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The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker Viciously Nitpicked by Me Part One.

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker should be read by everyone. It’s not a difficult read, and so it is perfectly possible for everyone to read it. Having said that, I think there are a number of small errors that are serious enough to be worth getting pointed out. Here are a few of them.

I used Google to search for “If Einstein had a twin” and got to see the entirety of pages 224 to 228 — a nice little random free sample five pages long that can easily be stored using screenshots. All of this article relates to those pages. I won’t post a link because it may not work in a predictable way.

On page 226 of the Blank Slate it says:

My nitpicks about this are :

  1. A “stream of consciousness” is not well-defined and therefore no one can be sure whether or not, in some sense, or to some extent Einstein’s stream of consciousness would have been continued by his twin.
  2. As Pinker himself has pointed out, identical twins are frequently remarkably similar to each other. If Pinker has some evidence that when one twin is a genius, the other probably is not, he should present it. Whether intelligence is only partly heritable is beside the point, because a twin doesn’t inherit his or her intelligence from the other twin.

On page 227 it says:

A “line of sentient experience” is not well-defined, and so it’s impossible to know whether the clone “would traverse a different line of sentient experience”.

On page 227 it says,

I have three stylistic nitpicks about this paragraph:

  1. “[…]forces us to reframe problems in bioethics.” would be better as “forces us to reframe some bioethical problems.” After all, we aren’t forced to reframe all of them.

2. “It would have been convenient if biologists had discovered[…]” should be “It would have been convenient had biologists discovered[…]”.

3. “[…] a point at which the brain is fully assembled and is plugged in and turned on for the first time […]” This makes no sense. How could biologists discover when the brain is “plugged in”? It’s absurd. Pinker makes clear that he knows that brains don’t work like that by adding, “but that is not how brains work.” but it remains stylistically weak in my view.

A factual error is seen in the same paragraph when Pinker says “[the brain] continues wire itself well into childhood and even adolescence.” In fact, the brain continues to “wire itself” to use Pinker’s metaphor, well into adolescence and even adulthood. The brain finishes wiring itself at about age 24.

Adulthood is a matter of definition, variously defined as 13 (in Judaism), 16, 18, or at the very latest 21. Biological adulthood starts when puberty is completed, which is nearly always younger than sixteen, and often as young as six.

Says the National Health Service of the UK “But it’s perfectly normal for puberty to begin at any point between the ages of 8 and 13 in girls and 9 and 14 in boys. There’s not usually any need to worry if puberty does not start around the average age, but it’s a good idea to speak to your GP for advice if it starts before 8 or has not started by around 14.”

This entire paragraph should be cut from the book because it adds nothing:

It is one of the few pieces of utter waffle in the whole of this otherwise magnificently flab-free book. You might as well say that if we set the boundary for driving at a legal speed at 60 miles per hour, we should be prepared to accept someone driving at 59.9 miles per hour, despite the lack of any significant difference between a car going at 59.9 miles per hour and one going at 60.1 miles per hour. With a law you need a clear line. The same would go for voting age and drinking age.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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