conceptions of human nature affect every aspect of our
lives, from the way we raise our children to the political movements
we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age
of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the
very idea. They fear that discoveries about innate patterns of
thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert
social change, to dissolve personal responsibility, and to strip
life of meaning and purpose.
The Blank Slate,
Steven Pinker, bestselling author of The Language Instinct and
How the Mind Works, explores the idea of human nature and its
moral, emotional, and political colorings. He shows how many intellectuals
have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked
dogmas: The Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits), The Noble
Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and The
Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices
free from biology). Each dogma carries a moral burden, so their
defenders have engaged in the desperate tactics to discredit the
scientists who are now challenging them.
Pinker tries to inject calm and rationality into these debates
by showing that equality, progress, responsibility, and purpose
have nothing to fear from discoveries about rich human nature.
He disarms even the most menacing threats with clear thinking,
common sense, and pertinent facts from science and history. Despite
its popularity among intellectuals during much of the twentieth
century, he argues, the doctrine of the Blank Slate may have done
more harm than good. It denies our common humanity and our individual
preferences, replaces hardheaded analyses of social problems with
feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of government,
violence, parenting, and the arts.