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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Steven Pinker
London: Penguin/Allen Lane, 2002.
£25.00, 560 pages, ISBN 0-713-99256-5 (hardback).

Megan O'Neill
Stetson University


Steven Pinker's ambitious—no, stunning—no, overwhelming book takes the psycholinguist (now calling himself a psychologist) into inevitable territory. His successful books How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct extended the work Noam Chomsky began with transformational grammar, and a large part of their success was a result of his clear prose, engaging examples, and true logical speculation. Each of these texts—intriguing, vast, revealing—took him into territory between language, brain, and instinct; each stretched him further and further. So it is inevitable that this latest work moves him clear away from language and into the deceptive yet morally complex nature of the human mind. And his achievement, while not flawless, is staggering and significant.

Pinker's aim is nothing less than to debunk, once and for all, the three primary ideologies arguing against an innate human nature: the blank slate, the noble savage, and the "ghost in the machine" ideas. Not that he wants to argue that these a priori assumptions have no relevance in our centuries old deliberations about nature and nurture; rather, he wants to suggest that we tend to be extreme in our positions on the issue, when the reality is somewhat more complex. As he points out in his introduction, "My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing—no one believes that—but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme" (ix).

The blank slate doctrine probably needs no explanation—its historic and traditional place in our conceptions of humanity is well established. If we are indeed Lockean tabulae rasae, then our genes cannot impact our behavior nearly as much as our cultural influences. This ideology provides the "abused as a child" excuse validity, among other, more problematic explanations of behavior. The noble savage ideology, closely related but distinctly different in its outcome, suggests that corruption is born in cities, while nature—seen as the pristine measure for "normal"—is romanticized. Children raised on farms are sound; children raised in cities will be corrupted (Pinker reminds us here that Nazism used the Noble Savage ideology to further the anti-Semite agenda: Jews, born into urban life, corrupted the purity of the people around them). The final ideology, that of the "ghost in the machine," contends that body and mind, separate entities, are in fact in a power relationship: the Cartesian mind or soul is entirely different from the body but the mind controls the body. More to the point, behavior is chosen, not caused. This means that "if the machine behaves ignobly, we can blame the ghost, which freely chose to carry out the iniquitous acts; we need not probe for a defect in the machine's design" (11).

And so he begins his own argument, which probes for consistencies and contradictions in the machine's design. Pursuing the fallacies through the first hundred or so pages, Pinker deflates each of them systematically and shows the illogic of the actions and attitudes that result. And there is nothing remarkable in this section of the text. Rather, it is the following 300 pages which send the mind into tailspins. We are conditioned, we educated ones, to one or another of these doctrines, or to a combination of them. How many of us believe in both the blank slate and the noble savage? We all know a story about someone whose intellect was so supreme that we overlooked strange behavior. Indeed, the eccentric—a well-known character—is usually assumed, it seems to me, to be capable of heights of intellect instead of the reverse. Overcoming the inbuilt beliefs is, well, challenging. And to watch Pinker thoroughly debunk and deflate our cultural biases is a sight worthy of awe but also no little discomfort.

Pinker sets us up for the heavy lifting to follow at the end of his first chapter, and it is effective. Broaching the question of current embodiments of each doctrine, Pinker nearly laughs incredulously at the number of damaging ideas which have resulted:

[…] that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because their parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers get the idea to compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes; that men think the goal of sex is an orgasm because of the way they were socialized. The problem is not that just these claims are preposterous but that the writers did not acknowledge they were saying things that common sense might call into question. This is the mentality of a cult. (14)

Indeed. The only way to address cultish behavior recalls Wordsworth's famous lament about human intellect: we murder to dissect. In a way, reading Pinker requires us to murder our beliefs, to suspend our innate reactions in order to accept new ideas. Thus the final sections of the text each address a separate cultural arena in which the controlling notion of a real human nature—ugly and perfect—plays a part. The sacred cows Pinker takes on have very sharp horns. For instance, if we grant that human nature is conditioned in part by genetics, does that mean that blacks and whites and yellows are separate races? And does that justify Nazism? If we grant validity to a shaping gene for behavior, does that mean that rapists had no choice? If we suggest that moral intelligence is not cultural but biological, does that mean that we cannot ever improve our sickening treatment of each other? And finally, if human nature is not solely environmental, does that force us into anarchy?

The problem Pinker faces in this text is the innate tendency to go to the extreme. As he reminds us often, a middle ground exists; it is not one that we can reach easily but one that we can discuss. Pinker spends a great deal of time discussing it, in fact. His conclusion is simple, and yet not: as the genetic sciences develop further and take full advantage of the untapped library that is the Human Genome Project, we will be asking more and more questions about the impact on culture of genetics—and of genetics on culture. Lagging behind, but still game, will be the answers.

It is pointless to try to summarize more of what he says in anything shorter than another book. And really, I wouldn't recommend trying to digest this entire opus in anything fewer than five sittings, simply because Pinker's saving written grace, that he is often eloquent, and more often just plain funny, tends to get lost in works of this scope. (It doesn't help that one of the funniest bits in this book isn't in the book proper—it's on the copyright page.) An occasional wry aside is all he can afford as he works his way through the implications of his argument: the impact of "the sanctimonious animal" who believes he is morally superior to someone else; an illusory Utopia offered in rebuttal to impending genetic-agenda barbarism; the oddly disingenuous "faith-based approach to violence," which argues that home grown terrorism results from the American method of socializing young males.

It's the implications that take so much chewing over, and they taste sufficiently unusual that readers may not notice a flaw in Pinker's undeniably stunning achievement: for all his discussion of three distinct fallacious ideologies, he tends, again and again, to debunk only the Blank Slate. This inconsistency in argument aside, another fatal flaw in this massive effort is that it is so damned massive. Pinker is hoist on his own petard with this book, and every writer should sympathize. In order to make his risky position credible, he must support it with exhaustive reading and examples, but the sheer weight of his argument sinks it beyond the grasp of many members of his intended audience.

One hopes to value the argument over its presentation, however frustrating the presentation may be, and so the rapturous reviews the book has received are, by and large, well justified. It may not change the world as we know it—and perhaps it should not. It is a manifesto of sorts, and they take time to work their ways through our culture. But it should and quite probably will lay groundwork supporting the next steps in our understanding of the mind-body-soul connection. Even for those of us still convinced of the ghost in the machine doctrine, Pinker's achievement cannot be denied. In a few years, perhaps decades, when the Human Genome Project has been more fully explored, I'll reread The Blank Slate with new, better prepared eyes. Perhaps we all will.

*In Words and Rules, for instance, Pinker managed to convey the complex relationships among vocabulary, the universal gift of grammar, and the rules about syntax and verbs. This is no small task, explaining these relationships to a general audience; even students of linguistics found it heavy going and yet accessible.

**The paperback edition will be released in June 2003 (£7.99, ISBN 0-140-27605-X).

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