The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

by Steven Pinker. Viking, New York, 2002, 509 + xvi pages, $27.95.

Steven Pinker defines "Blank Slate" early in his book: It is "the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves" (2). He begins his last chapter by saying, "The Blank Slate was an attractive vision" (421). But it was a false vision. Those who believe human nature can and should be changed, logically, don't like human beings the way they are. In order to change humanity, says Pinker, tyrants - and even parents - have introduced totalitarianism into the world. Echoing Hannah Arendt, Pinker reminds us that totalitarians can exist on the left and the right: "Nazism and Marxism shared a desire to reshape humanity" (157). We must add, however, that the Nazis did not believe in the Blank Slate. They did not feel Jews could be reshaped. They had to be killed.

Steven Pinker has written about language, the mind, and the ability to learn. His earlier books were technical and educational in their basic thrust. So is The Blank Slate. But it is something else as well. It is polemical. Because it is about politics as well as science, it is the most interesting and controversial of Pinker's books. In my opinion, that makes it his best effort thus far.

Pinker is a Darwinian and writes that "differences in intelligence, scientific genius, sexual orientation, and impulsive violence are not entirely learned" (44). Instead, genes play a major role in who we are. Genes also determine the fact that we have cultures. "Bands, clans, tribes, and other social groups are central to human existence and have been so for as long as we have been a species" (285). Cultures are not genetic, although they may be inherited. What is genetic is the fact that people live in groups, form societies, and build on the experiences of those societies.

All cultures are different. Just as some people are more intelligent than others, "some cultures are more successful than others" (67). At the same time, all are alike in a number of ways. For example, "People in all cultures take pleasure in thinking about killings, if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, crime dramas, spy thrillers, Shakespearean tragedies, biblical stories, hero myths, and epic poems....People also enjoy watching the stylized combat we call 'sports'" (317). And in all cultures, there is division of labor between men and women, "even in a culture where everyone had been committed to stamping it out, the Israeli kibbutz" (346).

In an earlier book, The Language Instinct, Pinker tells us that human beings are programmed to learn to speak. He asks the important question, "Why aren't babies born talking?" (The Language Instinct, 288). He conjectures that the answer has to do with brain size and other developmental factors. He seems to be missing a connection with the role of evolution in culture, one of his important themes. He doesn't relate linguistic and cultural evolution, despite the fact that in The Blank Slate, he reminds us that "every language, far from being an immutable penitentiary, is constantly under renovation" (210).

If the development of cultures is part of the genetic heritage of human beings, and if these cultures are going to change and perhaps even improve, of course language has to change. New cultures, new inventions, new knowledge - all of these require new words. If we were born speaking, there would be no way for languages to develop. And develop they must.

I am a professor emeritus of linguistics. I was disappointed not to find something in the book I care about very much. Nowhere does Pinker link the idea of cultural development with the idea of linguistic change.

Linguistic change is inherent in the fact that language is learned, that we are not born speaking any particular language. Furthermore, linguistic development is a prerequisite for human existence. We human beings have no fangs, claws or armor. We cannot run very fast. We have survived because it is natural for us to be unnatural - to invent and use tools, to develop specialized skills and consequently to divide labor, to do things that have not been done before and to communicate these innovations to our contemporaries and our posterity. Human language must be designed to produce sentences that have never been said before, which can happen because languages have processes to augment the lexicon and the grammar - because they are designed to change.

Pinker is a professor of cognitive science at MIT. Noam Chomsky is an MIT professor of linguistics. Long before Pinker had introduced the term "Blank Slate," Chomsky wrote a courageous and extremely important review of B. F. Skinner's book verbal Behavior. Skinner, a behaviorist and therefore a believer in the Blank Slate, argued in his book that language was learned through rewards and punishments—positive and negative reinforcement. Chomsky's review appeared in the journal Language in 1959, when he was not yet 31 and was not especially famous. Chomsky demolished Skinner's theory in a review that foreshadowed his career as a proponent of the theory that language is innate.

Pinker tells us that The Language Instinct was deeply influenced by Chomsky, who asserted that "children must be innately equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages, a Universal Grammar." (The Language Instinct, 22) That is why children can learn, and learn perfectly, something as vast and complicated as a language. Chomsky's argument has convinced linguists all over the world that we are designed to learn a language. Then Chomsky apparently went further. He wrote in his book New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2000) that human beings "have a stock of notions including "carburetor" and "bureaucrat"" (65).

Philosopher Jerry Fodor agrees with Chomsky on this point, suggesting that concepts like "doorknob" and "tweezers" are innate. (The Blank Slate, 35) At this point, I would have expected Pinker to point out that linguistic change is a prerequisite for human development, and that our ability to learn language exists because language is always changing. Bees, as far as we know, can tell other bees how far from the hive, at what angle from the sun, and at what angle from the ground they must go to find flowers in bloom. As far as we know, bees are born knowing bee language. Therefore, their language can't evolve to include new concepts like telling their fellow bees that the source of nectar is on a balcony on the fourth floor. Telling other bees the angle from the ground may be insufficient information when the flowers are on a part of a building constructed by humans.

