Review of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002)


Steven Pinker (writer).

An expansion upon the last chapter of The Language Instinct (1994), on the idea of human minds as empty containers at birth.

This was my first experience with Pinker, and more eye-opening than his other books. The concept of the blank slate is influential. Pinker could have been more careful charting the spectrum of actual beliefs to avoid accusations of straw-manning, but you need to recognize at least the basic form of the concept to understand Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), run-of-the-mill SF like “Ferengi Love Songs” (1997), most parenting advice, and—in my own experience—a whole lot of academic writing in the humanities.

The Blank Slate was written before Pinker started his political trolling in earnest, but beware of some dishonest rhetoric even here. For example, he writes of a 1969 Montreal police strike as an isolated event causing a great of deal of chaos (the Murray-Hill riot), including a “sniper” shooting. Pinker says this event left his anarchist politics “in tatters”, but his description is misleading. There was certainly violence, but this was motivated by the political grievances of the Quebecer minority and started long before the police went on strike. The police went on strike not just for higher pay but in protest against systemic political corruption that antagonized the minority, and against the fact that they were frequently having to disarm bombs planted by the Front de libération du Québec. Violence in the actual riot targeted Anglo businesses given preferential treatment by the corrupt city government. Pinker’s “sniper” was a security guard from one such business—the limousine service that gave its name to the riot—who fired a shotgun into a crowd. This is a serious crime, which may have been preventable by police, but it is not sniping. It would be foolish to conclude from the event that, given a non-blank human nature, the absence of police causes riots.

References here: Brainwash (2010).

text non-fiction