Review: The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker 5/5 Stars

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate was one of my top reads of 2018. Simultaneously  impassioned, philosophic, and rational, Pinker covers everything from art to parenting, morality to language. What makes us us? Where does human nature–and individual personality–come from? And what are the moral implications if blank slateist views of human nature are false?

Yes, Pinker writes from a liberal perspective, for a liberal audience–Pinker hails from a liberal culture and addresses the members of his own culture, just as a French writer addresses a French audience. But this is about as far as conventions like “left” and “right” can take you in this book, for it is clear that Pinker thinks breaking down political ideology and morality based on the seating patterns of an eighteenth-century French legislature is not terribly meaningful. 

Is the blank slate–the idea that humans are born essentially similar in personality, temperament, abilities, and potential, and that environmental plays a substantial role in determining whether we turn out to be Nobel Prize winners or drag queens, Jeff Bezos or homeless, criminals or lion tamers–moral? 

Its adherents claim that it is–indeed, some react to any suggestion that humans have any innate or biological nature with a vehemence normally reserved for rapists and murderers. 

Pinker responds that the denial of human nature causes unimaginable suffering. Humans cannot cast aside their natures simply because an ideology (or religion) tells them to. To attempt to remake man is to destroy him. 

Further, it is blatantly untrue, and the promotion of obvious lies in pursuit of ideological outcomes is bound to backfire–turning people away from the academics and fields that promote such lies. (Pinker may be overly optimistic on this point.) 

Chapter 1 is a bit slow if you are already familiar with the history of psychology and the blank slate in philosophy, but after that it picks up nicely. 

There is an unstated conclusion we may draw here that psychology as a discipline has been hampered by the kinds of people who go into the psychology. Perhaps this is my own theory I am imposing onto Pinker’s work, but it seems like people with a good, intuitive grasp of how people work don’t go into psychology–they go into sales. The folks in psychology (and psychiatry, perhaps) seem drawn to the field because they find people mysterious and fascinating and want to understand them better. 

But without an intuitive understanding of how people work, there are often big areas they miss. 

Since I listened to this in audio book format, quoting is tricky, but I have tried to transcribe this bit:

Until recently, psychology ignored the content of beliefs and emotions, and the possibility that the mind had evolved to treat biologically important categories in different ways. … Theories about memory and reasoning didn’t distinguish between thoughts about people and thoughts about rocks or houses. Theories of emotion didn’t distinguish fear from anger, jealousy, or love. Theories of social relation didn’t distinguish between family, friends, enemies, and strangers.

Indeed, the topics in psychology that most interest lay people–love, hate, work, play, food, sex, status, dominance, jealousy, friendship, religion, art–are almost completely absent from psychology textbooks.

It’s hard to see what you can’t see.

The field was also historically rather short on women, especially women with normal lives. Many of these blank slateist quotes from psychologists and philosophers about human nature and instincts seem like the kinds of ideas that raising a few children would quickly disabuse you of.  

Next he discusses Durkheim’s observation that people behave differently in groups than they do singly or would behave had they not been part of a group. From this I think Durkheim derives his idea that “human nature” and “human behavior” are not innate or instinctive, but culturally induced. 

Some years ago, I realized there is probably an important key to human behavior that is rarely explicitly discussed because if you have it, it is so obvious that you don’t even notice it, and if you don’t have it, it’s so non-obvious that you can’t figure it out: an imitation instinct.

People desire to be like the people around them, and for probably evolutionarily sound reasons. 

If everyone else in your tribe says, “Don’t drink that water, it’s bad,” you’re better off avoiding the water than taking your chances by doing an independent test on the water. If your tribe has a longstanding tradition of “don’t eat the red berries, no I don’t know why, grandpa just told me to never ever eat them,” it’s probably best to go along. As Chesterton says, don’t tear down a fence if you don’t know why it’s there. 

