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Steven Pinker and the limitations of Darwinian theory

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The diminutive insect: 'Gullivers Travels' and original sin

Freud, Satan and the serpent



The nature and nurture of reviews  

THIS (ALTHOUGH NO GUARANTEE is given) may be the very last time that the subject of Steven Pinker's most recent book is dealt with on this website.

Attentive visitors to the author's own site may have noticed that the page which is given over to The Blank Slate, has one particularly interesting feature. I refer to the list of links to reviews of the book.

This is preceded by another link and an invitation to 'click here for extracts from reviews'. This takes one, as anyone might reasonably expect, to a selection of excerpts from reviews in which the book is praised unreservedly and at times ecstatically. One certainly would not criticise Pinker for this. One would hardly expect him to include excerpts from bad reviews.

However the link to reviews which appears underneath is a rather different matter. To the casual visitor this list has every appearance of comprehensiveness. It includes links to more than thirty-five reviews which have appeared in English-language newspapers or periodicals. The impression that the list has been compiled without fear or favour by an author confident enough to include reviews by his critics seems to be confirmed by the presence of a link to Simon Blackburn's review in the New Scientist.  For this review, as some readers of this page will recall, contained, amidst its praise, serious criticisms of Pinker's thesis.

Yet a closer inspection of Pinker's list reveals that, although he has included a link to Blackburn's first review, he has omitted to include any mention at all of his second much more critical review which appeared in the New Republic. Nor is there any mention of the equally perceptive and critical review by Louis Menand which appeared in the New Yorker. Or indeed
[note added 2008] of J. Allen Orr's excellent review in the New York Review of Books.

A scrutiny of Pinker's list reveals other omissions. There is no trace, for instance, of the critical review by Kenan Malik which appeared in Prospect and which can now be found on Malik's own website.

Mary Midgley's trenchant Guardian critique of the book, already linked to elsewhere on this site, is also missing. Nor is there any reference to one of the most perceptive of the reviews which appeared in the British press - the review by Marek Kohn which appeared in the Independent and which can now be found on the author's website

Kohn's review concludes with these words

Even if Pinker is right about the innateness of personality, and parents' lack of influence over their children - a point which readers will be likely to reject from experience, rather than through denial - these are only the outlines of a person. Instead of a blank slate, we might think of the inherited self as an unfurnished house: what we put in it does not change the structure, but it makes all the difference [italics added]. 

It would be difficult to find a more elegant and succinct rejoinder to Pinker's main thesis than Kohn's final sentence. However, in this regard, as in the other instances cited here, the webpage which documents the reviews of its author's latest book appears to have become exactly what Pinker says human nature is not - a blank slate.

By way of affording some light relief it should perhaps be pointed that one link which is included on Pinker's website leads to the remarkable Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (LFHCfS).

25 January 2003 

Richard Webster, 2002