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The Blank State – Steven Pinker

January 12, 2016

TBSI read his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined some time ago.

This book (being less optimistic) seems to contradict some of the ideas found in that book. Maybe his views changed over nine years.

 Most of us are tired of the nature versus nurture debate – we decide that it’s a bit of both. Pinker comes down on the unfashionable side of nature.

He introduces us to many famous philosophers on the way and shows that their work has considerable repercussions on the way we live our lives and how we treat other people.

Examples of harm done by the belief in a blank slate of human nature: Totalitarian social engineering. If the human mind is a blank slate completely formed by the environment, then ruthlessly and totally controlling every aspect of the environment will create perfect minds; Inappropriate or excessive blame of parents since if their children do not turn out well this is assumed to be entirely environmentally caused and especially due to the behavior of the parents; Release of dangerous psychopaths who quickly commit new crimes; Construction of massive and dreary tenement complexes since housing and environmental preferences are assumed to be culturally caused and superficial; Persecution and mass murder of the successful who are assumed to have gained unfairly. This includes not only individuals but entire successful groups who are assumed to have become successful unfairly and by exploitation of other groups. Examples include Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust; kulaks in the Soviet Union; teachers and “rich” peasants in the Cultural Revolution; city dwellers and intellectuals under the Khmer Rouge.

According to Pinker, the Blank Slate is demonstrably false. Discoveries in neuroscience have shown that the mind comes equipped with various specialized functions, including those responsible for learning languages, estimating numerical quantities, picking out objects in the world, and attributing thoughts and intentions to other human beings. Some of these systems, moreover, vary from person to person in ways that are influenced by the genes. Behavioral geneticists have shown that about half of the variability in a trait like IQ is biological in origin, confirming the long-held suspicion that—all other things being equal—smart people tend to have smart children.

He shows that cherished beliefs, such as the comparative non-violence of the Samoans, is based on faulty research by Margaret Mead.

Pinker set out to defeat three theories:

– The blank slate — the idea that all humans are the same at birth and that whatever each develops into is the result of education, experience, etc, and furthermore, we can
control what each individual develops into by changing their upbringing, education, etc.

– The noble savage — The idea that people are basically good, but that society and
civilization turn them into something bad. Or, as Andy Rooney said: Democrats believe that people are basically good, but that they need government to keep them from doing bad; Republicans believe that people are basically bad, but they will do good if government leaves them alone.

– The separation of mind and body — The mind and body are two separate things and two different kinds of things. One, the body, is physical, has extension, has physical
properties like smoothness, weight, etc; the other, the mind, is not physical, does not
occupy space, is pure thought, etc. Somehow these two influence each other, e.g.
injuries to my body causes pain in my mind and thoughts or feelings in my mind can cause my body to move.

against the above three theories? Mostly because
of the fallacies he thinks they lead us into. For example:

– The idea that men and women are basically the same, and that they will develop into
individuals with the same abilities and wants if we could only raise and educate them in the same way and if cultural influences did not twist them into different kinds of

– The idea that all races are basically the same, have the same levels of intelligence,
the same average levels of abilities, the same inclination to be good or bad,
non-violent or violent, moral or immoral, etc.

His ideas are bad news for liberal educationists and good news for Tories who want children to learn their times tables by rote.

However, his summary of Christian beliefs is a caricature based on fundamentalism so I wonder how accurate, or otherwise, is his summary of the thoughts of the various philosophers he quotes.

At one stage, he says that the family is subversive of the state. Jesus’s notion of the family of believers is even more subversive – of the notion of ‘family’ itself. “Who are my mother and sisters …?’

TBS 2Quotations:

“asked about a hospital administrator who had to decide whether to spend a million dollars on a liver transplant for a child or use it on other hospital needs”, and which found that “not only did respondents want to punish an administrator who chose to spend the money on the hospital, they wanted to punish an administrator who chose to save the child but thought for a long time before making the decision”.

Modern intellectual life is suffused with a relativism that denies that there is such a thing as a universal human nature, and the existence of a language instinct in any form challenges that denial.

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE.’

