Steven Pinker is a world-renowned scholar and presently a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His areas of research include language and visio-spatial cognition. He has written more than a dozen books on language and cognitive development, published numerous articles in refereed journals, and been a popular presenter, speaker, and author in popular media, such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. He has influenced scientists and laymen alike on many aspects of our human condition, including language, cognition, and the nature and nurture debate. The underlying thesis of his writings contributes to the understanding of what makes humans human. His views on language reflect an evolutionary theme that differed from his contemporaries, who viewed language as appearing spontaneously in Homo Sapiens. His views on human development are best recounted in his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, published in 2002.
The Blank Slate was published with a great deal of fanfare and acclaim. Now, 17 years later, the question is: Has subsequent research and analysis of the nature/nurture dichotomy switched to more emphasis on nature as Pinker desired, or has the field taken it in a different trajectory? Briefly stated, the thesis of Pinker’s book intended to correct the decades’ old regression of understanding the human condition as culture and experience, which explains much of what makes humans human. Pinker believed that the overemphasis of the human condition as being mainly formed from the nurture side was not only problematic, but actually dangerous for politics and social policy. For example, in some school systems that employ the blank slate ideas (which are associated with the nurture focus), programs for gifted children have been curtailed because all children are viewed through an equal lens. He believes that children are not all the same and all children should be enabled to reach their potential.
Pinker believed that the three pillars that have propagated the nurture focus were “the blank slate, ” “the noble savage, ” and “the ghost in the machine. ” The idea of the blank slate was first proposed by John Locke to describe how children were malleable and could be easily molded into anything society desired. The noble savage idea is based on the belief that persons in their primitive existence reflect peace, happiness, and altruism. The ghost in the machine is the belief that consciousness, or mind, is separate from the physical body, which acts as a vehicle for the mind. According to Pinker, social policy based on these pillars of nurture leads to wholesale acceptance that humanity can be led into any desired direction. In contrast, Pinker explores the notion that through gene expression, humans inherit the behaviors and even the thoughts that make us distinctly humans. Pinker stated that these behaviors and thoughts are produced through an evolutionary history.
Not only have governments and academics used the nurture side of the argument to engineer human nature through legitimate means, but Pinker stated that they have also used underhanded and bullying ways of controlling the social application of this dichotomy. He believes that the nurture advocates have used intimidation to purposefully influence the outcome by misrepresenting research findings and by labeling the nature side as being racist, sexist and any number of other derogatory terms.
Pinker chose evolutionary psychology as the theoretical base for his arguments. The foundation of evolutionary psychology is the belief that contemporary human traits began in antiquity through a process called “environment of evolutionary adaptedness ” (EEA), which is considered to have been a time of extraordinary competition leading to the retainment of only the traits that enhanced one’s survival. Moreover, because of the intense daily struggles, such survival traits (e.g. desire for power and wealth) dominated while other traits vanished. In the long-term, these aggressive traits led to war and other negative traits, such as racism.
For Pinker, human nature can be explained by the summation of traits that human being collectively possess. Some traits, however, seem perilously left out or deemphasized by Pinker, including cooperation and altruism. According to Roughgarden, human nature is much more complex and nuanced than evolutionary psychology can describe. While it seems true that some traits are present before birth (e.g. biological sex, skin color, eye color and an assortment of other traits), some traits are clearly formed in association with experience and cultural exposure.
For example, Pinker gave lip service to the notion that behavior is influenced by both nature and nurture, but he concluded that some genetic traits emerge from our psychological repertoire that give more credence to the nature side. While he cited numerous studies to support his thesis, he failed to mention a study that did not support his conclusion and, in fact, questioned the dominance of genes. A study with mice having the gene for Huntington’s chorea where for identical twins the probability of both developing it is 100%, but for the mice with enhanced environments, the onset and the degree of impairment was delayed or altered. The conclusion is that there are unidentified processes within the brain that are involved and set off by various factors including the environment that cannot be accounted for. It seems reasonable to assume that, contrary to being deterministic, genes influence and are influenced by environmental factors creating a bidirectional feedback loop where neither can be said to be dominant.
Furthermore, since Pinker’s book was published in 2002, research since then on nature vs. nurture has erased the dichotomy and focused more on how nature and nurture work together. For example, research on the stress response has demonstrated that the environment can be greatly influential in determining how persons respond to stressful stimuli. Early nurturing has been found to have a regulatory position in activating or deactivating a gene that is crucial in the stress response. Findings such as these are not only ignored by Pinker, but would be seen as outliers that could not be replicated.
