The Nature of Human Nature

Steven Pinker is the author of a provocative book titled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. There are three "myths" he intended to undermine in that book: (1) the belief that human beings are born as blank slates (from the philosopher John Locke) that are shaped completely by experience, (2) the belief in the ghost in the machine (from the philosopher Renée Descartes), which holds that the mind is a nonphysical entity that is connected mysteriously to people's physical bodies, and (3) the belief (from the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau) that human beings are born as "noble savages," that they are born morally innocent and corrupted later by social institutions. Pinker contends that none of these beliefs can be supported by contemporary science.

Pinker argues that human beings have a nature at birth, that what is referred to as the mind is really the human brain, that the architecture of the brain is the product of eons of evolutionary development, that very complex interactions among many genes (as well as complex environmental factors) are ultimately responsible for that brain architecture, and that the detailed architecture of the brain varies from one individual to another as a result of the genetic variation and environmental influences that distinguish individuals. This genetic variation among individuals includes both cognitive and emotional differences.

Pinker is comfortable with the idea that from birth some individuals are more shy or more outgoing than others, more happy or more depressed, more inclined to be socially conformist or to engage in antisocial behavior, more inclined to be forgiving or to erupt in anger, and so on. For Pinker the same thing is true with respect to the display of intellectual abilities. He sees all these behavioral predispositions as ultimately being rooted in the genetic endowment of each individual; this is why he rejects the notion that humans at birth are noble savages or blank slates.

Some people consider the picture Pinker has painted excessively deterministic and mechanistic, both eviscerating any basis for moral responsibility for human behavior and reinforcing deep social prejudices against certain racial and ethnic groups. However, that conclusion is not warranted. What Pinker writes (p. 48) and what generally would be endorsed by behavioral geneticists is the following: "Most psychological traits are the product of many genes with small effects that are modulated by the presence of other genes, rather than the product of a single gene with a large effect that shows up come what may." He goes on to note that the effects of most genes are probabilistic and that the environment often modulates the effects of particular genes in complex ways. This is why identical twins do not live identical lives.

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