The Blank Slate – The Modern Denial of Human Nature, by Steven Pinker

Penguin 2002 (First Published 2002) (Buy at Amazon)

Review by Ian Glendinning, December 2002. (Last revised 28th Dec 2002)
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The Blank Slate is the most recent offering from Steven Pinker. I find myself compelled to write this review by that “life-changing” feeling experienced previously only with Brunowski’s Ascent of Man, T.E.Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Melville’s Moby Dick.

Whatever your view of Pinker’s views, the man clearly knows his brains. The question is, does that qualify him to talk about minds? As the sub-title infers, this book is a plea for recognising human natures as an innate (and hence evolved) aspect of life in general, and he is passionate in exposing his evidence for mis-representation of the human mind as a blank slate (or amorphous lump of Silly Putty) on which culture is written, whilst at the same time taking great pains to separate the evils of political totalitarianism from this biological and physical fact. He even dares to suggest that a better grasp of the facts might benefit us all (in all aspects of life), though having said that he acknowledges that the pragmatic reality of political life could lead one to simpler views, simply because misunderstanding of the more complex reality might be just too hot to handle (p151). [If the truth is too dangerous, give ‘em religion - the opiate of the people – Thank God (p131), or the published accounts – the sanitised rhetoric of business – let them eat cake.] [S.J.Gould comes out of this very badly – strange but I could never put my finger on why Gould hadn’t got it quite right – despite my agreeing with his avoidance of the pitfalls of anthropocentric views of the natural world, and his recognition of the misguided propensity to interpret statistics as necessarily displaying trends.]

The thing I like about Pinker is that whilst he exhibits this conviction, stemming from his own “awe” of science fact … “The starting point [on page 197] for acknowledging human nature is a sheer awe and humility in the face of the staggering complexity of its source, the brain.” … he manages, despite constructing extremely reactionary arguments opposing those fallacies he’s exposing, to hang onto objectivity. I can only hope the warm feeling I get from Pinker’s words allow me too to remain objective in reinforcing my own theses with his. [If I’m being honest, this passionate contrast of awe at the heights of science fact, with despair at the depths of human depravity is exactly the emotion that gripped me with Brunowski grasping his handful of earth at the gates of Auschwitz.]

My summary / thoughts in progress. Mind is an emergent property from the layers of complexity in the real physical brain – mysteriously ghostly by analogy, and the lack of a snappy explanation, but not in fact. By its innate nature, a mind includes value-based ethical systems, created and modified by evolution, reinforced or modified, but not exclusively learned, by cultural / environmental forces in each generation. As Katherine Hepburn says to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen “Nature, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” All “behaviours” are a dynamical balance between competing “drives” - even if pragmatic decision making must involve binary choices on a case by case basis, the generality of factual knowledge is rarely binary. This dynamical balance is inherent in the evolved brain itself – eg the human mind within the brain is innately neither aggressive / competitive nor pacific / collaborative – but is pre-wired with the mechanisms to balance these and other conflicts of interest. What’s more, this dynamical balance of drivers repeats by analogy at every layer from sub-quantum physics to cosmology of the multiverse itself, through all the layers of human experience between, but we must not confuse the repeating patterns expressed in metaphors with the same physical mechanisms and causal relationships. In terms of mental evolution (and Darwinian evolution in general), the key trap is to confuse “proximate” drivers and causal mechanisms of immediate decision making by individuals and groups, with the “ultimate” evolutionary causes and outcomes. [Not forgetting game theory aspects in recognising that parties involved in decisions or affected by their outcomes all have their own “rational” strategies too – See Dennett’s Intentional Stance.] - The “selfish gene” in Dawkins’ terms does not make for selfish human organisms.

The dilemma between the scientific quest for true knowledge, and the risk that its exploitation may be morally misguided towards atrocities, is a distinction Pinker is keen to remind us of (p135), just as Einstein did in his letter to Roosevelt (See Brunowski’s Ascent of Man), and just as Durrenmatt does in “Die Physiker”.

In the context of my own research, arising from the bind of political correctness in the rationalisation of business decision making, Pinker is on a different plane, ringing alarm bells on the scale of humanity itself. The rational comfort zone in decision-making, seems to be a natural, pragmatic and understandable conflict- avoidance / face-saving strategy. More interestingly, Pinker cites evidence to consider the entire left side of the brain cortex to be a “baloney generator” or “spin-doctor” (p43), constructing convincing rational (comfortable rhetorical?) arguments, whatever the facts! [Argyris’ organisational behaviour analyses are remarkably close to the fundamental workings of the human brain it would seem.]

The more unfounded pseudo-social science drives policy to misguided binary choices, the bigger the catastrophic step change needed to correct the situation. Pinker is not one for planned economies, just the freedom (and true knowledge) to do the right thing before it’s too late. Policy must be strategic whilst accommodating tactics, not the other way around.

