Shanlynn Chong

Sarah Cocita

Student 3


“The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature  by Steven Pinker 


Chapter 1: The Official Theory


Human nature is an idea or belief on how people behave.  As human beings, we develop theories to better understand others.  A tacit theory of human nature states that our thoughts and beliefs control our behavior.  We base our thoughts about human nature on generalizations, on the assumption that everyone is like ourselves as well as what experts tell us to think.  The theories of human nature play an important role in our lives, affecting our everyday actions and values. 

            The major theories of human nature arose from religion.  The Judeo-Christian theory is based on events described in the bible.  They believe that the mind is an immaterial substance and can continue to exist after the body dies.  The Judeo-Christian theory also believes that the mind is made up of components that include a moral sense, the ability to love and a capacity for reason.  Although the Judeo-Christian theory is the most popular throughout the United States, most intellectuals do not believe in it because the theory cannot be scientifically proven.  Instead, intellectuals have come to believe in the Blank Slate.  The Blank Slate states that the mind is clear of ideas and beliefs and that it is molded by the environment and experiences it encounters. 

            Philosopher John Locke introduces the Blank Slate in which he compares the mind to a white sheet of paper.  Each experience a human encounters contributes to a line written on the paper.  Ideas come from past experiences, which are different from person to person.  These differences explain why people view the world differently.  Locke states that by changing ones experiences and environment, an individual can be changed.

            The Blank Slate is accompanied by two other doctrines that have “sacred status in modern intellectual life” (6).  The first is known as the Noble Savage, and the second as the Ghost in the Machine. 

            The Noble Savage developed by Rousseau states that “it captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization” (6).  Rousseau believes that people are basically good and that the evil that comes from people are a result of civilization.  Contrary to Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes believed that humans had a tendency for war with each other and that it can be avoided only if an individual surrenders to a sovereign person.  This is known as leviathan.  The idea of the Noble Savage influences our daily lives.  For example, through such theory we learn to respect natural things and distrust and question things that are man-made. 

            The Ghost in the Machine developed by Rene Descartes is based on dualism.  Descartes states that the mind and body are different because the body is divisible, while the mind is indivisible.  During life, both the body and mind are combined, however, once the body dies, the mind continues to live. 

            The Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine developed because of Hobbes belief that the mind could be explained in mechanical terms.  Descartes believed differently, thus developing the Ghost in the Machine.  He believed that behavior was chosen, not caused.  He also states that individuals cannot question the existence of one’s mind because by doing so, our minds exist.  We can on the other hand question the existence of our body because we can “imagine ourselves to be immaterial spirits who merely dream or hallucinate that we are incarnate” (9). 

            To think of oneself as a machine is disturbing.  Machines are disposable, while human beings are irreplaceable.  Machines have a certain purpose in life, whereas human beings have “higher purposes, such as love, worship, good works, and the creation of knowledge and beauty” (10).  Unlike machines, humans are given freewill.  However, with freewill comes responsibility.  “Choice, dignity, and responsibility are gifts” (10) that make human beings different from everything else.  Individuals who think of individuals as in a mechanical sense are known as “reductionist” or “determinist.”   

            The Blank Slate (empiricism), the Noble Savage (romanticism), and the Ghost in the Machine (dualism) are independent of one another, yet are found together when being practiced.  The Blank Slate and the Noble Savage are similar in that both believe that if an individual is born a blank slate, then he or she has no tendency to be good or evil.  Although Rousseau did not fully agree with the Blank Slate, he took the belief a step farther and stated that bad behavior is a result of socialization.  The Blank Slate and the Ghost in the Machine are grouped together because if an individual is born a blank slate, then the ghost can easily influence an individual.  The Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine are paired together because if the machine does something wrong the ghost can be blamed for the action instead of the machine. 

            In today’s society, philosophy receives little respect.  However, unknowingly philosophy plays a major role in today’s society.  In 2001, George W. Bush decided that the government would not fund embryonic stem cell research if in the process scientists had to destroy embryos in order to extract them.  Bush came to this conclusion after meeting with scientists, philosophers, and religious thinkers.  The question asked throughout the process was: When does the soul enter the body? The argument that Bush based his decision on was that the soul develops at conception, and thus by performing an embryonic extraction, it would be considered a form of murder. 


