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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
BY STEPHEN PINKER
Reviewed by Barry Dauphin, Ph. D.
by the noted psychologist Steven Pinker, is an ambitious effort to
convey principles of evolutionary psychology and a computational theory
of mind to the general public. I
believe this to be an important book for psychoanalytic thinkers to
acquaint themselves with because its subject
speaks to very basic issues which psychoanalysts have
traditionally considered to fall within the purview of our field.
Furthermore, its author is seen by many in academia and in the
media as one of the foremost authorities on matters of the mind.
As a contemporary theory of humanity and, especially, of human
behavior, the effort by Pinker incorporates findings and theories from
biology, cognitive science, neurosciences and evolutionary psychology.
But first Pinker addresses basic philosophical issues which too
many of us risk neglecting when thinking about our field.
Pinker is an erudite and engaging writer who is in no way phobic
to the use of wit in conveying his ideas.
He makes an otherwise daunting subject enjoyable.
I find much to admire about this work and, frankly, every bit as
much to criticize about it.
contends that the idea that there is such a thing as human nature
remains a modern taboo. He
is concerned that psychology has attempted “to explain all thoughts,
feeling and behavior with a few simple mechanisms of learning” (p. 6).
Although we can all recognize this description as behaviorism,
Pinker further associates a Blank Slate model (i.e., a model which views
humans as being born as blank slates with experience/environment doing
all the shaping of them) to another movement one might not consider to
be related, i.e., postmodernism. Thus,
for Pinker, not only are Skinner & Co.
Blank Slaters (something almost every psychology major could tell
us), but so are Foucalt et al. Think
“social constructivism” and one may begin to get an idea of how
Pinker attempts to link these seemingly different views together under
the Blank Slate tent. Namely
if “reality” is nothing but a social construction or a form of
consensual agreement, Pinker would appear to argue that postmodernism is
in essence a flowery, but misguided, form of behaviorism.
The fact that Skinner and crew believe in the scientific method
and objective truth whereas the social constructivists do not doesn’t
seem relevant to him.
many of our ideals are purported to stem from a Blank Slate model of
humanity (e.g., the ideal of equality before the law based upon the
principle that all people are created equal), Pinker argues that using
the Blank Slate as a means to justify these ideals is intellectually
lazy. He argues forcefully
that many models of humanity, formal and informal, are thoroughly
ensconced with Blank Slate assumptions.
For example, he is highly critical of virtually the entire body
of work involving child rearing. No
matter what one’s model of the child or family is, Pinker seems to
believe that all books or manuals which seek to give advice to parents
about how to bring up their children are actually perpetrating a grand
hoax. He painstakingly
marshals a great deal of research on personality factors, twin studies
and other facets of behavioral genetics in the service of the general
thesis that no particular child rearing technique has any effect
whatsoever on the “kind of person” the child becomes.
He indicates that too much of the parenting literature implicitly
or explicitly suggests that children are infinitely malleable.
He contends that there is an ever growing body of research which
shows this to be nonsense.
argues that the entire field of research regarding child rearing
techniques is hopelessly confounded with genetics.
A particular parenting technique may seem to “work” because
the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The child has the parents’ genes, and the parents’ genes
influence their parenting techniques as well as the child’s behavior
and temperament. He
maintains that the entire field of research regarding child rearing
styles or techniques is confounded (and corrupted) by failing to take
into account that the child shares genes with the parents and that genes
may play an enormous role in “what kind of person” the child
kind of person” is a curiously vague phrase he repeats ritualistically
throughout much of the book. He
seems to equate the results of objective personality tests (such as
factors like introversion/extroversion, openness to experience,
neuroticism, etc.) with the “kind” of person you are.
He finds no evidence that parenting techniques or styles have any
influence on one’s scores on such personality tests and concludes that
parents have little to no influence on what “kind” of person the
child becomes. His entire
argument rests upon the dubious assumption that everything important
about a person and a person’s life can be captured from taking an hour
long personality inventory. In
Pinker’s description, individuals seem to have few nuances or
experiences of any significance. Pinker’s
appears to be not a subject but only an object.
He argues that most of the research in the field would need to be
redone controlling for genes. Until
this happens, he remains convinced that parents have little effect on
the development of their child’s personality.
chides the child rearing industry for “making” mothers feel guilty
and concerned that they are not good enough parents, as if mothers would
be guilt free were it not for Dr. Spock or T. Berry Brazelton.
Although he considers parenting to be an ethical responsibility
and that parents have a duty to treat their children ethically, he seems
to assume that such ethical treatment is easily grasped by most people,
save those who seriously neglect or abuse their children.
