I just finished reading Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate. I must say that I underestimated it, despite having high expectations. Pinker draws from an impressive range of disciplines, drawing many important insights.
Pinker invokes evolutionary psychology and the other sciences of human nature to systematically pick apart the Blank Slate. The Blank Slate is the empiricist position that the mind enters the world empty and acquires all traits from the environment—hence, the mind can be shaped into whatever we desire simply by controlling the environment; there is no such thing as human nature. In the nature/nurture debate, it is known as the extreme nurture position. Pinker decisively shows that this position is false. The mind comes with many innate features such as emotions, a moral sense, and a highly specialized ability to learn language (but not to read/write), just to name a few. The existence of cultural universals seals the fate of the Blank Slate.
While all of this is quite evident to most people, many intellectuals (especially in the social sciences) have bitterly resisted the discoveries of innate features. They fear that a scientific basis for differences among people, the sexes, and races will legitimize discrimination. Their error was to base their morality on the assumption that humans are born blank slates. As such, their moral opposition to discrimination is deeply undermined by the discovery of facts about human nature. In fact, the Blank Slate position could just as easily be invoked to argue that people should just be socialized to accept discrimination. A proper moral theory holds that people have equal rights by the fact that they are humans, regardless of their innate features. Likewise, the recognition of human nature fatally undermines such garbage philosophies as relativism, constructionism, and romanticism.
He explores the implications of various innate features of the mind, such as our intuitive moral sense or our intuitive theory of mind. His analysis of our innate theory of economics explains why economic fallacies are so common among non-economists (and even among some economists). Paul Rubin has written an excellent paper about this and draws heavily on Pinker’s book. I highly recommend it.
To his credit, Pinker takes a mature classical liberal position on social issues. In the chapter on politics, he rejects the Utopian (i.e., Marxist) position for its naive view that human nature can be fundamentally changed. He sides instead with the classical liberals, who recognize the flaws of human nature and the need for institutions that can deal with them (e.g., limited democratic government, low taxation, free markets). On the topic of feminism, he sides with the equity feminists (those who advocate political equality between men and women) in rejecting gender feminism (which he calls the “lunatic fringe” of feminism).
One of the interesting topics he discusses is child development. Contrary to common belief, parents have virtually no influence on how their children turn out (personality, intelligence). This is explained by the evolutionary theory of parent-child conflict—children only carry 50% of a parent’s genes so their interests are not fully consonant; children evolved resistance to parental influence to prevent parental exploitation. Scientists have found that about 50% of what shapes a person is genetic. The other 50% is attributable to interaction with peers and chance. For example, the children of immigrants seamlessly learn the language and adopt the culture, but they don’t acquire their parents’ accents. This explains why children don’t turn out as their parents worked so hard to ensure. It also entails that most parenting advice is trash that wastes parents’ time and makes them feel guilty for not investing all their efforts in raising their children.
Pinker’s discussion of the arts is great. He shows that humans are hardwired to enjoy specific features in art (form, beauty, melody, etc). But in the 20th century, modernism and post-modernism explicitly rejected beauty and deliberately created appalling and disgusting art in attempt to change human nature. Hence the sorry state of modern art, and the superiority of classical art.
All in all, it’s a fascinating book with broad implications. Pinker’s analyses are careful and intelligent, brimming with good sense. The book is well worth reading, and you will learn a lot in a variety of fields.