Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker is one of those books that you should never read before heading out to meet friends. Quite pleasant conversations about gardening or sports will be interrupted by a diatribe as you attempt to explain the mind-blowing chapter you have just read. This will inevitably lead to an argument as Pinker aims both barrels at the post-modern politically-correct world, ignites the data-driven gunpowder and unleashes some scientific buckshot.
Pinker’s principal beef is with the concept that man is born a blank slate and it is largely his environment that shapes and defines him. He argues that it is all very nice for us all to believe this and it means we can wax lyrical about our equality and ability to perfect man, but it just isn’t backed up by the evidence. Pinker argues that the vast weight of scientific research into the nature/nurture debate comes down heavily on the side of nature, and reports on the other side are often guilty of scientifically-biased wish fulfilment.
Pinker spends a large part of the first half of his book outlining and explaining this evidence, using examples from one scientist’s study of universal human behaviours, responses and mental characteristics (as widespread in Mongolia as in Manhattan) to the classic experiments with twins who have been separated at birth. Apparently, twins in this case often meet in later life to find themselves both owning the same tie, whistling the same song and having married similar women at roughly the same age. Their personalities, while not set in stone, were largely formed before they had even left the womb.
Moreover, people who have suffered damage in specific parts of their brain often have completely changed personalities as a result. The experience of Phineas Gage is a classic example of this. Pinker’s evidence is largely boiled down to a set of ‘laws’ of the mind. The principal one of which is that your genes are responsible for at least 50% of your personality and play a far more weighty role than your environment. This is not to say that we have no control over our personality, nor that our environment plays no part. Merely that they play a far lesser role than previously realised.
So far, so interesting. But Pinker really gets going in the second half of the book when he applies this learning to various fields from crime to politics to the arts. Are children who grow up in a violent household more likely to be violent because of the environment they were raised in or because they have inherited the genes for violence from their parents? Or to put it another way, all those parenting books that say that parents who smother their children with affection will raise affectionate children might just be talking rubbish if affectionate people are genetically predisposed to have affectionate kids and more distant parents are genetically predisposed to have distant kids. In this case, how parents act with their kids has far less impact than many parents believe.
The argument holds true across a range of subjects as Pinker takes on our political beliefs, feminism, racism and our thoughts on art. Some may think Pinker oversteps his mark, and I am certainly not doing his argument justice here, but to me this was a powerful explanation of why we are the way we are and it sets out an optimistic view of the future for all that it is set in hard realities.