Pinker’s well-filled slate

41-lxeaqn7l-_sx248_bo1204203200_Steve Pinker‘s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a wonderful book, not only for its wide reach and deep discussion, but also for the lively and opinionated language. Like The Economist, Pinker writes objectively with a view – though he clearly has an a opinion, well thought out and researched, in the nature-vs-nurture debate, he is careful to examine evidence and give the other side its due. Not that there is much.

Articulated, polemic and with more than a whiff of exasperated sarcasm, Steven Pinker attacks three misconceptions in modern culture: The Blank Slate, the idea that nurture, not nature, is the main shaping force behind human behavior; The Noble Savage, that the badness of the modern condition comes from the modern conditions – and things were somehow better before we got modern technology and transportation; and the Ghost in the Machine, that human thought is somehow an unexplainable superset of the machinery of the brain. Pinker starts out by describing these ideas, showing how they are founded not on scientific evidence but rather because of wishful thinking and deeply held beliefs about how the world should be.  Scientific studies find that our genetic makeup to an uncomfortable degree shapes who we are and what we will do.  The good old days, especially in the jungle and on the savannah, turn out to be just another myth.  And increasingly sophisticated models of the many complex mechanisms in our brains makes it easier to understand, if not accept, the idea that our soul essentially is “the program that runs on our brain’s computer”, to quote Daniel Dennett (in Consciousness Explained).

Pinker then goes on to what for me was the first new part of the argument – showing that there is no inherent moral position in either nurture or nature – in fact, showing that taken to extremes, they are both as bad.  He positions Nazism as the ultimate genetic extremism – the belief that a certain race or other group of people has inherent superiority over others.  Then he argues that the communism of Pol Pot – who killed a third of Cambodia’s population – is the ultimate environmental extremism, arguing that anyone who exposed to the corrupting influences of modern ideas, such as education or even urbanism, should be killed (“Only the children are innocent”).  (I suppose Mao’s cultural revolution was based on some of the same thinking.) He mocks the idea that either stance frees us from responsibility for our actions.  The beliefs, for instance, that criminals, as a group, are incorrigible or redeemable depending on whether you see them as monsters born to rob or innocent victims of unfortunate circumstances are both wrong.

Pinker attributes the anxiety about human nature – especially the idea that we may be more shaped by genes that we like to think – to four fears (p. 138):

  1. The Fear of Inequality: if people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified
  2. The Fear of Imperfectibility: if people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile
  3. The Fear of Determinism: if people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions
  4. The Fear of Nihilism: if people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose

In the subsequent four chapters, he deals with each of these fears, laying out a foundation for a humane moralism that does not rely on myths as its foundation, making humans responsible for their fate no matter their genetic setup. The downside of the misconceptions of the blank slate and the other ideas lies in their consequences: “persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth.” (p.193)

The fourth part of the book takes as its starting point that much of our world-view is based on intuitions that served us well in a small society – nomadic hunter-gatherers – but which may no longer be true in a modern society, such as our fear of advanced science, of genetically modified food (all our food is genetically modified – by selective breeding through hundreds of years). We are prone to misinterpreting images, to misunderstanding evolution, and to overindulging in sanctimony, reasoning by moralism rather than sense.

The fifth and last part of the book deals with certain “hot buttons” that Pinker criticizes science for refusing to discuss, such as politics (why left and right fall into patterns), violence (humans are violent), gender (there are physical differences, notably that while the mean is the same, men have a larger variance than women, i.e., more idiots and more geniuses), children (shaped by genes and peers rather than parents, though the parents play a part in selecting the environment), and the arts (threatened less by lack of funding and quality than by “…a surfeit of of Ph.D.s pumped out by graduate programs that failed to practice academic birth control.” (p401)). I especially liked his digs at postmodernism, which makes challenging of its authority impossible.

Wonderful stuff, deeply researched, fantastic language, strong arguments – what’s not to like? Nothing. Read it.

Update 18 jan 2006: Here is a video of Pinker presenting and discussing his book at MIT.