Had Pinker given more attention to how nature and nurture work together, he would have discovered the importance of thinking developmentally. The nature/nurture debate has loomed longer and with more academic gravitas in developmental literature than any place else, yet Pinker neglected to make this connection. Arnold Sameroff believed that developmental theory was so symbiotic with understanding the nature vs. nurture question that nature/nurture could be utilized “as an organizing construct to understand the history of our [developmental] field. ”
Even when Pinker flirted with making a connection to development, such as when he was discussing the importance, or lack of importance as it turned out, of parental influence on the child, he dropped the ball. Pinker dismissed the developmental literature that concludes that parents have a major role in the development of their children as being methodologically weak and touted the research by Judith Harris in her book The Nature Assumption: Why children turn out the way they do, published in 1998. Harris believed that the influence of parents on their children is greatly overestimated and the influence of peers is greatly underestimated.
Contrary to his brief summary of the literature on parental influence on children is a vast body of research that supports the primacy of the parent/child relationship. The importance of parental influence on the cognitive, social, and psychological development of children has been known for decades and was available when Pinker wrote his book. Of note is the conclusion of a review of the parents’ effect on children by Collins and colleagues in 2000 in which this literature was summarized.
There is ample research for ages zero to three that underscore the unique interplay of nature and nurture. The research on attachment would also have helped to elucidate how nature and nurture work together in the development of the child. First, the work of Bowlby and later Main clearly demonstrated how psychological attunement of the mother-child dyad affect the experience-dependent state of the child’s regulatory system.
Neuroscience studies over the past 20 years not only support attachment theory as postulated by Bowlby, but has demonstrated that attachment is fundamentally the major regulatory dimension of the developing child. According to extensive review of the regulatory function, Schore concluded “Attachment experiences shape the early organization of right brain, the neurobiological core of the human unconscious.”
Research shows that developmental timing and the quality of the environment are dialectically connected in such a way that distinguishing nature from nurture is difficult. When Pinker wrote The Blank Slate, the human genome decoding was in its infancy, but the expectation was that genetics would answer the riddle of human behavior. The 17 years following the publication has given birth to the study of epigenetics, or the view that genes can be turned on and off and even be controlled by external experiences.
Epigenetic factors regulate which genes are turned on and which are turned off. Animal studies confirm that when certain genes are targeted that result in change, this change can be inherited by future offspring. Another study cited by Handel was conducted by the 2013 Noble Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, who found that stress resulting from violence, abuse, and poverty can modify genes by reducing their shielding coat.
The move toward epigenetic research is congruent with the model for understanding the relation of nature and nurture put forth by Sameroff, which he referred to as “dialectical ” because it can explain how persons change over time through the interaction of nature and nurture. According to Sameroff, the dialectical perspective posits a unity of opposites so that “nature changes one’s nurture and nurture changes one’s nature. ”
Sameroff described development in the child as the progression of a double helix depicting the interplay of nature and nurture. The progression is a repetitive cycle in which each succeeding day is different from the one before because of different experiences of each day. As the child ages, the same issues are recycled and a reworking of various domains occurs, referred to as developmental recycling. Sameroff described this process in this way: “The progression of nature and nurture conceptions can be summarized by a double helix that captures their alternating differentiation and integration waxing and waning through time.”
Sameroff’s unified model of development based on nature and nurture was based on four models of human growth: personal, contextual, regulatory, and representational. The personal model of human growth is based on “some generally accepted notions that within many domains individuals move from novices, to experts, to masters where they do not just do things better, they do things differently. ” The cultural model includes the multilayer of various experiences and social systems that impact change within the child. The regulation model embraces the control of certain functions that begins biologically and moves to emotional and social realms. Finally, the representational model is how the child incorporates experiences and stores them within cognitive structures, which creates a filter for understanding new experiences and the identity of the self.
Based on his processing of nature and nurture using these four models of change mentioned above, Sameroff concluded that the outlook for the nature/nurture question is not to embellish one and denigrate the other, but to create a model that advances the study and development of both. The challenge is to explore how the biological, psychological, and social dimensions of existence alter each other and the person through the process of development.
While I would like to conclude that Pinker’s book was a seminal work, there is no yellow brick road here to greater understanding of nature and nurture. It only serves as a footnote to the discussion, but is left on the runway while the study of nature and nurture has taken off in the development of epigenetics.