the issue was framed. When it comes to explaining human thought and behavior, the possibility that heredity plays any role at all still has the power to shock.

To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, war, greed, genocide, nihilism, reactionary politics, and neglect of children and the disadvantaged. Any claim that the mind has an innate organization strikes people not as a hypothesis that might be incorrect but as a thought it is immoral to think.

This book is about the moral, emotional, and political colorings of the concept of human nature in modem life. I will retrace the history that led people to see human nature as a dangerous idea, and I will try to unsnarl the moral and political rat’s nests that have entangled the idea along the way.

Though no book on human nature can hope to be uncontrovcrsial, I did not write it to be yet another “explosive” book, as dust jackets tend to say. I am not, as many people assume, countering an extreme “nurture” position with an extreme “nature” position, with the truth lying somewhere in between.

In some eases, an extreme environmentalist explanation is correct: wrhich language you speak is an obvious example, and differences among races and ethnic groups in test scores may be another. In other eases, such as certain inherited neurological disorders, an extreme hereditarian explanation is correct.

In most eases the correct explanation will invoke a complex interaction between heredity and environment: culture is crucial, but culture could not exist without mental  faculties that allow humans to create and lcam culture to begin with.

My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing — no one believes that — but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme.

THE BLANK SLATE: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker (PDF)