Chapter 2: Silly Putty


The decades preceding the arrival of the twentieth century marked the beginning of technological and scientific discoveries.  In the great desire for territorial acquisitions and resources, Europeans traveled abroad with the collective imperialistic attitude as their moral compass expressed only as the “white man’s burden” to bring civility and religion to the ‘lowly indigenous’. Social Darwinism or Social Spencerism found staunch supporters from those who most profited from the Industrial Revolution, political ideology of capitalism, laissez-faire, and technological modernity with little moral recourse.  Survival of the fittest became an established mantra for the elite and aristocratic in an effort to aid their own conscience in the acquisition of resources. More and more imperialistic cross-cultural interactions led theorists to adopt Social Darwinism as a logical reason for the usurpation and the conquering of other peoples when in essence it was merely cultural and moral autonomy.  The devastating consequences were visibly manifest all over Europe and North America where men and especially women and children were literally being sacrificed to “the machine”.  Not until the early 1920’s did this white, imperialistic and racist social theory collapse.

            In opposition to the previous century’s prevailing theory of Social Darwinism, 20th century intellectuals revitalized the philosophies of the Enlightenment era into modern day sociological thought.  Intellectuals “maintained that the categories of reason were innate”, bolstering the Social Darwinist theory of social stratification because lower status individuals were thought of as unable to sustain the faculties of literacy and leadership that would make them worth more on the social rungs; manual labor was thus thought to be their destiny.  It was in opposition to the victimization of the lower classes by the tyrannical monarchs and the church that John Locke established his “Blank State” theory which would later be implemented by his successor or “intellectual heir” John Stuart Mill (18).  Locke’s Blank-Slate theory or as some termed “Tabula-Rasa”, stated that the human mind was essentially a blank tablet on which society engrained faculties and responses onto.  Therefore, there were no innate qualities that could “explain human intelligence” it was rather all learned through “associationism”, a Lockean ideology reformulated by Mill (18).  Through the process of socialization, “ideas” or “sensations” were “inscribed” into the blank-slate and when “appeared in succession would become associated, so that one of them can call to mind the others” (18). 

            According to Pinker, 20th century psychology learning and behaviorism is rooted in the Lockean-Mill associationism of the late 19th century (19).  This connectivity manifested in the “will to establish a social order in which innate and immutable forces of biology played no role in accounting for the behavior of social groups (17).  Amid the social dissonance as to how society viewed immigrants, women, and children of lower status, there became a conscious effort towards a more open-minded society, as “the most humane assumption (became) that all human beings had an equal potential to prosper if they were given the right upbringing and opportunities (17).  The Lockean Blank Slate theory, thus, became the basis, according to the author, of the “standard social model or social constructionism” (17), refashioning prevailing theories of racism and sexism (16).  Mill asserted his reservations on the implications of such theories to stagnate society:

I have long felt that the prevailing tendency to regard all the marked distinctions of human character as innate, and in the main indelible, and to ignore the irresistible proofs that by far the greater part of those differences, whether between individuals, races, or sexes, are such as not only might but naturally would be produced by differences in circumstances, is one of the chief hindrances to the rational treatment of great social questions, and one of the greatest stumbling blocks to human improvement…(18).

Pioneering this belief into the 20th century, John B. Watson, founder of the psychological approach which dominated the field from the 1920’s-60;s, behaviorism, expressed a similar “pronouncement”:  “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guaranteed to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select…regardless of his talents, penchants, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors” (19).  Any developing theories “invoking the notion of instinct” to explain the preferences of humans were labeled “forbidden”, states the author (19).  Watson remained fervent in this belief that talent and ability, both innate qualities, do not exist, along with “other contents of the mind, much as ideas, beliefs, desires, and feelings…[which] were subjective and immeasurable…”(19).  The process of social engraving of ideas on to the Blank Slate, now became “stimuli and responses” and associationism converted into laws of conditioning (19).  “Even sexual desire was redefined as a conditioned response” (20).  Biology was set aside as an unnecessary practice in psychology and the study of the brain “was just another misguided quest to find the causes of behavior inside the organism rather than out in the world, an assertion made by B.F. Skinner, “a famous psychologist in the middle decades of the 20th century (20). 

