Cover of the first edition
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a best-selling 2002 book by Steven Pinker, in which the author makes a case against tabula rasa models in the social sciences, arguing that human behavior is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations. The book was nominated for the 2003 Aventis Prizes and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Pinker argues that modern science has challenged three "linked dogmas" that constitute the dominant view of human nature in intellectual life:
Much of the book is dedicated to examining fears of the social and political consequences of his view of human nature:
Pinker claims these fears are non sequiturs, and that the blank slate view of human nature would actually be a greater threat if it were true. For example, he argues that political equality does not require sameness, but policies that treat people as individuals with rights; that moral progress doesn't require the human mind to be naturally free of selfish motives, only that it has other motives to counteract them; that responsibility doesn't require behavior to be uncaused, only that it respond to praise and blame; and that meaning in life doesn't require that the process that shaped the brain must have a purpose, only that the brain itself must have purposes. He also argues that grounding moral values in claims about a blank slate opens them to the possibility of being overturned by future empirical discoveries. He further argues that a blank slate is in fact inconsistent with opposition to many social evils since a blank slate could be conditioned to enjoy servitude and degradation.
Evolutionary and genetic inequality arguments do not necessarily support right-wing policies. Pinker writes that if everyone was equal regarding abilities it can be argued that it is only necessary to give everyone equal opportunity. On the other hand, if some people have less innate ability through no fault of their own, then this can be taken as support for redistribution policies to those with less innate ability. Further, laissez-faire economics is built upon an assumption of a rational actor, while evolutionary psychology suggests that people have many different goals and behaviors that do not fit the rational actor theory. Rising living standards, also for the poor, is often used as an argument that inequality need not be reduced, while evolutionary psychology may suggest that low status itself, apart from material considerations, is highly psychologically stressful and may cause dangerous and desperate behaviors, supporting a society reducing inequalities. Finally, evolutionary explanations may also help the left create policies with greater public support, suggesting that people's sense of fairness (caused by mechanisms such as reciprocal altruism) rather than greed is a primary cause of opposition to welfare, if there is not a distinction in the proposals between what is perceived as the deserving and the undeserving poor.
Pinker also gives several examples of harm done by the belief in a blank slate of human nature:
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins stated "The Blank Slate is ... a stylish piece of work. I won't say it is better than The Language Instinct or How the Mind Works, but it is as good--which is very high praise indeed."
Philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote "[Pinker] wades resolutely into the comforting gloom surrounding these not quite forbidden topics and calmly, lucidly marshals the facts to ground his strikingly subversive Darwinian claims--subversive not of any of the things we properly hold dear but subversive of the phony protective layers of misinformation surrounding them."
Behaviorist Elliot A. Ludvig criticized Pinker's description of behaviorism and insights into behaviorist research.
Anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen argued that most of Pinker's arguments were flawed since they employed a strawman fallacy argumentation style, and selectively picked supporting evidence as well as foils. He wrote: "perhaps the most damaging weakness in books of the generic Blank Slate kind is their intellectual dishonesty (evident in the misrepresentation of the views of others), combined with a faith in simple solutions to complex problems. The paucity of nuance in the book is astonishing."
Like Eriksen, Louis Menand, writing for The New Yorker, also claimed that Pinker's arguments constituted a strawman fallacy, stating "[m]any pages of 'The Blank Slate' are devoted to bashing away at the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian scarecrow that Pinker has created." Menand notes that Pinker misquotes and misunderstands Virginia Woolf as saying "In or about December 1910, human nature changed," (Pinker's response was "Woolf was wrong. Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter.") Woolf actually wrote "On or about December 1910 human character changed," and she was writing about fiction, critiquing Literary realism compared to the modernist movement.
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