No Blank Slate


Well, I’ve decided to do my little book reviews as a blog post too, and then have a page that links to them, maybe with excerpts for the most recent ones. So, the book I’m reading right now is Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

This book is all about the nature vs. nurture question. Pinker uses evidence from the most recent in neurocience, biology, philosophy, and other fields to argue that the blank slate, or tabula rasa, is a false idea. We are not really blank slates, but rather, much of what we will become is determined by our genetics. He explains how this argument has been treated as politically incorrect, because so many are afraid that admitting that there are things about ourselves that are determined by our biology will lead to fodder for racists, sexists, and all the other kinds of -ists there are out there. But he makes a great argument as to how the reality, that nature plays a very significant role, is not a depressing realization, but rather can be seen as a good thing.

At the moment, I’m nearly finished with part one, which lays out the basics of the three ideas that he will argue against: the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. I am growing a strong interest in the current information regarding how much of an effect genes have, but I’ve always had an interest in what he refers to as “the ghost in the machine.” This is basically dualism vs. monism, or the question of whether or not we really have “souls” that reside in the body but can exist outside of it, such as in the afterlife after the body’s death. I, being a humanist, am a monist. I do not believe in the afterlife, and I do not believe that we have a soul, or that we are, in essence, anything more than all the neurons in our brain that store our thoughts and guide our actions. I believe that our brains are very complex, but that everything we are is stored in real, physical material, the material that is in our brains. This seems to be what he is going to argue as well. It is always fascinating to read the arguments of someone who is involved in neuroscience at a very deep level, and I also love reading about the history of the idea of dualism, and what parts of that history he picks out as important.

I’m only 1/5th of the way done with the book, but it’s great, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing.

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One thought on “No Blank Slate

  1. I love your site, and your writing!

    Pinker is one of my favorites, too. His bookThe Language Instinct was my reason for eventually going into linguistics.

    I started out on the research scientist path, like you. Worked as a lab tech in molecular neurobiology for a couple of years, then ventured into a medical psychology (behavioral neuroscience now) PhD program. Once I finished the course work and had to go into the lab full time I got really depressed. I was so stressed out. Eventually becoming a PI seemed so competitive and publish-or-perish… Well, I am sure you know exactly what women must do to succeed in the research scientist field! I’m so glad you’re doing it. I really wanted to, but I tend to have depression and panic attacks to the stressful life was not an option for me (despite my kicking and protesting!).

    The scientific method is awesome and I am so glad I learned how to really think; scientists have an advantage in every day living, in my humble opinion.

    You and I think about many similar issues. I already ordered The Blank Slate based on your above recommendation. Thanks!

    I do believe in an afterlife, at least I think I do. I ponder this topic constantly it seems. Not sure how, or what (definitely not god in the traditional sense, however). My husband (also a former research scientist, a PhD who left academia even after being well-published), well, he believes much like you. Exactly the same in fact. It’s difficult to reconcile my scientific mind with my spirituality.

    Anyway, I ramble. I just came across your blog and I’m glad I did. I bookmarked you. 🙂

    Oh, by the way, I am a cat charmer, too. We have four!

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