Darwinian Storytelling

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker; drawing by David Levine


What do Stalin, modern architecture, radical feminism, and most parenting experts have in common? They are all products of the false belief that we are born with empty minds, a tabula rasa. Or so says Steven Pinker in his new book, The Blank Slate. If the aim of science is to explain apparently unrelated phenomena via a single elegant theory, Pinker is obviously onto something big. Any theory that can explain the origins of the Five Year Plan and Le Corbusier must be reckoned with.

Pinker, Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, is an accomplished psycholinguist. But he is best known as a science popularizer. His previous popular books, including The Language Instinct (1994) and How the Mind Works (1997), were huge commercial and critical successes. While The Language Instinct concentrated on the Chomskyan revolution and the now overwhelming evidence of an inborn mental organ underlying grammar, How the Mind Works cast a broader net, reviewing a good deal of cognitive science and a smattering of neurobiology. In his latest book, Pinker steps back yet further and reassesses the interminable debate over nature vs. nurture. Are personality, intelligence, gender, and the moral sense in the genes or are they the stuff of culture? In view of his previous work, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Pinker thinks much of what makes you you resides in your genome.

Pinker takes aim at three targets in his book. He calls them the Blank Slate (the notion that the mind has no inherent structure), the Noble Savage (the notion that man is born innocent and is corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the notion that mind differs from matter). These correspond, at least loosely, to the philosophical traditions of empiricism, Romanticism, and dualism, respectively. Pinker considers all three traditions because he believes they are typically found together. While this seems doubtful (Marxists subscribe to the Blank Slate and the Noble Savage but reject the Ghost in the Machine, while Catholics do the opposite), it doesn’t much matter. Pinker ends up attacking what he takes to be the errors of the Blank Slate almost exclusively and the other two targets mostly disappear.

The Blank Slate is a distinctly Western idea of fairly recent origin. It was first articulated in 1690 by John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Though Locke offered the tabula rasa as an epistemological theory—knowledge comes from experience—it had, and has, obvious social implications. As Pinker explains:

The Blank Slate has also served as a sacred scripture for political and ethical beliefs. According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences—by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards—and you can change…

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