(Below is a chapter list with some of my notes (I lost the book after having read the first part, found it again 10 months later, but the notes were gone) and various clippings that I liked. Caveat emptor.)

Attacs the notion of the blank slate (the mind as tabula rasa), the noble savage, and that there is a difference between the mind and the body (the Ghost in the Machine).

Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is “offensive” even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.

Lots of good quotations:

On the reaction to Herrstein’s article in the Atlantic Monthly about heredity of intelligence: “In 1971, the psychologist Richard Herrnstein published an article called “IQ” in the Atlantic Monthly. Herrnstein’s argument, he was the first to point out, should have been banal. He wrote that as social status becomes less strongly determined by arbitrary legacies such as race, parentage, and inherited wealth, it will become more strongly determined by talent, espcially (in a modern economy) intelligence. Since differences in intelligence are partly inherited, and since intelligent people tend to marry other intelligent people, when a society becomes more just it will also become more stratified along genetic lines.  Smarter people will tend to float into the higher strata, and their children will tend to stay there. The basic argument should be banal because it is based on a mathematical necessity: as the proportion of variance in social status caused by nongenetic factors goes down, the proportion caused by genetic factors has to go up. It could be completely false only if there were no variation in social status based on intelligence (which would require that people were either blank slates or clones.)” (p. 127)

Chapter outline:
Part I: The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine
Chapter 1: The Official Theory
Chapter 2: Silly Putty
Chapter 3: The Last Wall to Fall
Chapter 4: Culture Vultures
Chapter 5: The Slate’s Last Stand

Part II: Fear and Loathing
Chapter 6: Political Scientist
Chapter 7: The Holy Trinity

Part III: Human Nature with a Human Face
Intro on page 138:
“The anxiety about human nature can be boiled down to four fears:
– if people are innately different, opression and discrimination would be justified
– if people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile
– if people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions
– if people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose”

Chapter 8: The Fear of Inequality
Chapter 9: The Fear of Imperfectibility
Chapter 10: The Fear of Determinism
Chapter 11: The Fear of Nihilism

Part III summed up on page 193:
“In the past four chapters I have shown why new ideas from the sciences of human nature do not undermine humane values. On the contrary, they present opportunities to sharpen our ethical reasoning and put those values on a firmer foundation. In a nutshell:
– it is a bad idea to say that discrimination is wrong only because the traits of all people are indistinguishable
– it is a bad idea to say that violence and exploitation are wrong only because people are not naturally inclined to them.
– it is a bad idea to say that people are responsible for their actions only because the causes of these actions are mysterious.
– and it is a bad idea to say that our motives are meaningful in a personal sense only because they are inexplicable in a biological sense.
These are bad ideas because they make our values hostages to fortune, implying that someday factual discoveries could make them obsolete. And they are bad ideas because they conceal the downsides of denying human nature: persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth.”

Part IV: Know Thyself
Chapter 12: In Touch with Reality
Chapter 13: Out of Our Depths
– our view of the world is informed by intuitions that serve us well in a basic society, but which are wrong in the modern one
p. 226: “Clones, in fact, are just identical twins born at different times. If Einstein had a twin, he would not have been a zombie, would not have continued Einstein’s stream of consciousness if Einstein had predeceased him, would not have given up his vital organs without a struggle and probably would have been no Einstein (since intelligence is only partly heritable).”
p. 229: “Genetically modified food are no more dangerous than “natural” foods because they are not fundamentally different from natural foods.  Virtually every animal and vegetable sold in a health-food store has been “genetically modiefied” for millenia by selective breeding and hybridization. The wild ancestor of carrots was a thin, bitter white root: The ancestor of corn had an inch-long, easily shattered cob with a few small, rock.hard kernels.  Plants are Darwinian creatures with no particular desire to be eaten, so they did not go out of their way to be tasty, healty, or easy for us to grow and harvest. On the contrary: they did go out of their way to deter us from eating them, by evolving irritants, toxins, and bitter-tasting compounds.”

