Tabula Plena

Blank Slate“I think we have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.” -Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s slate has a lot more written on it than most of our slates do – his tabula is far from rasa. That’s part of the reason I racked up some library late fees when I checked out The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. I’ve been arguing the importance of human nature for years with anybody who seems to lean too heavily on the pillar of nurture (gender is just cultural, we’re all born with equal capacity to be smart, anybody could beat Usain Bolt if they just tried harder). Unfortunately my ability at persuasion was generally lacking, and most of these debates would end with that incontrovertible forensic coup de grâce: “Because… because I said so.” Along comes Steven Pinker and The Blank Slate, with some actual evidence for the importance of human nature; lots and lots of evidence, which meant I took lots and lots of notes (32 pages, and I write small), which meant I needed the book for a few extra days (sorry, Longmont Library).

It’s a thick book, so here are the Cliff Notes of the Cliff Notes:

No matter how much nurture you give your child, he or she will not become the next Shaquille O’Neal.*

Put another way:

Our brains, just like the rest of our bodies, are evolutionarily adapted – pre-wired – to help us survive and thrive. This doesn’t mean that who we will become is completely predetermined – natural selection also built some plasticity into our brains. It also doesn’t mean that, just because we’re all born with different capacities, we are not equal as human beings.

As my daughter would say, “Guhdoy!” Isn’t this, or shouldn’t it be, obvious? We are incredibly complex machines, shaped by random trial and error to fit into our environment. And we come in innumerable genetically programmed shapes and sizes. Why should our brains be any different?

I like to think of each human trait as falling along a continuum. According to our genetic programming, each of us has a certain range along that continuum where a trait may be expressed. The range is determined by our genes, but where we fall within that range is determined by the environment. Some traits have more plasticity – with a larger range on the continuum – than others, and thus the environment (nurture) has more of an effect. The totality of our traits, programmed by our genes but precisely honed by our environment, is known as our phenotype.

Here are a few examples:

Height Continuum

Introvert Extrovert Continuum











Hirsute Continuum







If it’s fairly intuitive that we come pre-programmed with various differences in our appearances, why is there so much resistance to the idea that our brains are also innately variable? Pinker thinks the culprit is an over-correction; in centuries past in much of Western society, the aristocracy upheld a caste system that predetermined your rank (and worth) – with slavery at the extreme. John Locke and others combatted this idea with the notion that we are all born equal, with Blank Slates for minds. This notion may have served to implant the idea that things like noble birth and slavery might not be all they were cracked up to be. But in the 19th, 20th, and even 21st centuries, Pinker says, social scientists took the Blank Slate as manifest, insisting that we are purely creatures of socialization (I suspect that Pinker employs the straw man here, and a bit throughout the book). He goes on to cite various examples of social scientists, anthropologists, and biologists trying to fit square pegs into the round hole that is the Blank Slate. Newer disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology have provided proof that there is no Blank Slate, thus nicking some corners into that round hole – and now the peg fits a lot better.

In addition to the Blank Slate, Pinker cites the associated fallacies of the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. The idea of the Noble Savage is that pre-industrial societies were generally peace-loving, harmonious cultures. In fact, Pinker notes, violence and warfare are virtually universal among cultures. In Western society, murder rates have dropped ten- to a hundredfold in the last millennium (in pre-state societies 10-60% of men were killed by other men). Violence, especially in men,** is an evolutionary adaptation – part of survival is protecting your resources in uncertain conditions. But conflict resolution is also universal – if the best course of action is to resolve a situation without conflict, we can do that, too.

As Pinker points out, understanding that violence is at least partly innate, and understanding how it evolved, can help us enact mechanisms and institutions to mitigate it. Many pre-state societies fall into a Hobbesian trap – the idea that you have to preemptively kick your neighbor’s ass before he kicks your ass. Lex talionis – letting it be known that you will severely kick somebody’s ass if they try to kick yours – is one way out of the Hobbesian trap. But a better way, which most of the modern world (aside from anarchists and extreme libertarians) favors, is the rule of law. The idea here is that you have rules, along with an ostensibly impartial enforcer (police), and consequences for rule-breakers.*** So you can rest easy that your neighbor generally will not kick your ass, because there’s a societal agreement that a third party will kick his ass if he does. On a larger scale, this seems to make a good case for a stronger, toothier United Nations.

