Book Review: “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker

PinkerThumbby Brad Nelson
In The Blank Slate, language expert Steven Pinker takes on some of the most cherished beliefs of the Left. These are ideas upon which many of the “soft” sciences are based and which therefore make them suspect. __________________________________________________
The Blank Slate isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of fun. But it’s highly instructive nonetheless. It’s like eating one’s spinach. It may not always taste so good but it’s good for you.

The three main dogmas of the Left (and a few that are, including #3, common with the right) are:

1) The Blank Slate
2) The Noble Savage
3) The Ghost in the Machine.

According to Pinker, all can be easily shown to be false. And Pinker does a good job with numbers one and two. The first idea, the “blank slate,” is the idea that we are malleable putty, that mankind has no inherent or innate traits and thus we can be molded into anything. And, according to Pinker, the reason so many people hang onto this idea so fervently is because they think that all our moral advances depend on keeping up this delusion. They think that if there actually were differences between, say, men and women, that that would then cause sexist ideas to flourish because this knowledge would somehow justify them.

But as Pinker repeatedly states, you can have ideas such as “treat people equally” regardless of whether or not people have differences. And to hang a doctrine on anything less is foolish because what if one day (such as today) the doctrine of “the blank slate” is proven false? Does it then become okay to discriminate against people? Of course not. What a silly idea.

And, according to Pinker, holding on to the idea of the blank slate, the noble savage, or the ghost in the machine is equally silly. And there are often dire consequences that come from these delusions or misconceptions, including the tens of millions killed by left-wing Communists. Pinker shows the inherent danger which comes with the belief that people are a blank slate which can be perfected. And how this tends to play out politically (because it is an inherently unworkable idea) is that instead of the people electing a new government, the government elects a new people; that is, those in power will tend to coerce, imprison, and murder people by the millions because that’s the only way one can ever make any kind of blank slate concept work.

But Pinker fails to mention a truism long known to conservatives, and that is that part of this problem of Leftist brutality is that the Left so falls in love with their ideas that people become expendable. But The Plan must always be salvaged — a point Jonah Goldberg covers expertly in “Liberal Fascism.”

Only fear and intimidation can even come close to producing a blank slate in people and get them to act as if they were infinitely programmable. Fear and intimidation are the standard technique employed by the Left and by political correctness. Al Sharpton, and all those like him, are but mini “reigns of terror.” You see the same thing from the many goons on college campuses who try to shout-down speakers who have differing opinions.

The second item, the dogma of the noble savage, is the idea that humans are pure and that if they show any form of corruption then it is culture that is to blame. Therefore all one has to do is institute the “correct” culture and all problems can be fixed. It is believed that in our natural state we are peaceful and nonpolluting creatures who don’t even need and such corrupting influences as politics. It would be Kumbaya 24/7 if we removed the warping influences (capitalism, sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, etc. — all the usual suspects).

And this has proven to be utterly and demonstrably false. Several anthropologists through the years, including Margaret Mead, either did very sloppy science or intentionally cooked the books to show what they wanted to show. The fact is that life in modern primitive hunter-gatherer societies is consistently more brutal and violent than almost any inner-city neighborhoods in the modern world. It’s not capitalism, it’s not “greed” or competition that is the reason that Utopia never breaks out. It’s because there are some realities to life and to human nature that prevent it, and no social planner can ever fix this, no matter how much power they have.

The_Blank_SlateThe third theme of the book, The ghost in the machine, is the idea that we have some kind of immaterial soul that stands apart from our gross flesh and makes free-will choices. According to Pinker, it has been shown that our mind needs the flesh in order to function and that somehow the flesh (the brain) produces the mind. And this kind of duality is logically apparent.

But, philosophically. this is probably the weakest part of Pinker’s book. He’s reasonable in his thinking regarding much of his critique of “the ghost in the machine.” But he comes from the perspective of the usual academic scientific materialist metaphysics. Rather than being as refreshingly objective as the other two parts of the book, Pinker seems to be of the mind that because religion has made assertions that can’t be proven or that have been demonstrated to be false, then there is no other way to view the world except through a radical materialist/reductionist lens.

