Summary of The Blank Slate

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This book covers a lot of ground: philosophy, genetics, cognition, sociology and academic infighting. Steven Pinker, writing with persuasiveness and craft, shows why the doctrine of the “Blank Slate” became so important to 20th century intellectuals that they were willing to lie, cheat, libel and even threaten those who dissented. Yet, the dissenters were right. Given what science now knows of genetics, the idea that people are blank slates at birth is simply untenable. getAbstract finds that the author, despite a few hints of personal prejudices (ah, there’s human nature again), does an excellent job of grappling with enormously challenging subjects.

About the Author

Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard University. His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language earned prizes from the National Academy of Sciences and the American Psychological Association, which gave The Blank Slate two major book awards.



The Orthodoxy

The doctrines of the “Blank Slate” – that people are born as empty pages and their experiences write their personalities – and the “Noble Savage” – that “humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable and untroubled” – originated in the 17th and 18th centuries with philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Locke’s philosophy helped undermine a social hierarchy. If people were born the same, but developed differently due to their experiences, then little reason existed to tolerate a hereditary aristocracy. Rousseau saw social structures as corrupt, and the natural human state as good.

During the 20th century, these doctrines dominated intellectual life and social policy. These concepts, especially the blank slate, genuinely appealed to idealists who believed that eliminating racism, sexism, classism, ethnic antagonisms and other noxious “isms” would be possible given the right structures and environments, where the desired content could be inscribed on human empty slates. However, people are not blank slates. Evolution has resulted in certain traits, attitudes, habits, abilities, dispositions and ways of being that differ from person to...

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