Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Imago Dei or Adams Nature – Choose Carefully

Written by: on February 28, 2020

Another fun book by Steven Pinker this week. The Blank Slate is another volume that attacks certain modern assumptions about the nature of individual human beings.[1]

In education and social anthropology, modern prevailing views are based on the expanded work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Dryden[2] and more recently by Margaret Mead.[3] Rousseau was responsible for the concept of the Noble Savage – the idea that humans outside civilisation are good and peaceful,[4] followed closely by Gilberts Ryle’s “the ghost in the machine”; a view that declares if the machine (human) behaves badly, we can blame the ghost – there’s nothing wrong with the design of the machine. In both cases, Pinker argues strongly that the Noble Savage and Naturalism are logical and observable philosophical fallacies. Likewise, he goes on to dismantle the legendary Margaret Mead and her ideologically driven ethnography of Pacific and South-East Asian peaceableness, and more particularly her obsession with free sex – go Margaret Mead – none of which was ever found to be true.[5] Pinker claims that aggression is part of the human makeup, together with opposing tendencies that foster common good – peace is a transaction between power. Of Mead’s research, he says, “Imagine anthropologists studying the peaceful Europeans between 1918 and 1938”.[6]

All of this writes Pinker, has led to the common misconception that humans all begin with a raw blank slate – nothing is formed, and there is yet no ghost in the machine. And to believe so is dangerous to individuals and society because it blinds us to obvious pathological realities in mental health and the way certain personalities (which are geno-inherited) shape the way people live more than their cultural/parental formation. A key example is sociopathy and psychopathy – they are no culturally induced. It also blinds us to natural aggression from evolutionary pathology as a survival mechanism. When the chips are down, even the most educated and informed resort to inherited social and creaturely baselines.

In essence, Pinker claims we are not blank slates, rather we are delicious cakes made of inherited ingredients that shape who we will grow to become. More importantly, those pre-existing traits determine how we will interact with learned data and ongoing life experience.

It’s not difficult to see why Pinker is controversial in an age of often unreflective progressive thought. Here are some of his standout quotes:

“People all over the world have reflected over the futility of violence; at least when they are evenly enough matched with their adversaries that no-one can prevail.”[7]

“With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature, is also the solution.”[8]

“Inequality of outcome cannot be used as proof of inequality of opportunity unless the groups being compared are identical in all of the their psychological traits.”[9]

“We should not be sending gifted women (or men) the message that they are less worthy and less valuable to our civilization, lazy or low in status, if they choose to be teachers rather than mathematician, journalists instead of physicists or lawyers instead of engineers.”[10]

Regarding the notion that genetics and peers are sometimes more powerful than parenting in a child’s life he writes, “People hope to God that it isn’t true. But the truth doesn’t care about our hopes. And sometimes it forces us to revisit those hopes in a liberating way.”[11]

From a Christian perspective, I have no issue with Pinker’s outcomes on the Blank slate idea. The same issues have been debated in theology for centuries, albeit under different names – freewill vs predestination or free will vs determinism. Again, it’s currently popular in progressive theology to remove the concept of original sin because the clean slate feels better. It feels better to see every child as given cleanly by God, but our historic biblical theology informs us differently – we carry two images in tension, the image of God and the image of Adam. Do away with either of those, and we fall down the theological rabbit hole of Augustine and Pelagius (think Pelagian heresy), John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria and John Cassian. Fortunately, Pinker only does away with the Imago Dei, kindly leaving the religious with his version of Adam in three rules: 1st, behavioural traits are heritable. 2nd, the family is less influential than genes. 3rd, complex human behaviour cannot be discerned by rule 1 and 2.[12]

Is Pinker right? I don’t know! Lots of it makes sense but his abrupt and somewhat direct style does feel uncomfortable, but then he does warn the reader that facts are not feelings. For example, he says, stereotypes are not random and/or wrong as most people assume but they are often quite accurate and confirmed by statistics. Again, blacks being more likely to be on welfare; Jews have higher average income; business students more conservative than art students, women more likely to want to lose weight; men more likely to swat a fly with their hands.[13] All that has got to get you into trouble, and it does. Psychologists discuss these kinds of things, while I live in the more ordinary world of managing relationships and these topics don’t manage too well.

Pinker’s book does have the feel of victim blaming in a section on rape and sex.[14] Though it’s not the intention, it can be read that way. Again, the book is also filled with soft science in the sense that it bounces from psychology to philosophy and anthropology to fill out his own insights. However, in fairness, all social sciences are soft science and every social science writer practices the same academic boundary-crossing. I guess that means one shouldn’t use Pinker as a handbook – even an atheistic handbook. There is also an element of ad hominem argument where he overemphasised the ‘other camp’, mainly politically left-leaning academics, and that is beneath him; but as the media are fully aware, ‘nice’ doesn’t sell. Finally, I think he underrates the effect of parenting. Yes, there is a great deal of truth that child development is more than parenting, but there is a redemption to love that often outweighs genes and peers, and that wee miracle gets a bit lost in the competing arguments over human nature. I might just stick to theology.


