Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review - 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature' by Steven Pinker

I started reading ‘The Blank Slate’ back in late February and finished it just last week. You might be thinking that it wasn’t a good book, being it took me so long to read.

You would be wrong. If I had the time, I would have not put it down.

This book is perhaps the best book I have read so far in my life. That might not be saying much, being I haven’t read a lot (something I plan to rectify).

The central theme of the book is human nature and what causes it. To me, I had always thought it to be quite obvious that both our genes and environment contribute to our behaviours. However, as noted by Pinker throughout the book, many individuals fall into the false dichotomy between nature and nurture; it is either one of the other in their minds. Rooting those who fall on the side nurture is the dogma of ‘the blank slate’; the idea that, at birth, our minds are blank slates, filled by what our parents and society teach us. Following from this premise, one can conclude that the problems of society are learnt, not inherited.

Pinker spends the first part of the book explaining the official blank slate theory and the other ideas that seem to be connected to it (the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine), why they are not supported by the evidence and the current ideas that are replacing them. In the next part, he goes through why the idea has taken so long to be proven ineffective (and, in a more general way, why science and politics shouldn’t mix). In the third section, he explains the reasons why people wished the blank slate idea to be true and how to overcome their fears of the alternative. In the final two parts, he goes on to show how the current ideas of human nature can be applied to many fields, from understanding language to childrearing.

The book has its flaws, but they are few and far between. I would recommend it to anyone, from your average lay person to anyone studying psychology, and everyone in between.



  1. Sounds like The Blank Slate is one to put on the reading list.

    I'm always intrigued by nature versus nurture debates, mainly because there is a noun in most everyone's vocabulary that shows the dichotomy to be false. That noun is 'habituation'.

    In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle recognises that the choice is not between nature and nurture. Any given nature, any existing habit, can be overcome or retrained into another pattern of behaviour, he argues. Given this ability or freedom he further argues that we should determine what are desirable habits and reprogram ourselves accordingly.

    Therefore, we are neither nature nor nurture, neither determined by our genes nor blank slates; rather, we have certain predispositions which, if we don't like them, we can make into others.

  2. In a way, that is a similar argument to one that Pinker makes in the later half of the book (well, that was the impression I came away with).

    He suggests that, if we wish to create better societies, we need to work from the ground up rather than the top down (as was the case with the implementation of Marxist policies and parties, which obviously did not work well).

    But yes, highly recommendable book.

    Jason (Lord Bishington).