MIT Professor Steven Pinker is out to restore our faith in human nature. In a major book called The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [New York: Viking, 2002], Pinker argues that the cultural and intellectual landscape is dominated by the idea that human beings are the product of their environment. Our actions and emotions are socially constructed. Change the experiences, and you change the person. If only we raised people the right way, the thinking goes, then they would turn out better.
This is the viewpoint that Steven Pinker wants to attack—the idea that there is no such thing as human nature. Instead, everyone comes into the world as a blank slate, ready to be inscribed. As Pinker sees it, “the Blank Slate has become the secular religion of modern intellectual life” [Pinker, p. 3]. This is the viewpoint that has been held by everyone from Walt Disney, who said, “I think of a child’s mind as a blank book,” to Mao Tse-tung, who defended the socialist reengineering of China on the grounds that “It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written” [quoted by Pinker, p. 11].
I’m not at all sure that the Blank Slate is as dominant as Steven Pinker thinks it is. What seems to be becoming more popular is genetic determinism: we are what our genes say we are. But that aside, how does Pinker define human nature, and what does his definition tell us about the spirit of the age?
In his quest to produce “a science of human nature,” Pinker is equally opposed to both environmental and genetic determinism. He argues instead that our identity is determined by the interplay of heredity and environment, producing what he calls “a universal complex human nature.” He summarizes by saying that the human mind “is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating” that “have a common logic across cultures,… were shaped by… human evolution, and owe some of their basic design to information in the genome” [p. 73].
What’s right about Pinker’s point of view is that human beings are extraordinarily complex. Who we are depends—at least partly—on our biological makeup and personal experiences. But what is missing is any acknowledgment that God is sovereign over any of this, or that there is an inherently spiritual dimension to human existence. Pinker claims that even our sense of morality is “an assembly of neural circuits cobbled together from older parts of the primate brain and shaped by natural selection to do a job” [p. 270]. Nor does he believe in the reality of the human soul. All of our thinking and feeling take place within the tissue of our brains and the network of our neurons. The self is “just another network of brain systems” [p. 42], and when the body dies, nothing survives.
The Christian view of human nature is rather different. It begins with the doctrine of creation. This is where Pinker first goes wrong, claiming as he does that it is “impossible for a scientifically literate person to believe that the biblical story of creation actually took place” [p. 2]. The truth is that we are created by God and live by his providence. Among other things, this means that in everything from our genetic makeup to our social background, we are the people God has made us to be.
We are also made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). Theologians have long debated what this means. The image of God in people would seem to include our need for relationships, our capacity for creativity, our love of beauty, and all the other attributes we share with the Triune God. But the image of God is fundamentally moral. God created us to be holy and righteous, and thus human nature is our spiritual response to God.
Now that we have fallen into sin, human nature is always fallen human nature. We are totally depraved. This does not mean that we are as bad as we can possibly be, but that we are bad all the way through. There is no part of our physical, intellectual, or psychological makeup that has not been morally and spiritually damaged by our rebellion against God. As God said in the days of Noah, “every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart [is] only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). And because of our sinful nature, we are not at all the people God wants us to be.
To a limited extent, Steven Pinker is willing to admit this. Another one of the ideas he is out to debunk is “the Noble Savage”—the idea that people are inherently pure and peaceable. As Pinker documents in his book, the natives are not noble at all, just savage. But the question is whether or not he has an adequate basis for making this kind of moral judgment. If there is no God, how can sin be sin? Unless there is a God to sin against, we do not understand the real sinfulness of human nature.
Strangely enough, Steven Pinker also wants to hold on to the possibility that human beings are able to make moral progress. Given the right information, we can choose to become better. But this is the one thing that sinners cannot and will not do of themselves: make the choice to lead better lives. As the Scripture says, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10-11). It’s not just that we’re sinners; it’s also that we’re unwilling and unable to seek after God. Such is the spiritual bondage of our fallen nature.
True moral progress can only come through spiritual change—the total transformation that God’s Spirit brings when he enters the mind and heart of a sinner. As we think about human nature, we should not simply consider what human beings are at present, but what we can become by the grace of God. In Christ, God is making of us a new self, which is being renewed—body and soul—in the image of its Creator (Col. 3:10).
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