Nebuchadnezzar's Reviews > The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
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I contend that there are two Steven Pinkers. Pinker 1 is an eloquent, witty, and insightful writer on the issues of cognitive psychology and linguistics who has the rare talent of making his subjects accessible and appealing to academic and lay audiences. Pinker 2 retains the writing ability, but instead uses it for pushing his pet theories, usually political in nature (cf. his most recent Better Angels of Our Nature). This book comes straight from the pen of Pinker 2.

There are really two main components of the book: Lengthy rants against his ideological opponents and an extended argument in favor of a watered-down hereditarian view of human nature. Pinker rightly notes that "nature vs. nurture" is a false dichotomy and then goes about ascribing enormous amounts of deterministic power to genes. He relies on a number of controversial and dubious sources as well as his own misinterpretations of some research, such as Bouchard's infamous twin studies.

Lacking actual examples of those who hold this "blank slate" view, Pinker dredges up some long dead academics to serve as a scarecrow. He rails against J.B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, even though his intellectual hero Noam Chomsky rebutted Skinner and behaviorism in general in the 1960s. Next he'll be telling us Lamarck was wrong about evolution! He also engages in some tired Margaret Mead-bashing typical of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology partisans by citing Derek Freeman's "debunking" of Mead. Pinker missed the memo that Freeman's work was subsequently discredited (see Paul Shankman's The Trashing of Margaret Mead).

Pinker astutely points out that proponents of environmental or cultural determinism do not associate these theories with the horrors of communism (Lysenko famously denounced genetics as a "bourgeois pseudoscience"), but they do associate biological theories with eugenics and Nazism. However, in general, Pinker unleashes a firestorm on a field of straw men. Some of his more contemporary "blank slaters" are so-called "gender feminists," whatever those are. (Everyone except Christina Hoff Sommers?) Demonstrating that he's willing to slurp up just about any "finding" in pop evolutionary psychology, he offers an extended defense of Thornhill and Palmer's A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. The defense parrots the authors' framing of the controversy, with Thornhill and Palmer as the hard-headed, rational scientists telling the cold hard truths versus the hordes of fluffy-headed, irrational, emotional, and "politically correct" feminists. Any mention of the scathing reviews the book met in the scientific press (see Cheryl Brown Travis's edited volume Evolution, Gender, and Rape) is omitted or given cursory treatment. Pinker uses pop evo psych in a number of other places as a means to club over the head the bogeywoman of gender feminism. This generally seems to involve projecting modern gender roles and stereotypes back into pre-history based on rank speculation. Simon Blackburn put it best: "Meet the Flintstones." (See, e.g., Cordelia Fine, Lise Eliot or Rebecca M. Jordan-Young for critical overviews of current sex-difference research.)

I could go on about the technical shortcomings in this book, but Blackburn and H. Allen Orr have already done a much better job of it in their reviews than I could:

Pinker attempts to posture as a defender of science against the demons of unreason, but he is simply defending his own views and pet theories about science. He is pushing stealth hereditarianism under the banner of consilience, to borrow E.O. Wilson's term. "The blank slate" thus becomes an epithet to write off anyone who wants to say, "Hold on a moment, it's much more complicated than that!"

For those looking to get into evolutionary psychology: Skip this and pick up Laland and Brown's Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour for a scholarly overview of fields studying evolution and human behavior and Buller's Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature for a critical view of evolutionary psychology.

For those looking to read Pinker: Skip this and pick up something by Pinker 1, like The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language or The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Very interesting review!

message 2: by Melissa (new)

Melissa did you read about this subject in "a crossing or the drop's history" by Anatoliy Obraztsov?

message 3: by John (new) - added it

John W Thanks for this.

Andy Thank you for including links to relevant scholarly reviews to back up your point re "Pinker 2."

message 5: by Lia (new)

Lia Thank you for putting into words what was bothering me about the excerpts my partner keeps reading to me. I've had a hard time putting a finger on and expressing to him the way some of this doesn't make sense. I was like, "Wait, gender feminists? I've never heard of them. Those are their doctrines? Where can I find that platform declared?" I guess I needn't bother, since I won't find them.

Pinker seems to bash on anthropologists a lot, but the excerpts seem to indicate that the man doesn't know very much about culture, especially over the span of global societies and over time. He seems pretty Western-centric.

Nebuchadnezzar Pinker is still fighting the Science Wars and the Sociobiology Wars. (That's a lot of war.) Feminism and cultural anthropology are typical grist for that mill.

Andrea Thank you for this honest review - I am only a tenth of the way into the book and am finding myself increasingly irritated by his ranting against research conclusions he doesnt agree with. I wish he could just explain his views without every paragraph (and sometimes every sentence) having to be a rebuttal of conflicting theories.

message 8: by Excel (new)

Excel Wow, this was a seriously foolish review, so much so that it's hilarious. And your asinine little summation here in the comments: "Pinker is still fighting the Science Wars." What is that even supposed to mean? Did you mean to say "Pinker is still advocating for the findings of science vs empty and destructive academic dogmas?" Oh, that doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

message 9: by Excel (new)

Excel Oh, and in case you're unsure of why your review is laughably worthless, you might want to look into the concept of intellectual dishonesty. Or, to say it more directly, you are laughably full of shit. You lie repeatedly.

Pinker gives no example of who "Gender Feminists are?" Really? I just read that chapter last night, and he gave easily a dozen examples. Probably twenty. Furthermore, in order to create a category like "Gender Feminism" for discussion, it need not be the case that people have self-identified as being members of such a category beforehand. Pinker distinguishes it from Equity Feminism for purposes of discussion, because the two schools of thought are blatantly divergent. And then he provides numerous examples of people on both sides of this dichotomy. It's called "critical thinking." Look into it.

David López I agree with most of your review because although I liked the book it was because it is more about discredit leftist, feminisms and others as I use to do. But, being honest this is self-complacency and the book lacks of strong arguments in favor of his not well defined thesis, and discredit their 'opponents' just because, lacking to explore the reasons behind the theories he abhors.

message 11: by Bukk (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bukk Excel nailed it. Your review is way off and makes it sound as though you either didn't read the whole book, or you aren't too familiar with the proponents of the ideologies Pinker thoroughly discredits. Or maybe you find a lot to sympathize with in these ideological approaches to science and are more eager to dismiss their criticisms than someone taking an objective approach to the problem would be. That you can call his work the pushing of a pet theory is strangely revealing, but not toward Pinker. This sounds like a heated form of denialism.

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