He offers no basis from which parents could make ethical choices.
I found it interesting that he describes parents as having so
little effect on their children (despite living with them and having
much power over their lives) but portrays the child rearing industry as
having such a large (destructive) effect on parents (despite it being
little more than information contained in books a parent chooses to buy
and could put down at any moment).
addition to the Blank Slate, Pinker casts stones at two related
underlying assumptions which also contribute to the denial of human
nature in his opinion: “the ghost in the machine” and “the noble
savage.” The ghost
in the machine
(a term coined by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle) concerns Descartes’
thesis that the mind is composed of immaterial substances and is
distinct/different from the material world.
The perspective of the
(a view most closely associated with the French philosopher Rousseau
though, as Pinker notes, the term actually comes from Dryden) claims
that humans are naturally good but become corrupt through society’s
influence. Pinker critiques
Descartes in a way that has become quite a familiar trope for
contemporary writers of psychology.
Namely, Pinker argues that there is no such thing as immaterial
substances (or at least no empirical evidence that these exist) and that
all human thought and behavior must, therefore, be governed according to
the laws of nature. The mind
is not separate from the physical world but is coexistent with the brain
(or, in essence, is the brain). Peeing
on Descartes’ grave seems to have become the modern intellectual’s
rite of passage. Pinker is
essentially a biological reductionist and can’t understand why this
view gets such a bad reputation in psychological circles.
He dismisses concerns about biological reductionism as confused
like many who dismiss Cartesian dualism, he seems to experience no
dissonance, let alone a sense of irony, conversing in the very
psychological language for which Cartesianism is largely responsible.
It’s like throwing someone out of office for corruption, only
to take over his job and pork out on his perks.
Although suggesting that evolutionary psychology combined with
information processing will shed new light, the upshot never seems as
radical or impressive as promised. He
rightly critiques dualism, but does not really seem to improve upon the
basic psychological way of thinking derived from it (which, in my
opinion, is true for many of Descartes’ critics).
Dualism certainly seems wanting in many ways.
idea of the mind as an immaterial substance certainly appears naive in
light of contemporary research on the brain as well as in physics and
chemistry per se. Yet
Descartes suggested to us the consciousness of humanity and our self
consciousness which both helped liberate people from authoritarianisms
promulgated by church and state and also helped prepare Western
civilization to cultivate many new liberties (including the eventual
liberty to conduct research in genetics and neurosciences).
Isn’t a little gratitude in order?
Could Jefferson have conceived of “... and the pursuit of
happiness” as a right were it not for a Descartes?
I would suggest that Pinker and his fellow reductionists seem
unwilling to follow the logic of their position far enough.
By considering the microscopic level as the only true level, he
loses sight that we conceive of phenomena at various levels.
instance, one could claim that money consists of a configuration of
subatomic particles and is moved from place to place. So should we now
turn to physics in order to understand the economy?
There are many hints in his work that he sees it as reasonable to
talk psychologically (as opposed to wording everything in the language
of biology). It seems
important to Pinker to exorcise the ghost in the machine but perfectly
acceptable to speak of the brain as having “emergent features.”
However, his rendition of “emergent features” seems
alluringly similar to the Cartesian ghost (for all practical purposes).
Pinker himself is interested at staying at the level of biology
and argues it is not necessary to go down to basic physics to study the
influence of genes. But why
is reductionism good medicine for psychology and not for biology?
He offers little explanation.
It stands declared but not explained.
Too often throughout his book Pinker declares
in this manner while providing little explanation or justification.
To my mind (or must I now say, to the emergent features of my
brain?), his version of evolutionary psychology and genetics can start
to feel like a new brand of authoritarianism.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
essence Pinker does not seem to manage speaking as both a biologist and
as a psychologist. By laying
the foundation to understand humans in only a strictly naturalistic
(physical/literal) manner, he loses credibility when he attempts to say
that human values and biological facts are somehow distinct.
His entire argument rests upon understanding all human thought
and behavior as the by-product of natural selection and neurophysiology.
Yet he worries that to understand values and ethics in
naturalistic terms inevitably leads to the possibility of people not
assuming responsibility for their actions (see also Malik, 2002).
This would have serious, untoward consequences.
It could become a “my genes made me do it” defense for all
sorts of behaviors. He
attempts to view human values as not derived from nature in the same way
that certain personality traits are claimed to be.
He warns of the naturalistic fallacy in moral reasoning (i.e., if
it’s found in nature, it must be good) and the moralistic fallacy
(i.e., if it’s good, it must be found in nature).
