15 Years Later, Why Do We Still Believe in the Blank Slate?

On Twitter, I once saw a cultural anthropologist refer to Steven Pinker’s toenails as “magical” when accosting an evolutionary psychologist who had angered him. Some time later, on another scroll session, I saw a sociologist and gender/ masculinity/ post-colonial theorist very politely say to another professor: “Hi Diana, I remember discussing my view that Evolutionary Psychology was more of a cult than a serious field of study. I was too generous then.”

Finding the exchanges quite funny, I began to ponder why many disciplines have such a disregard and contempt for the new sciences and its practitioners. Is it concern about the mainlining of racism and sexism from the academy into our culture, noble goals to be sure, or something else? It just so happened that I was halfway into Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate when I encountered these Twitter battles. Needless to say for those who’ve read the book, the exchanges reflected familiar patterns.

I know I’m behind the curve, Pinker’s book has been out for 15 years now and has probably been usurped by many other works that have tackled the same areas. So this is not really a conventional review, there have been many of those since the book was published. It is rather a small recap of a few ideas Steven Pinker laid out and how they are still relevant.

The book is, after a 60 or so tedious pages of more biological and neurological level explanations of the reasons humans have innate characteristics — denoting innate traits as probabilistic, importantly, not deterministic — an assault on ideas many people still hold in this world: The Blank Slate (The mind has no innate traits), The Noble Savage (society corrupts people; we are born pure, unselfish), and The Ghost in the Machine (a soul which exists independently of our biology). After showing these beliefs are not true, Pinker meticulously lays out why they were promulgated through the academy and have seeped into the mainstream and why many continue to cling onto them when most evidence points to the contrary.

I know of the omission of biological reasons for human behavior in some parts of the humanities and social sciences, but a large chunk of my wonder at this book was in discovering how bona fide scientists (or “radical scientists” as Pinker calls them) were responsible for ignoring and obfuscating the results from the new sciences and the mistreatment of its participants. For example, Stephen Jay Gould whom I considered a stalwart of popular science, took part in a campaign with Richard Lewontin to discredit E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology by lumping Wilson in with eugenicists and social darwinists. Pinker also tells us of the anthropologist Margaret Mead — the same person who said something as uplifting as “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — consciously neglecting the effects of genes on human behavior and denigrating the proponents of the new sciences, but telling her daughter in private that she credited her own intellectual talents to her genes. The protests, slanders, and libels Pinker reports by activists and scholars that were heaped onto individuals who dared to explore the roots of human nature are, read a decade and a half later, as disturbing as they are prophetic.

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E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology

What was the impetus for these actions from otherwise educated individuals and (radical) scientists? One can speculate. A charitable understanding is because they feared (and their disciples today fear) perpetuating inequality. Pinker wrote on this point:

“To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, war, greed, genocide, nihilism, reactionary politics, and neglect of children and the disadvantaged.”

And, because, as Pinker puts it after informing his reader that the new sciences picked the worst decades to come into fruition:

“Rather than detach the moral doctrines from the scientific ones, which would ensure that the clock would not be turned back no matter what came out of the lab and field, many intellectuals, including some of the world’s most famous scientists, made every effort to connect the two.”

This is a tricky area and frankly I’m surprised that Pinker’s name has remained untainted after the publication of his ideas. Acknowledging human nature today, from sex differences, violence, mating, human potential, and genocide seems like a sure path towards slurs of “academic racist/sexist,” and the belief that you’re trying to justify inequality. But I suppose his reputation is a testament to how careful he was in rebutting every fallacy and gut reaction that one might have from accepting human nature — and showing us that rejecting it can actually lead to policies and concepts which further propagate suffering.

I did share some concerns with the radical scientists, though: If nurture is nearly not as responsible for human behavior as people assume, doesn’t this leave us with a deterministic view of society — where we accept violence and warfare as intrinsic to humanity? People deserve to be wherever they end up? And won’t this view lead to nefarious and ill-gotten pseudo-justifications of superiority and a dangerous slippery-slope?

But Pinker handles these knee-jerk reactions by showing that industrial-scale atrocities can occur from believing we are Blank Slates as well. They are not the domain of one ideology; as Pinker notes: “though both Nazi and Marxist ideologies led to industrial-scale killing, their biological and psychological theories were opposites.”

Take the Nazis: A leader gains power and implements a plan to decimate an entire population whom he believes is conspiring against his people, and because he considers his “race” to be genetically superior. One might pause here, perhaps like the radical scientists and their followers did, and ask: “Well, isn’t it better to believe and enforce that we are all the same? To deter these things from ever happening again?” Pinker then offers his rebuttal: Mao and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, who exterminated far more than Hitler did, explicitly endorsed the Blank Slate view of humanity. Believing that all individuals are born equal in tendencies, traits, and talents leaves an adherent of this view to wonder why is it exactly that some do better than others. Class, hidden wealth, cheating, scheming, etcetera are all answers offered in response. Those who were believed to be bourgeoisie carried a permanent stigma in post-revolutionary regimes and were persecuted for being “rich peasants” and privileged.

