September 18, 2002
nature vs. nurture

Steven Pinker's newest book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, sounds like it'll be a real corker:

A principal theme of Dr. Pinker's argument is that the blank slaters -- the critics of sociobiology and their many adherents in the social sciences -- have sought to base the political ideals of equal rights and equal opportunity on a false biological premise: that all human minds are equal because they are equally blank, equally free of innate, genetically shaped, abilities and behaviors.

The politics and the science must be disentangled, Dr. Pinker argues. Equal rights and equal opportunities are moral principles, he says, not empirical hypotheses about human nature, and they do not require a biological justification, especially not a false one.

Moreover, the blank slate doctrine has political consequences that have been far from benign, in Dr. Pinker's view. It encourages totalitarian regimes to excesses of social engineering. It perverts education and child-rearing, loading unmerited guilt on parents for their children's failures.

Some of this will likely be familiar to anyone that's read The Tipping Point; he also covered a similar topic, about the significant importance of peer groups, in this article for The New Yorker. What I don't relish is seeing certain conservatives using this as a whammy stick to use on "liberals", something you can bet will happen:

Following in part the economist Thomas Sowell, he distinguishes between a leftist utopian vision of human nature (the mind is a blank slate, man is a Noble Savage, traditional institutions are the problem) and the tragic vision preferred by the right (man is the problem; family, creed and Adam Smith's Invisible Hand are the solutions).

"My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the tragic vision and undermine the utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life," he writes.

More once I've actually read the book. :-)

Update: I think the genesis for the book can be found in this pdf of a lecture given by Pinker.

Currently listening to: Faith No More - The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies.

Posted by Bill Stilwell at September 18, 2002 07:19 PM
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