When my book club met a few weeks ago to discuss Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature admittedly, I was a little nervous. I was nervous because I was the one who originally suggested we read it. Problem is, I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I hoped I would. And I suspected I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Therefore, would the members of my book club cast me out for suggesting a turkey of a book? After all, it’s my first book group and I’d hate to get kicked out of it.
I’m happy to report that in the end, no one thought my choice The Blank Slate was a terrible one. Far from it. Pinker’s book sparked intense and intelligent debate among those present. Our spirited and meaty discussion lasted for well over two hours. Judging by the level of discourse and the concepts discussed that night, by the end of the evening I knew my suggestion of The Blank Slate was a good one. I would not have to resign in shame from my book club for choosing the wrong book.
Published over a decade ago, Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate is a highly ambitious work of nonfiction that covers a lot of ground. Therefore, it’s not an easy book to write about. Pinker argues against the three widely accepted explanations of human nature. Chief among these is that of the tabula rasa or blank slate. Along with the blank slate, Pinker also takes on the concepts of the noble savage (we are born pure and goodly, but are corrupted by modern society) and the ghost in the machine (we have a soul that is independent of any biological functions and is solely responsible for our personality). According to Pinker, human behavior must be understood within the larger context of evolutionary psychological. Even though concepts like the blank slate, noble savage and ghost in the machine are revered, have been accepted as dogma for years and in some cases have been heavily politicized, they are obsolete explanations of human nature and need to be jettisoned.
I had a hard time enjoying The Blank Slate and it nothing to do with the validity of Pinker’s ideas. It was the presentation of those ideas that caused me headaches. It’s not that he doesn’t support his arguments with evidence, but perhaps he provides too much supporting evidence. Frequently, I felt he could have easily made his points without belaboring them. Speaking of those arguments, some critics of The Blank Slate have accused Pinker of engaging in straw man fallacies. While I’d like to give Pinker the benefit of the doubt, there’s a few portions of his book that felt like academic pissing contests. Overall, I thought Pinker’s writing was a bit too dense for my tastes and as a result his book could have used a bit more editing. But hey, that’s just my humble opinion.
Even though I’m walking away from The Blank Slate with mixed feelings, I’m optimistic when it comes to his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I’ve read a number of positive things about it and just the other night an acquaintance of mine gave it a glowing recommendation. Who knows, maybe I can even talk my book club into reading it.