BOOK REVIEW: The Blank Slate

Steven Pinker

Allen Lane, 25

IF YOU’RE the sort of person who believes the mind is an infinitely malleable chunk of wonder-stuff that bears no traces of the evolutionary processes that shaped it, then US academic Steven Pinker wants a word with you.

His book is a sustained attack on the idea that the newborn’s brain is a blank slate, waiting to be inscribed upon by experience. As in his previous books, Pinker comes down firmly on the biological side of the nature-nurture debate to argue that there are some basic facts about human nature, and that we ignore them at our peril.

But if you are unshocked by the idea that our evolved human nature affects how we think and behave, then you might wonder whether Pinker’s violent instincts are directed at a straw man. An obsession with the evils of empiricism might cause a stir in the country that brought us political correctness and hothouse parenting techniques, but surely we know better over here. He’s telling us that our minds work the way they do at least in part because we’re made that way. Why read on?

Well, we should read on, because an attack on simple empiricism is only part of Pinker’s battle plan. What he really wants to show is that the blank slate conception underpins our thinking and behaviour without our even knowing it. Although most scientists acknowledge that we are shaped by complex interactions between genes and experience, our thinking in other domains betrays an adherence to an archaic and politically correct view of the mind as aboriginally pure and endlessly teachable.

Among the sacred cows that Pinker attacks are parenting techniques that assume that any child can be tamed or improved with the right combination of talk, stimulation and cuddles; and the view that rape has nothing to do with sex (which, Pinker argues, flies in the face of evidence that rape occurs in all human and some animal societies).

He anticipates flak, and he will get it. Because in his hurry to dismiss the conventional wisdom of centuries Pinker is in danger of undervaluing some important findings on the ‘nurture’ side of the equation.

A phrase to keep in mind while reading this book is ‘50-50’. Behavioural geneticists tell us that roughly half the variation in a range of human traits (such as alcoholism and intelligence) can be accounted for by genetic factors. Of the remaining variation, the ‘shared environment’ (that enjoyed by children in the same family but not attributable to genetics) counts for much less than the ‘unique environment’ that is specific to an individual.

Pinker does us a favour by pointing out that peers, siblings and specific parent-child relations are more important than any general feature of the home environment, such as the presence of Mozart or the availability of gender-neutral toys. What he can’t offer us are any new ideas on how genes might interact with such environmental factors. Instead, we get another run-through of the achievements of evolutionary psychology.

The trouble with this is that there is no direct evidence for it: we simply cannot re-run the great experiment of human evolution and see whether things might have turned out differently.

Novelist Charles Fernyhough teaches psychology at Durham University