THE BLANK SLATE ---THE MODERN DENIAL OF HUMAN NATURE
by Steven Pinker. Viking, 2002
PART 1--- THE BLANK SLATE, THE NOBLE SAVAGE, AND THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE (1-102)
"Blank Slate" = A tacit theory of human nature, namely, that human behavior is caused by
thoughts and feelings, is embedded in the very way we think about people! Our theory of nature
is the wellspring of much in our lives. Its assumptions about learning guide our educational policy. Its
assumptions about motivation guide our policies on economics, law and crime. (p1-3)
APPENDIX --- Donald E. Brown's "List of Human Universals" (p435-440)
Rival theories of human nature are entwined in different ways of life and different political systems, and
have been a source of much confict over the course of history.
For millennia, the major theories of human nature have come from religion. The Judeo-Christian
conception, which is based upon events narrated in the Bible, is the most popular theory of human
nature in the United States. Politicians on the right embrace the religious theory explicitly, and no
mainstream politician would dare contradict it in public.
But the modern sciences of cosmology, geology, biology, and archeology have made
it impossible for a scientifically literate person to believe that the biblical story of creation actually took
place. As a result, the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature is no longer explicitly avowed by most
academics, journalists, social analysts, and other intellectually engaged people!
Nonetheless, every society must operate with a theory of human nature, and our intellectual mainstream
is committed to another one. The theory is seldom articulated or overtly embraced, but it lies at the heart
of a vast number of beliefs and policies. The "Blank Slate" theory is the idea that the human
mind has no inherent structure and can be innscribed at will by society or ourselves!
Since according to the "blank slate" theory, the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed
at will by society or ourselves, implies that human nature barely exists! Even though most intellectuals today
are convinced that this idea is true, this book argues for a new view of human nature and culture. that is
beginning to challenge the "blank slate" idea of human nature.
The idea that nature and nurture interact to shape some part of the mind turn out to be wrong, but it is
NOT wishy-washy or unexceptionable, even in the 21st century, thousands of years after the issue
was first framed. When it comes to explaining human thought and behavior, the possibility that heredity
plays any role at all still has the power to shock. Any claim that the mind has an innate organization strikes
people NOT as a hypothesis that might be incorrect but as a thought it is immoral to
This book is about the moral, emotional, and political colorings of the concept of human nature in modern life.
It traces the history that led people to see human nature as a dangerous idea and resolves the moral and
political predicaments that have confused the idea along the way.
In some cases, an extreme environmentalist explanation is correct. The language you speak is an obvious
example of this view, and differences among races and ethnic groups in test scores may be another. In other
cases, such as certain inherited neurological disorders, an extreme hereditarian explanation is correct. In
most cases the correct explanation will invoke a complex interaction between heredity and environment.
Culture could not exist without mental faculties that allow humans to create and learn culture to begin with. The
main goal is to explore WHY the extreme position --- that culture is everything --- is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme!
Controversies about political policy almost always involve tradeoffs between competing values, which science is equipped to identify --- but NOT to resolve! Many of the controversies or tradeoffs arise from features of human nature. By clarifying the tradeoffs, you can make "collective choices" better informed, no matter what they are!
1) The "Official Theory" (p5-14)
 "Blank Slate" is a loose translation of the medieval Latin term "tabula rasa" --- literally,
"scraped tablet." This phrase was derived from John Locke's analysis and advocacy
of "empericism" in the late 1600s and early 1700s.
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