cognitive neuroscience, blank slate, human nature
[Stephen Pinker, biography]
cognitive science, behavioral genetics, Evolutionary Psychology

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Stephen Pinker
Evolutionary Psychology

Stephen Pinker is a professor of psychology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the author of several bestsellers including How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct and is one of the most noted scientists and writers in an emergent and controversial field of studies - evolutionary psychology.

In his new book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Stephen Pinker presents and considers three modern "myths" about Human Nature. These "myths" are variously labelled as the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine.

According to Pinker the blank slate myth holds that that the human mind has no unique structure and that its entire organization comes from the environment via socialization and learning. Pinker does not fight shy of actually suggesting that this blank slate "myth" is particularly popular with several traditionally vocal interests such as:-

The many people of liberal / idealsitic inclination who believe that any human trait can be altered with the right changes in social institutions.

Some of the more radical branches of feminism who tend to favour transformations away from any acceptance of gender related roles rather than the promotion of greater equity between the sexes that was perhaps the original core aspiration of feminism.

Marxists - to some degree. Pinker does not assert that Marx fully accepted the blank slate myth, but that he definitely accepted that people would interact with the learned realities of their social environment. Marx' Materialist Conception of History laid out an "Historically Inevitable" course towards Communism as people responded - (in ways Marx felt entitled to predict) - to the facts of the material organisation of society as they found them during their lifetimes.


Pinker similarly presents a noble savage "myth" of Human Nature which holds that people have no evil impulses and that all malice is a product of the corruption that arises from living in association with artificial, flawed, modern social institutions.

He also outlines a doctrine of "the ghost in the machine" which tends to hold that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus of free will and choice and which, it is held, can not be reduced to a function of the brain.

 



As to the specifics of why Pinker feels justified in depicting each of these three views as being myths:-


The blank slate "myth" is held to be illogical as Human beings do seem to be innately responsive from an early age - dynamically equipped to readily make "sense" of complex environments. This "making sense" of what to a truly blank slate would be a very considerable set of complexities, together with the facility with which young Humans learn language and begin to meaningfully interact with one another surely give rise to an acceptance that the mind is innately vested with the "circuitry" to support such making-sense, language skills acquisition and such social interaction (within cultural contexts!!!). There surely has to be complex and innate "circuitry" that facilitates such learning, such acquisition of culture, and that readily supports such socialization.

The noble savage "myth" is held to be tested beyond endurance by the results of studies of those few remaining hunter-gatherers societies which generally tend to show that participation in conflict, violence and warfare are a human universal. It appears that such apparent "noble-savage" societies can and do take any conflicts they fall into with a considerable seriousness. That they tend to devise weapons as deadly as their technologies allow and that they do not seem to particularly shy away from inflicting considerable casualties. In terms of the proportion of such peoples who might be injured or killed in such clashes it does happen that casualty rates may be far higher than those experienced by the more sophisticated societies even in their own, larger-scale disputes of 1914-18 and 1939-45.

The ghost in the machine "myth" is a considerably more problematical in that it verges upon such momentously relevant areas of immaterial, spiritual and transcendent concern as religious beliefs, the existence of a "Soul", the bases of morality and the meaning of Human life itself.

In this regard Stephen Pinker suggests that the ghost in the machine "myth" has been undermined by cognitive science and neuroscience showing that our thoughts, feelings, urges, and consciousness depend completely on the physiological activity of the brain. Intelligence can be explained as a kind of information-processing, and that motivation and emotion can be explained as feedback systems. He further suggests that phenomena that were formerly thought to rely on mental stuff alone, such as beliefs, desires, intelligence, and goal-directed behavior can be explained in physical terms.

 

Stephen Pinker
The Blank Slate
.
Richard Dawkins
Selfish Gene
.
Stephen William Hawking
Zero-Gravity flight
.
Robert Winston
Human Instinct
.
Desmond Morris
Naked Ape
.
Konrad Lorenz
.
Niko Tinbergen
.
David Attenborough
Life on Earth
.
Margaret Mead
Anthropology




 

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Stephen Pinker
The Blank Slate
Evolutionary Psychology page