The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human NatureThe Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This book is for people who wonder where the taboo against human nature came from and who are willing to explore whether the challenges to the taboo are truly dangerous or just unfamiliar.”

Pinker wrote those words in 2002, but the taboo of acknowledging human nature unfortunately continues today, making The Blank Slate as necessary as ever.

Pinker is always fun to read—informative, witty, and thorough. The Blank Slate is no exception. The Blank Slate is an invaluable resource for those looking to understand (and defend) the reality and far-reaching effects of human nature. Minds are not merely blank slates upon which lived experiences mold our traits; people are not born as "noble savages" only to become corrupted by societies; and we are not merely bags of meat controlled by a “ghost inside the machine.” Instead, our minds come pre-wired with features that largely define our individual personalities, desires, character traits, etc. It’s our genes that do almost all of the legwork in making us who we are.

The motivations behind those who would like to treat human minds as blank slates are understandable. A blank-slate mind, the proponents surmise, means we can have a truly even playing field, and that to the extent that the field is uneven it is because of factors that can be remedied by the right public policies. A blank-slate theory of the mind (i.e., a denial of human nature) makes us feel in control (as leaders, parents, and members of society). But, as Pinker lays out, a blank slate is a very bad metaphor to use for the mind.

Proponents of the blank-slate position fight hard against findings that show the innateness of human nature in molding individual behavior. Their aversion to human nature is based on a misguided notion that states that if differences among individuals are due to genetically inherited traits, then this fact could be weaponized by racists and other bigots to justify discriminatory practices and perpetuate policies that they see as causing systemic inequality.

The truth, however, is almost completely the opposite. Denial of human nature is not only unnecessary to avoid discriminatory policies and behaviors, but actually serves to promote certain types of unwanted discrimination. For example, blank-slate proponents equivocate when confronted with science about heritable traits that bolsters progressive policies, like findings showing the innateness of homosexuality. I.e., they seem to say that it’s fine to say his gayness is an inborn trait, but not his intelligence or temperament. Pinker satisfyingly eviscerates these contradictory notions and others like them, explaining how a theory of mind that fully embraces human nature is best equipped to promote equality—creating a default where we treat each individual as an individual.

For me, the most readily “usable” content is Pinker’s chapter on children. Pinker describes a particularly negative and lasting effect of the blank-slate position as follows: “The theory that parents can mold their children like clay has inflicted childrearing regimes on parents that are unnatural and sometimes cruel. It has distorted the choices faced by mothers as they try to balance their lives, and multiplied the anguish of parents whose children haven’t turned out the way they hoped.”

While motivated largely by laudable goals (e.g., fairness, equality), the denial of human nature is, and always has been, bad science. And it turns out that pretending that our minds are blank slates doesn’t actually help achieve those goals anyway.

This review also appears in Goodreads.