            The author makes clear that “strict behaviorism is pretty much dead in psychology”, however, asssociationism is still a fundamental platform on which many neuroscientists understand the process of learning (21). The author identifies the faults of such a system as it is inadequate in determining areas of computation involved in learning that aren’t associationistic such as: “storing the value of a variable in the brain, as in x=3, which is a critical computational step in navigating and foraging”, yet can’t be explained in terms of association (21).  Another problem he finds is that there are no distinguishing factors in the study of lab animals in the field of psychology and neuroscience, henceforth (21), which must be accounted for considering the variability between different planetary specie in relation to one another.  When questioned of the difference between rats and people in terms of intelligence, the response was that “humans, then, are just rats with bigger blank slates, plus something called ‘cultural devices’” (22).  The human environment, constituting “other people and the cultural devices developed to organize the human thinking processes” are thus what sets us apart from animals, claimed David Rumelhart and James McClelland (21). 

            Culture and the external environment, from the perspective of psychology and the social sciences, seemed to create the individual and, consequently, desires, ideas, feelings usually thought to be rooted in mental faculties, became thought of as originating in cultures and societies (24).  This is quite different from the argument of the behaviorists of the middle of the 20th century, who maintained that the process of individual development had nothing to do with innate qualities of the mind like desires and feelings, but rather the interaction between external stimuli and internal responses to the stimuli, which went under behavior.  Originating during the philosophical period of the Enlightenment with George Berkeley, “the theory of idealism, the notion that ideas, not bodies and other hunks of matter, are the ultimate constituents of reality,” appealed to Franz Boaz, “father of modern anthropology”, whose work is said to have laid, “a new intellectual foundation for egalitarianism” (22).  Boaz maintained that “the differences among human races and ethnic groups come not from their physical constitution but from their culture, a system of ideas and values spread by language and other forms of social behavior” (22).  In other words, man is “endowed with the same basic mental abilities”, and any “limitations simply reflect the daily needs of those people as they live their lives” (23).  Boaz’s theory as widely scholarly accepted was taken to an extreme when his students maintained, “that every aspect of human existence must be explained in terms of culture” (23).  Albert Kroeber stated that “a culture, is superorganic—it floats in its own universe free of the flesh and blood of actual men and women” (23).  Once again reverting to the Blank Slate model the social scientists, like Kroeber and earlier Emile Durkheim, asserted that:  “Individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms” (24).  “…The human being is entirely instinctless, [ . . .] shaped to the form of their culture because of the malleability of their original endowment” (24-25).  The implications of this thought, “the doctrine of the superorganism”, which holds the group or culture as able to collectively think, feel, and behave, has implications on how consequences are allocated morally (26).  These maintained beliefs of the “malleability of humans and the autonomy of culture” keep alive the ideal, which spurned their development, that all people, regardless or race or gender may have equal opportunities and be thought of as equal entities in their natural environments (27).  “The mind was now the arbiter of human destiny” (28).  The key determinate left out in all of this is who or what is shaping and molding the “silly putty” populous if in fact other “silly putty” are the “molders” (28).  Neither behaviorists nor sociologists have been able account for this, as their theories of support “The Ghost in the Machine” and the “Blank Slate” are limited. 


Chapter 3: The Last Wall to Fall


            People have been trying to elucidate the mysteries of thought and motivations for behavior since the beginning of consciousness. Over time many theories have arisen to explain supposed anomalies of human behavior but each has had its own individual unexplainable discrepancies that have caused doubt in its validity. However, before these theories become obsolete, another has to develop that can explain those things which all others couldn't. In The Blank Slate: Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker stresses the need to join the two most prominent opinions on the mind: that humans come into this world a blank slate and are then written on by society and experience, and that humans are governed by some internal force that leads to a particular behavior. Pinker suggests that the wall between these two theories is being broken by four distinct bridges between biology and culture that have all gained attention and research recently: cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology.

            Cognitive science, by definition, is the study of the mind by empirical, scientific methods. Before the 1950s studying the functions of the brain itself was nearly impossible, so it is understandable why behaviorists and social constructionists avoided the mind as a center for behavior determination altogether. Pinker identifies five main ideas brought about in the cognitive revolution that have contributed to the demise of other theories.