Instead, Pinker talks about the size of a child's brain when asking and answering the question, cited above, "Why aren't babies born talking?" A book about linguistic change and cultural development should link these two examples of evolution. I sincerely hope Pinker will explore the subject at length in one of his future books. As my mother would have said, using a word-for-word translation of a Yiddish expression meaning "frequently," Pinker writes a new book "every Monday and Thursday." We need a new book to point out that Chomsky's statement about having built-in slots in our brains for "carburetor" and "bureaucrat" is a rejection of the idea that languages and cultures can change in any way that is not trivial. It is a dismissal of the entire field of historical linguistics, the area where linguists have shed more light than any other.

Pinker believes that the evolution of cultures is extremely important. He points out that "slavery, punishment by mutilation, ... infanticide as a form of birth control, and the legal ownership of women - have vanished from large parts of the world" (166). Cultures change more rapidly than living organisms do. Pinker's point is that humans are living creatures that are genetically programmed to produce evolving cultures. I sincerely hope that Pinker will explore the link between linguistic change and the evolution of culture in one of his future books.

Skinner's behaviorism is only one example of the fact that the Blank Slate is a theory that was widely accepted. Pinker also writes about a related view, which he calls the Noble Savage, the belief that it is culture that makes us bad. The writer most associated with advocating this position is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who lived long before Skinner and Karl Marx.

In addition to the Noble Savage, another idea is closely linked with the Blank Slate. Pinker calls it the Ghost in the Machine. It is, briefly, the idea that the body and soul are separate entities. Pinker links this view of humanity to the writings of René Descartes (1596-1650), who antedated Rousseau by more than a century. Indeed, one could argue that this theory lay behind the Inquisition, a century before Descartes. The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine are facets of the same understanding of humanity, says Pinker. They have been around for a long time, but people should have known that they were not true. Now that we have learned a great deal about DNA and the effects of genes on behavior, we have less reason than ever to accept the Blank Slate.

Although Pinker acknowledges Chomsky's influence in his writing about language and the mind, Pinker differs with Chomsky politically. Pinker is a liberal; Chomsky is a leftist. Pinker feels that leftists, like rightists, may engage in destructive behavior because they reject science in favor of dogma: "The belief on the left is that human nature can be changed at will, and the belief on the right is that morality rests on God's endowing us with an immaterial soul" (299). Chomsky, however, despite his political orientation, shares many ideas with Pinker concerning genetics and evolution. Chomsky, Pinker informs us, "has been the most vocal defender of an innate cognitive endowment" (300).

Pinker defends Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of the extremely controversial book The Bell Curve, a book that has been described as racist. Pinker points out that IQ testing "is the ultimate subverter of a caste society ruled by inbred upper-class twits" (301). He goes on to say, "If social justice consists of seeing to the well being of the worst off, then recognizing genetic differences calls for an active redistribution of wealth. Indeed, though Herrnstein was a conservative and Murray a right-leaning libertarian, they were not opposed to simple redistributive measures such as a negative income tax for the lowest wage earners, which would give a break to those who play by the rules but still can't scrape by" (302).

Pinker's belief in the well being of the worst off is welcome. But does he really believe that all differences in wealth are simply the result of genetic differences. At this point, he should raise the subject of inherited money.

The whole idea of IQ testing an college admissions masks a much greater problem. People take it for granted that the educated and skilled should be rich and respected. Opponents of testing have accepted the idea that everybody can and should be a lawyer—or some other type of professional. The world doesn't know that all occupations are necessary, all require special skills, and all are worthy of honor. It would be more realistic to try to change popular perceptions of some jobs as low status. The 9/11 terrorist attacks produced such a change , as firefighters and police officers were especially appreciated for a few months. IQ-shmIQ: There should be no such thing as a low-status profession.

Earlier, I cited Pinker as saying the kibbutz couldn't stamp out the existence of sex roles in jobs. The kibbutz, and all of Israeli society, had also tried to introduce the idea that all work is equally respectable. It failed. Israel now employs guest workers from Thailand and elsewhere to do the jobs that a Jewish mother wouldn't like her children to do.

I see one aspect of this issue daily. My mother-in-law needs round-the-clock care. The aides who do this work have to be trained to cope with the problems that arise. They work long hours and face a long commute home. Their jobs are hard and their salaries are low. Worse than that, nobody respects the profession. I don't know how the problem of respect, of appreciating the importance and difficulty of this work, can be solved. Unionization has helped workers in the past, but some occupations are hard to organize. Furthermore, salaries are based on appreciation. Movie stars are rich because they are appreciated.

Feminists, says Pinker, believe in the Blank Slate. Indeed, Bella Abzug denied the existence of differences between men and women and said that gender equality meant equal numbers of men and women in every field: "Fifty-fifty - absolutely" (353). Pinker, needless to say, disagrees. Just as differences in IQ should not interfere with efforts to end inequality, we should recognize that there is "no incompatibility between the principles of feminism and the possibility that men and women are not identical" (340). The way to work for a better society is through democracy: "Modern democracies never have famines, almost never wage war on one another, and are the top choice of people all over the world who vote with their feet or with their boats" (296).