Locke opposed dogmatic jus­tifications for the political status quo, such as the authority of the church and the divine right of kings, which had been touted as self-evident truths. He ar­gued that social arrangements should be reasoned out from scratch and agreed upon by mutual consent, based on knowledge that any person could acquire. Since ideas are grounded in experience, which varies from person to person, differences of opinion arise not because one mind is equipped to grasp the truth and another is defective, but because the two minds have had differ­ent histories. Those differences therefore ought to be tolerated rather than suppressed. Locke’s notion of a blank slate also undermined a hereditary roy­alty and aristocracy, whose members could claim no innate wisdom or merit if their minds had started out as blank as everyone else’s.

The Blank Slate has also served as a sacred scripture for political and eth­ical beliefs. According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences—by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards—and you can change the person. Underachievement, poverty, and antisocial behavior can be ameliorated; indeed, it is irresponsible not to do so. And discrimination on the basis of purportedly inborn traits of a sex or ethnic group is simply irrational.

“Some theorists believe that there are indeed certain questions that humans are incapable of answering because of our evolved nature. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in our short-term memory. We cannot see ultra-violet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.”

“from the structure of DNA, to the physical composition of the sun despite our evolutionary legacy, not because of it. It is true that the development of science requires mental skills, many of which are evolved adaptations, but science has enabled us to go well beyond those adaptations. We can do science only because we can transcend our evolutionary heritage and act as subjects, rather than as objects”

TBS 3“Beginning in the 1950s, with the cognitive revolution, all that changed. It is now possible to make sense of mental processes, and even to study them in the lab… Before the revolution, commentators invoked enormous black boxes such as ‘the intellect’ or ‘the understanding’, and they made sweeping pronouncements about human nature, such as that we are essentially noble or essentially nasty. But we now know that the mind is not a homogeneous orb invested with unitary powers or across-the-board traits. The mind is modular… In the study of humans, there are major spheres of human experience – beauty, motherhood, kinship, morality, co-operation, sexuality, violence – in which evolutionary psychology provides the only coherent theory and has spawned vibrant new areas of empirical research… The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation and feedback… Thinking is a physical process… We are our brains…”

“Psychology banished mental entities like beliefs and desires altogether and replaced them with stimuli and responses.”

“Social scientists saw the malleability of humans and the autonomy of culture as doctrines that might bring about the age-old dream of perfecting mankind.”

“In this chapter I will diagnose the malaise of the arts and humanities and offer some suggestions for revitalizing them.”

“The moral and political track record of modernist artists is nothing to be proud of. Some were despicable in the conduct of their personal lives…”

….A human example comes from Woody Allen. Though his fame, fortune, and ability to attract beautiful women may depend on having genes that enhance a sense of humor, In Stardust Memories he explains to an envious childhood friend that there is a crucial environmental factor as well: “We live in a society that puts a big value on jokes….If I had been an Apache Indian, those guys didn’t need comedians, so I’d be out of work.”
The meaning of findings in behavioral genetics for our understanding of human nature has to be worked out for each case. An aberrant gene that causes a disorder shows the standard version of the gene is necessary to have a normal human mind. But what the standard version does is not immediately obvious. If a gear with a broken tooth goes clunk on every turn, we do not conclude that the tooth in its intact form was a clunk-suppressor. And so a gene that disrupts a mental ability need not be a defective version of a gene that is ‘for’ that ability….

“The fact is that the values of the middle class… are good things, not bad things. Most of the world wants to join the bourgeoisie, and most artists are members in good standing who adopted a few bohemian affectations”.

“Blank Slate” refers to an extreme denial of human “nature” rather than a mere leaning towards “nurture”.

“I suspect that few people really believe, deep down, that boys and girls are interchangeable, that all differences in intelligence come from the environment…”

“The Blank Slate had, and has, a dark side. The vacuum that it posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides.”

“[The Blank Slate doctrine] implies that [people] could be conditioned to enjoy servitude or degradation”

“The case against bigotry is not a factual claim that humans are biologically indistinguishable. It is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups…”

“The revulsion we feel toward discrimination and slavery comes from a conviction that however much people vary on some traits, they do not vary on these [innate traits]”

“Human nature is the reason we do not surrender our freedom to behavioral engineers”

“Western societies are good at providing things that people want: clean water, effective medicine, varied and abundant food, rapid transport and communication. They perfect these goods and services not from benevolence but from self-interest, namely the profits to be made in selling them.”

“The studies exclude cases of criminal neglect…nor can they say anything about the differences between cultures-about what makes a child middle-class America a opposed to … a Tibetan monk or even an urban street gang”.

“With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.”

See also


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