I think a compulsion to fit in, imitate, and go along with others is very deep. It’s probbly not something people are explicitly aware of most of the time. This results in people using arguments like “That’s weird,” to mean, “That’s bad,” without explaining why “weird” is bad. They just intuitively know, and expect that you understand and agree with the speaker’s intuition that weird and different are inherently bad things. 

This leads to 1. self-policing–people feel very out of place when they aren’t going along with the group and this can make them deeply unhappy; and 2. other-policing–people feel unhappy just looking at someone else who is out of place, and this makes them respond with anger, hostility, and sometimes even violence toward the other person. (Even when what that other person is doing is really quite inconsequential and harmless.)

Anyway, I think Durkheim has missed that step–that connection between group activity and individual activity.

Obviously people are shaped by their groups, since most hunter-gatherer babies grow up to be hunter-gatherers and most people in our society grow up and figure out how to use cell phones and computers and cars. But I think he has missed the importance of–and critically, the usefulness of–the underlying mental trait that lets us learn from our cultures.

So people don’t behave differently in groups than when they’re alone because they lack some inherent human nature, but because part of our nature compels us to act in concordance with our group. (Most of us, anyway.) 

(This is about where I stopped taking notes, so I’m working from memory.)

Pinker then discusses the neurology of learning–how do we learn language? How does the brain know that language is something we are supposed to learn? How do we figure out that the family pet is not named “No no bad dog, get off the sofa”? 

There are some interesting experiments done on mice and kittens where experimenters have done things like reverse the parts of the brain auditory or visual inputs go to, or raise the kittens in environments without vertical lines and then introduce them to vertical lines, etc. The brain shows a remarkable plasticity under very strange conditions–but as Pinker points out, these aren’t conditions humans normally encounter. 

Sure, you can teach people to be afraid of flowers or like snakes, but it is much, much easier to teach people to like flowers and be afraid of snakes. 

Pinker points to the ease with which we learn to fear some objects but not others; the ease with which we learn to talk (except for those of us with certain neurological disorders, like brain damage or autism) verses the difficulty we have learning other things, like calculus; the rapidity with which some behaviors emerge in infancy or childhood (like aggression) verses the time it takes to instill other behaviors (like sharing) in children. 

In short, we appear to come into this world equipped to learn certain things, to respond to certain stimuli, and behave in particular ways. Without this basic wiring, we would not have any instinct for imitation–and thus babies would not coo in response to their mothers, would not start babbling in imitation of the adults around them, and would not learn to talk. We would not stand up and begin to walk–and it would be just as easy to train people to enjoy being victims of violence as to train people not to commit violence. 

Throughout the book, Pinker discusses the response of the more extreme left–people whom we today call SJWs or antifa–to the work and theories put out by academics who are undoubtedly also culturally liberal, like Napoleon Chagnon, the famous anthropologist who studied the Yanomamo tribesmen in the Amazon. For his meticulous work documenting Yanomamo family trees and showing that the Yanomamo men who killed more people wound up wound up with more children than the men who killed fewer people, he was accused by his fellow academics of all sorts of outlandish crimes.

In one absurd case, he was accused of intentionally infecting the Yanomamo with measles in order to test a theory that Yanomamo men had more “dominant genes,” which would give them a survival advantage over the measles. This is a serious accusation because exposure to Western diseases tends to kill off the majority of people in isolated, indigenous tribes, and absurd because “dominant genes” don’t confer any more or less immunity to disease. The accuser in this case has completely misunderstood the meaning of a term over in genetics. (It is rather like someone thinking the word “straight” implies that heterosexuals are supposed to have straighter bones than homosexuals, and then accusing scientists of going around measuring people’s bones to determine if they are gay or not.)

The term “dominant” does not mean that a gene gives a person any form of “dominance” in the real world. It just means that in a pair of genes, a “dominant” one gets expressed. The classic example is blue verses brown eyes. If you have one gene for blue eyes from one parent, and one for brown eyes from your other parent, anyone looking at you will just see brown eyes because only that gene gets used. However, you might still pass on that blue eye gene to your children, and if they receive another blue gene from your spouse, they could have blue eyes. Since blue eyes only show up if both of a person’s eye color genes are blue, we call blue eyes “recessive.” 