I was particularly delighted by the chapter of the book entitled "The Arts." I have always felt that the Western music composed between 1600 and 1904 is the best music in the world, appreciated by people of any and every background who have a chance to listen to it and get to know it. When I go to concerts, I often have to listen to a 20th-century or even 21st-century work. Critics and programmers think they have to teach the audience to love modern music. Some difficult composers, those who wrote serial music, for example, are hardly modern; they composed almost a century ago. If the world prefers Weber to Webern, for example, we shouldn't have to listen to Webern until we love his music. We should recognize that Weber is simply better, as are Vivaldi, Verdi, and other 18th and 19th-century composers. I respect Pinker for having the courage and originality to say that he doesn't like having modern artistic creations forced on him.

Pinker blames the Blank Slate for his - and my - problem with 20th-century classical music: "Modernism and postmodernism cling to a theory of perception that was rejected long ago: that the sense organs present the brain with a tableau of colors and sounds and that everything else in perceptual experience is a learned social construction" (412).

When I was in college, I joined WKCR, the college radio station. While I was there, the station banned rock and roll music, the greatest music of the 20th century, in my opinion. This too was an example of Blank Slate thinking.

What one person calls courage and originality may appear to another as simply being nuts. Composers and other creative artists do act according to their inner needs to express what they feel they must. We can't blame the Blank Slate for modern music. Audiences, on the other hand, should have the right to avoid music they don't like. The scheduling of 20th-century works at concerts in order to educate the public is indeed an example of Blank-Slate thinking.

Pinker's views on raising children are his most controversial: "all those differences among parents and homes have no predictable effects on the personalities of their children. Not to put too fine a point on it, but much of the advice from parenting experts is flapdoodle" (384). The big reason for this as that the effect of the genes is more powerful than that of the environment. The second reason is that children are more influenced by their peers than their parents. "Do you sound like your parents, or like the people you grew up with," he asks (390).

You sound like the kids you grew up with, of course, especially if your parents were immigrants, as mine were. But in many ways I was like my parents and not my peers, as must be true for very many. I shared my parents' leftist politics and my parents' commitment to Zionism. I didn't learn until I was an adult that Zionism and leftism don't usually go together. During the election of 1948, most of my friends thought I was weird for supporting the candidacy of Henry Wallace. I didn't learn to oppose Marxism until I lived in China, first in 1984 and then in 1989, where I learned about the great Mao-made famine of 1959-61. Only then did I realize that Communism always leads to starvation, as happened with the kulaks in the USSR and is happening in North Korea today.

I don't think my experience was atypical. Parents have values, often religious or political, which they pass on to their children. Genes and peers matter, but so do parents. And, as Pinker says, "Childrearing is above all an ethical responsibility. It is not OK for parents to beat, humiliate, deprive, or neglect their children, because those are awful things for a big strong person to do to a small helpless one" (398). But Pinker doesn't go far enough. Although he cites data on adopted children and separated identical twins to illustrate the importance of genes, he should consider the fact that cruelty is not merely bad but destructive as well. He writes as if he had not heard of traumatic experiences.

I would like to venture a theory for which I have no concrete evidence. The richest and most productive cultures are those where there is little corporal punishment. In a community where parents regularly beat their children severely, poverty is the rule, to say nothing of violence.

No political philosophy has ever been more closely linked to the idea of the Blank Slate than Marxism. In a well-known statement in The German Ideology, Marx said, "In communist society, however, where nobody has an exclusive area of activity and each can train himself in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production, making it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I like, without ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critic." This would be a lovely sentiment of it were true, but it couldn't possibly be true. All professions require special skills and knowledge, but more to the point, people are not all the same.

It was Karl Marx whose thinking led to regimes like those of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. It was Karl Marx who gave socialism a bad name. It is Marx's emphasis on economic systems that leads people today to say that prosperous countries are capitalist - a statement I have heard from Republicans in America and Communist Party members in China. The secret of the relative success of America and Western Europe is democracy, not capitalism. The world needs a new humanitarian theory, one that rejects the Blank Slate and celebrates human variety, including variety in political thinking, a theory that all professions and cultures deserve equal respect.

Although I hate Marx's analysis, I still preserve my parents' values, their concern for human welfare and their pride in being Jewish. I don't think my experience was atypical. Parents have values, often religious or political, which they pass on to their children. I changed my mind about Communism because I saw what it was, because I was in China at the time of the Tiananmen Massacre, and because my reading of Marx after living in China showed me that Chairman Mao understood Marx perfectly.

To build a just society, to the extent that it can be built, we must be honest. Human needs should be satisfied whether or not people have equal talents. The Blank Slate is an attractive vision, as Pinker says. But, as he also says, "it is not true" 421). Believing in a lie is always dangerous. Believing that human nature can be created anew has led to the Gulag and the Inquisition. There have been many brutish regimes in history, but ideology combined with brutishness leads to an extreme level of horror. Pinker has done us all a service by reminding us of these facts.

A different version of this review appeared in Jewish Currents, July-August, 2003.