The Blank Slate


The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a best-selling 2002 book by Steven Pinker arguing against tabula rasa models of the social sciences. This review, prepared in the context of Information Systems research, examines its main concepts and implications.

Main Arguments

Blank slate is a loose translation of the Medieval Latin term tabula rasa , or literally meaning scraped tablet [1]. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked 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). Each dogma carries a moral burden, so their defenders have engaged in the desperate tactics to discredit the scientists who are now challenging them. His arguments are split into three parts: In part 1, he examines how the concept of The Blank Slate has entered modern intellectual life, and the discuses how modern views of human nature and culture are starting to challenge it; In part 2 he discusses the anxieties that accompany this challenge; and in part 3 he examines how this anxiety may be assuaged.

Key concepts

The concept of the Blank Slate is associated with Locke [2], and can be summarized:

“Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas. How does it come to be furnished? From where does it come by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? From where does it have all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience.”

It is worth bearing in mind that Locke lived in a time of Slavery and hereditary privilege, and this represented an attack on the idea that people could be thought of as innately inferior or subservient. These concepts still exist with us today, in social science’s attempt to explain behavior through mechanisms of learning, or that underachievement, poverty and anti-social behavior can be ameliorated. Hence discrimination by race or sex is completely irrational.

Pinker argued that The Blank Slate is often accompanies by to other doctrines, 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). The consequences of the noble savage can be interpreted that a happy society is our birthright, and if only we were only able to remove the institutional barriers, we could obtain it. Alternatively, The Ghost in the Machine implies that our consciousness is separate the body (or the mechanical parts). The Ghost in the Machine, sometimes interpreted as the soul, controls the body. It both exists even if the machine is faulty, and can be blamed if the actions of the body are iniquitous. The last stand of The Blank Slate

Since these ideas have been laid out, science has progressed into areas that were once unimagined. These include the Human Genome project, the rise of the modern computer and its comparisons with the increased understanding of the human brain through neural networks. As a linguist, Pinker pays most attention to the comparison of ability neural networks to the brain to perform linguistic functions. Using examples of how children make the common mistakes of learning, such as my own inability to understand why numbers after ten did not follow the sequence of eleventeen, twelveteen and thirteen, he argues that simple neural networks are unable to make these inferences. Only by introducing pre-programmed sub-networks could they handle these complex tasks. This argument implies our brains are not general learning machines shaped entirely by culture; instead, natural selection has endowed us with a set of "mental modules" that give us innate skills and predispositions. (We have modules for language acquisition, for face recognition, for building basic taxonomies of life forms and much else.)


It should be clear from even this brief overview that the three kinds of biological determinism have utterly different social and political implications, and indeed draw upon different scientific disciplines. Evolutionary psychology addresses the shared characteristics of the human species: what unites us all, irrespective of race or culture--exactly the opposite of what a race-based inquiry into our biological roots would attempt to discover. By the same token, a researcher looking into an individual's genetic attributes would be focused on what makes us unique as individuals. So the "biological" in biological determinism can either be broadly unifying or atomizing, depending on what you're talking about. In part 2 and 3, Pinker lays these out as fears:

  • "the fear of inequality"
  • "the fear of imperfectability"
  • "the fear of determinism"
  • "the fear of nihilism"

Pinker claims these fears are non sequiturs, and that the blank slate view of human nature would actually be a greater threat if it were true. For example, he argues that political equality does not require sameness, but policies that treat people as individuals with rights; that moral progress doesn't require the human mind to be naturally free of selfish motives, only that it have other motives to counteract them; that responsibility doesn't require behavior to be uncaused, only that it respond to praise and blame; and that meaning in life doesn't require that the process that shaped the brain must have a purpose, only that the brain itself must have purposes. He also argues that grounding moral values in claims about a blank slate opens them to possibility of being overturned by future empirical discoveries; and that belief in a blank slate human nature encourages destructive social trends such as persecution of the successful and totalitariansocial engineering.

The Blank Slate in the social sciences

As an experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, Pinker has continued this line of thougt in works such as The faculty of language: what's special about it?. However other authors in the social sciences have built on Pinker's work. The most promiment of the 842 works found citing The Blank Slate focus on Psychology and cognition. The following are some key publications (outside Psychology and cognition) as of May 2008 identifed by Google Scholar:

  • Constructivist and Ecological Rationality in Economics: V Smith. American Economic Review, 2003.
  • Key Issues In Women's Work: Female Diversity And The Polarisation Of Women's Employment: C Hakim. 2004
  • Core knowledge: ES Spelke, KD Kinzler. Developmental Science, 2007. Discusses systems for representing objects, actions, number, and space, as well as a fifth system for representing social partners.
  • Educating the modern manager R Hogan, R Warrenfeltz - Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2003
  • Sex Differences in Video Game Play:: A Communication-Based Explanation . K Lucas, JL Sherry - Communication Research, 2004
  • How Software Technologies Can Improve Research on Learning and Bolster School Reform . PH Winne. Educational Psychologist, 2006

--Ben, May 2008

External links


  1. Pinker, S. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.Penguin Putnam, ISBN 0-670-03151-8
  2. Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Roger Woolhouse. New York: Penguin Books (1997), 307.
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