And that stance doesn’t even past muster for a high-school-level philosophy class. But then you’re not apt to get much of a schooling in natural philosophy or natural theology at Harvard or anywhere else like that. Not even Steven Pinker can be omniscient, and for this he can be forgiven. But this is a chapter that is frankly a waste of time.

The really odd thing is that there is something about matter that doesn’t just give rise to consciousness and sentience but that is in some way itself alive, aware, and living. If “dead” matter can give rise to mind, then this must be so and/or “the ghost in the machine” is not such a bad idea after all. But as I said, you don’t even get high-school-level philosophy in this part of the book.

Ultimately The Blank Slate is a great refutation of the pinko-commie takeover of academia by the Left (even if Pinker is a part of the crowd to a great extent). And Pinker takes a number of shots at the right as well, many deserving, but a couple that just seem to be placed there to keep the minds of those left-of-center from completely shutting down. But make no mistake, The Blank Slate is a solid refutation of reams of Leftist garbage that has been built up over the years and has become mainstream.

The right is often chastised as being an opponent of science and reason, particularly because of the religious element. And sometimes this is justified. But they could learn a few lessons from the raucous anti-intellectualism and anti-empiricism of the Left. Your most hard-line Creationists would have to get up pretty early in the morning to even have a chance of keeping up with the radical and decidedly anti-rational Left. Christians’ faith issues are usually transparent and upfront. But the faith issues of the Left are multifarious and often hidden and well-disguised. The assumptions have become so ingrained, people do not even notice them, thus the value of Pinker’s book. To his great credit, he did notice them.

The issue that Pinker leaves hanging, or perhaps doesn’t answer to my satisfaction, is the issue regarding culture. I agree with him in his reasoning (and his evidence) that children are who they are because of a combination of genes and culture. But Pinker asserts a universal idea that because yutes tend to adopt the accents of their peers, not their parents, that therefore it is the case, and has always been the case, that one’s peers are more important than one’s parents in terms of influence. But there is a major problem with this, showing Pinker to be blinkered himself a time or two.

And that is that modern culture is an aberration in terms of how children are typically raised. It is only in our age that mass popular culture, sending kids off to government schools at the age of five, and two working parents not-at-home, have become the norm. Before that, it is arguable that parents and children were very much in synch as to the cultural practices of their parents because they weren’t separate from their parents. We know this to be true because it is not rare for societies to maintain their customs for centuries, even with quite differing customs right next door.

Pinker does provide many valid critiques in regards to those who say that culture is some kind of “superorganism” disconnected from people which is a favorite notion of the boutique Left if only because it allows them to play God (they get to be the “superorganism” controlling a sort of uber culture that will shape all else). And yet he doesn’t consider how parents might (either through their own interaction in the culture or their interaction with their kids) drive the culture that youths enter and that thus shape them even if it appears that yutes are doing all the shaping between each other.

After all, even if the kids are all running amok with other yutes, it’s still parents acquiescing to this. It wasn’t always this way. For Pinker, it’s the yutes who are driving the culture. And, again, that academic background could be narrowing his vision, for anyone connected with mass marketing and the tens of billions of advertising dollars spent each year to sell youth their products and concepts may have a different perspective on just who is driving whom. And it is arguable that mass marketers have far more influence now than either parents or the peers of yutes — despite the conceit of supposedly independent-minded yutes who wear the mass-marketed “Just do it” T-shirts.

Pinker therefore also seems to be treating culture as some type of disconnected “superorganism” (a yute-oriented one, in this case) that has a completely independent existence (from the families and the rest of the culture, in this case). It won’t be the first or the last time that someone in academia kowtowed to the popular conceits that yutes are so special (said like The Church Lady) and no other ingredient is needed. But these issues are complex, and I really wouldn’t have expected him to be able to wrap everything up in a nice neat bow.

