Steven Pinker

© Morris Firebaugh

Forum on Religious Issues,

December 1, 2003


A. Background

B. The Three Myths

C. Implications

D. Steven Pinker "Live"

E. Discussion

A. Background

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, political, and religious implications. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature by clinging to three 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).

My interest in how the mind works grew out of research for writing Artificial Intelligence.

In my Chapter 15 on Computer Vision, I present a classification system for theories of shape recognition from Steven Pinker's book, Visual Cognition.

Nature vs. Nurture

The "nature vs. nurture" debate is the unifying theme of "The Blank Slate". In my section on "Is the Mind a Meat Machine" (a term coined by Marvin Minsky, founder of AI), I state one of the areas of human activity profoundly affected by the "nature vs. nuture" debate as:

Social and Political Science - The "nature vs. nurture" debate has raged for years between those who feel that nature in the form of the genetic code determines individual behavior and those who feel that nurture through the environment and early childhood experience heavily influences the future behavior of the person. The whole philosophy of many programs for social improvement is based on the importance of the nuture concept, whereas the meat machine model of the mind implies that human behavior is largely predetermined at birth.
Artificial Intelligence, p. 325

Twins Reunited

One of the most powerful tools Pinker uses for disentangling and resolving the issue of "nature vs. nurture" is the study of twins and adopted siblings. Specifically, identical twins have 100% of their genes in common; fraternal twins share 50% of their genes; and adopted siblings have 0% of their genes in common. In particular, by studying identical twins separated at birth and reunited and tested as adults, we can completely eliminate the effects of a shared environment.

The University of Minnesota studies of twins reunited has greatly intrigued both Steven Pinker and myself. In Artificial Intelligence, I relate the remarkable similarities of the "Jim twins", separated at four weeks and reunited at age 39:

Such twins studies has led Pinker to state in "The Blank Slate":

Testing confirms that identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike (though far from identical) in just about any trait one can measure. They are similar in verbal, mathematical, and general intelligence, in their degree of life satisfaction, and in personality traits such as introversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. They have similar attitudes toward controversial issues such as the death penalty, religion and modern music. They resemble each other not just in paper-and-pencil tests but in consequential behavior such as gambling, divorcing, committing crimes, getting into accidents and watching television.
The Blank Slate, p. 47

B. The Three Myths

The three myths which Steven Pinker identifies and attempts to demolish in "The Blank Slate" are each associated with a dead, male, European philosopher:

The Blank Slate -

"Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? .... Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE."
John Locke (1632-1704)

The Noble Savage

"So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when place by nature at an eqal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man . . ."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

c.f. one of those authors, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679):

"... and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

The Ghost in the Machine

"There is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible . . .This would be sufficient to teach me that the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body, if I had not already been apprised of it on other grounds."
Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

C. Implications

These myths have serious repercussions that affect us all:

Stem Cell Research and "The Ghost in the Machine"

"In 2001 George W. Bush announced that the American government will not fund research on human embryonic stem cells if scientists have to destroy new embryos to extract them . . ..Some argued that ensoulment occurs at conception, which implies that the blastocyst (the five-day-old ball of cells from which stem cells are taken) is morally equivalent to a person and that destroying it is a form of murder. That argument proved decisive, which means that the American policy on perhaps the most promising medical technology of the twenty-first century was decided by pondering the moral issue as it might have been framed centuries before: When does the ghost first enter the machine?"
The Blank Slate, pp. 12-13

Child Rearing - Nature vs. Nurture

"At a bare minimum, two children growing up in one of these homes — with the same mother, father, books, TVs, and everything else — should turn out more similar, on average, than two children growing up in different homes. Seeing whether they do is a remarkably direct and powerful test. It does not depend on any hypothesis about what parents have to do to change their children or how their children will respond. It does not depend on how well we measure the home environments. If anything that parents do affects their children in any systematic way, then children growing up with the same parents will turn out more similar than children growing up with different parents.
But they don't. . . .Siblings reared together end up no more similar than siblings separated at birth. Adopted siblings are no more similar than strangers. And the similarities between siblings can be completely accounted for by their shared genes. All those differences among parents and home have no predictable long-term effects on the personalities of their children. "
The Blank Slate, p. 384

Hobbes' State of Nature - The Noble Savage

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 a.m. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:30 a.m. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had beeen set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).
The Blank Slate, p. 331

Philosophy of Education

Education is neither writing on a blank slate nor allowing the child's nobility to come into flower. Rather, education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. Children don't have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.
The Blank Slate, p. 222


The statement that "violence is learned behavior" is a mantra repeated by right-thinking people to show that they believe that violence should be reduced. It is not based on any sound research. The sad fact is that despite repeated assurances that "we know the conditions that breed violence," we barely have a clue. Wild swings in crime rates—up in the 1960s and late 1980s, down in the late 1990s—continue to defy any simple explanation..
The Blank Slate, p. 310

Three Laws of Behavior Genetics

1. All human behavior traits are heritable.
2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
3 A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
The Blank Slate, p. 373

D. Steven Pinker "Live"

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He continues the tradition of informing the intelligent layperson of important scientific findings as has his fellow scientists:

MIT has a distinguished authors series at which Steven Pinker spoke on the subject of The Blank Slate. [To play this streaming video, you need to have RealOne Player installed as a plug-in.]

E. Discussion

So, what's controversial about Pinker's ideas?

The main opposition comes from "radical science" and "post-modernist art"

Radical Science

The arguments stem from opponents' fear of

In particular, the work of E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins has been denounced by Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin in "Against Sociobiology" in which they say:

"The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. . . . These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany."

Post-modernist Art

In referring to the new philosophy of modernism in art, Virginia Woolf stated, "In or about December 1910, human nature changed" after viewing a post-Impressionist exhibition in London.

Pinker quotes the art critic Frederick Turner in explaining the mission of modernism:

The great project of modern art was to diagnose, and cure, the sickness unto death of modern humankind . . . .[Its artistic mission] is to identify and strip away the false sense of routine experience and interpretive framing provided by conformist mass commercial society, and to make us experience nakedly and anew the immediacy of reality through our peeled and rejuvenated senses. This therapeutic work is also a spiritual mission, in that a community of such transformed human beings would, in theory, be able to construct a better kind of society.
The Blank Slate, pp. 410-411

and describes its extension to postmodernism as:

Postmodernism was even more aggresively relativistic, insisting that there are many perspectives on the world, none of them privileged. It denied even more vehemently the possibility of meaning, knowledge, progress, and shared cultural values. It was more Marxist and far more paranoid, asserting that claims to truth and progress were tactics of political domination which privileged the interests of straight white males. According to the doctrine, mass-produced commodities and media-disseminated images and stories were designed to make authentic experience impossible.
The Blank Slate, p. 411

Noting that an abstract modernist painter declared ". . .the impulse of modern art was 'the desire to destroy beauty'," Pinker concludes:

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 they take all the fun out of art!
The Blank Slate, pp. 411-412

Updated Nov. 30, 2003