Yet by abandoning the Blank Slate philosophers (e.g., Locke et
al.) he essentially tosses out the recognized foundation for the very
values he cherishes while providing no other philosophical mechanism for
virtually takes all values of liberal democracy as given and then tries
to reverse reason his way toward not finding any incompatibility between
them and his doctrine of human nature, i.e., that much of our behavior
is a derivative of genes and all is a product of evolution (which would
have to include our values, right?).
He seems to argue that these values are universal and not
contingent upon anything else while simultaneously arguing that all
human thought is contingent upon natural selection.
One could ask, are these values strictly products of human
thought or are they universal? Were
they created or were they discovered?
It often sounds as if he conceptualizes human values as universal
and not a product of nature, but that doesn’t seem to square with the
biological reductionism he proudly espouses throughout the book.
If there is nothing but the physical world, where are these moral
values located? His
conception of values and morality seems close to introducing a new ghost
in the machine. I’ll call
it Descartes’ revenge from the grave.
Trying to reconcile the values of liberal democracy with a theory
of human nature may be a worthy goal, but it is not accomplished via a
pronouncement of compatibility. His
position seems to be inconsistent or in conflict.
attempts to explore the idea that biology has endowed us with competing
urges. Thus, he gets close
to beginning to outline a model of psychic conflict.
This brings his thinking into more direct relevance for and
possible conversation with psychoanalysis per se.
But he does not draw out a thorough analysis of how these
competing biological tendencies should ever tilt in one direction or the
other or achieve some sort of compromise.
This is mostly because his model lacks any version of a dynamic
unconscious. Without his
saying this directly, his model is a horizontal model of conflict with
no vertical component.
acknowledges that people have unconscious processes but disparages any
form of a psychoanalytic (i.e., dynamic) version of the unconscious.
His version of the unconscious is more static and limited.
Curiously enough he practically mocks a concept such as the
Oedipus Complex. However,
when he attempts to illustrate the powerful, nonrational tug of
evolution, he uses the device of a make believe story of brother-sister
incest (where all of the “usual,” rational objections to incest are
made moot to show that people still think it’s wrong anyway).
His dismissal of the incest conflict in the form of the Oedipus
Complex and his use of the parable of brother-sister incest are
separated by many pages. If
one thinks associatively (as psychoanalytic thinkers do), it becomes an
gives Freud a bit of credit for emphasizing biological urges and clearly
recognizes that Freud was no Blank Slater.
He displays some sympathy for Freud’s tragic
of humanity. But for the
most part, he appears to think little of psychoanalysis as a theory of
mind. Despite quoting Freud
and mentioning Freudian concepts a fair amount, his huge bibliography
contains not one citation of Freud.
He essentially dismisses psychoanalysis (or a parody of
psychoanalysis) because he feels it is entirely worthless for people to
spend their time talking in order to change things about themselves (he
envisions the entirety of analysis to be analysands complaining about
their parents; he says that patients “while away the hour” on such
things). From his theory
parents have virtually no effect on what “kind” of people their
children become (except having passed along their genes).
So why talk about them? He
seems to have the unspoken assumption that therapists think the purpose
of therapy is to shift a person from one box of a personality profile
matrix into another box (like trying to turn an introvert into an
extrovert). He can’t seem to conceive of talking about oneself as
fostering any kind of self understanding which a person could find
valuable in any way.
dismisses forms of therapy that may explore childhood conflicts, yet he
seems to have only a cartoon version of how therapy proceeds and shows
no knowledge whatsoever of psychotherapy literature.
In part this derives from the model he erects.
His version of human nature is one which is very difficult to
apply to any particular person. This
is very much a theory about how or why certain “traits” exist in
humanity. It is a study and
theory of not only large groups but of the existence of traits in the
abstract. How one might use
evolutionary psychology and a computational theory of mind to understand
fact I would argue that the entire field of evolutionary psychology is
poorly named. Based upon
Pinker’s presentation it seems that it would be more appropriately
named evolutionary sociology or, better, evolutionary anthropology.
It is interesting that proponents insist it be called a
psychology and want to toss out the mind from this psychology.
Now it is true that much of Freud’s writings could be said to
fall under sociology or anthropology, but it is clear that
psychoanalysis is used to understand
psychology that has little, if any, interest in understanding an
individual hardly seems to be a psychology at all.
In principle a theory of psychology based upon genetics could
suggest individual uniqueness. Since
no two people, save identical twins, have the exact same set of genes,
there is plenty of room to consider the uniqueness of individuals.
evolutionary psychology appears to be striving to grasp only for the
most broad generalizations and foreclose much consideration of the
individual. Although clearly
an important development in trying to understand humanity, too often
evolutionary psychology comes close to sounding pat, a criticism often
aimed at psychoanalysis.
trait in question exists because it enabled the survival of the species,
so the story goes. Even
competing traits have ensured the survival of the species (e.g., the
existence of both greed and altruism).