[1] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (UK: Penguin, 2003).

[2] Ibid. 11f

[3] Ibid. 26 & 56f

[4] Ibid. 24f

[5] Ibid. 56ff

[6] Ibid. 57

[7] Ibid. 333

[8] Ibid. 336

[9] Ibid. 353

[10] Ibid. 359

[11] Ibid. 397

[12] Ibid. 372

[13] Ibid. 204

[14] Ibid. 369

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

13 responses to “Imago Dei or Adams Nature – Choose Carefully”

  1. Jenn Burnett says:

    It had also crossed my mind that the the determinists might appreciate Pinker’s perspective more than the free will camp. I also agree that within academia it is one discussion but the realities of trying to navigate actual relationships is another. So how might all this inform our pastoral practices? How does this influence pre-marriage classes? How might this impact counselling struggling parents?

  2. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Being a soft determinist i get where Pinker is coming from. As to your questions, Jesus said, “be as shrewd as a fox and gentle as a dove”’. I think education for the sake of information is a little pointless, but education and it’s judicious application with both cunning and love both shapes and prepared people without the angst – most of the time. As for pre-marriage and struggling parents, I think Pinker can be helpful. Marriage is tough from on both sides of the equation because we come with foreordained baggage, but human nature manages it because we work with possibilities. Parents need to remind themselves that they have a hand in shaping, but only a hand, as time goes on they have a voice, but only one voice. Take both seriously, but hold the future lightly, you can only work in the present.

  3. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    I agree, Digby. I’m going to read everything else through the lens of theology. Which allows me to believe we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” complex human beings with both God’s and Adam’s likeness. The goal is to allow the work of the Spirit to transform the Adam part to becoming more like Christ. Recognizing we are both nature and nurture beings is helpful in daily living.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Agreed. Though I am constantly distressed by the growing number of pastors whose church history and theology is almost non-existent, subsequently they struggle as if current thinking is a new challenge to Christianity. Inasmuch as I genuinely believe in the work of the Spirit, knowing our long story is equally important – something the prophets reminded the people of God.

  4. Mary Mims says:

    Thank you Digby for pointing out the things that make Pinker problematic to many people. In this program, it is the theology that unites us, in my opinion. The Imago Dei is essential to this debate.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      The image of God and the nature of Adam are central features of Christian theology. It reminds is that many of our current debates are actually nothing new – just repackaged.

  5. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Digby – this is great and I always appreciate your writings. And you hit on a few things that weighed heavily on me this week about parenting. I think the Blank Slate idea through the lens of parenting can be too pressurized and I actually needed the reminder that some things aren’t all on me – aren’t all up to me – aren’t dependent of my performance. But to not minimize my role at the same time is critical as well. Thanks for adding content to my musings – especially in your response to Jenn.

    Also, I keep thinking about Dr. Sweet’s admonition that if you are only hearing one thing/one side on theological issues, you are not hearing the Gospel. And I see this again in the image of God vs the image of Adam. There is great tension in the Gospel and to relieve this tension by siding with one will do great harm. Thank you!

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Yep, theology is thre dimensional. We only see one part of the equation, but when we or the world around us moves, we see differently. It doesn’t mean that what is no longer in sight is irrelevant, it simply means that it is no longer required for our new reality. We are always hoping that what we currently believe is the full truth but in reality truth can only ever be Gods truth, and our current view of it will always be provisional.

  6. Digby, Your post is always a delight to read. Your statement that the outcome of pinker’s blank slate idea are not new in the theological debates of Freewill vs Predestination or Freewill vs determinism is interesting. I would rather settle for the simple biblical theology that we carry the image of God and the image of Adam and our faith in Jesus leads to the transformation of the mind to conform more to the image of God.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Wallace, working with out theology is our path to understanding God’s truth. We always build on those who wrestled with theology before us, that’s why study of history and Christian thought is so important, especially for those in ministry.

  7. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Great post! As usual, you quote many people I do not know and have never heard of. But it makes you all the more scholarly and mystical. I kind of think of you as the Yoda of our cohort except you have a much better sense of dry humor. Cheers! P.S. Thanks for drawing the parallels within theology, now my brain hurts in more places.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Harry, I think theology is always navigating current issues. Pastors and theologians use current issues to do theology. The reason church history and the development of theology is so important is that reminds us that very little changes, just the packaging. We may look more sophisticated with our science and language, but the issues are much the same: morality, power, identity, human meaning, hope, love, responsibility and the nature and existence of God

  8. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Harry, I think theology is always navigating current issues. Pastors and theologians use current issues to do theology. The reason church history and the development of theology is so important is that reminds us that very little changes, just the packaging. We may look more sophisticated with our science and language, but the issues are much the same: morality, power, identity, human meaning, hope, love, responsibility and the nature and existence of God

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