The Blank Slate | Steven Pinker

Summary of: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
By: Steven Pinker


Step into the intricate world of the human mind in this summary of ‘The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature’. Dissect the theories that have been debated for centuries and explore fascinating insights into how our minds work and why we behave the way we do. Renowned psychologist Steven Pinker challenges some of the most popular beliefs, including the Blank Slate theory, the Noble Savage theory, and the Ghost in the Machine theory. Discover how genetics and environmental factors contribute to our behavior, while examining the societal implications of these revelations. Delve into the powerful forces that shape humanity, from our innate creativity and need for self-expression to the cultural connections that shape our values.

Theories of Human Nature

The nature of the human mind has been a subject of fascination for centuries, with theories evolving over time. Religion used to primarily influence popular beliefs about the mind. However, with the introduction of science, we’ve come up with three primary theories. The Blank Slate theory asserts that humans are born with no inherent nature, and social influences shape their behaviors and customs. The Noble Savage theory, attributed to Rousseau, posits that humans are by nature selfless and peaceful, while society promotes violence. The Ghost in the Machine theory suggests that humans have two separate systems, one relating to the body and one to the mind, and the mind is too intricate to understand by simple mechanical terms. There’s a fourth theory we’ll explore next. These theories are also known as empiricism, romanticism and dualism.

The Falsehood of The Blank Slate Theory

The Blank Slate theory, which posits that human behavior is solely learned and devoid of genetic predisposition, has been debunked by modern science. Our cultural behaviors are part of our evolutionary development, and while some may be arbitrary, they serve to coordinate our lives. Even language, a learned cultural skill, requires a genetic inclination to extract meaning and purpose. Genes and environmental conditions both play a part in shaping our cultural behaviors.

Breaking Down the Walls of Knowledge

Science has shattered boundaries between fields of study over the centuries. Cognitive science and behavioral genetics are building bridges between the physical and mental worlds, disproving the Blank Slate, Ghost in the Machine, and Noble Savage theories. Genes play a significant role in shaping our behavior and personalities rather than our upbringing alone.

Science has come a long way in unifying different fields of knowledge to explain life’s mysteries over the past few centuries. The first wall was broken in the seventeenth century by Isaac Newton, who discovered the law of gravity, describing the movement of all objects in the universe. The second wall fell in the nineteenth century, proving life doesn’t need any magical or supernatural elements, only the right combination of chemical compounds. Finally, the last wall standing between the physical and mental world is starting to crumble away.

Science is building bridges between these two worlds such as cognitive science or the science of mind, founded in the 1950s. It is impossible for the mind to be a blank slate since it needs an underlying system to sort and apply information. Behavioral genetics is another field that explores how genes influence behavior. There is no such thing as a blank slate because we are born with certain genes that determine our behavior and personalities. Identical twins separated at birth still talk, behave, and act the same, indicating that even preferences stem from genetics rather than upbringing.

These studies contradict the Blank Slate theory, Ghost in the Machine theory, and Noble Savage theory. The importance of genetic personality traits and behavioral genetics show that these theories are based on erroneous claims that society is the sole determinant of personalities and behavior.

The Persistence of Blank Slate Theory

Despite advancements in genetic science, Blank Slate theorists remain persistent in their beliefs. The decoding of the human genome in 2001 led many to believe that the mind might indeed be similar to a blank slate due to the smaller number of genes than expected. However, this number is misleading, and the true complexity of the human mind becomes apparent when considering all the possible gene combinations and interactions. In defense of the Blank Slate theory, connectionism and neural plasticity are proposed but have limitations that do not apply to humans. For instance, humans can differentiate between general ideas and different examples, unlike artificial intelligence systems, and learning skills like playing the violin do not change genetically linked behaviors.

The Controversial Theories on Human Nature

The idea of a blank slate where everyone is born equal has been politically opposed by those who prefer the Noble Savage theory. In the 1970s, scientists invoked Marxist theory to support their claim that genetics should not shape anyone’s brain and character traits. Meanwhile, religious groups like Christian fundamentalists defended the Ghost in the Machine theory, which suggests that the mind can transcend the body. These opposing views show how political and religious beliefs can cloud scientific research on human nature.

Abandoning the Blank Slate

Facing the Reality of Innate Differences and Imperfectibility

In the 1970s, the Blank Slate theory offered a convenient illusion of equality to a world still grappling with the aftermaths of slavery and the Holocaust. However, abandoning this theory meant confronting the harsh truth of innate differences among individuals. The fear of genetic determinism leading to social discrimination and inequality was a significant concern, but it should not be used to justify Social Darwinism. Moreover, a just society should provide social programs to help individuals with genetic disadvantages instead of discriminating against them.

Another fear associated with abandoning the Blank Slate is the acceptance of human imperfectibility. If human beings are born with natural tendencies towards immoral and selfish acts, why bother fighting them? This argument is often raised in the context of feminism, particularly regarding the belief that men are born with selfish sexual impulses that can result in sexual assault.

However, accepting imperfectibility does not mean tolerating or indulging in reprehensible actions. Our value system is based on the idea that a person’s desires should not outweigh their right to control their body. Even though certain urges may be part of human nature, they should not be viewed as acceptable or justifiable. Overall, abandoning the Blank Slate theory means acknowledging and navigating the complexities of human nature, which requires a just and compassionate society that supports every individual regardless of their innate characteristics.

The Blank Slate Theory: Exploring Its Implications

The Blank Slate theory’s concept of complete control over a person’s actions is now obsolete due to the recognition of the role that genetics play in shaping human behavior. This brings up concerns of determinism and nihilism. However, understanding human nature and genetics should not interfere with our legal and justice systems. While biology may provide a basic purpose to life, it doesn’t have to replace the search for higher meaning.

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