The Blank Slate: Notes & Review

the blank slate book cover

The Blank Slate (2002) states that the social sciences have been the victim of an unscientific, biased ideology of “cultural determinism” whereby culture drives behavior and attitudes, and never genes.
The Blank Slate shows instead that nature and genes matter and, often, matter more than culture.

Bullet Summary

  • When it comes to genes people suddenly lose the ability to differentiate between “50% from 100%, “some from all”, “affect from determinism”
  • In our current culture, people seem to lose all balance when it comes to nature VS nurture and claims that nature matters are viciously attacked (ie.: “racist”, “nazist”, “white male patriarchist, etc.”)

Summary

About the Author: Steven Pinker is a popular science author and an experimental psychologist and currently a psychology professor at Harvard.

Introduction

Pinker says that “The Blank Slate” does not say that it’s all about the genes.

Depending on the trait we examine culture or genes can matter more but, in most cases, it’s a mixture of the two.
Overall, both genes and the environment are equally important.

Even when the behavior is heritable, the behavior is still a product of development.  

However, we still need a book to remind us of the obvious: that genes do matter.

Why We Need to Defend Genes, Nature & Biology’s Role

The author makes the point that still to these days it’s incendiary to say that genes have a role in people’s actions, temperament, and skills.

Some authors have been scolded and for saying, for example, that:

  • Blacks’ lower IQ scores have genetical as well as environmental causes
  • Similarities of children come from genes not just from parenting
  • Rape is biological and not just cultural 

The author says that even to these days, an extremist position that says that culture is everything is still seen as moderate while the moderate position of 50/50 is seen as extreme.

The Blank Slate Fallacy

Steven Pinker refers to the blank slate as:

The idea that the human mind has no inherent structrue and can be inscribed at will by society or by ourselves.

The blank slate, the author says, has become the secular religion of modern intellectual life.

My Note: I couldn’t agree more with this.
I remember heated arguments with university colleagues where I always alone against a bunch of “intellectuals” who embraced the blank slates.

The Mistaken Assumptions of The Blank Slate

The blank slate is based on two mistaken assumptions:

  1. The noble savage: humans outside of civilization are good and peaceful
  2. Naturalistic fallacy: what happens in nature is good

And one fallacious attitude:

  • The moralistic fallacy: it would be so nice if the idea were true, that we shall believe it is true (a rehabilitated an individual cannot bring himself to harm and hurt others.. Which is obviously not true) 

Rousseau was wrong with the noble savage theory.
And so was Margaret Mead which confirmed the noble savage theory with her ideology-driven ethnographic analysis of the Samo (read Coming of Age in Samoa).
Mead described a culture of open-mindedness, pacifism, and free sex.

But she was wrong.

The truth is that most human societies have engaged in war and aggression and almost no society has approached sex as a simple act to be freely enjoyed at will.
And that is for a simple reason: aggression is part of the human makeup (together with opposing tendencies that can foster common good).

The author also pokes some good-humored fun at the limitations of ethnographic observation, and he is spot-on:

Imagine anthropologists studying the peaceful Europeans between 1918 and 1938

LOL I love that quote :D.

Three Scientific Myths Against Human Nature

Steven Pinker dismantles the most extreme versions of three major scientific developments that have been (mis)used to deny the complex human nature:

  1. Human genome project (the smaller than expected number of genes was used to refute the idea of innate talents or tendencies. The author calls it “the lean genome”)
  2. Computer models (since AI can learn so much, so the brain needs can wire or re-wire freely. The author calls it “connectionism”)
  3. Neuroplasticity (“the blank slate” becomes “the plastic slate”, quips the author. The truth is that Ramachandran and other scientists took it too far saying that any part of the brain can decode any message: it’s not true, some brain areas did specialize for certain inputs and processes)

Says the author:

Most gay men cannot be reversed by experience. Some parts of the mind just aren’t plastic.
And no discovery about how the sensory cortex gets rewired will change that fact.

Parenting is Not A Role Anyone Can Take On

The most extremist blank slate theories see parenting as simply a role that anyone can take on, no matter if they are the actual parents or not.

However, statistics show that non-biological parents are far more likely to abuse, mistreat, and ignore their step-children.

This is because we have stronger inborn tendencies to care and protect our biological children than random children.
Again, this is another example that we all have inborn tendencies and that not all are culturally acquired.

Heritability of Political Attitudes

Liberal and conservative attitudes are heritable not because attitudes are synthesized directly from DNA, but because they come naturally to people with different temperaments. 

Conservatives for example tend to be more conscientious, authoritarian, and rule-bound.

Parity of Outcomes is Dangerous and Wrong

When we consider people and genders are the same -which we are not- dangerous policies that force equality of outcomes can become the norm (communism, gulag.. And the current policies that seek to force a 50/50 gender split).

the blank slate book cover

More Wisdom

  • We have small variations

Albeit we are 6 billion, the variations among single individuals are small among humans (it’s bigger among chimpanzees even if we are many more).
This is likely because less than 100.000 years ago we went through a population bottleneck.
Since then we didn’t have much time to accumulate lots of variations and our current differences in hair and skin colors are rather skin-level deep (pun intended).

  • Explaining behavior is not exonerating behavior

We can, for example, discuss why it’s “natural” for men to seek more sexual partners.
But that does not exonerate cheating and philandering.

  • Stereotypes are true

In Blink Malcolm Gladwell says that blink decisions are often correct (and in another book of his, he regrets the tendency we all have to make snap decisions based on stereotypes).

Steven Pinker takes a more scientific and moralistic-free view on stereotypes.
He simply says that, more often than not, stereotypes are not random and/or wrong as most people assume but they are often quite accurate and confirmed by statistics.