But having a “dominant” gene for eye color doesn’t make someone any more “dominant” in real life. It doesn’t make you better at beating people up or surviving the flu–and nothing about the Yanomamo lifestyle suggests that they would have more “dominant genes” than anyone else in the world. 

Side note: this strange misconception of how genes work made it into Metal Gear Solid: 

“I got all of the recessive genes! You took everything from me before I was even born!”

The fact that the far left often engages in outright lies to justify real violence against the people they dislike–people who aren’t even conservatives on the American scale–makes one wonder why Pinker identifies at all with the left’s goals, but I suppose one can’t help being a part of one’s own culture. If a Frenchman objects to something happening in France, that doesn’t turn him into a German; a Christian doesn’t stop believing in Jesus just because he objects to Fred Phelps. 

The book came out in 2002, before “antifa” became a household term. I think Pinker expected the evils of communism to become more widely known–not less. 

There is an interesting discussion of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and how a better understanding of human family dynamics (especially whether they become controlling and harmful) could improve women’s lives, not harm them. (Wilson’s work I would like to explore in more depth.) 

Pinker proceeds to a moving chapter parenting (I teared up at the end, though that might have just been the effects of several days of inadequate sleep.) How much effect do parents have on how their children turn out? At least within the normal range of parenting, not much–kids seem to turn out as they will, despite our best efforts. Sure, there’s plenty of evidence that you can damage kids by shaking them, dropping them on their heads, or locking them in the closet for years–but this is not normal parenting. Meanwhile, there’s very little evidence in favor of any interventions that can raise a child’s IQ (or any other trait) above what it would have been otherwise. It’s much easier to break a complicated system than enhance it. 

People often respond along the lines of “If I cannot shape my children like clay, determining how they turn out as adults, what’s the point of parenting at all?” 

It’s a terrible response, as Pinker points out. Children are human and deserve to be valued for the people they are (and will be,) not because you can change them. You are not kind to your spouse because you expect to change them, after all, but because you like them and value them. Likewise, be kind to your children because you love and value them, not because you can program them like tiny computers. 

In search of the reasons people turn out the way they do, Pinker (and other writers) turns to the random effects of “the environment”–things like “the friends you had in highschool.” Certainly environment explains a good deal, like what language you speak or what job options exist in your society, but I think he neglects an alternative possibility for some traits: random chance. There are aspects of us that are just “who we are” and aren’t obviously determined by anything external. One child loves dogs, another horses. One person enjoys swimming, another biking, a third Candy Crush. 

Here a religious person might posit a “soul” or some other inner essence. 

The difficulty with the theory that children take after their peers–they do what it takes to fit in with their friends–is it neglects the question of why a child becomes friends with a particular group of other children in the first place. I don’t know about you, but my friends aren’t chosen randomly from the people around me, but tend to be people I have something in common with or enjoy being around in the first place. 

At any rate, it is certainly possible for well-meaning parents to isolate a child from peers and friends in an attempt to alter personalty traits that are actually innate, or at least not caused by those other children.

The meat of the book wraps up with a discussion of “modern art” and why it is terrible. 

Overall, it was an excellent book that remains fresh despite its age. 

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West African Marriage and Child-Rearing Norms vs. African American Norms

“Divorce is not a new thing, people have been getting divorces in this part of the world for centuries. The truth is that marriage was not necessarily about love, but wait this is not a bad thing, marriage was a contract in which both the husband and the wife would receive mutual benefits. In addition, women married families, not just the man. If the wife was not gaining her benefits, why should she stay in the marriage? Some of us are the grand- or great-grand daughters of women who divorced several times. It was not a taboo and was not treated as something shameful. Apparently no woman getting married believed that it would last a lifetime. Women left their husbands under various pretexts and returned to their parents’ home leaving children with the husband’s family, they would frequently return to continue playing a role in their children’s lives. Women could have several husbands in their lifetime not unlike men who married multiple women.”

