The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker

The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker; narrated by Victor Bevine

In The Blank Slate, Pinker outlines three dogmas that he says are the prevailing views of human nature in modern philosophy: 

1) The blank slate, in which the mind has no innate (genetic) properties and, as John Watson boasted, through conditioning you could train a child to become anybody you want her to become. 

2) The noble savage, in which people are born good, and society forms them into deviants. Pinker suggested that Rousseau was a strong proponent of this theory, but according to Wikipedia (which is always accurate), Rousseau never used this term. 

3)  The ghost in the machine, in which people’s choices are solely dependent upon their soul. 

Personally, I’m a little skeptical that these are the dominant views of most scholars of human nature. I’m sure there are quite a few people who believe quite firmly in a genetic component to behavior, as Pinker does. But perhaps I’m biased because I’m a biologist and not a psychologist. 

Pinker provides evidence that these three dogmas are false, and that there is a strong genetic drive in human behavior.  
The first section in The Blank Slate that really caught my attention was the one on racism. He brings up the controversial book The Bell Curve, by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Much to the dismay of the politically correct (I’m sure), Pinker suggests that Herrnstein’s data are correct and that African Americans have a lower IQ than white people, and that this difference is at least partly genetic. He says that the reason people are so horrified by The Bell Curve is due to their fear of inequality. That it is not racist to report such data – what is racist is to judge someone solely upon that data and not upon the person’s demonstrated abilities. 

Pinker also suggests that we only fear inequality when bigotry on the subject already exists. For instance, there is another set of studies in which height and IQ are positively correlated. He points out that no one frets about those studies, because there isn’t an already existing negative bias about short people. 

I was originally offended by Pinker’s thoughts on racism, but then I realized that at some level, at least, he is correct. I don’t like the data because it implies something that I don’t want to believe. I still cringe at the data presented in The Bell Curve, and I like to think there was some bias in the studies which led to incorrect results. That Herrnstein and Murray were terrible racists who should be shunned from academia. But Pinker managed to sew a seed of doubt. 

More interesting sections were those on violence and rape. Pinker suggests that both violence and rape are part of human nature. He says that most people cringe at this concept because we believe that anything that is “human nature” must be good. But why do we believe that? Are we all proponents of “the noble savage” dogma? 

In the section on rape, Pinker references Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s book A Natural History of Rape. This book posits that rape is motivated by sexual and aggressive urges, not upon a male desire to dominate females (as many feminists claim). Personally, I have no problem believing that rape is motivated by sex and violence and not by male domination. In fact, it never occurred to me that men rape women for the purpose of oppressing them. Is this really a currently common belief? I guess I should follow the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter more. Perhaps that would educate me on this subject. If you follow that hastag, please let me know your thoughts.

This brings us into Pinker’s section on the genetic differences between women and men. Pinker points out that it is not sexist to suggest that there are genetic (and therefore emotional as well as physical) differences between women and men. There are two kinds of feminism: gender feminism and equity feminism. Gender feminists believe that the male and female “roles” are determined by society and not by genetics. Pinker argues that these roles are genetically driven – that girls naturally want to play with dolls and boys naturally want to roughhouse. He points out that although his beliefs are contrary to gender feminism, they are compatible with equity feminism, in which women and men deserve civil and legal equality. Pinker says that most modern women don’t consider themselves feminists because they equate “feminism” with gender feminism. That most women are equity feminists, they just don’t know it. 

In fact, that’s true of me. I always considered myself “not a feminist” because I believe that my feminine qualities are naturally derived and not societally derived. Now I know that I am a feminist. 🙂

Overall, I found this book fascinating. I didn’t think I was going to agree with Pinker…especially when I first started the book. But he presented some pretty good arguments. One problem I did have with the book, though, is how arrogant Pinker is. Instead of saying “I will now provide evidence that…” he says “I will now prove…” 

He also makes an off-putting comment that poked a pet peeve of mine. He says that any scientist that believes in the three prevailing dogmas of human nature should be as skeptical of evolution as the Pope. I guess I’ve never asked the Pope his personal opinions of evolution, but being a Roman Catholic, I know that evolution is quite acceptable in the Church. If you don’t know anything about what Catholics believe, then don’t write about them. 

This is a pet peeve of mine because I’ve had people tell me: “I know about Catholics because I’ve read about them. If you don’t believe [insert false belief here] then you aren’t a very good Catholic.” Someone literally said that to me (where the inserted false belief was that mother Mary is divine). It is ignorant statements by otherwise intelligent and educated people like Pinker that make well-read people think they know more about my religion than I do. 

That aside, I still recommend the book. 🙂

4.5 snowflakes for fascinating subject, good research, and writing style

Reason for reading: Interest, TBR pile
Format: Audiobook

4 thoughts on “The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker

  1. Great commentary on this work. This is a book that I really want to read.

    I am a big fan of Pinker's other book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

    I tend to be already with Pinker on a lot of issues as I believe that there are genetic reasons for things like violence and rape.

    As I think you know, I am a supporter of feminist ideals, and I do believe that there are biological differences that women and men, over large populations. Im my humble option it is only a relatively small group of feminists who disagree who argue otherwise. But the entire movement has been characterized as such.

    I really need to get to this work.

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  2. It's a great book Brian. I think you'll enjoy it. I sort of remember liking your review of The Better Angels of our Nature…but that was a while back, wasn't it? It's strange that people have such an incorrect view of feminism, isn't it?

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  3. My commentary on “The Better Angels of our Nature” is here.

    http://briansbabblingbooks.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-why.html

    I do think that the view that there is no difference, other then culturally driven, between large populations of women and men was more popular with feminists a few years ago. I believe it is a tenet of 'Radical Feminism” which still has a small group of adherents but seems to be losing all its mass appeal.

    A lot of anti feminists like to find untenable ideas pushed by small groups of feminists and try to paint the whole movement as supporting those ideas.

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  4. Great, I'll take a look at it. I think I read it at the time – but it'll be nice to see what I think now that I've read a book by Pinker.

    It's good to know that most feminists don't believe that there are “no” differences between men and women. I do think SOME differences are cultural – like is pink really favored by women, or is that cultural?

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