The Ghost in the Machine fallacy is the idea that the mind is separate from the body.**** There’s a little fairy that makes us conscious. A soul that lives on after our body is gone. This is a fun idea – I’d like to float around and see what’s happening in the world long after my body is gone. But, as Pinker argues, “The doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on this earth.” Our minds are beautiful, elegant contraptions – even moreso because they are not endowed with some magical force.

Here are some other ideas from the book:

  • Hundreds of traits are universal across cultures.
  • A partially pre-wired brain doesn’t preclude plasticity. Despite some programming, and partly because of it, we have the capacity for infinite thoughts and behavioral choices. We have free will.
  • Most effects of genes are probabilistic, leading to further plasticity.
  • E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology, which proposed that much of human behavior is grounded in evolutionary biology, was attacked because many thought it locked people into castes. But, in fact, it promoted the idea that there is a biological basis for human complexity and flexibility, and for altruism.
  • Humans are born with different capacities for intelligence, personality, behavior, learning, morality, etc. This makes us different from each other, but just as we remain equal after nurture has further tweaked these capacities, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be considered equal at birth. In fact, if intelligence is largely due to the luck of the draw, maybe people will see this as a privilege rather than a testament to their superiority.
  • There is more genetic variability within races than among them, but there may be some broadly overlapping differences among races.
  • Humans have the capacity for both good and evil, selfishness and selflessness. Understanding these better can, without erasing all selfish motivations, at least overcome them via better cooperation. Cooperation has evolved because it can benefit both sides.
  • In spite of predilections for certain kinds of actions and behavior, humans are too complex to be pigeonholed into a deterministic model. A better understanding of human nature can help us overcome certain negative predilections and nurture more positive ones.
  • Morality has evolved and resides within us; we need not fall into nihilism just because morality wasn’t bestowed upon us by some outside agency. Pinker, referring to a Calvin & Hobbes comic, says “Since one is better off not shoving and not getting shoved than shoving and getting shoved, it pays to insist on a moral code, even if the price is adhering to it oneself.” Take that, anarchists!
  • Although we have an imperfect perception of the world, an objective reality exists, and our brains are pretty darn good at figuring it out. Even many of our stereotypes have a basis in reality.
  • Our brains are generally pre-wired to understanding intuitive physics (objects), intuitive biology (living things), intuitive engineering (tools), intuitive psychology (people), spatial sense, number sense, probability, intuitive economics, logic, language, danger, contamination, and morality. Our brains don’t have innate understandings of modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and higher math.
  • Our sense of morality is prone to error. Sometimes we conflate impurity with sin, and on the flip side sometimes we conflate prestige with morality.
  • Liberalism and conservatism are largely heritable. Conservatives tend to be more authoritarian, conscientious, traditional, and rulebound than liberals.
  • The new sciences of human nature vindicate the view largely held by those on the right that humans are limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and that society itself is limited in its capacity for improvement.
  • Men and women are different physically, mentally, and emotionally (with varying degrees of overlap in most traits). These differences stem from different evolutionary roles. In terms of overall intelligence, men and women are very similar.
  • There are three laws of behavioral genetics: 1. All behavioral traits are heritable. 2. Genes have a greater effect on behavior than being raised in the same family. 3. A large portion of behavioral traits isn’t accounted for by genes or family. The missing portion (~50% of the variation seen), could be the result of peer groups, as well as simple chance (especially in our early development).
  • Postmodernist art sucks.

