Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”

The Blank Slate

The Blank Slate

I love books that shake up my preconceptions, and reading Pinker’s book was like experiencing one big personal iconoclasm. The thoroughness with which he engaged gender, violence, intelligence, and other aspects of our social understandings unsettled my positions on much of the whole “Nature VS Nurture” debate. While it did not convince me entirely, it did work effectively to move me a few degrees along the debate spectrum.

Where Pinker and I were in full agreement was in rejecting the antiquated idea of the noble savage, the idea that we are born pure and innocent, living in harmony with nature and it is civilization that corrupts us. The fossil evidence shows human on human violence and environmental destruction in primitive times. The noble savage is an idealized concept that we need to put away in order to understand the histories of all the civilizations that have failed before ours.

Where Pinker’s arguments got weak is when tackling the role of media on our perceptions. He criticizes the logic behind political correctness and efforts to have minorities portrayed respectfully:

Since images are interpreted in the context of a deeper understanding of people and their relationships, the “crisis of representation,” with its paranoia about the manipulation of our mind by media images, is overblown. People are not helplessly programmed with images; they can evaluate and interpret what they see using everything else they know, such as the credibility and motives of the source. (pinker, 216)

Putting the obvious straw man aside (no one claims we are “helplessly programmed“), what are images and language but an effort to construct context? Why do people rally against the crass distortions of perspective on Fox News? What are political advisors, advertisers, artists, and opinion columnists of all types doing but to try and move the line of scrimmage?

Pinker’s writing suffers from a wealth facts that he takes for granted on subjects he obviously hasn’t looked into with much scrutiny. He dismisses the hypothesis that the United States Constitution was in part inspired by the Iroquois Federation as “1960s granola (Pinker, 296);” however, this is an unsettled dispute among historians, and the Smithsonian has admitted to striking similarities between the two government models. He makes the claim that people irrationally lobby to remove carcinogenic chloroform from drinking water, but peanut butter 100 times more carcinogenic. This statement is pure bullox. As is his use of the Darwin awards to argue that men are gender-biased to daredevil stunts (Pinker is very fond of anecdotal evidence throughout the book).

So Pinker is prone to some unsupported claims, urban legends, and exaggerations to make his case. Nobody’s perfect, but it does give us perspective on Pinker’s approach to his subject matter.

Where Pinker makes his strongest arguments, and justifies his book, is in arguing that, just because something isn’t Nurture, doesn’t justify eugenics, discrimination, and inequality. Wherever you fall on the NvN debate, Feminism was a good thing for women and society in general. Everyone deserves the same shot at an education because, even if intelligence were hereditary, everyone must still start on the same footing. Equality makes civilization stronger regardless of NvN

While Pinker makes great strides in banishing the false division between nature and nurture, he ultimately makes the mistake of estimating it at a 50/50 ratio (pinker, 388), keeping the false dichotomy firmly in place when he should have concluded it was time to do away with it. In psychology the whole NvN debate is considered naive since nature and nurture are so interwoven that their influences are ultimately indistinguishable.

Consider the meta argument that ultimately everything is innately nature since we are ultimately products of the physical laws of our universe, and the same case is true for nurture, as we are ultimately products of the environment of those physical laws. Environment and genetics are wrapped up in one another, so let’s stop trying to pin one down as the root cause for what we are. So while Pinker is correct that Nurture is over-hyped, he is equally guilty of over-hyping Nature.






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