Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book review: “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
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.


  1. Sounds like an interesting read - thanks for reviewing it. I'm going to add it to my wish-list :)

  2. “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.”

    Of course they can be made. People can be trained to do anything…

    “Denying human nature isn’t only futile, it makes us miserable and, needless to say, it’s unscientific.”

    Who cares if it makes people miserable or if it is unscientific; rules are imposed by society to preserve itself. That's the goal...

  3. Steven Pinker is by far my favourite psychology author. Apart from Weinberg's book, he is the only author where I agree with every argument he makes. Even if I might not agree with his final conclusion, every statement is well argued, reasonable and balanced.

    Read How The Mind Works. It's his best book. The Blank Slate is really more about explaining why the obvious is not obvious to many. But HTMW really puts everything together. I didn't really understand the human brain before that.

    To be honest, he is the first psychologist where I actually understood what he said. I always thought I was just not intelligent enough to understand Freudian stuff and so on. I know believe that it's the Freudians who are confused.

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  5. Closely related is the subject of Innatism.

    By introduction of Meno, the very subject had meaning when Lee related such ideas "outside of time" as metaphysically bent. Such a thing presented in the philosophical doctrine espouse by Plato, and demonstrated by the servant boy's ability to mathematically present an understanding of geometry was relevant facing Lee's position with regard to this idea of being outside of time, as in opposition to Lee's belief?

    The understanding then is that all we had to do is to remember. To remember what already existed. Hence the understanding that we are not blank slates when we are born.


  6. Thomas Hylland Eriksen's review:

    "The Blank Slate initially left this reader in a state of exasperation. At the end of the day, Pinker had produced not so much a scholarly exploration as a polemical essay. His overt views are not only political in their implications, but often explicitly so, for example in his discussions of gender and crime. His selective use of research findings, slanted interpretations and incessant search for the simplest explanation conceivable make the book an irritating read. However, with the hindsight of a few years, I have come to conclude that there are three qualities of Pinker’s book that deserve the close attention of anthropologists: It is exemplary (an almost archetypal specimen of its kind); it is written in a very engaging style (unlike most anthropology books); and it raises questions which ought to have been taken seriously by anthropologists."

    "Perhaps the most damaging weakness in books of the generic Blank Slate kind is their intellectual dishonesty (evident in the misrepresentation of the views of others), combined with a faith in simple solutions to complex problems. The paucity of nuance in the book is astonishing. For example, Pinker argues throughout the book that parents and other environmental factors have no important effects on the personality of a child. This position is as absurd as its opposite, that is unreformed behaviourism (the view that environmental factors account for everything, inborn characteristics for nothing).

    The valid insights in The Blank Slate tend to be banal – family is important, intelligence is partly inherited, dominance and violence exist across human societies etc. (p. 294) – but such generalities quickly turn into absurdities when they are not supplemented with an understanding of actual existing societies. The ‘human being’ of writers like Pinker is abstract in the same sense as Richard Dawkins’ ‘gene’ (Dawkins 1976). It lacks the specificity of real existing humans: even if men have an inborn aggressive tendency, biology cannot explain why homicide is common in Philadelphia but rare in Toronto; whether or not there exists ‘a gene for alcoholism’, it cannot explain why alcoholism is widespread in Britain but uncommon in Iran."

  7. Hi Bee,

    It appears from some of the comments here there are many who don’t like to stare too long into the nature of the beast. This has me reminded of the recent interview of primatologist Frans de Waal by Howard Burton on his Ideas Road Show. Here de Waal finds innate human societal behaviour as being somewhere between that of a chimpanzee and a bonobos, our two closest living genetic relatives. That it appears Dr. de Waal also faces similar criticism as Pinker in respect to concepts such as morality in so far as their origins are concerned. To be honest I can’t understand how anyone could find the blank slate hypothesis as a being a viable one.

    “ Well, basically we’re used to morality being presented as either coming from God or religion, and religion is sort of equal to morality. And after the Enlightenment, the philosophers said, “No, no, it’s not God: it’s reasoning and logic that gets us to moral positions.” But that’s still a top-down view in the sense that basically it assumes that humans don’t know how to behave and someone ought to tell them, or we need to at least provide the arguments for them of how to behave in a particular fashion. Whereas I believe that we have all the tendencies and possibilities within us to be moral beings, and we actually have a desire to be moral beings in order to be accepted in the society in which we live and contribute to. Yes, it is probably necessary to set some boundaries for some people, and that’s a top-down approach, but the basic tendencies are already there. And that’s the bottom-up view. .”

