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.