            The first idea of cognitive science is that understanding of the mind and mental processes is possible through the use of physical principals and the concepts of information, computation, and feedback. For years it was considered absurd to think that scientific explanations could be extended to human behavior. Pinker gives the example of a man getting up to make a phone call. "We would not say that phone-shaped stimuli caused [someone's] limbs to swing in certain arcs," says Pinker, rather we would attribute this person's actions to his desire to talk to his friend and his belief that she will be at home. (32) Pinker explains, however, that cognitive science overcomes this obstacle between the physical and the mental worlds by instituting the theory that mental processes such as thinking, planning, and feeling, are all systematic transformations of patterns of activity and brain structures. According to the theory, every action (or really, every reason for an action) is actually a string of patterns operating in the brain. For example, cognitive scientists believe that when a person feels happy, it is only because the neurotransmitter designated to happiness has been fired from one point in the brain to another. This theory is often confused with certain aspects of the Ghost in the Machine model of behavior, but they are not as similar as they seem. By demonstrating a connection between the mental and physical worlds, cognitive scientists do not intend to imply that the human brain is just a complex computer program, rather that it operates similarly to one. Modern advancements in technology help support this theory by demonstrating that computers, sometimes even referred to as "electric brains," are able to accomplish tasks once thought to be reserved for living things. Already, computers are able to do such "intelligent" things as organize data, diagnose diseases, correct spelling, translate sentences, and recognize faces. Such abilities are also attributed to intelligent, reasonable, rational humans, so does that mean that computers are also able to reason? Pinker says yes. According the theory put forth by cognitive science, there soon won't be any abilities of humans that cannot be programmed into a computer. This does not mean that cognitive scientists believe that computers are capable of first person experiences, but they do suggest that reasoning, intelligence, imagination, and creativity are all forms of a physical process called information processing.

            Unless something notices a pattern in the inscriptions on a blank slate, no behavior will evolve, thus the second idea of cognitive science is that the mind cannot be a blank slate. If the brain works like a machine to compute and “learn” the information taken in by the senses, as the first idea proposed, then this ability to absorb information and interpret its meaning must be innate. Just as it is ridiculous to think that a pocket watch tells time without needing wheels, cognitive scientists say it is absurd to believe human behavior works without any innate aptitude. A computer cannot recognize patterns or understand speech unless it is equipped with the right software; thus humans must also be equipped with some basic functions at birth. Even though they agree on this conclusion, cognitive scientists are split on how much “standard equipment” a human has built in. Jerry Fodor, a philosopher, suggests that “all concepts might be innate,” including things like “camera” and “lampshade” (35). Noam Chomsky, a linguist, believes that children don’t “learn” language, but rather “grow” language. On the other end of the spectrum are scientists Rumelhart, McClelland, Jeffrey Elman, and Elizabeth Bates who built a rudimentary computer and then loaded it with as much software as they could. The two theories agree on one thing: humans are not blank slates.

            If all humans have the same basic hardware but can behave in an unlimited number of ways, cognitive theorists are lead to the third idea: “an infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind” (36). When it comes to human behavior, anything goes and the ability to engineer newer or more unusual behaviors is limitless. According to Pinker, the most obvious example of this infinite flexibility is found in language. Although nearly every sentence spoken is a new combination of words, Chomsky points out that language obeys rules and patterns. Just because there are an infinite number of ways to string words together does not mean that every possible way will make sense. Chomsky suggests that there must be a hard-wired system in the brain that is capable not of spitting out words in random order, but forming systematic combinations. What this discovery suggests is that not only is the number of possible sentences infinite, but also the number of possible thoughts or intentions. As each new sentence expresses a new thought or intention, each sentence will be the beginning of a brand new behavior.

            The fourth idea of cognitive science is that “universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variations across cultures” (37). When behavior is perceived in terms of the mental software the differences between different cultures start to shrink. Even though the languages of different human cultures seem severely different, this is one example of cross-culture hard wiring: all humans have some system of language. The grammatical structures of each are also similar; all have parts of speech like nouns, verbs, prepositions, articles, and adjectives, all have rules about the order in which these parts can be strung together in order to make sense, and the same kinds of ideas can be conveyed in every language. This belief in a universal circuitry dedicated to the acquisition of language and its rules also explains why babies and children absorb language so easily without being instructed. Emotions, when defined as mental mechanisms, also do not differ much across cultures, though the behavior that accompanies them may be different. Pinker gives the example of the Ifaluk who do not experience anger the way that Westerners do, and instead experience an emotion called song. Like anger, song is a feeling of irritation against someone who has committed a moral infraction, although the person feeling song is only permitted to “shun, frown at, or gossip about the offender,… not to attack him physically” (38). Song is provoked by a person who violates a taboo, is lazy, disrespectful, and refuses to share; westerners, however, experience anger when someone has used a racial slur, raised the middle finger, or cut them off in traffic. The behaviors that provoke anger as well as the ways in which it is resolved may be different from song, and therefore must be learned within a particular society, but the core emotion is strikingly similar. This phenomena has lead cognitive scientists to the conclusion that though “categories of behavior … certainly do vary across cultures” and have to be learned in their particular context, “the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate.” (39)