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Remnants of the Killing Fields

This is why non-communist intellectuals, the educated classes, and the bourgeoisie were so severely targeted — and often sent to the Killing Fields. Because of the belief that they were reaping privileges not afforded to their countrymen. According to historian Paul Johnson writing on the Khmer Rouge in Modern Times: A History of the World From the 1920s to the Year 2000,

“There was to be ‘total social revolution.’ Everything about the past was ‘anathema and must be destroyed.’ It was necessary to ‘psychologically reconstruct individual members of society.’ It entailed ‘stripping away, through terror and other means, the traditional bases, structures and forces which have shaped and guided an individual’s life’ and then rebuilding him according to party doctrines by substituting a new series of values.'”

To Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s system, society had been corrupted and had to be rebuilt. Consider their slogan implying that it is learned culture that infects us — and that we are born pure (the Noble Savage):

“Only the newborn baby is spotless.”

Given all this, I should hope the question of “Why is this book still relevant?” begins to answer itself. Ideas related to the Blank Slate are still pushed out in our popular culture, media, and even policy. From parenting, to the results of sex-differences in life, to violence, Pinker points out that many notions that society holds as true are contrasted by discoveries in fields such as behavioral genetics. From his preface:

“I first had the idea of writing this book when I started a collection of astonishing claims from pundits and social critics about the malleability of the human psyche: that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers 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 the were socialized. The problem is not just that 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, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety.”

Today, if one looks around, similar beliefs which abrogate our shared human nature and attribute our actions to culture, socialization, and society are plenty. The belief that only by representing men and women in equal parts in all fields can we cure sexism. The belief that it is our society which shapes what we find attractive. The belief that good parenting can control nearly all facets of how a child turns out. The belief that violence is learned. The belief that image and media representations construct our reality (and the only way to break that control is to fight back with representation).

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Art?

The chapter titled “The Arts” was particularly refreshing. I have walked through both the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Louvre in Paris. Only one of these museums left me questioning if I just could not see the merits of its exhibits, or if I simply wasn’t appreciative enough of the theory or artistic intent behind the pieces.

I note my visits not to brag but to mention that I wish I’d read Pinker’s words, “The postmodernists equating of images with thoughts has not only made a hash of several scholarly disciplines but has laid waste to the world of contemporary art,” before I’d taken a stroll inside the MOMA. Change images and what is represented, and change thoughts, some artistic movements think. But Pinker offers this as a contrast:

“Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reasons for their decline and fall become all too obvious. The movements are based on a false theory of human psychology, the Blank Slate. They fail to apply their most vaunted ability — stripping away pretense — to themselves. And the take they fun out of art!”

I can hear the savants cringing already. But what Pinker points out is that human beings have specific, universal (and not culturally) limited tastes for what we consider admirable. No amount of theory explaining why and how hegemonic power structures dictate what society controls as “beauty” is apt for describing why I or many others find some modern art… bland.

It strikes me as troubling that there are still those of us who are willing to believe that it is mostly culture and society which shape the individual — and that by focusing only on fixing our systems can we alleviate human suffering. On the contrary, we need a fuller understanding of human nature in all its details. What is more concerning is that this book came out 15 years ago and yet we are still bogged down in the conversations that Pinker spent a considerable time in rebutting (the Penguin version is about 430 pages of text).

Though long (and old), The Blank Slate is important reading for anyone who does not want to live in a fantasy world. One where the only engine powering human behavior is society while millions of years of evolution are discounted because they at times offer some truths that are often misconstrued as inconvenient. Human nature and our behavior are wondrous and fascinating subjects, and we cannot get to their core if we reject vast amounts of replicable findings about their genetic and evolutionary components.

Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

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Malhar Mali

Malhar Mali is the founder and editor of Areo. He can be reached via malhar@areomagazine.com

8 thoughts on “15 Years Later, Why Do We Still Believe in the Blank Slate?

  1. Although I share in the belief that the blank-slate model of psychology is a fallacy, I don’t understand how the author believes modernists and post-modernists are the only generation of artists that have believed “changing representation” leads to a change in thoughts.

    Le Louvre is filled with the paintings of Jacques-Louis David (whose paintings were/are propaganda) that upended the work of Rococo artists. To suggest that modernist and post-modernist works to “strip away pretense” and are devoid of any innate sense of aesthetics dismisses the work of artists like James Turrell who, if the author experienced first-hand, might rethink his argument. I understand the argument against post-modernism but Turrell’s work is sublime.

  2. Amazing essay, as usual. It wonders me, too, how so many people — even educated ones — still sharing such delusional ideas as blank slate and so on. It is worse when I realize that certain educated people, specially in particularly fringe fields as “gender studies”, are the most binded to these delusions.

    I’m so glad with this essay that I’ve translated it to my mothertongue (Portuguese) to share its knoledge with my countrymen ^^

  3. The conflict between morality and science has always existed and perhaps always shall, it’s only heated up since the Enlightenment. However, the issues between the social constructionists and the evolutionary psychologists is primarily an academic concern, for most people, it’s always been self evident from personal experience and just living, that human beings are both products of their environment and nature.

What are your thoughts?