But what some of you might find surprising (and probably some others of you not) is the assertion that basically all the parenting guides and all this modern emphasis on growing little Johnny’s brain during the critical first three year period is all completely unsubstantiated. The assertion is that basically, short of outright severe abuse of some kind, parents and families have almost zilch effect on their kids. It’s all in the hands of our genes, probably some randomness throw into our brains as they naturally grow, and the culture of our peer group outside the home. And apparently this is based on a lot of hard data from a number of sources over a number of years.

Certainly the studies of identical twins raised in separate homes confirms the power of the genes to impart personality and desires. And the parents who have more than one child will almost always confirm that children can be quite different even when raised exactly the same. But Pinker seems to be looking for reasons why parents aren’t important…again, somewhat of a academic hazard in his profession, I would think, wherein it’s just natural to downplay the importance of families. Academia has existed for decades now on the conceited fumes that higher education is a way to free yutes from the constraints placed upon them by backward-thinking parents. You do have to pick through the weeds while reading this book.

Pinker is a linguist, and apparently a very good one. And his jaunt into the realm of actually debunking some of the beliefs that underpin the Left is a brave and daring venture. And yet there is an aspect to this where he shows himself to be somewhat of a philosophical neophyte. That said, he presents some very interesting ideas. I think it’s a book the hardcore science readers will love. • (1776 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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6 Responses to Book Review: “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker

  1. Kung Fu Zu says:

    “Noble Savage”, Rousseau’s parents should have smothered him in his crib.

    I believe that public schools and modern communications are responsible for much of the unanimity (superculture) of today’s America. Look at how the States saw themselves before and for many years after the Revolution. Each had different cultures and inside each State, I am sure there were variations. Even after the Civil War there was a lot of cultural diversity between the States and people in the States. Look at accents, dialects, word usage, etc.

    I believe this started to change with the huge immigration influx of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have long thought the main purpose of public schools at that time was to make Americans out of all the foreigners coming to the country. And that system continued until the 1970’s.

    With radio a standard American English started to take hold. Regional dialects started to disappear and accents are weakened. In the 1950’s everyone watched the same TV. Not only did this effect language, it was the perfect medium to use for mass marketing as the audience was completely passive and could sit there and absorb things without even knowing it. Millions saw and heard the same message. The TV became the culture. And with the increased affluence after WWII, children had more free time and money on their hands. As you say, the yutes are constantly bombarded with advertising for various things, most of which are non-essential but must be made to appear necessary. So ever changing yute culture is really the ever changing fashion of the advertisers and someone trying to make a buck. Because it is to encircle as many yutes as possible, it can’t be too sophisticated.

    I won’t even touch on how far off Pinker is as regards to Asia, but due to recent affluence and technology, even the respect for elders and family which has been such a hallmark of Asian culture is beginning to change.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      “Noble Savage”, Rousseau’s parents should have smothered him in his crib.

      LOL. Indeed. There may have been earlier philosophers who dealt with this topic, but certainly Rousseau went a long way towards popularizing the delusion of an earthly Utopia.

      Mankind has suffered such hardships throughout his history. And certainly the idea of a heavenly sort of Utopia is not unique and quite understandable. It might even be true.

      But it seems it wasn’t until mankind had begun to harness the power of science, technology, and new political freedoms — that is, when things were actually getting materially better — that he began to believe that an earthly Utopia was possible.

      And this is where I usually tell my friends that I wouldn’t have seen this coming. I would not have foreseen that man’s condition getting substantially better would suddenly have him pining for Utopia.

      But that’s what happened. The major thrust now of Western Civilization is building an earthly Utopia.

      And you must be right, Mr. Kung, about the influence of the mass market in terms of influencing culture. And I believe when history looks back and tries to determine what went wrong, two things will stand out:

      1) The television
      2) The modern college education

      And, yes, there is, as you said, the element of mass-marketing. I thought you touched on something when you noted the inherent dumbing-down effect of the mass market ”because it is to encircles as many yutes as possible, it can’t be too sophisticated.” This is self-evidently true.

      Even so, there are “mass” things such as the internet, cell phones, and computers that ought to be at least inherently enriching. Being able to carry a library with you wherever you go must be seen as a positive.

