For the past month, in between schoolwork and regular work, I’ve been working my way through Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate. Its thesis, broadly speaking, is laid out int he preface:
(Hopefully I retyped that without too many errors).
At any rate, I’m finding the book’s central thesis–that, as he later states, heritability accounts for about 40-50% of personality traits–to be extremely persuasive and somewhat shocking; in some ways, I suspect this book is going to change my understanding of the world about as much as, a decade ago, Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber of Humanity did.
At the same time, much as with Berlin’s book, I’m disturbed by some of the details. Pinker dismisses constructivism in mathematics education (p222) in a manner that betrays an unfamiliarity with the philosophy–or, to be scrupulous, an unfamiliarity with the approach as it was taught to me by an adherent. He talks about the “version of leftism known as political correctness” (p. 287), as if this were a political movement instead of an epithet.
And, most trivially but most tellingly, he refers to Public Enemy as a “gangsta rap group” (p 329). Sure, this is an easy mistake to make for someone unfamiliar with rap. However, he’s talking about their song 911 is a joke, and he’s using it as evidence for his claim that “Inner-city African Americans” have developed “a culture of honor,” that is, a culture in which small slights are punished with great violence. He claims that when there is no strong police body to whom a people can appeal when a wrong is done to them, such “cultures of honor” naturally arise as a means of self-protection. Calling Public Enemy gangsta rappers feeds into that theory.
The problem, of course, is that they’re not. Indeed, from my (admittedly limited) understanding of their work, they are politically active and politically militant. Their solution to the joke of 911 wasn’t to strap on weapons and kill motherfuckers who dissed them; their solution to the joke of 911 was to organize, publicize the injustices, and demand that the system be changed. In other words, their approach was to render any “culture of honor” obsolete.
I don’t know for sure that acknowledging Public Enemy’s true colors would have undermined his point; the idea behind the culture of honor seems reasonable to me, and draws on Hobbes and other fairly reputable philosophers. Still, I am bothered by the little inaccuracies in the book: it makes me wonder what else he got wrong, what he may have distorted in areas with which I’m less familiar.
At any rate, I’m almost done with the book (having just finished the chapter that concludes that parental upbringing, when not actively abusive, accounts for between 0-10% of the variance in personality of adults), and I thought it’d be interesting to discuss his thesis on the boards, or to discuss the book if others have read it. I’ve read several reviews of it, almost all of which were glowing (there was one in The Guardian, I think, that was less enthusiastic, but not specific in its criticisms); if anyone knows of reviews that specifically and intelligently trash it, I’d like to read those as well.