    -Frans de Waal, “On Atheists and Bonobos “, Ideas Road Show, July 26 2013


  8. "Plato made clear that merit and not heredity defined the gold man and that gold could be found in all parts of society." See:Plato and Justice

    Abraham Lincoln-First Inaugural Address-Monday, March 4, 1861

    I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

    Corinthian bronze

    “ Man is the most composite of all creatures.... Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent,--asylum of all nations,--the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes,--of the Africans, and of the Polynesians,--will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages, or that which earlier emerged from the Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism.”

    —Ralph Waldo Emerson, describing American Culture as a melting pot in a journal entry, 1845

    An aberration of the metals, or something undefined in the nature of our being?

  9. Giotis,

    "People can be trained to do anything…"

    No, they can't, that's the whole point. You can't eg "train" people to be emotionless, you can just train them not to exercise certain reactions. And even in that you'll have moderate success at best. Best,


  10. Alyssa,

    I'll be watching out for your review :o)

  11. Tom,

    Thanks for the recommendation, I'll put it on the list. It will take a while though until I get there. Also, I've been reading a whole bunch of brain-stuff lately and feel like I should put in something different. Best,


  12. Arun,

    I plainly don't understand this review. It's like the person didn't read the book. It's not my field of research, so it's hard for me to tell in how far the selection of research that Pinker discusses is slanted. Even more difficult since the book is a decade old now. But Pinker does discuss on several occasions evidence to the contrary and how that might be interpreted, he also explains that there are cases where we don't know, or don't yet know, etc.

    I don't know if he misrepresented opinions of people he quotes. It isn't hard to guess that many people will be pretty pissed off by his ridicule of their opinion, so that seems a very likely reaction.



  13. But if I get an infant and raise it in a cannibalistic society, it will become a happy cannibal...

  14. Yes, probably. But try raising an infant in a cannibalistic society and expect it to not become a happy cannibal. You'll most likely fail. We're social creatures, we want to fit in.

  15. Ok, so this guy is telling us that you should not ignore genetics and human nature when you are trying to fit an individual into society but on the other hand is telling us that human nature pushes the individual to fit into society; moreover he is happy about it.

    So what's the point?

  16. Fred began in deep poverty, was a Marine, then a police reporter. His observations are empirically true. The Bell Curve rings true. The Manhattan Project was not "equal opportunity." Peenemünde and Apollo required von Braun. Contemporary NASA is “no manager left behind.”

    The vast middle is eviscerated to gorge an ever-expanding left while the asymptotic right is social justice expunged. The only abided citizen is one whose sole asset is loyalty. No trained person can best a prodigy. Uncreate the prodigious.

  17. "I’ve been asked at least half a dozen of times if I read “The Blank Slate” and now I know why."

    Glad I suggested it. :-)

    His How the Mind Works is similar in tone, but broader. The Language Instinct is a classic, but more technical. Interesting if one is interested in languages. Är dit svenska bra nu?

    On my shelf of books to read is a quite thick tome by Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature. Here he argues that society, on the whole, becomes more humane with time. Most people's knee-jerk reaction is that that is absurd; probably to counter that, he backs up his claim with loads of references.

    Looking for something lighter? Try Life by Keith Richards. It's about the same length as The Blank Slate. Even if you are not a Stones fan (I'm not really---I listen to a lot of rock music, but have only a double-CD "best of" from the Rolling Stones) it is a great read. Very funny. Definitely read it in English, not in a translation. It's not difficult to read (though even I wrote down a few words I didn't recognize).

  18. My favorite Pinker books are The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works. the latter may have a lot of overlap with the Blank Slate.

  19. Giotis,

    You've got it backwards. Human nature does not 'push' people into 'societies', but societies are a product of human nature. There are different ways to organize society, but if you try to impose some order on people, some are doomed to fail because they clash with human nature. That's one of the points discussed in the book, yes, though maybe not the most interesting one. Best,



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