I think that last bullet fairly sums up Pinker’s final “Hot Button” chapter. This incongruous and not fully developed chapter on art could have been left on the cutting room floor. But it’s indicative of a broader problem with Pinker’s thinking (Pink Think?); he, too, is occasionally guilty of trying to hammer pegs into the wrong holes, as it suits his needs (a form of grotesquerie). Is the sole purpose of art beauty, as he seems to contend? Is our perception of beauty simply an evolutionary adaptation, easily defined and delineated? Though there’s undoubtedly an evolutionary basis for how we perceive beauty, our cultural interactions with this foundation are too complex to easily encapsulate. And our perceptions of beauty evolve (in a cultural sense) – I’ve heard it said that people didn’t get much of what Coltrane was doing when he did it, but he changed their perceptions of what was beautiful. And what about Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, when he takes the guitar too far into the future at his parents’ high school dance?


I picture Pinker’s slate kind of like the chalkboard you often see in movies in the background of a math professor’s lab, full of complex and incomprehensible (to us) equations. It’s a beautiful, exceptional mind, one that easily sees patterns that the rest of us miss. But it’s not infallible. As mentioned, Pinker sometimes employs what I suspect to be straw men, and adds a dash of grotesquerie to make his point more forcefully. But I also think he occasionally misses important information. In another “Hot Button” chapter focusing on children, he cites behavioral genetics studies (outlined in the bullet above) to make the point that parents (the prime nurturers) don’t have much of an effect on how their children turn out. Having previously heard of some of these reports, I was on board with this idea, but after reading this chapter, I have more questions about the effects of parental nurture. The behavioral genetics studies cited by Pinker measure intelligence, personality, and life outcomes, and find that about half the variability seen in these traits is heritable, less than 10% is from a shared environment (largely the home environment), and the other 40-50% is from peer groups or chance (sounds like an area for further study). Intelligence and personality are largely heritable, and we as parents have very little impact on those traits in our children – I’m down with that. But are there other traits, not necessarily measured in these studies, that parents can instill in their children? What about courtesy, caring, empathy, common sense, fiscal responsibility, love of learning, a sense of justice, wisdom, morality? And what about short-term versus long-term behavioral effects? Did Veruca Salt’s parents have nothing to do with her entitled temper tantrums?


Pinker argues that the science of human nature has poked large holes in the liberal view that humans are infinitely malleable and that utopia is achievable through some sort of massive spiritual awakening. But, although this view may be held by some on the far left, is it really representative of liberalism in general? I would guess that most liberals, or progressives, take a more pragmatic view of the world than the one Pinker portrays. The science of human nature, rather than representing the final nail in liberalism’s coffin, is actually entirely compatible with a progressive outlook. In contrast to the fatalist view of conservatives that our system will always be imperfect so there’s no need to change it (that’s my straw man), progressives recognize that there’s always room for improvement, even if perfection will forever remain out of reach. There’s something Lamarckian about supposing that we can completely alter our genetic programming, but, as Pinker himself says, we have enough built-in plasticity that we are capable of broadly varying behaviors, even if these are somewhat constrained by our biology. Harnessing what we know about human nature, we can (as Pinker acknowledges) design systems that lead to more egalitarian outcomes.*****

And that, ultimately, is the great contribution of this book. The science of human nature doesn’t diminish our humanness at all – rather, it exposes and illuminates our common humanity, verrucas (warts – yes, really) and all, and provides a blueprint for designing a better world. It would, in fact, be illiberal to deny the science of human nature.


*If you don’t know who Shaquille O’Neal is, he’s a famous Irish poet: “I got a hand that’ll rock your cradle, cream you like cheese, spread you on my bagel.”

**Men kill men at 20-40 times the rate that women kill women, and most killers are young men (age 15-30). All of these numbers are cited in The Blank Slate. I didn’t personally research each citation. Could Pinker be doing some cherry picking to support his case? Possibly, but if you’re going to refute his data, it would be a good idea to have some of your own.

***This isn’t to say that the rule of law always works smoothly or isn’t corruptible in numerous ways.

****Our good buddy Descartes came up with this. I think, therefore it doesn’t matter if I am?

*****As an example, Pinker points out that some behavioral economists (Richard Thaler among them), have shown that humans – because of evolutionary adaptations to get while the getting’s good – are not necessarily rational actors when it comes to financial matters, therefore taxes and regulations are necessary to help guide our decision making.

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