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Wednesday, December 04, 2002 - 08:49 AM Permanent link for The Blank Slate
The Blank Slate

I've been eager to read Steven Pinker's Blank Slate for a few months now and, with Thanksgiving holiday airplane travel, I've finally had the occasion to dive in.

Unlike Pinker's other books which are more of a scientific reference, this book is far more "meta" and focuses on the role of & reaction to scientific inquiry into "human nature" in the light of current socio-political dogma.    This modern inquiry does reveal, almost unequivocally, that there is a "human nature" that is genetically encoded that is universal across all people and cultures.

This recognition has also provoked a backlash almost from the outset [Intro, viii]:

To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, war, greed, genocide, nihilism, reactionary politics, and neglect of children and the disadvantaged"

Pinker sums the core tenets anti-innate-human-nature philosophy as belief in:

  • Blank Slate -- the idea that individuals are products of their environments & cultures, and consequently, various social policies can be "engineered" to almost limitlessly push humanity towards progressive, utopian ends
  • Noble Savage -- the idea that "evil" in the world is the product of man-made conventions.   That returning to a more "natural" world will correspondingly rid us of our ails.
  • Ghost in the Machine -- the idea that the human mind isn't a physical / biological product but is rather the product of a "soul" that can't be "reduced" through scientific inquiry.

He provides a great description of the social/philosophical origins of these theories.   As with many of my opinions about PoMo thought, the theories are internally consistent & cross leverage each other well but, they're just flat out wrong taken from their hermetically sealed universe and applied to ours.

At their core, these beliefs tend to intersect in a belief/hope that by reengineering society, the individual can in turn be reengineered -- the doctine of the SuperOrganism of Culture [p26]:

The doctrine of the superorganism has had an impact on modern life that extends well beyond the writings of social scientists.   It underlies the tendency to reify "society" as a moral agent that can be blamed for sins as if it were a person.   It drives identity politics, in which civil rights and political perquisites are allocated to groups rather than to individuals.... it defined some of the great divides between major political systems in the twentieth century.

The acceptance of Human Nature & denial of the SuperOrganism meets resistence from 4 fears:

  • Fear of Inequality -- that if humans are different, they must also be innately inequal and therefore discrimination becomes a rational response
  • Fear of Imperfectibility -- that genetically encoded behaviors are a fact of life and therefore a necessary impediment to utopian ideals
  • Fear of Determinism -- that genetically encoded behaviors trump free will and that we are just zombies
  • Fear of Nihilism -- that genetically encoded behaviors mean we're just reacting to animalistic pleasure centers and hormones and that life itself loses its "meaning"

Pinker provides relatively detailed, specific retorts to each of these fears.   The generalized retort boils down to something along the lines of "while genetics plays a role in creating our basest motivations, it is NOT the only motivation and we have full capability -- demonstrated historically -- to recognize these motives and engineer social institutions & incentive systems for rational individuals accordingly"

For example, in dealing with the question of innate inequality, Pinker treads somewhat lightly but contends that social/political systems can/must be constructed with an assumption of inviolable / inalienable rights for all individuals regardless of equality.  (For ex., no matter how low your score on an IQ test, society will not / should not remove your right to vote).  

Similarly, ample evidence seems to content that while a small aspect of certain traits are heritable, the nature/nurture mix for some critical ones such as intelligence is more like 50/50 (I liked his anecdote of a family where the 3 generations consisted of a Carpenter --> nobel prize winner --> musician).   Also, genes may prescribe some averages for groups but variances between individuals within groups are always too profound to drive policy that flies so directly in the face of morality.

In the question of imperfectability, I prefer Pinker's treatment in a separate interview about the Blank Slate, where he cites the example of ideas baked into the US constitution aimed to counteract the individual pursuit of status and vainglory.   We didn't try to create an idealist system that denied human vainglory (that would be Marxism), rather the Founding Fathers simply recognized it and created structural safegaurds against it (namely Checks and Balances).

Unfortunately, even to someone with "just a hair above the layman's knowledge" in this space like myself, I found much of Pinker's material to be repeats of other material he's published.   In some cases, stuff that others only casually associated with Socio-Biology have published.   For the Gene Expressions folks, Blank Slate must be utterly passe.

Much of Pinker's work is directed towards critics in academia who probably remain the supreme bastion of Blank Slate mythology.   Those of us in the real, 9-to-5 world are probably more acquainted with the reality that we all can't play basketball like Michael Jordan or solve Differential Equations in our heads and thus not as shaken by Pinker's assertions.

He devotes the first 200 pages of the book towards addressing the critics of the inquiry into human nature.   For me personally, this was far too much time/energy/effort and I was personally far more interested in getting answers to "what is human nature?

His chapters on this topic directly attack fundamental tenets of PostModernist thought.   He argues, for example, that thoughts are generally independent of culture & language and that it is possible to make an objective inquiry with a perspective that is universal across humanity.   He shows that modern scientific inquiry has proven that there are certain cognitive abilities that arise a priori of sensory experience such as spatial reasoning, simplistic physics, and a simplistic economics and biology.

