What I learned from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate

I’m just the type of conceptual art junkie who believes that beauty is a construct, that morality is nuanced, fluid and contextual, and that human potential can redefine the world, for whom The Blank Slate was probably more mind-blowing than it should have been.

John Baldessari’s  The Pencil Story  (1972–3) represents transition

John Baldessari’s The Pencil Story (1972–3) represents transition

Pinker throws a damper on the human potential movement, and I, for one, find it mildly liberating. No, you can’t do whatever you set your mind to! No, you can’t use the power of positive thinking to will your preferred reality into being! No, you don’t have to pressure yourself into reconstructing the world! Pinker says we can’t do these things because people are not blank slates — we have an innate human nature. So stop the tweaking and perfecting: you do not have control. Stop overriding the gut feeling that is suggestive of your human nature: you can’t entirely construct your life.

Pinker’s interpretation of the laws of evolutionary biology are more likely to credit your personality to random gene mutation than to your entire upbringing. The long and short of this interesting stance is that humans can be explained in large part by their genes, in small part by random gene mutation, and in smallest part by their environment and upbringing. Everything else, according to Pinker, is postmodern abstraction we’ve all collectively bought into, and Pinker pities the academic fields that fly in the face of evidence (gender feminism being one such field, he notes).

Where Pinker’s argument gets muddled for me is on the topic of common sense. He spends about an equal number of pages arguing for and against common sense as an indicator of our innate human nature. It seems he himself gets to serve as the arbitrator of what is human nature emerging from faulty social construct (according to him: increased numbers of women in the workplace), and what is faulty social construct cloaking human nature (according to him: experimental art). So which one is it, and how will we know it when we see it? This I never got a clear answer for, and this really would have been a valuable tool. Am I fighting my human nature when I find a way to appreciate Kanye’s Yeezus (his self-proclaimed music for a post-rhythm future)? Is the empowerment I feel to choose just an illusion of the importance we place on constructionism? Pinker drives this point home when describing George Orwell’s 1984 as the ultimate example of social constructionism. The Party believes there is no innate human nature; thus, with time and effort, individual thought and interpersonal love can be stamped out. Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron makes a similar point about stripping individuality and innate ability.

Where I like Pinker’s argument is similar to where I liked Carl Cederstrom’s The Wellness Syndrome. An emphasis on personal responsibility and individual power can serve as a political and societal construct that chooses to avoid acknowledging the systemic nature of most wicked problems, thus placing undue (total) responsibility on the individual where the one does not have the power to change the whole. This does not mean that personal responsibility and a desire to change the world are meaningless; they are valuable individual mindsets, but individual mindset is not a national or global strategy.

Something else I liked from Pinker’s book is his advocacy for integrating art and science. How can we apply what we understand about cognitive perception to make art? Already this meeting of the left and right (brains) is happening in literature, film, music, tech, and more. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays are a great example of putting a creative spin on cognitive science while messing with the viewers’ brains all at the same time (try Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindAdaptationSynecdoche, New York).

TL;DR Great addition to the nature vs. nurture debate. An expanded, science-based StrengthsFinder. Mind-blowing for those of us told we can do anything.