            According to the fifth idea in Pinker’s explanation of cognitive science, “the mind is a complex system of many interacting parts.” (39) Just like a computer cannot run smoothly if one of its parts is malfunctioning, so does the brain depend on all of its parts to cooperate in order for it to function well. Psychological researchers say that physical portrayals of emotions (like facial expressions or body language) are universal, but that different cultures employ different affect programs to govern when emotions can be displayed emotionally. Affect programs are the information-processing systems within the brain used for motivation and emotion. An affect program works by taking a “habit system” (the habitual response of a human) and over-riding it with a module called the “supervisory attention system,” making the person focus on relevant information and then react accordingly.

            Cognitive science has obliterated the age-old question of humans acting according to nature or to environment, of whether humans are flexible or programmed, or whether they are good or evil. There is no one or the other answer. According to Pinker, “humans behave flexibly because they are programmed.” (40)

            The second bridge between the mental and the physical worlds, neuroscience, studies how the brain processes thought and emotion. According to neuroscientists, every thought, feeling, dream, and intention originate in the physiological activities of the brain. The studies being done on the brain now were impossible fifty years ago, so it is no wonder philosophers and psychologists avoided identifying the brain as the center of behavior. Now it is possible to stimulate a living human’s brain and record his sensations without permanently damaging him. Likewise, chemicals can be issued to the brain that alter mood and behavior, as is the case with anti-depressants and other drugs.

Neuroscientists are also proving that the personality is simply another brain function. In the case of Phineas Gage, an 1800s railroad worker who was victim to a horrific accident in which a yard-long spike was sent into his cheekbone, through his brain, and out the top of his skull. Gage survived the accident with most of his brain still functioning, but damage to the prefrontal cortex severely changed Gage’s regular interaction with other people. Another example of the cooperative brain is offered by neuroscientists Michael Gassaniga and Roger Sperry, who demonstrated that by severing the left brain hemisphere from the right, the “self” is literally divided as well. Each hemisphere is able to execute commands, but when asked why the whole person behaved in a certain way, the left hemisphere will create a believable (although incorrect) reasoning argument. The two hemisphere must communicate in order to receive a request, process it, execute it, and then understand why the person was motivated to carry out this particular task, but even without this communication, the brain is compelled to attribute some explanation to action.

In the mid-nineteenth century neurologist Paul Broca made another startling discovery: the folds and wrinkles of the brain are not random or individual to each person, but have a recognizable arrangement that is universal. In fact, brain structures are some similar between people that each of these wrinkles can be named. Neuroscientists have also discovered that the anatomy of a specific person’s brain is shaped by genes during prenatal development, that alterations in genes or prenatal development will alter the plan of a person’s brain, and that variations in brain structure lead to variations in behavior. Because the variations cannot be attributed to environmental causes, scientists use this data to support the hypothesis that not all behaviors are learned. Furthermore, neuroscientists have found that the acquisition of knowledge actually causes a change in the structure of the brain, developing further the belief that though some things about the mind are innate, those things are built on by experience and learning.

Behavioral genetics, the study of how genes effect behavior, is the third bridge identified between mind and matter. DNA contains all ability to think, learn and feel a being will ever have and explains why one species differs from another. Pinker extends the example of two species of chimpanzees, the common chimp and the bonobo, who differ only by one tenth of one percent of their DNA, but radically in their behavior. While common chimps are aggressive, bonobos are very peaceful; males dominate females in common chimps, but in bonobos the females reign; common chimps engage in sex for procreation only, bonobos have sex for recreation.

The influence of genes on behavior has also led scientists to do in depth studies of identical twins. “Virtually every cognitive and emotional disorder or difference ever observed” is more connected between two identical twins (who share their entire DNA) than fraternal twins. (46) These disorders are also “better predicted by people’s biological relatives than by their adoptive relatives, and are poorly predicted by any measurable feature of the environment.” (46) Studies have also been conducted on what Pinker labels “virtual twins”: unrelated siblings (either one or both adopted) who are raised in the same home from birth. These studies provide the same types of results as those done on identical twins and conclude that even under the exact same circumstances, the children turn out substantially different from each other.