Importantly, these theories/observations are both (or neither?) good or bad but simply, scientifically driven observations.   That is to say, recognizing human nature doesn't always mean that our institutions should simply let it flow.   In quite a few cases, our evolutionarily-inspired Nature leaves us unprepared for the complexities of modern life and our institutions may be involved in a form of "unlearning"

As a consequence, for example, Pinker cites a Human-Nature-friendly theory on education [p 222]:

Education is neither writing on a blank slate [in contrast to prevailing theories such as Rote memorization] nor allowing a child's nobility to flower [in contrast to more nouveau ones such as Whole Language].   Rather education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at.  Children don't have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding,or remembering dates in history.

... Because much of the content of education is not cognitively natural, the process of mastering it may not always be easy or pleasant, notwithstanding the mantra that learning is fun... they are not necessarily motivated in their cognitive faculties to unnatural tasks like formal mathematics.

Another example - the fact that our evolutionary derived sense of biology is at odds with True biology.   The result is a Human-Nature-based theory on our emotional aversion to Genetically Modified foods [p 230]:

People's intuive biology begins with the concept of an invisible essence residing in living things, which gives them their form and powers.   These essentialist beliefs emerge early in childhood, and in traditional cultures they dominate reasoning about plants and animals...

... Most Americans won't touch a sterilized cockroach, or even a plastic one, and won't drink juice that the roach has touched for even a fraction of a second.

...In this context, the fear of genetically modified foods no longer seems so strange:  it is simply the standard human intuition that every living thing has an essence.   Natural foods are thought to have the pure essence of the plant or animal and to carry with them the rejuvenating powers of the pastoral enviornment in which they grew...  [GM foods] are thought of as being deliberately laced with a contaminant tainted by its origins in an acrid laboratory or factory.

Unfortunately, the survey on Universal Human Nature is FAR too brief for my tastes.   While it wasn't the avowed topic of Pinker's book (he's addressing the inquiry rather than the nature) I'm still quite disappointed.   

The final 4 chapters of the book are a cross section of some of the most politically charged topics:  PoliticsViolenceGender, Children, and The Arts.   Surprisingly, despite (postively) quoting The Bell Curve earlier in the book, Race is NOT a topic Pinker chose to address.

Nevertheless, the section on Politics was quite satiating for me.   In many ways, it is what drove my interest in the book from the outset given my interest in Governance [p 296]:

As Madison wrote, "What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?"

Pinker's section on Politics begins with a very simplistic although frequently recurring division of the Political spectrum between (his terms) the Tragic Vision and Utopian Vision theorists.   These roughly correspond to the Modern Conservative (selectively characterized by Pinker as both a Virtuous Conservative and a Conservative/Libertarian) and a Modern Liberal.   Given the Modern Liberal proclivity towards the Blank Slate, Pinker, not surprisingly points out that many of the revelations of Human Nature science agree with the theories of the Founding Fathers / Classical Liberal school. [p296]

The legal scholar John Mcginnis has argued that their [the Founding Fathers'] theory of human nature could have come right out of modern evolutionary psychology

When it comes to picking sides, Pinker tries hard to avoid pointing in one direction vs. the other [p 207]:

As with other policy issues I examine in this book, the data form the lab do not offer a thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on .. policies.   But by highlighting the feature of our psychology that diferent policies engage, the finding can make tradeoff clearer and the debates better informed.

But when it comes to politics, the classical liberal school does win points [p 293]:

My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life.

Pinker hedges from providing outright support of the Libertarian school by spending significant time evaluating the promise that human nature inquiry also has room to vindicate some tenets of "leftism".    For ex., Rawlsian distributed justice creeps in: [p304]

...People are opposed to a blanket welfare state not out of greed but out of fairness.   A welfare system that did not try to rewrite the public consciousness, nd which distinguished between thedeserving and the undserving poor, would, they argue, be perfectly consanant with human nature.

Other examples of room for a leftist interpretation of human nature science include behavior economics, theories on human "recognition" very similar to Fukuyama, and questions about the extent of rational choice.  

Razib K's review of Blank Slate is here. He is FAR more knowledgeable about the overall subject of, well, Gene Expressions, than I....  However, I did enjoy this passage from his review & it resonates well:

[despite Pinker being an avowed "liberal"...] While much of the Right disagrees with Pinker’s position on the ghost in the machine, they will give credit where it is due and admit that he fights the good fight on the issues of the blank slate and the noble savage. The Left on the other hand ignores whatever commonalties it might have with this pagan barbarian and exiles him to the outermost hells of conservatism. This fanatic adherence to dogma is why Pinker savages the Left more than the Right.

Keep in mind that the "Right" that Razib accuses Pinker of breaking with is more the Christian Right rather than the Classical Liberal one.

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