The existence of the trait itself becomes the only empirical
evidence of its survival value. This
flirts with circularity. There
is little consideration of how we categorize such “traits” to begin
with. Pinker among others
can come up with fanciful conjectures about the process which might have
led to the survival of one trait or another (or what gives it survival
value). However, traits
evolve over thousands or millions of years.
It is, of course, impossible to run experiments to test
hypotheses when we have to wait a few million years for the result.
Evidence must accrue in other ways.
So evolutionary psychologists have become good at thought
borrow a fanciful conjecture from evolutionary psychology (but from
another book called The
by Geoffrey Miller), this discipline (including Pinker’s version)
considers the Oedipus Complex to be a fiction based upon a
misunderstanding of children. For
example, Miller would contend that the child’s behavior which is
misinterpreted by analysts as sexual interest in the parent is really
behavior which communicates the child’s “fitness” in general.
Parents are interested in the child’s fitness because the child
passes on their genes. A fit child is more likely to pass on their
genes. But one doesn’t
even need much exposure to psychoanalysis to find this
explanation/understanding lacking. Even
to step onto the territory of evolutionary psychology for a moment, one
could surely say that part of the child’s fitness to pass on genes
should include sexual curiosity, sexual interest, the precursor
behaviors to sexual relations, etc.
Who, generally, has the closest emotional bonds to the child and
why wouldn’t the child direct this sexual interest toward those with
whom he/she shares such a deep emotional attachment?
Why would there even need to be an incest taboo in the absence of
any such feelings on the part of child and parents?
The existence of an incest taboo long precedes the development of
liberal democracies and child abuse laws.
It is interesting that a discipline which focuses so much on
sexuality and the passing on of genes can’t allow for any form of
childhood sexuality. Perhaps
many years hence, this field will “shock” academia with the
“discovery” of childhood sexuality after having tossed Freud over
the cliff long before.
claims that there are many negative repercussions to a Blank Slate
model. Not only does this
include the aforementioned child rearing practices, but also modern art,
totalitarianism, relativism, postmodern literature, liberal criminology,
and so forth. He holds that
a Blank Slate model necessarily leads to these supposed ills.
As reviewer Kenan Malik intoned, Pinker trots out a Blank Slate
model “as a
general-purpose bogeyman responsible for every bad idea in the 20th
century-or, at least, every one that Pinker dislikes.”
He tries to address the usual concerns people express about
genetically based models of humanity.
For example, it is often suggested that one risk in letting
genetics assume center stage has been experimentation with things like
eugenics and beliefs in a master race.
Pinker holds that there is nothing which compels
one to go down that path by assuming a genetically based model of human
nature. He argues
essentially that the horrors of the Nazis, for example, were the result
of (among other things) a motivated misapplication
and misunderstanding of a genetic view of humanity.
He holds that one can have a genetically based model of humanity
and not espouse a master race philosophy (and even be vehemently opposed
to such a philosophy). That
seems fair enough in and of itself.
he won’t allow his opponents the same possibility, namely that some
issues he raises as concerns could likewise be misapplications
of a Blank Slate model. Furthermore,
many from his list of “problems” seem based not upon scientific
criteria but upon some other, more personal criteria masquerading as
science. Surely he can’t
be trying to say that science
has proven that postmodern literature is bad.
He doesn’t prove it to be nefarious in the first place, let
alone that his assessment of it has anything whatsoever to do with
science. Venturing onto
territory which is of a more political nature and claiming his views are
connected to a science
of human nature begins to undermine his earlier, thoroughly laid out
arguments that one must be careful in assuming the political can be a
smooth and easy extension of the scientific.
Although I have had
much to criticize about this book, I strongly encourage psychoanalysts
and those who work with others psychoanalytically to read this book.
This book represents, in many ways, a road map to the future of
the mind sciences. Many of Pinker’s arguments are well thought out and
very challenging of us. He
is highly respected by the majority of mainstream academicians in
psychology and the neurosciences. If
we are to engage in any meaningful dialogue with those from within the
mainstream of contemporary “mind” studies, we owe it to ourselves,
our field and to the spirit of colleagial discourse to become more
familiar with this area. The
Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature
represents a thoughtful entree into this field.
Malik, Kenan (2002). Human
Miller, Geoffrey (2001). The
Anchor Books, NY.
Pinker, Steven (2002). The
Blank Slate: The Modern
Denial of Human Nature.
Viking. Penguin, NY.