Review of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

And how it relates to giftedness

The Blank Slate
The Blank Slate. Photo Courtesy of Pricegrabber

This book is not about gifted children or even about giftedness. But it contains plenty of information that can help you understand why we say that gifted children are born, not made, and why so many people find that hard to accept.


Parts in the Book:

  1. The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine
  2. Fear and Loathing
  3. Human Nature with a Human Face
  4. Know Thyself
  5. Hot Buttons
  6. The Voice of the Species

    Each of the parts is made up of two to five chapters. Part 3, for example, includes the chapters "The Fear of Inequality" and "The Fear of Imperfectability." The book begins with a discussion of what the mind is, and then goes on to a discussion what human nature is.  From there it discusses why in spite of the fact that we have long acknowledged that we are the products of both nature and nurture, many of our laws and social policies are based on the idea that we are actually blank slates. The book then goes on to discuss why people seem to be afraid of the idea that people are born with certain traits and characteristics and ends with the way the idea of the blank slate has affected politics, violence, gender, children, and the arts.​
    Steven Pinker
    Hardcover: Viking, 2002
    Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0670031511
    Paperback: Penguin Books, 2003
    Paperback ISBN-13: 978-0142003343

    Book Review: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

    The first part of the book discusses the various viewpoints toward the mind and nature.

    The Blank Slate is the idea that everyone is born essentially blank, waiting to be written on by parents, experiences, and culture. The Noble Savage is the idea that man is born good and is good so long as he remains in a primitive state. It is modern civilization that can alter that goodness. The Ghost in the Machine is basically the idea that there is a "me," a soul, that controls our behavior.

    Our body is the machine; the mind, the "me" is the "ghost" in control of the machine.

    The discussion of the different viewpoints toward the mind and nature provides the background and context for understanding the way we understand ourselves and others and well as the way we treat one another. This treatment is in both a narrow and broad context. It includes the way we treat our children and the way society treats certain classes of individuals, such as criminals. For example, we seem to believe that parents are 100% responsible for the way their children turn out and that criminals are people with bad life experiences who can be rehabilitated. We don't like to think that people are born with dispositions to behave badly.  It makes us feel helpless. However, Pinker's point is not that we should just sit by and do nothing.  It is that by understanding human nature, we will know better what to do.

    Pinker's primary claim is that, although it is fairly well established that it is both nature and nurture that shape us, many of our policies and beliefs are based on the idea of The Blank Slate.  He provides ample brain research to show that we are far from being born a blank slate ready for our parents and our culture to write on, shaping our views, our behavior, and even our level of intelligence.


    It is Pinker's discussions on the heritability of intelligence and our current views of child rearing that will be of most interest to parents of gifted children. Citing numerous brain and behavior studies, including those on twins reared together and reared separately, Pinker provides a wealth of support for the idea that children are born with certain traits and with a level of intelligence. As he notes, this fact does not come as a surprise to parents with more than one child.

    Although Pinker does not overtly refer to gifted children or discuss them in any way, it should be clear how this information is helpful for parents of gifted kids.

    Parents of gifted children are frequently told they that their children aren't so "special'; they've just been "pushing" their child. They are also told that gifted children have just had the benefit of a "rich" environment that allowed their intelligence to develop, and "it all  evens out in third grade."  If you are looking for the science to refute such comments, you will find it in The Blank Slate.

    My one wish is that Pinker would have addressed giftedness directly.  Maybe one day he'll write a book devoted to the topic. Meanwhile, you might find this book a fascinating discussion of human nature.

    Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.  He is an experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist, and linguist. He is a world-renowned expert and has published several award winning books the mind and language.

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