My 2021's top 10 books: #8 not so blank slate

Guillaume Hansali
Guillaume Hansali
My 2021's top 10 books: #8 not so blank slate

Some books are too important not to be written. They challenge old preconceptions by pointing at the elephant in the room. They open the door to new conversations by breaking the old padlock that kept it close.
It is even more the case when it comes to academic research and publication. Some ideas can be really hard to kill.

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it — Max Planck

One such idea is that we are born as a blank slate. What does it mean? And more importantly, why does it matter?

The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker

Nature vs. nurture. Are we born or made into who we are?
Are our talents and shortcomings innate, or are they the result of our upbringing? In other words, are we really born equal?

The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker (image from Amazon)

"Tabula Rasa" or The Blank Slate theory is not new. It was first formulated by Aristotle and popularized by John Locke during the Age of Enlightenment. The idea is simple but powerful: we are born empty, and everything we know comes from experience.

Why is this a powerful idea? If we are born empty, our behaviors are not innate; they are learned as a result of our social influences. Harmful behaviors such as violence, racism, or sexism should be eradicable with the right nurturing environment.
People are naturally peaceful and compassionate; it is the society that perverse them, argued Jean-Jacque Rousseau. There is hope for a more equal and inclusive future for humankind.

As powerful as the Blank Slate idea is, it, unfortunately, doesn't hold water, and anyone who has had the chance (or curse) to raise more than one child can attest. Children develop their personality traits very early on and show unique predispositions.

A first clue comes from language acquisition. Toddlers don't repeat word for word what we tell them like parrots. They have an intuition for grammatical concepts that linguists recognize universally across thousands of languages and cultures. As Noam Chomsky said, children don't learn language; they grow it.

Extensive studies on twins separated at birth show that a significant proportion of our personality traits and subsequent behaviors are encoded in our DNA. Motivation: 57%; Arithmetics: 56%; susceptibility to addiction: 45%. Many estranged twins grow up preferring the same brand of cigarettes!

Of course, there are still many avid defenders of the Blank State theory. Some believe that our genome–comprising of 34,000 genes, only twice as much as a worm–is not large enough to explain the complexity of our brain and they invoke its plasticity. Marxists see attempts at refuting the Blank State theory as a conspiracy to support discriminatory political systems and an invitation to social Darwinism.

Steven Pinker's breadth and depth of knowledge are intellectually threatening. I cannot fathom how one individual can know so much about so many things and still write with so much clarity and style.

In The Blank Slate, Pinker puts an end to the millennia-long debate, opening the way for discussions about more pressing issues. This book is not a quick read (500+ pages) but an important one to do.

Why does it matter? Recognizing that we are born different is not a license to discrimination and oppression. It is the realization that we all have different needs and that a fair society is not necessarily a just society.

Link to Amazon page

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