Book Review:
The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker

This book attracted our attention due to some of its chapter titles: The Fear of Inequality, The Fear of Determinism, The Fear of Nihilism, etc. We thought it might shed some light on social fears. As it turns out, we're very critical of Pinker's views...

The review is a bit dry and "academic"-sounding, so we've provided a relaxing interlude halfway through...

Steven Pinker's book criticises the "Blank Slate" doctrine that human behaviour results entirely from "nurture" (environmental/social factors). He gives examples of "innate" behaviours ("human nature") which refute the Blank Slate. He claims that the denial of human nature "perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering". (p421).

Throughout the book, Pinker criticises psychology, social science, modernism and postmodernism, based on the generalisation that these fields subscribe to the Blank Slate doctrine. Pinker often writes about "psychology" and "social science" as if they were homogenous, single-viewpoint fields: "Both psychology and the other social sciences, then, denied that the minds of individual people were important..." (p24).

Occasionally, Pinker singles out a branch of psychology (or social science) for closer analysis – eg behaviorism. But, mostly, he generalises:

"Psychology banished mental entities like beliefs and desires altogether and replaced them with stimuli and responses." (p24)... "Social scientists saw the malleability of humans and the autonomy of culture as doctrines that might bring about the age-old dream of perfecting mankind." (p27).

Anybody who has read more than a handful of books on psychology or social science should be able to detect a degree of overstatement in the above quotes from Pinker.

The chapter on "The Arts" also contains overstatements, mainly about modernism and postmodernism, which, he claims, "are based on a false theory of human psychology, the Blank Slate." (p412). Pinker offers his services: "In this chapter I will diagnose the malaise of the arts and humanities and offer some suggestions for revitalizing them." (p401). Apart from the corruption of art by the Blank Slate, he points out some broader problems:

"The moral and political track record of modernist artists is nothing to be proud of. Some were despicable in the conduct of their personal lives..." (p416).

"The fact is that the values of the middle class... are good things, not bad things. Most of the world wants to join the bourgeoisie, and most artists are members in good standing who adopted a few bohemian affectations". (p416).

Pinker makes it clear that "Blank Slate" refers to an extreme denial of human "nature" rather than a mere leaning towards "nurture". (He refers to the "passive blankness of an empty tablet") (p421). He writes as if he believes that almost everyone in the fields of psychology, social science, modernism and postmodernism subscribes to this extreme viewpoint. Until page 422, that is. Then he says: "I suspect that few people really believe, deep down, that boys and girls are interchangeable, that all differences in intelligence come from the environment..."

If he suspects that few people "really believe" in the Blank Slate, then why does he claim it has "infiltrated the conventional wisdom of our civilization"? (p11). Is Pinker engaged in some kind of "straw man" put-on? Why does he claim that the Blank Slate doctrine threatens us with totalitarianism?:

"The Blank Slate had, and has, a dark side. The vacuum that it posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides." (p421)

Pinker associates the Blank Slate with totalitarianism on several occasions, but doesn't provide any evidence of correlation, never mind causation. The closest he gets is in claiming that some behaviorists, modernist architects and Marxists had ideas with totalitarian implications. Regardless of whether this claim is valid, it doesn't demonstrate a correlation between the Blank Slate and totalitarianism.

Pinker gives no argument explaining why totalitarianism would logically follow from a belief in the Blank Slate. The nearest he gets is the following type of reasoning: "[The Blank Slate doctrine] implies that [people] could be conditioned to enjoy servitude or degradation" (p145). But the Blank Slate also implies that people can learn to abhor servitude or degradation.

In some cases Pinker argues inconsistently. On the one hand he (validly) argues that opposition to racism doesn't depend on any given position on nature/nurture: "The case against bigotry is not a factual claim that humans are biologically indistinguishable. It is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups..." (p145).

But, on the other hand, he regards opposition to slavery (and totalitarianism) as dependent on a belief in innate characteristics ("human nature"): "The revulsion we feel toward discrimination and slavery comes from a conviction that however much people vary on some traits, they do not vary on these [innate traits]" (p145)... "Human nature is the reason we do not surrender our freedom to behavioral engineers" (p169).

If Pinker can see how opposition to racism applies on "moral" grounds, regardless of biological beliefs (nature or nurture), then why doesn't he see that opposition to slavery (or totalitarianism) also applies regardless of biological beliefs? His argument that the Blank Slate "creates an opening" for totalitarianism carries no more weight than the argument he refutes (that knowledge of innate differences between races justifies racism).

It seems that Pinker plays a "smear by association" game. First, he associates psychology, social science, modernism and postmodernism with an extreme Blank Slate viewpoint, then he associates that viewpoint with totalitarianism, slavery and other nasty stuff.

On the subject of capitalist economies, Pinker says: "Western societies are good at providing things that people want: clean water, effective medicine, varied and abundant food, rapid transport and communication. They perfect these goods and services not from benevolence but from self-interest, namely the profits to be made in selling them." (p409).

This seems ironic in some ways. Firstly, it takes a lot of "social engineering" (something that Pinker blames on the Blank Slate) to eradicate large chunks of history (in which utilities and communication systems were perfected not by profit-motive but by public funding – the profiteers capitalised late in the development).

Secondly, to the extent that profit-motive did contribute, a big helping hand was given by behaviorism (a dangerous manifestation of the Blank Slate, according to Pinker). It's been well-documented that much of large-scale private industry in America embraced behaviorist techniques for increasing productivity and controlling the workforce. Without subservient, low-paid workers (and government subsidies), these industries probably would have invested less in the "perfection" of those things Pinker celebrates.

Thirdly, a Blank Slate implies a lack of innate horseshit-detecting faculties. This explains a lot.