Despite the obvious influence of genes over behavior, scientists attribute only half of a person’s behavioral differences to genes. The effects of genes together with differing environments provide innumerable possibilities for behavior and personality.

The fourth and last bridge described by Pinker is that of evolutionary psychology, the study of phylogenetic history and adaptive functions of the mind. It is important to recognize that humans are the way they are today because their ancestors had traits advantageous to reproduction, but it is also important to realize that not every trait started as a mutation. “Certainly an eye is too well engineered to have arisen by chance.” (51) But Pinker doesn’t stop there. The eye is completely useless without the brain, Pinker says, because the whole purpose of the eye is to absorb information from the outside world for the brain to compute. Psychologists understand that the human mind has been engineered through evolution. They also recognize that emotions are nonrandom, complex, and useful, and must also be products of natural selection. Evolution is not a process for the greater good, so it is false to assume that any behavior conducive to the well being of society is an evolutionary adaptation. Biologically speaking, the purpose of life is to reproduce, and an adaptation is anything that facilitates this purpose. Those behaviors, then, which are viewed as morally “good” but don’t seem to help a being increase his representation in the gene pool, deserve closer research to understand how they were selected. Physical traits that are perceived as beautiful are many times also signs of good health and fertility, and evolved to help a being choose the best mate. Such emotions as sympathy, gratitude, guilt, and anger allow the existence of cooperation and are therefore beneficial in natural selection.

Of course no one really senses this purpose to life and so it seems strange to think all human behaviors are motivated by the desire to reproduce. Pinker explains this discrepancy in terms of proximate and ultimate causes. A proximate cause is the motivation felt by humans in real time, such as eating because of hunger, or having sex because it is enjoyable. The ultimate cause is the adaptive reasoning that allowed the proximate cause to evolve, like eating because the body needs to be nourished, or having sex because it ensures the continuation of the species. The existence of proximate and ultimate causes also helps explain why humans sometimes wish to do things that would not benefit their well being, like eating themselves to obesity, fantasizing about committing adultery, and placing such importance on economic status. Donald Brown, an anthropologist who devised the concept of a Universal People, has embraced the theory that the mind has evolved with a universal complex design. Brown has identified hundreds of traits relating to every part of life that exist in every society ever documented.

Although evolutionary psychology has succeeded in discrediting all three previous theories on human behavior, it is the concept of the Noble Savage that has been attacked most vigorously. According to Pinker, “a thoroughly noble anything is an unlikely product of natural selection, because in the competition among genes for representation in the next generation, noble guys tend to finish last.” (55) Any story told about tribes of people who had never heard of violence, never engaged in war, and did not have words for conflict or weapons, is a complete falsehood. Thomas Hobbes was right all along; it seems humans really are innately evil. Pinker gives examples of several societies in which violence is not only used, it is excessive. In statistics from eight different South American and New Guinean indigenous tribes, any where from 10 to 60 percent of the male population died as a result of war during the twentieth century. To gain some perspective on these numbers is the percentage of European and US males over the same time period (which includes two world wars and many other smaller wars): about two percent. These overwhelming statistics persuaded Brown to include conflict, rape, revenge, jealousy, dominance, and male coalitional violence” as traits of the Universal People.

There are, however, evolutionary adaptations conducive to peaceful existence. Cooperation is a beneficial trait, and although “conflict is a human universal, so is conflict resolution.” (58)



Shanlynn Chong

Sarah Cocita

Student 3


II.    “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”  --Steve Pinker 


IV.  Critical Review

n    Interesting and Informative Points

n    Philosophy influences society

n    Silly Putty

n    Weak Case and Confusing Points

n    The author does not seem to represent opposing arguments clearly

n    Speaks little of dualism, and then expands on how machines and humans are not alike





Works Cited:


Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Press, 2001.


