A review of "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker.

Remember that infamous memo that got that guy fired from Google? Since the mid 1990s I’ve tried to avoid thinking about that toxic topic. I’m sure my avoidance hasn’t made the world a better place, but I’ve got other serious problems to work on. But in the aftermath of that Google fiasco, I kept seeing references by intelligent people to this book and I thought, well, I’m a dedicated Steven Pinker fan, why not?

Obviously the writing is immaculate and scholars should read it just for a reminder of how to make a point so clearly and thoroughly. What exactly was the point? Well, I’ll let former treasury secretary Larry Summers explain it.

My point was simply that the field of behavioral genetics had a revolution in the last fifteen years, and the principal thrust of that revolution was the discovery that a large number of things that people thought were due to socialization weren’t, and were in fact due to more intrinsic human nature, and that set of discoveries, it seemed to me, ought to influence the way one thought about other areas where there was a perception of the importance of socialization.

What’s scary was this reasonable sounding blurb was uttered in 2005, a few years after The Blank Slate was published, and at that time it got Larry fired from his position as President of Harvard. The book taught me about something called the east pole/west pole divide where scholars in places like MIT (Pinker and Chomsky) and Harvard (Summers and that Google guy), the "east pole", are more tolerant of the view that humans are born with a human nature. This is contrasted with scholars based around the "west pole" who believe that humans are born a "blank slate" and all of our thoughts are basically software installed after delivery. What blew my mind is the location of this metaphorical "west pole". It is none other than my employer, UCSD.

Obviously for me to even comment on this topic is foolhardy in some dimensions. (Thank god nobody reads this!) One modern objection to the book might be that the premise is obvious. In fact Pinker anticipated this even at the time he wrote it and dedicated the beginning of the book to setting that straight. Surely 15 years later everyone is clear that humans have a pretty universal set of properties that defy any attempt to explain them solely by social programming. But no! I easily found this offensive article (shared 32k times). It’s premise is not this sentiment from its first sentence.

We don’t think that all men are inherently abusive or dangerous.

But rather its complete contradiction four sentences later with this.

But the socialization of men is such that even a good man — a supportive man, a respectful man, a trusted man — has within him the potential for violence and harm because these behaviors are normalized through patriarchy.

Building from that, the fatuous article goes on to womansplain in a flagrantly sexist way how all men are bad and scary simply because they are men (all of whom presumably received the poisonous indoctrination of the evil patriarchy into their ambivalent blank slates). Never fear though! That can all be cured by changing how society acculturates men to be terrible. Well, presumably I am hopelessly awful, but future generations maybe.

If any of that rings true to you, that men are awful and only awful because that is how they were raised, I’ve got some bad news for you. You’re wrong. Funny enough Pinker has to step back and make some careful digs at postmodernism because for some people being wrong isn’t even problematic. He’s obviously heard every objection, sensible and nonsensical, to deny the concept of human nature.

This book is packed with study after study that shows the blank slate hypothesis has been as well refuted as the flat earth hypothesis. He also takes great pains to point out that not only is finding the truth just good sense, it is actually better not to be in denial for fear of the truth’s unpleasant effects. For example, the blank slate hypothesis enjoyed a lot of support by well-intentioned people who wanted to put as much distance between themselves and Nazis, racists, etc. But even this noble goal will cause unintended problems. For example, parents of autistics and psychopaths used to be blamed for how their children turned out because if the kids started with a blank slate, how could the parents not be guilty of raising the child badly? And who, among people I respect, wants to see people punished for letting kids turn out to be gay? The blank slate hypothesis says they (or their parents) did have a choice.

Hundreds of pages of common sense brilliantly made unassailable is nice, but its still common sense at the end. There were some surprises though. Not only is the effect of parenting a lot less than the 100% the blank slate theory would predict, it turns out that the effect of parenting is almost zero. That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But a lot of studies with twins and separated siblings, etc show that genetics is pretty important and your peer group is pretty important, but parenting style almost doesn’t even show up in how people turn out. This is bad news for people who blame their bad lives on their parents' parenting skills (maybe blaming your parent’s decision to propagate their genes is reasonable, but obviously not completely reasonable).

Although Pinker didn’t get specific with parenting advice, what I concluded was that since peers matter more than parents, it might be good for everyone to make sure you are in your child’s peer group. That doesn’t mean you have to revert to the maturity of a child. It just means you have to accept your kids as independent people who are optimizing their lives for their own experiences. My dad let me discover what was on my slate and I’m doing the same with my son. I’m happy that my father and son are both among my best friends.