Think Pinker

Is there such thing as human nature? For MIT's Steven Pinker, the answer lies in cognitive science

If Steven Pinker were redesigning Harvard’s core curriculum, all undergraduates would have to read three philosophers—Descartes, Locke, Rousseau—and then reject much of what they learned. In The Blank Slate, released last month, MIT’s renowned cognitive psychologist plies the tools of his discipline to dispel pervasive myths about human nature. The book’s title comes from Locke’s famous belief that a baby’s mind is a “blank page” bereft of knowledge about the world. For Pinker, this utterly false notion has produced a suite of modern ills, from modish parenting methods to the architecture of the Carpenter Center.

Pinker’s book is a fascinating work of intellectual history. But it is more important as a demonstration of the immense power of cognitive science to counter armchair philosophy in debates over human behavior. Was Hobbes right in thinking mankind was fundamentally bad? Any anthropologist can tell you that human violence is universal. Is it a sign of poor taste to prefer Mozart to Schoenberg? Behavioral psychology teaches that dissonance makes babies cry.

Despite his massive explanatory power, Pinker is careful not to overstate his claims. Biology may tell us how we are, but it does not dictate how we should be. The Blank Slate may argue for a scientific approach to human nature, but it counters determinism at every step. Its vision is at once all-encompassing and, potentially, inconsequential.

Pinker will discuss The Blank Slate in a public conversation with Howard Gardner today at 6 p.m. in the Askwith Education Forum, Harvard Graduate School of Education.