2002 October 30 Wednesday
The Blank Slate, the Modern Denial of Human Nature

Steven Pinker, language specialist and professor in the Department of Brain Cognitive Science at MIT. Pinker has written a new book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Pinker takes issue with the assumption underlying so much of modern social science that we are born as tabula rasas and that our thinking is entirely shaped by our environments. He points out that rarely do social scienists use adopted and biological children in experiments to try to discover just how much about how we think and how we behave is a result of environment, genes, or a combination of the two. Here are some excepts from the Financial Times Steven Pinker interview about his booK:

He says: "In psychology and the social sciences, there is a phobia of any possibility that the mind has some degree of innate organisation. And that distorts the science, because certain hypotheses are not even mentioned, let alone tested and proven or disproven."

This is a serious problem in the social sciences. This blind spot in the minds of so many social scientists results in mounds of studies in which genetic factors are rarely controlled for. Therefore a lot of effort being expended to do social science is producing dubious results which in turn serve as the basis for harmful political decisions. Pinker argues that we shouldn't build up political beliefs on falsehoods:

Pinker suddenly grows grave. He delivers another concise paragraph in defence of his maverick claims: "Many politically conscious scholars believe that claims about human nature are dangerous, because they feel that they could legitimate discrimination and oppression, or even slavery and genocide. They argue that it's politically preferable to say that all human traits are the product of culture.

"My own view is that this politicisation of science does much more harm than good. You can never predict what tomorrow's science will find, and therefore you shouldn't rest some important moral claim - such as that discrimination and oppression are wrong - on a factual hypothesis that might be refuted tomorrow."

I agree with Pinker's point brought up in The Economist's review that some of the human mind's nature as selected by evolution is in conflict with our needs in a technological society:

Two final points in favour of “The Blank Slate” are these. Unlike many new-science popularisers, the book never underplays the mind's complexity. Nor does it revel in juvenile smugness about the human condition. In one of his best chapters, “The Many Roots of Our Suffering”, Mr Pinker suggests that conflict between the drives which evolution has landed us with and the aptitudes that would now help us prosper is probably inevitable. Scientific knowledge can at least aid us in managing this conflict, and denying science will almost certainly make it worse. In the words of Anton Chekhov, one of Mr Pinker's favourites, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

I think this makes a lot of sense. Denying our instincts does not make them go away. If we can develop a better understanding of our instincts then we'll be far better equipped to deal with them. As has been recently illustrated by the news that the North Korean regime has been working on nuclear weapons development, holding illusions about the intentions and motives of other humans makes the world a more dangerous place.

The Guardian on Pinker's book:

It's tough being a parent: you try your best and the kids grow up in spite of you, according to Steven Pinker, evolutionary psychologist and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Time and again, he says, the most exhaustive attempts by researchers to document the role of parents has failed to find any significant influence. For example, identical twins reared together were no more similar than identical twins reared apart.

"When you think about it, that is quite a shock. People confuse that with the finding that identical twins separated at birth are similar at all," he says. "Finding number two: adopted siblings growing up together don't end up similar at all, in intelligence, personality, or in life outcomes like divorce or criminal behaviour. Those are two shocks, because they are very inclusive measures of everything that a child experiences at home, whether the parents are nice or nasty, spank you or don't, whether you have TV sets or books."

Steve Sailer interviews Steven Pinker:

Q: What is the Naturalistic Fallacy vs. the Moralistic Fallacy?

A: The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for Social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the Naturalistic Fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave -- as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK).

The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on. It also lies behind the romantic belief that humans cannot harbor desires to kill, rape, lie, or steal because that would be too depressing or reactionary.

Update: Kenan Malik, author of Man, Beast, and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human Nature has written an excellent review and critique of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate in the October 2002 issue of the UK Prospect Magazine:

But this separation of nature and values raises new problems. Human values, presumably, do not float down from the sky; how then do they originate if not through "natural selection and neurophysiology," which Pinker considers the basis of all human thoughts and behaviour? Pinker argues that some innate faculties "may endow us with greed or lust or malice, but others may endow us with sympathy, foresight, self-respect... and an ability to learn from our own experiences and those of our neighbours." Nature, in other words, has endowed us with both good and bad propensities, and particular values arise from the clash of these propensities. This suggests that values are rooted in nature. It is difficult to distinguish this argument from that which Pinker condemns as the "moralistic fallacy." The primatologist Frans de Waal suggests in his book The Ape and the Sushi Master that thinkers like Pinker "want to have it both ways: human behaviour is an evolutionary product except when it is hard to explain."

No one-not even the blankest of blank slate advocates-denies that human thoughts and behaviours are the products of brain processes. But this is not the same as explaining where those thoughts and values come from. Why, for instance, have we come to believe that slavery is wrong and the idea of equal worth good? Pinker says that everyone feels "revulsion... toward discrimination and slavery," because it is in our nature to reject such treatment: "No one likes being enslaved. No one likes being humiliated."