He mentions: blacks being more likely to be on welfare; Jews have higher average income; business students more conservative than art students, women more likely to want to lose weight; men more likely to swat a fly with their hands.

  • There is evil, and it can be inborn

The noble savage theory and some intellectuals wished to attribute all evil and wrongdoing to culture, society, lack of options, bad parenting, or poor education.

Unluckily, it’s not like that.
There is plenty of evil, there are biological reasons for evil (a small number of parasites can thrive in an otherwise honest population) and some of it is inborn.

The author mentions sociopaths, psychopaths, and people who are in between and present Machiavellian traits without being full psychopaths. 

  • Differences are greater at the far end of bell curves

When you have any bell-curve distribution, the differences are small on the average will be far larger at the extremes.

Women and men present a bell curve distribution with men far more represented on the extremes (men are far more likely to win “Darwinian awards” and dying in the silliest ways possible).

  • Male VS female self-esteem (and career success)

On average male self-esteem is more tied to status, salary, and wealth. They also highly correlate to their attractiveness as mates, and that’s one of the reasons why men are more likely and more willing to work harder and longer hours.

  • Children follow the peer group more than the parents

The peer group has a larger impact on how children turn out that the parents do.

My Note:
But then again, parents can heavily influence which peer group the children grow up with for example, by deciding where to live.

Quotes

On war and human nature:

People all over the world have reflected over the futility of voilence.
At least when they are evenly enough matched with their adversaries and noone can prevail.

On violence and human nature:

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

On feminism and salary disparities:

Inequality of outcome cannot be proof of inequality of opportunity.

On feminist messages to women:

We should not be sending gifted wmoen the message that they are less worhty and less valuabe, lazy or low in status if they choose to be teachers instead of mathematician, journalists in stead of physicits or laywers instead of engineers.

On truth, hope, and liberation.

People hope to God that it isn’t true. But the truth doesn’t care about our hopes. And sometimes it forces us to revist those hopes in a liberating way.

CONS

  • Victim blaming

The author says that feminists shouldn’t complain when people advice women not to go out alone at night with mini-skirts because that’s simply sensible advice.

Pinker then says that if something bad happens, it’s akin to leaving a car parked in the hood unlocked and with the keys inside.
He says that the police should investigate, but still, an external observer has the right to think “you stupid idiot, what the hell were you thinking”.

In a way, he’s right.
Yet, I’m not a big fan of that line of thinking. 

There are plenty of places and societies where women can go out alone at night with mini-skirts.
If we want to have safer societies, we can’t accept Pinker’s stance of normalizing aggression and rape -and yes, rape is “natural”, but that doesn’t it make it right or acceptable-.

  • Soft-science

Albeit I loved “The Blank Slate” and agree with everything, it’s not purely scientific and it’s a crossover between personal philosophy, opinions and science.
I must agree with Allen Orr that this is “soft science”.

  • Strawman argument

I agree with Steven Pinker that the current intellectual climate favors culture over nature.
I have experienced it myself as a student.

But I also must agree with the critical review of Louis Menand.
Menand says that to make his point, Pinker sometimes exaggerates “the other camp” and exaggerates their traits (ie.: a strawman attack).

  • Exaggerates nature over parenting?

Sometimes I felt that the author exaggerates the weight of nature over parenting. 
Albeit he states otherwise, at times it felt that with the studies and stories he was quoting he was implying that parenting mattered little.

  • Chagnon unreliable (?) data?

Pinker relies heavily on Chagnon’s research and data to draw conclusions about human nature, war, and violence.
And does so both in “The Blank Slate” and in “How the Mind Works“.

However, Chagnon has been heavily criticized. 
And it’s not just the left, the criticism of his number seems potentially well-founded to me (Fry, 2012).

PROS

  • Wonderful analysis of differences between men and women

One of the best analysis of the differences between men and women.

  • Great analysis on gender and equality

One of the few good analysis you will find on gender inequality, fairness and policies.

  • Parity of outcome is dangerous!!

The biggest pearl of wisdom, in my opinion, is that the current drive to achieve “parity of outcome” is dangerous both for society and, even more so, for the individuals.

Review

Steven Pinker has been criticized for being a “right-wing” and “hereditarian” (Nancy McLernan, 2019).

And frankly, I cannot fully disagree.
In his rightful stance against what Tooby and Cosmides dubbed the “Standard Social Science Model”, Pinker sometimes seems to go too much in the opposite direction, and he himself ends up being ideologically driven.

Pinker can’t stop harping on about “feminists”, “left-wing researchers” and “anthropologists of peace”, sometimes doing so with the typical attitude of the smart alec bully (see Sapolsky’s comments in “Behave“).

I think we could all do with less competition and more scientific search for truth. Learning something from the other side, and let science and factual work speak for itself.

And the good work of Pinker and the other evolutionary psychologists does speak for itself.
The leftist and feminist SSM have not done science, and that is obvious to any sensible mind. Yet, they are also not 100% wrong on everything, including men’s interest in keeping women down.
And that’s what the Pinker-like evolutionary psychologists are missing on.

Overall, I found “The Blank Slate” to be a wonderful book.
I enjoyed it through and through.

“The Blank Slate” also teaches human psychology and human nature from a “meta-level” point of view.
“The Blank Slate” teaches us about ideological warfare, and how “intellectual doctrines” dominate and squash dissent, all to the detriment of good science -and truth-.

I only give it four stars because I feel that Pinker becomes an ideologue himself. And sometimes he seems to go too far into the “nature” side.
Yet, it’s a book I highly recommend and that I am thankful for.

Also check out:

Or get the book on Amazon

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