The Clean Slate makes the case that genes and nature account for our behavior and psychological makeup much more than the current social sciences are willing to account for.
Steven Pinker, the author, writes a wonderful book to understand human nature and to debunk a lot of myths in psychology, sociology, and cheap “self-development” mantras as well (ie.: you can do anything you want).
- 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.”)
The Blank Slate – Summary
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and currently psychology professor at Harvard.
He says that “The Blank Slate” is not one of that book which says 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:
- The noble savage: humans outside of civilization are good and peaceful
- 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 then examines and proceeds to dismantle the most extreme versions of three major scientific development that have often been (mis)used to deny the complex human nature:
- 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”)
- Computer models (since AI can learn so much, so the brain needs can wire or re-wire freely. The author calls it “connectionism”)
- 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 examples 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).
- We have small variations
Albeit we are 6 billion, the variations among single individuals is 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 partner.
But that does not exonerate cheating and philandering.
- Stereotypes are true
In Blink Malcolm Gladwell says that blink
Yet in another of his book, 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 nobel 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.
- 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.
But then again, parents can heavily influence which peer group the children grow up with for example, by deciding where to live.
The Blank Slate 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.
- Victim blaming
The author says that feminists shouldn’t complain about the advice to women of not going out alone at night with miniskirts because tat’s simply sensible advice.
He then says that if something bad happens, it’s similar 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. Especially when it’s expressed as crudely.
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.
- 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.
The Blank Slate – Review
Steven Pinker has been criticized for being a “right wing” and “hereditarian” (Nancy McLernan, 2019).
But I found the criticism to be a politically-driven, ad-hominem attack and more interested in smearing Pinker than in doing good science.
Instead, I found “The Blank Slate” to be a wonderful book.
I enjoyed it through and through.
“The Blank Slate” teaches on human psychology and human nature not only in our actual human nature but also from a sociological point of view as we learn how some theories can become the “religious intellectual doctrine” and any different approach can be brutally attacked and marginalized.
I didn’t enjoy much “The Better Angels From Our Nature” as it was very polly-annish.
Yet “The Blank Slate” is the exact opposite: a monument against polly-annish look at the world.