For most of human history, though, slavery was regarded as natural as individual freedom is today. Only in the past 200 years have we begun to view the practice with revulsion. Why? Partly because of the political ideas generated by the Enlightenment, partly because of the changing economic needs of capitalism, and partly because of the struggles of the enslaved and the oppressed. To understand human values such as the belief in equal worth, we need to explore not so much human psychology as human history, society and politics.

Update: The New Yorker review by Louis Menand.

The insistence on deprecating the efficacy of socialization leads Pinker into absurdities that he handles with a blitheness that would be charming if his self-assurance were not so overdeveloped. He argues, for example, that democracy, the rule of law, and women's reproductive freedom are all products of evolution. The Founding Fathers understood that the ideas of power sharing and individual rights are grounded in human nature. And he quotes, with approval, the claim of two evolutionary psychologists that the "evolutionary calculus" explains why women evolved "to exert control over their own sexuality, over the terms of their relationships, and over the choice of which men are to be the fathers of their children." Now, democracy, individual rights, and women's sexual autonomy are concepts almost nowhere to be found, even in the West, before the eighteenth century. Either human beings spent ten thousand years denying their own nature by slavishly obeying the whims of the rich and powerful, cheerfully burning heretics at the stake, and arranging their daughters' marriages (which would imply a pretty effective system of socialization), or modern liberal society is largely a social construction. Which hypothesis seems more plausible?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 October 30 11:49 PM  Human Nature

Donnie Hale said at October 31, 2002 8:49 AM:

In the spirit of being provocative, I'll comment that the book sounds quite interesting. However, its conclusions can only be taken so far since he operates under the faulty premise that evolution is scientific fact. ;)


Douglas Mayfield said at January 22, 2004 5:17 AM:

I have just read Pinker's book, 'The Blank Slate...'. It goes a long way toward clearing vestigial cobwebs in the collective mind of 21st century America. Because policy makers, anyone for that matter, who engages consideration of social and psychological issues, will have to square with Turkkheimer's three laws of behaviorial genetics and their ramificaions, I believe Pinker's book is a pivotal landmark in cultural thought.
To Donnie Hale, who provocatively removes himself from discussion over difficulties with evolution, I can only say that evolution, like it or not, is the most elegant in inclusive organizing principle of proximal causes of how we and our fellow life forms came to be the way we are today. Of course, more direct experiments to test the hypotheses of natural selection are underway at present but none of us will live long enough to see the end results, in which one discrete species may give rise to another We are obliged, for the moment, to accept established and quite substantial results of testing by more indirect means.
To Frans de Waal, whose book I haven't read but who is quoted by Karen Malik, I would say that Pinker does in no way wish "to have it both ways." He works with statistical variances to show correlation or not. Most behaviors, if heritable, are related to collections of, or more distant effects from single genes coding for specific proteins. A good model to use for thinking about this is the relative penetrance or non-penetrance of genes linked to cancer. Some cancer-linked genes have nearly 100 percent penetrance, that is, 100 percent correlation. Others genes are definitely linked but have a penetrance close to zero. There is a full continuum in between. Pinker says the exact genetic loci of most behavioral traits were not yet known at the time of his writing. But the human genome, now completely known, is being mined intensively with a multitude of techniques and resources, and genetic behaviorism predicts that loci will be found.
All Pinker says with explicit confidence is that variance in behavior is not entirely correlated the genetic inheritance, but less that 50 percent, as he states. This argues for some other contirbution, but parental influence has been largely ruled out.
To Louis Menand, I would say that Pinker does not refute the efficiency of socialation, but only the relative impact of parental care within upper middle class white America. He acknowledges that 50 percent or more of personality development comes from somewhere in the environment, but the proponents for pro-active parenting haven't proven their case. And thousands years of cultural heritage in which wives were treated like property doesn't, argue that females have not developed a mate selectivity to ehance their own genes' survival. Nor does it argue that these females didn't suffer greatly in many cases. It would be fruitful to investigate, for example, whether acceptance of a mate selected by your patriarch may be often alligned with the female's own mate-selectivity, because she is given confidence that her children will be well-provided for with the opportunities and resources they need.
To Karen Malik's remarks about slavery, she is right about the need to study history, politics, and society in order "to understand values such as human worth," and Pinker suggests this himself. But just as the study of molecules is finally beginning to shed light on the behavior of individuals, so the individual must be understood to fill out our picture of society. Blank slate, or human nature? That question is, for the most part, history. Why did slavery persist for centuries, and why were women so often and for so long treated as lesser humans for so long? Much of the answer to both these questions lies in Singers', 'The Expanding Cirle,' our cirles of humans who may be important us has enlarged over time, to which you will see important references in Pinker's book.

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