Shanlynn Chong

Sarah Cocita

Student 3


“The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature  --Steve Pinker 


Chapter 1: The Official Theory


I.                    Tacit Theory of Human Nature

A. Behavior controls human beings thoughts and beliefs

B. As human beings we base our thoughts of human nature on:

1.      Generalizations

2.      Assumptions that everyone is like ourselves

3.      What experts tell us to believe

II.                 Origins of the Theories of Human Nature

A. Based on religion: Judeo-Christian theory

1.      Based on the events that occurred in the Bible

2.      Believe that the mind is an immaterial substance and that it can continue to exist after the body perishes

B. Believers of the Judeo- Christian theory

1.      Still the most popular among the residents of the United States

a.       76% of Americans believes in the biblical account of creation

b.      67%v believe that there is some sort of life after death

            C. Non-Believers in the Judeo-Christian theory

1.      Intellectuals no longer believe in the Judeo-Christian theory because there is no evidence to prove that the biblical story of creation occurred

2.      Intellectuals have come to believe in the Blank Slate

III.               The Official Theories

   A. The Blank Slate—John Locke

1.      Definition: The mind is clear of ideas and beliefs.  The mind is molded by the environment and experiences it encounters

2.      Each experience shapes who an individual becomes

3.      By changing a human beings environment and experiences, an individual can be changed and shaped into a different person

                  B. The Noble Savage—Rousseau

1.      Definition: Humans are basically good and the evil that occurs is a result of civilization

2.      Opposing View

a.      Thomas Hobbes

                                                                                                  i.      Believed that humans have a tendency to create war with each other and the only way to avoid it is if an individual surrenders to a sovereign person

3.      How it affects our daily lives

a.      We learn to respect natural things

b.      We learn to question things that are man-made


C.  The Ghost in the Machine (dualism)—Rene Descartes

1.      Definition: The mind and body are different because the body is divisible, while the mind is indivisible

2.      In life both the mind and body are combined, however at death, the mind continues to live

3.      As human beings we cannot question the existence of our mind because by doing so, our minds exist.

4.      We can question the existence of our body because we can “imagine ourselves to be immaterial spirits who merely dream or hallucinate that we are incarnate” (9)

IV.              Philosophy in Today’s Society

A.  Individuals have no respect for philosophy, but it plays an important role in our society

1.      Example: In 2001, George W. Bush decided not to fund embryonic stem cell research

a.      Reason:  By extracting embryos, scientist must destroy them

b.      Dilemma: Argument that the soul develops at conception, therefore by extracting embryos, it would be a form of murder



V.     Chapter 2: Silly Putty

VI.  Modern day social sciences are rooted in the Enlightenment era of philosophical thought.

A.     The social sciences derive theories on the mind and its interaction with society from John Locke’s “Blank Slate” theory/ Tabula Rasa.

1.      Blank Slate meant that the mind was essentially a blank tablet on which society impressed ideas.

2.      No innate qualities were thought to explain intelligence, but rather learning could be explained through associationism (Lockian idea reformulated by John Stuart Mill).

a)      Associationism suggests that ideas/ or sensations are inscribed on the blank slate.

b)      When these appear in succession they become associated with each other.

B.     Social change, open-mindedness, and acceptance of the 20th century is in direct opposition to the racist, “white-man’s burden” propaganda of the previous century, as is the refashioned acceptance of the Blank Slate theory among intellectual.

1.      Thus, the Doctrine of the Blank Slate became the modern day Standard Social Science Model, social contructionism.

VII.            Psychology and the social sciences, discounting instinct and evolution, determine society the overwhelming influence over the individual mind.

A.     The two factions, psychology and the other social sciences, differed on the acknowledgement of mental entities (i.e. desires, feelings, thoughts, ideas).

1.      Behavioral psychology banned the study of all such entities.

2.      The other social sciences focused on the development of these entities within society and culture.

VIII.         Behavioral Psychology, developed by John Watson, refashioned the Lockian laws of learning, or associationism, into the laws of conditioning.

A.     Behaviorism focused on how individuals interact with the environment, how, when confronted with a stimulus (punishment/reward), the individual will react.

1.      Behaviorists noticed that the reward or punishment for behavior predicted the frequency and ease of the behavior in future.

B.     Behaviorists thought that behavior was independent of the rest of biology.

1.      Famous psychologist/behaviorist, B.F. Skinner maintained this belief, even though numerous studies he conducted with various animal implicated instinctual responses

C.     It was thought that through behaviorology, human behavior could be controlled to attain a utopic society.

1.      Although, strict behaviorism is no longer prevalent, modern psychologists and neuroscience still remain firm with the belief that associationism is the foundation of all learning.

a)      Physiological bonds of neurons and synapses make up the study of associationism of neuroscience.