      But to my mind, there is no doubt that there is one mass-market device that is an inherent brain-sucker, and that is television. And I’m of half a mind to re-read Prager’s “Think a Second Time” just so I can extensively quote from his chapter on television which I thought was very astute. TV is rightly known as the idiot box.

      The second thing is “The modern college education.” And we must acknowledge that education itself is just fine and dandy and one of the pillars of Western Civilization. But that institution was taken over at some point by intellectuals, and usually Leftist intellectuals. And this then became a situation where a parasite entered the host and took control of one of its functions. It’s analogous to the one type of bee or ant in which a foreign queen of another species enters the hive, kills the queen, and gets the entire colony to care for her own brood (because this foreign queen carries the same chemical signature of the real queen).

      And one of my main questions, Mr. Kung, is why we did not sniff out this foreign queen sooner and why we still do very little to expose and oust the Cultural Marxists today from our most sacred ground, the university. Whatever is the reason, we are now paying top dollar to have our youths subverted. This is insane.

      By the way, thanks for you very astute thoughts and for taking part in what is inherently a somewhat esoteric topic.

  2. Kung Fu Zu says:

    “But it seems it wasn’t until mankind had begun to harness the power of science, technology, and new political freedoms — that is, when things were actually getting materially better — that he began to believe that an earthly Utopia was possible.”

    The more free time some people have, the more free time they have to dwell on what is wrong, as they see it. Many are, it appears, by nature discontent with life. The more time they have to stir up trouble, the more trouble they will stir up. They are like children throwing a temper tantrum, “if I can’t have what I, I am going make everyone else miserable.” And since it is impossible to get what they want i.e. Utopia, there is no end to the misery they sow. It’s like there is something missing in them which cannot be filled and they resent it that everyone isn’t miserable as well.

    “Even so, there are “mass” things such as the internet, cell phones, and computers that ought to be at least inherently enriching. Being able to carry a library with you wherever you go must be seen as a positive.”

    I am not so sure technology is inherently enriching. There was a time when people were talking about how TV was so great as it could be used to educate masses of people. Look how that turned out.

    A specific tool may have some potential inherent good, but it is really only as good as the person/s using it. The internet has huge potential for education, information, etc., but as I said in the early 1990’s the first people who are going to make big money from the internet are going to be the purveyors of porno. From what I have heard, this was and still is the case. And look at all the cases of perverts trying to attract underage kids into sexual trysts.

    Cell phones are similar. They are great for easy communication and keeping track of ones children. But look at the people who spend their lives on cell phones, texting continuously. How many times has a car in front of you suddenly slowed down and when you pass, you see the idiot driver looking at his, or more often, her phone and trying to text? They are dangerous.

    I believe almost all technology can cut both ways and it is a lot easier to sell a cell phone on basis of the ability to mindlessly text 20,000 times a month than on the basis of it being a great tool to reference the Library of Congress. Selling dumb is a good marketing strategy.

    • Kung Fu Zu says:

      Thinking about it, I believe “inherent good” is not the proper term. “Inherent Utility” might be better.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        It’s like there is something missing in them which cannot be filled and they resent it that everyone isn’t miserable as well.

        I think that’s exactly what it is.

        How many times has a car in front of you suddenly slowed down and when you pass, you see the idiot driver looking at his, or more often, her phone and trying to text?

        Lots and lots of times.

        Yes, selling dumb does seem to be a good marketing strategy. There’s something embedded in our culture right now that celebrates dumb and has become reflexively hostile to quality, class, and thoughtfulness.

  3. pst4usa says:

    As to the last point of your very well written post Brad, nature or nurture? I have seen studies involving twins raised in separate households, and although these studies do support some influence of genes, as you point out, (or I am reading into your comments); the feminist movement and all the trimmings that go with it, have almost completely fulfilled his other concept or desire, (not sure which), that the parents do not matter.

    Only in leftist or Paulbot, utopia land would children be wonderful peace loving productive members of society, if just left to their own whims and desires. The only difference in this for the mentioned groups above, is the the leftist feel that the kids just need to depend on the government to provide for them and the Paulbots believe in the inherent goodness of man.

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