Chapter 14: The Many Roots of Our Suffering

Chapter 15: The Sanctimonious Animal
– moralizing (smoking has been moralized, homosexuality amoralised)
– many questions are taboo (such as the blank slate), science often in the position of having to discuss the undiscussable
Summed up at end (p. 279):
“Glover notes that many twentieth-century atrocities were set in motion when the moral emotions were disabled. Decent people were lulled into committing appalling acts by a variety of amoralizing causes, such as utopian ideologies, phased decisions (in which the targets of bombing might shift from isolated factories to factories near neighborhoods to the neighborhoods themselves), and the diffusion of responsibility within a bureaucracy. It was often raw moral sentiment – feeling empathy for victims, or asking onself the moral-identity question “Am I the kind of person who could do this?” – that stopped people in mid-atrocity. The moral sense, amplified and extended by reasoning and a knowledge of history, is what stands between us and a Mad Max nightmare of ruthless pychopaths.
But there is still much to be aware of in human moralizing: the confusion of morality with status and unity, the temptation to overmoralize matters of judgment and thereby license aggression against those with whom we disagree, the taboos on thinking about unavoidable tradeoffs, and the ubiquious vice of self-deception, whcih always manages to put the self on the side of the angels. Hitler was a moralist (indeed, a moral vegetarian) who, by most accounts, was convinced of the rectitude of his cause. As the historian Ian Baruma wrote, this shows once again that true believers can be more dangerous than cynical operators. The latter might cut a deal; the former have to go to the end – and drag the world down with them.”

Part V: Hot Buttons
Chapter 16: Politics
– discussion of the left/right positions, why they fall into patterns
Chapter 17: Violence
– not true that most soldiers don’t fire their rifles in battle – “The belief turns out to be traceable to a single, dubious study of infantrymen in World War II. In follow-up interviews, the men denied having even been asked whether they had fired
their weapons, let alone having claimed they hadn’t.” (the “dubious study” was Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command by S.L.A. Marshall, who based on this idea came up with the “camaraderie” training style (make men protect their unit) prevalent in military today.)

Chapter 18:  Gender
– the argument that men tend to have wider distributions of capabilities than women, though the average is the same – meaning that at the tail ends of the variance, men will dominate. (Same argument held up in the Larry Summers debate.)
Chapter 19: Children
– 50% of child development is down to genetics, 0 to common environment, the rest to unique environment (child’s own experiences)
– studies of parenting and child development are notoriously bad
– p385: “People behave differently in different settings. That includes children, who tend to behave differently inside and outside the home. So even if parents’ behavior does affect how their children behave with them, it may not affect how their children behave with other people. […] To show that parents shape their children, then, a study would have to control for genes (by testing twins or adoptees), distinguish between parents affecting children and children affecting parents, measure the parents and the children independently, look at how children behave outside the home rather than inside, and test order children and young adults to see whether any effects are transient or permanent. No study that has claimed to show effects of parenting has met these standards.”

– children are shaped by their peers more than by their parents: “Children of immigrants acquire the language of their adopted homeland perfectly, without a foreign accent, as long as they have access to native speaking peers. They then try to force their parents to switch to the new language, and if they succeed, they may forget the mother tongue entirely.”
– parents are important because they select an environment for their children and, in doing so, select their peer group

– however, much is chance (unique environment): even genetically similar organisms like roundworms (only 959 cells) raised in controlled environments differ individually
– enter fate…..

Chapter 20: The Arts
– “…a surfeit of of Ph.D.s pumped out by graduate programs that failed to practice academic birth control.” (p401)
– “As a matter of fact, the arts and humanities are not in trouble.”
– “In every era for thousands of years critics have bemoaned the decline of culture, and the economist Tyler Cowen suggests they are the victims of a cognitive illusion. The best works of art are more likely to appear in a past decade than in the presnet decade for the same resaon that another line in the supermarket always moves faster than the one you are in: there are more of them. We get to enjoy the greatest hits winnowed from all those decades, listening to the Mozarts and forgetting the Salieris.”
– takes postmodernism to task, because it makes challenging of authority impossible

Part VI: The Voice of the Species
– selected choices from literature to show how human nature prevails

Appendix: Donald E. Brown’s List of Human Universals (a list of things that are common across all human cultures, available at

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