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The Blank SlateReview - The Blank Slate
The Modern Denial of Human Nature
by Steven Pinker
Penguin USA, 2002
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
Feb 10th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 7)

In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker, a psychologist at M.I.T. and author of several books and articles on cognition and linguistics, attempts to shatter the widely popular belief that the human mind at birth is a tabula rasa (blank slate) to which the environment (nurture) gives form and substance.  The book is based on the premise that the influence of nurture and the consequences of genetic predispositions on human development (nature) can be empirically decoupled.  On the basis of this premise, Pinker marshals the view that regarding the human mind (or brain) as devoid of an innate structure (hardwiring) at birth is more of a dogma than a tenable position and that human nature is largely inscribed in the genome, which is the product of our evolutionary history.

Pinker starts his scientifically-oriented journey into the nature-nurture controversy by examining conceptions of the mind that embody the tabula rasa belief and the empirical evidence that is generally used to support it.  Here Pinker does a skillful job at pointing out theoretical inconsistencies and empirical weaknesses.  For instance, two of the most famous and extreme versions of the tabula rasa view, which Pinker finds easy to refute, are that of John Watson (1878-1958), the founder of behaviorism, who made the claim that he could train any infant to become what he fancied (from doctor to beggar) regardless of the infant’s talents and abilities, and that of B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), another behaviorist, who asserted that behavior could be understood by examining the environmental factors (contingencies) that surround a person without regard to the influence of genetic makeup and evolutionary history.  Pinker emphasizes that these claims are untenable by reminding us of the fortunes of Skinner’s disciples who attempted to train various animals to insert chips into vending machines and discovered that the animals not only resisted their attempts, but also insisted on handling the chips in species-specific manners (i.e., chickens pecked the chips whereas raccoons washed them).  He also reminds us that inscriptions on blank slates would be useless without “interpreters” (hardwired mechanisms) and that “interpreters” vary across species (e.g., a speech sound is a warning sign for a bird but a word for a representative of the human species).

Pinker’s task is more cumbersome when extreme positions are put aside and he takes issue with views that embody the belief that experience is the chief determinant of human development while acknowledging the possibility of some hardwiring in the brain (i.e., a slate not entirely blank at birth).  Pinker calls attention to three areas of scientific inquiry whose evidence has been interpreted as supporting the tabula rasa view: (1) The discovery of a lower-than-expected number of genes comprising the human genome, which suggests that genetic information may be too limited to account for the complexity and variety of human nature.  (2) The finding that generic artificial neural networks (computer models that mimic the complex functioning of populations of neurons in the human brain with very few “hardwired” constraints regarding their functioning) can replicate complex human cognitive activities (e.g., reading, remembering, etc.) via patterns of activity induced by massive environment stimulation.  (3) Findings of neural plasticity indicating that experience (e.g., specific sensory stimulation) shapes the human brain as it develops to adult levels.  Pinker skillfully examines the available evidence to advance his argument that any claim that the mind has either no innate structure or a very limited one is indefensible.  For instance, with respect to the claim that the human genome is too small to produce much hardwiring, he reminds us that research has still to shed light on how genes build the brain, and thus the number of genes that would be necessary to produce a largely hardwired brain is yet to be known.  With respect to generic artificial networks, Pinker relies on linguistic development, a topic familiar to him, to demonstrate that environmental stimulation alone cannot shape general-purpose learning devices into replicating complex cognitive activities and that only hybrid models with networks hardwired to handle specific computational functions can do so, suggesting that innate circuitry is an indispensable component of the human mind/brain.  Lastly, Pinker reminds us that the plasticity of the brain, as demonstrated by the successful reallocation of brain tissue to new functions, has its limitations, arguing against the notion that sensory information can magically mold amorphous brain tissue into a structure that performs some specific computations.  For instance, ferrets whose auditory thalamus and cortex are re-wired to receive information from the eyes can process visual information, but with some deficiencies (e.g., fuzzier and less organized representations of the visual field) and little change in the basic signal-processing operations that these areas were destined to perform.

Of course, Pinker acknowledges that a one-to-one correspondence between traits and genes is largely unrealistic. He admits that genes create predispositions, and that experience is necessary to realize the predispositions encoded in the human genome.  However, he answers the critical question “How much of what we are is due to genes and how much to the environment?” by asserting that the human genome is responsible for much of the structure and functioning of the brain and that experience cannot alter either substantially.  Indeed, in his attempts to provide a comprehensive idea of human nature based on cognitive science and evolutionary theory, Pinker seems to undermine evidence pointing to the considerable role played by nurture in human development and appears to dispense with accounts of the dynamic nature of the interaction between the human genome and the environment. For instance, near the end of the book, Pinker claims boldly that violence, gender differences, and personality traits, even the arts, are not so much upshots of cultural pressure but aspects of human nature and thus are largely heritable.  Here the writing becomes exceedingly skewed in favor of genetic influences, making it more an exercise in persuasion than a fair trial for each of the usual culprits.  Of course, if Pinker had fully acknowledged the dynamic character of the interaction between environment and genes, and objectively examined the available research evidence in this light, he would have questioned his core premise that the respective influences of nature and nurture can be unambiguously separated.

Pinker believes that fears about the possible tragic consequences of accepting a view of human nature that appeals to the human genome and evolutionary history to explain what we are instead of granting environmental factors most of the explanatory power has led to abounding rejections of such a view by the scientific community and the press alike.  Among the fears that Pinker argues made the tabula rasa view a taboo is the recognition that innate differences can lead to discrimination, the idea that if humans are innately immoral, there will be no room for social interventions intended to improve human conditions, and the belief that if humans are biological products, there will be no room for free will, personal responsibility, and lives will not have purpose besides that of genetic determinism.  Pinker attempts to counteract each fear by arguing that disregard of human nature, which he equates to failing to know ourselves, prevents us from understanding the causes of human catastrophes (e.g., ethnic cleansing), and thus leaves us unable to prevent their re-occurrence. He contends that acknowledging human nature does not thwart efforts at social change.  On the contrary, he asserts that identifying those aspects of human nature that make change possible is the precondition for such efforts to be effective.  Pinker, however, seems to believe that knowledge of human nature, alone, can prevent human catastrophes and bring about social changes that ameliorate human life, but he stops short of addressing head on how to prevent “innocent” ideas about human nature, albeit grounded on scientific evidence (like his own), from being used in the interest of exploitation and discrimination.   

In conclusion, Pinker’s latest book is an interesting, exquisitely written, book for readers who want to be introduced to the nature-nurture controversy by examining scientific evidence rather than simply absorbing moralizing positions.  This is true even though Pinker’s attempts to persuade the reader of the indefensible nature of the tabula rasa view lead him astray from a more balanced and less emotional presentation of the evidence.  But then Pinker’s book was not titled “the unsolvable controversy of nature and nurture”.


© 2003 Maura Pilotti


Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.


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