The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Book Review)

Both the title and subtitle couldn’t be more perfect. In this book, Pinker gives a very comprehensive overview of the modern denial of human nature, and how the view of the blank slate is quite simply wrong. He’s not arguing for biological determinism or claiming nurture has no effect, but rather against the view that we have no inherent nature, which is quite persuasive in our culture, and likely even more so in intellectual circles (mostly social sciences).

Pinker starts with what he believes is the philosophical roots that cause that belief. He identifies 3 main pillars. The first is the ‘blank slate’, which is heavily tied to Lock and empiricism, although similar claims go as far back as Aquinas and Aristotle. The second is the ‘noble savage’, which states human beings good by default, but they’re corrupted by society. This comes mostly from romanticism, and Pinker gives special highlight to Rousseau as a major influence. The third and final pillar is the ‘ghost in the machine’, originating from Cartesian dualism.

I think the case blank slate was argued quite well, and nails exactly what causes the current climate against innate behaviour. This is what seems to be the biggest foundation in society in general, and what drives much of the antagonism against any type of evolutionary psychology. The noble savage is from my experience more politically charged, and a very strong pillar belief of social science. I wasn’t as much of a fan regarding the ghost in the machine, at times he tried to pull towards a free-will debate, which I don’t think it is, necessarily. Nevertheless, at least as a tangent, it does influence a belief in being “outside of biology”.

A very large portion of the book is dedicated to trying to argue that the fear against human nature is unwarranted, and the assumed social and political consequences of recognizing our nature are misguided. As I was going through the book, I was rather disappointed by this. I was expected to be very science heavy and outlining the evidence behind human nature in all possible angles. While Pinker does provide evidence for his claims, it was always in summary.

Initially, I thought this was a mistake, and he would be better to just lay out the science as in-depth as he could. However, after finishing it, I realized that Pinker likely followed the best route. The resistance isn’t caused by a lack of science, but rather by our philosophical and political assumptions. Throwing counter-evidence at it is very likely ineffective for most, and it may even cause a backfire effect, which causes people to have their original position even more strongly. This way, hopefully, it’s more convincing, and people still learn the basic foundations of evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics. Furthermore, the fact that the book managed to have such a positive reception without excessive controversy and push-back associated with these books, was likely derived from Pink’s caution and emphasis on the social and political implications.

The Blank Slate — The Modern Denial of Human Nature
By Steven Pinker (2002)

A denial of our nature is attractive in large part because it promises to eliminate racism, sexism, class prejudice, and almost every immoral one can think of. And is accept it is thought to accept our darkest side, with no hope of progress. Pinker deals with many of these fears, and it shined the best when dealing with the fear of inequality, imperfectibility, determinism and nihilism. I disliked the latter part which was heavily focused on post-modernism. While there is certainly some truth to the links he outlines, I think it’s a much trickier connection with a lot of nuances that was likely lost. Regarding the debate of nature versus nurture, the goal from the ones dedicated to denying a pure nurture position is often laid out as a necessity of not denying the truth and scientific evidence simply because it may be uncomfortable. Pinker does an incredible job of showing that the denial of human nature has serious consequences, a crucial point that is often not talked about enough. It’s not just about having a more pleasant world-view, it causes avoidable suffering and death.

The very last portion of the book, he illustrated many of the points he made throughout the Blank Slate from literature, drawing from Mark Twain, Vonnegut, Emily Dickinson and others. It was highly unexpected and enjoyable. It encapsulated the need for science and the humanities to work together and gaining insight into the human condition.

The book was perhaps a little longer than what was necessary, and I thought some of his points could have been argued better, but overall I think Pinker did a fantastic job, and anyone not ideologically blinded should recognize the denial of human nature is both wrong and dangerous. I do think that he likely over-stated what some call the standard social science model (SSSM), and thus sometimes is defeating an exaggerated fringe position. However, I believe this is unavoidable when trying to attack any position, and Pinker is biased in much the same way that every human being is.

Additionally, the problem about ignoring fringe positions is that unless the root cause is addressed (according to him, the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian assumptions), they have a strong tendency to permeate everyday culture, and what is considered extreme today is less extreme in 5 or 10 years. Of course, this type of discussion is always hard and politics very easily creep in. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t invalidate scientific research. If there is an actual criticism against the research, then counter-evidence should be provided, but that’s generally either not done at all, or the evidence provided is quite weak (Pinker gives an extensive amount of examples).

Science aside, the discussion should be about what to do about our nature and how to interpret it, not that the science is invalid because of the feared political and social consequences. Pinker did his best to address this issue, and I hope this book contributed a small margin to the increased acceptance of evolutionary psychology and similar fields.

Thanks for reading. If you like non-fiction book reviews, feel free to follow me on Medium.

I also have a philosophy podcast. If you want to check it out look for Anagoge Podcast.

Tiago V.F.

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BA Psychology & Philosophy ; Currently studying MSc Applied Neuroscience at KCL ; Host of Anagoge Podcast www.anagogepodcast.com

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Tiago V. Faleiro

Tiago V. Faleiro

BA Psychology & Philosophy ; Currently studying MSc Applied Neuroscience at KCL ; Host of Anagoge Podcast www.anagogepodcast.com

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