(1)   This idea is limited as it doesn’t account for the memorization of facts in order to engage in logical computation.  (ex. x=3)

b)      Another limitation of psychological and neurological is the study of species interchangeably, leaving innate aspects of the various specie unaccounted.

IX.  The other social sciences gravitated around the belief that culture and society create individuals.

A.     Franz Boaz, a prolific anthropologist, led the intellectual movement towards the belief that all humans are endowed with the same mental faculties and abilities; the only differences are a result of culture and the necessity of certain faculties in response to the environment.

1.      Boaz maintained that their were instinctual processes must be accounted for.

2.      The doctrine of the super organism, every aspect of human behavior and thought is explainable by culture, is an extreme derived from Boaz’s studies.

X.     None of the social sciences have been able to reconcile the fact that, if indeed we are silly putty, how are we molded by the populous of silly putty that collectively make up culture/society.


Chapter 3: The Last Wall to Fall


Four new areas of understanding are leading to the conjunction of the two previous theories of behavior and uniting to create a more integrated knowledge of the mind.


I.                    Cognitive Science

A.     Definition: the study of the mind through empirical, scientific methods.

B.     Five main points of the cognitive revolution

1.                                          The mental world can be understood in physical terms through the concepts of information, computation, and feedback

a.                                           Every action is a string of patterns operating in the brain.

b.      World chess champion Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue

c.       “Electric Brains” à reasoning, intelligence, imagination, and creativity are all physical processes called information processing.

2.                                          The mind cannot be a blank slate because then it would not have the ability to learn or apply knowledge.

a.                                          The ability to absorb information and interpret its meaning must be innate.

b.                                          Humans have basic software or “standard equipment”

c.                                           Jerry Fodor à all concepts are innate (even “camera” and “lampshade”)

d.                                          Naon Chomsky à children “grow” language

e.                                           Rumelhart, McClelland, Elman, Bates à built a basic computer and trained the hell out of it

3.                                          An infinite range of behavior can occur all dependent on the combinatorial programs found in the mind.

a.                                           Combinations of words are infinite. Language obeys rules and patterns.

b.                                          The number of thoughts and intentions is infinite.

4.                                          Universal mental mechanisms can exist despite variations found in different cultures.

a.                                           Different cultures are actually all very similar.

b.                                          All cultures have language.

1.                                                                              Ease of children to acquire language without training

2.                                                                              Ifaluk song vs. Western anger

5.                                          The mind is a complex system with many interacting parts.

a.                               physical portrayals of emotion are universal

b.                              affect programs for physical emotions are learned


II.                 Neuroscience

A.      Definition: How the brain processes thought and emotion.

B.     Every thought, feeling, dream, and intention originates as a physiological activity in the brain.

C.     The effects of damage to the brain

1.                                          Phineas Gage

2.                                          Gassaniga & Sperry à severance of left and right hemispheres

D.     Paul Broca à fold and wrinkles of the brain have a recognizable arrangement

1.                                          Genes and prenatal development influence the anatomy of the brain

2.                                          Variations in brain structure lead to variations in behavior

3.                                          Acquisition of knowledge causes changes in brain structure


III.               Behavioral Genetics

A.     Definition: How genes effect behavior.

B.     DNA contains all potential ability to think, learn, and feel

C.     Common chimps vs. Bonobos

D.     Identical Twins vs. Virtual Twins

E.      Scientists hold genes responsible for half of behavior


IV.              Evolutionary Psychology

A.     Definition: the study of phylogenetic history and adaptive functions of the mind.

B.     Adaptations are any traits which facilitate the continuation of the species.

C.     Evolution is not for the greater good. How do positive traits evolve?

1.                                          Beauty = physical health and fertility

2.                                          Sympathy, gratitude, guilt, and anger = cooperation

D.     Proximate vs. Ultimate causes

E.      Donald Brown and the Universal People

1.                                          Hundreds of traits are cross-cultural

2.                                          Attack on the Noble Savage

a.                               false stories about tribes that had never heard of war, violence, or conflict

b.                              South American and New Guinean tribes à 10 – 60 % of males killed in warfare

c.                               Brown includes conflict, rape, revenge, jealousy, dominance, and male coalitional violence as universal traits

3.                                          Conflict resolution is also a universal