Given all this heavy stuff, and after all that’s why I’m reading Pinker, I have to say The Blank Slate is a great read. Some excellent turns of phrase as well as gripping narrative, not to mention a liberal sprinkling of jokes. (eg in his section on the threat of punishment for wrong-doing – “some people need [only] the threat of a [single] lash with a wet noodle to deter them from parking in front of a fire-hydrant” (p185) - made me smile. Monty Python and Woody Allen provide inspiration. Foucault and Eco exhibit a similar lightness of touch, if a little less passion.) [More examples – on biology as the perfect alibi – displacing individual responsibility – “the ultimate doctor’s note; get-out-of-jail-free card; … Darwin made me do it; the genes ate my homework.” (p175/176) Or “duelling rent-a-shrinks” (p184) Or “I find it truly surreal to read academics denying the existence of intelligence.” (p149) Or when Nobel Prize winner George Wald was invited to make a donation to a sperm bank “If you want sperm that produces Nobel Prize winners, you should be contacting poor immigrant tailors like my father.” (p153) Or “debating the Pope is the ultimate exercise in futility” (p187).]

The second half of the book Pinker’s main purpose is to make bold statements about the big issues – the “hot buttons” of life. Conservative vs liberal politics, Violence and war, Gender politics, Children, parents, siblings, peers and heredity and development in general, and finally the Arts. This section is prefaced with one designed to set the philosophical limits to what we can know / can be known, which is altogether tougher. I actually found this surprisingly shallow and surprising in places. He makes it clear that he’s not one for the – reality is all about language school, despite making it clear that language is his main area of interest as a psychologist. I’d need to re-read this middle section, or more properly some of his earlier works on the workings of language and mind. Very anti-postmodernism too (p404) “denial of human nature carried over with a vengeance to post-modernism”; ”denying vehemently knowledge, meaning and shared values”; “Marxist and paranoid”.

He continues to contrast reactionary views at all stages of his arguments – constantly reminding us that nothing is ever that black and white. The culmination for me is in the section on Children. He starts with 3 laws

The First Law – All (most he says later) human behavioural traits are heritable (directly or indirectly, to some extent) (40 - 50% contribution)

The Second Law – The effect of being raised in the same family is (much) smaller that the effects of the genes. (0 – 10% contribution)

The Third Law – A substantial proportion of all the variation in complex human traits, is not accounted for by either genes or families, but by fateful experiences in the physical, chemical, sensory and social environment from the moment of conception onwards, the point of birth being no more significant than any other. [See also Chrucky] (50% contribution)

This is interesting reading for a parent I can tell you, but reassuringly for my own direction of research, as well as reinforcing the “every decision is a compromise” line, the main drivers turn out to be chaotic chance and opportunity. What is interesting is that innate traits are exploited as situations arise “capriciously” in peer groups (very Belbin, very Myers-Briggs). Not only that, many innate capabilities are biologically determined and magnified by tiny chance events in the womb, and in social events thereafter, in entirely non-genetic, non-heritable, random ways. ie most of the 50% is “fate”. Pinker, of course, makes it clear that none of this is an excuse for “bad parenting” – there is plenty of rationale for being good to your kids lest there be any doubt. (Read it if you want to know what these are.)

The real killer is this – these truths are “too terrible to contemplate”, can be “admitted only with embarrassment” and would be “mortifying if openly exposed”. It is much “easier to think” in terms of “comfortable rationalisations”. True knowledge is emergent from complex chaotic realities that are much more difficult to deal with that our intuitive rational view of reality, and that intuitive view is genetically evolved – it’s just that it is many millennia behind our current state of development as inhabitants of the planet. The rate of genetic evolution is much slower than the pace of technological and social change. No wonder string theory looks like the “dreams that stuff is made of.” [Quote source ?]

He talks of the blank slate view of the world “ … disfiguring science and intellectual life; denying the possibility of objectivity and truth, dumbing down [complex] issues into [simple] dichotomies, replacing facts and logic with political posturing.”

Similar to both Dupuy and Dennett he sees the arts as a potentially superior form of intellect to science - “Poets and novelists have made many of [my] points with greater wit and power that any academic scribbler could hope to do.” He goes on to summarise his book with extracts from several works of fiction, though for me, this is done so transparently that the examples add little. Talking of  “The brain is wider than the sky” by Emily Dickinson – I couldn’t help thinking of Douglas Adams and Marvin’s “Brain the size of a planet

The main message I take away is summed up in the following “  … the mind, in contemplating it’s place in the cosmos, at some point reaches it’s own limitations and runs into puzzles that seem to belong in a separate divine realm. Free will and subjective experience [] are alien to our concept of causation and feel like a divine spark inside us. Morality and meaning seem to inhere in a reality that exists independent of our judgements. But that separateness [duality, emergence] may be the illusion of a brain that makes it impossible for us not to think they are separate from us. Ultimately we have no way of knowing, because we are our brains.”

[PS – a good section on psychometric typing above and beyond Jungian Myers-Briggs stuff. (p50)]

[PPS – some good stuff reinforcing the “technology as the main driver of socio-economic development” - Kondratiev et al.]

[PPPS – some good stuff on the human genome results and “twins” based research (eg in Icelandic population). Lots of the material on objective testing of inheritance vs environment is based on this stuff and the logical and statistical reasoning is well explained.]