My sense of Pinker, now having spent part of two weeks of my life with him, is that he is quite interesting and maddening. I imagine most do not view him neutrally and either love or hate him. As soon I am apt to describe him as cold, he offers something that smacks of warmth. He uses hundreds of footnotes and sources. He is thoroughly convinced of his positions and has quite a number of academic enemies that oppose him.
The Blank Slate is his defense of human nature and the objection to the idea that humans are solely a product of their environment. Even the title is inflammatory. There is a great deal of debate about whether Pinker’s premise is even accurate. Behaviorists take offense at the idea that they or anyone in related fields, subscribe to a “blank slate” perspective. This book is untimely and unnecessary in their minds. No one denies the role of heredity in human behavior any longer.
I did attempt to intersect The Blank Slate with my personal research topic, even though Pinker’s chapter on children was of most interest this week. Early on, Pinker provided some fodder about the limits of science on defining the human experience and contrasts humans with machines and clockwork.Here he is warm and asserts that humans are much more than a collection of molecules because of choice, dignity, and responsibility. It is demoralizing to treat humans as cogs. I wonder about its application to church leadership development programs that can tend to lean too mechanistic.
But I could not stay with it and found myself intrigued with the idea of children being a blank slate. Are they clay in our hands? Admittedly, these past months of parenting have been pressure-filled. Could an atheistic humanist offer any relief, any loosening of the pressure valve?
Reading the chapter in its entirety was like riding a rollercoaster and I, like many that he refers to, had adverse reactions to the case he makes. He works to debunk much of contemporary parenting philosophy and it is quite the ride. Pinker reviews the three laws about what we know about genes and children and I found the third the most interesting:
The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
He refers to Harris’ The Nurture Assumption often which was met with wide backlash when it was released. Harris offers data that challenges the assumption that parents are the driving factor in how a child is shaped. These numbers are without a lot of context here but I will share Pinker’s more generous formula for how kids turn out as adults: “Genes 40-50%, Shared Environment 0-10%, Unique Environment 50%”.
So what is the unique environment? It is not straightforward but what Harris proposes as more influential for a child’s unique environment are peers and not parents.
I want to believe that there is a formula to parenting. If I will do these sorts of inputs (x) and create these kinds of conditions (y), I will achieve great things, which of course means that my kids will turn out really amazing. X+Y = predictable result as I envisioned it.
I want to believe it and yet cannot. I have too much real data from the communities of which I am a part to put 80%+ on the parents. But are Harris and Pinker right?
Secretly, for all the shock of this chapter, there was also the sigh of relief. I am discerning my own deep need to succeed at parenting and to “achieve” at parenting. Forget the pressure to get a good grade in LGP, what grade will I get for 18+ years of parenting?? And my immediate response to the chapter conclusion, is “ok, I will do everything I can to make sure my kids have the exact peers they need to turn out good.” And I notice my own anxiety.
Does my parenting matter? Absolutely. If nothing else according to Pinker, it will decidedly inform the long-term tenor of our relationship. Has my secret, hidden pressure been relieved? A bit. Just admitting it to you helps, along with considering the factors that are beyond my control. No one is the perfect parent (or the perfect pastor) and while it feels good to take credit for positive outcomes, we must be careful. If winning means too much at the soul level, I am convinced that failure will mean too much. Being the beloved of God puts a floor to my need to achieve and perform and this needs to include the areas of parenting. Amen.
 Henry D. Schlinger, “Not So Fast, Mr. Pinker: A Behaviorist Looks at The Blank Slate. A Review Of Steven Pinker’S The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature,” Behavior and Social Issues 12, no. 1 (2002): pp. 75-79, https://doi.org/10.5210/bsi.v12i1.81.
 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (London: Penguin, 2019), 10.
 Pinker, The Blank Slate, 380.
 Ibid., 380-1.
 Judith Rich. Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do (New York, NY: Free Press, 2009).