Book Review: The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker takes on human nature and its effect on every aspect of our daily lives. He firstly explores the idea that we are all born as empty vessels into this world this is where the book derives its name from. We are void of any personality, ethics, culture or opinions and into this vessel go the abilities and vices planted during our upbringing.
If that basic idea is taken into consideration, then everyone is born without the negative traits that currently plague society. If we are born without hatred for a specific race or creed, without the notion of cheating our way through society, without any likes or dislikes, without any levels of ability, in short without any unfair advantage by fortune, then all these problems must have been caused by something. So, who should be blamed: society, parents, school or media? Who was it that brought these traits to our attention? It’s also fitting to realise that if we can identify problems and stop them from happening, they can be made to go away. However, the book further asks us to imagine if all humans have a genetic tendency to be so. If that is the case, then simply removing negative influences will not be enough. Pinker argues that even though an infant’s mind is a tabula rasa, it still has an inherited quality for survival. The notion of “survival of the fittest” grows in meaning as the body grows in size.
This argument attacks three categories: The Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits), the Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society) and the Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology).
At this point I would like to mention that The Blank Slate is not an easy book to go through. Pinker has tried his level best to have his words in the reach of the generic layman but for the general reader a bit of effort will be required. Overall, the book is entertaining and it is interesting to see the author’s ideas leave a mark on a few intellectual bodies.
I would suggest reading Pinker’s previous book Words and Rules first, in which he describes how the human mind works. The book carries fascinating observations about linguistic behaviour and brain function. All the arguments lead to more general conclusions in “The Blank Slate”.
The Blank Slate is divided into two parts. In the first part, the author showcases recent science to demonstrate and prove that the mere idea of a human being born with a blank slate is far from correct, quite contrary to the main title. He insists on claiming that this will otherwise actually hinder correcting social problems. In the second part, Pinker attacks political correctness. Furthermore, he attacks those scientists and thinkers who allow politics and philosophy (whether politically correct or not) to affect their objectivity.
It’s a book you can zip through in a couple of nights. Half way through, you might get the impression that the author was more than angry while putting his words on a page. Names are mentioned and then he goes back and forth over their opposing ideas until finally crushing him to his satisfaction. Given his background, this is a 2002-best seller and deserves a right place in a mind oriented towards the general sciences.
I have to say, after reading the book, I was a bit disappointed. Clearly Pinker went far and wide in order to convey his hypothesis which I believe could have been brought down in a few dozen pages rather than repeating the same idea over and over again. The book, though, will unlikely convince a person who disagrees with Pinker’s philosophy.
However, over all it’s a joy to see some of Pinker's more irrational targets, from die-hard Marxism to the rejection of science itself by “critical theory” to the bromide that rape isn't “about” sexual desire, skewered with such swift and classical neatness. The longer lasting pleasures will come from a leisurely unpacking and sifting of all his positive conjectures, conclusions, and insights.