Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Book review: “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker
By Steven Pinker
Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 26, 2003)
“The Blank Slate” is an ode to human nature and scientific thought in public debate. Pinker masterfully summarizes what scientists have learned about the genetic and environmental influence on human behavior, both as individuals and as members of groups, and what it means for the organization of our lives. In a nutshell he argues that humans are not born “blank slates” and can’t be made to fit any utopian society or be trained any behavior. Denying human nature isn’t only futile, it makes us miserable and, needless to say, it’s unscientific.
The book is an interesting and well-written review of research on the nature-nurture debate. But for me its real value is that Pinker puts the scientific knowledge into the historical and social context and relates it to “hot buttons” in public debate, such as gender equality, war, or parenting advice.
I’ve been asked at least half a dozen of times if I read “The Blank Slate” and now I know why. The arguments Pinker leads are arguments I’ve led myself many times, if less elegantly and not backed up with references as thoroughly. You’ll find there my ambivalent attitude to feminism, my disliking of postmodernism, my hesitation to take on pretty much any parenting advice, my conflicted relation to capitalism, and my refusal to accept morals or social norms as rules. I’ve had a hard time finding something to disagree with. I was almost relieved to find that Pinker believes in free will, just because I don’t.
So for the most part, Pinker’s arguments haven’t been new to me. That might partly be because the book is ten years old now and its content was conceivably reflected in other literature I read after it appeared. But Pinker connected for me many dots whose relation wasn’t previously clear to me. Much of the public discussion about the “hot buttons” he refers to took place in the United States, though these topics arguably surface also in Europe, if not with quite as much noise. Before I read the book I never really understood why these issues were controversial to begin with and why people are evidently unable to have a reasoned discussion about them. The world makes a lot more sense to me after having read the book, because I now understand better the historical and social origin of these tensions.
It took me a long time to get through the book. One reason is simply that the paperback version is 430 pages in small font, I’m short-sighted and it’s just many tiny words. Another reason is that Pinker’s arguments become somewhat repetitive after the first 100 pages or so. Yes, yes, I got it, I wanted to say, can we please move on because I got another ten books waiting. This repetition of the main theme is however greatly alleviated by Pinker’s fluid and witty writing. You really don’t want to miss a page.
In summary, the book is a must-read, it’s a classic already. If you read one non-fiction book from the last decade, that’s the one.