–Cosmic Yoruba, “Would Your Ancestors be Shocked by Traditional Marriage?” on pre-colonial marriage practices among the Yoruba (She also posts about other West African tribes.) Bold mine.

Further:

“I have noted that the most popular women in Yoruba history who are still remembered today are thought to have never married or had children (starting with Efunsetan). When women divorced, sometimes they would leave their children with their husbands’ families, so blended families always existed too. And there were several reasons people did not marry, sometimes not by choice, for example certain priests/priestesses never married because they were already married to the dieties they worshipped.”

” I can’t speak authoritatively for every society, but in parts of Yorubaland this love of kids was not limited to ones biological children. It’s interesting that people would say Africans in the past loved kids, but would limit this to biological children. Have we all not heard of the “it takes a whole village to raise a child” thing? Marriage was never for procreation because children were seen as communal. I have learned that adoption was not uncommon among some Yoruba of the past (and in fact among other ethnic groups, remember King Ahebi’s most beloved son was adopted). Usually temporary unlike the Western adoption model today, it was normal for children to live away from their parents. My own parents did not grow up with their parents but with relatives. It was common back in the day to send children to a place where they could learn a trade and work as an apprentice. Basically everyone took care of children.”

“I think a lot of us tend to be ashamed of polygamy when referring to the past but look at it this way; the polygamy of the past existed because people needed to make a living. Again marriage was mutually beneficial. In places where land was usually owned by men, wives would work on land, farm and sell their produce in order to make money for themselves.”

The location of pre-colonial Yorubaland (from Wikipedia):

The Niger is a pretty major river.
Locations of medieval Yoruba cities

zooom
Yorubaland, relative to the rest of the world

Note:

They don't call it the "slave coast" for nothing.
Geographic origins of the American African population (from the Slavery Site’s “Maps of Africa and the Slave Trade”)

 

From Slavery Site: “Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with a population of 149,229,090. It is bordered on the coast by Benin to the west and Cameroon to the east. Lagos was originally settled by the Yorubas, and is now the largest city in Nigeria (8-10 million population) and one of the largest in Africa, second to Cairo in urban area population. Located on the Slave Coast, it was a major center of the slave trade from 1704 to 1851.”

Statistically, most maltreatment is neglect
Foster care and child abuse rates broken down by race in California — from “Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Trends and Issues

From Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Trend and Issues (discussing the CA foster care system):

Foster Care Population by Race/Ethnicity. As shown in Figure 10, African–American and Native American children make up a disproportionately high amount of the foster care population relative to their share of the total state population (for those ages 20 or younger). The rates of African–Americans in foster care are four times that of the rates of African–Americans in the state’s total population, [bold mine] and similar disproportionality exists for Native Americans. Conversely, there are lower rates of Whites, Latinos, and Asian/Pacific Islanders in the foster care population as there are in the state’s total population. Most notably, Asian/Pacific Islanders make up approximately 11 percent of the state population but only 2.5 percent of the foster care population. [Me: Even though a lot of these folks were Vietnamese refugees who’ve had it pretty damn hard in life.]

“Foster Care Outcomes by Race/Ethnicity. There are also differences in foster care outcomes when comparing one race/ethnicity to another, some of which are displayed in Figure 11. As shown in the figure, African–American and Native American children are significantly more likely to be the subject of a substantiated maltreatment report and enter foster care as compared to White, Latino, or Asian/Pacific Islander children. … African–American and Native American children are also less likely to reunify with their families than White, Latino, and Asian/Pacific Islander children. Further, African–American children have less stability in their foster care placements on average than children of all other races/ethnicities.”

Interesting that the cohabitation rate seems pretty constant across races except for Asians
From the Washington Post: The White-Black Income Gap hasn’t Budged in Years

 

ChildStats.gov states, “Seventy-four percent of White, non-Hispanic, 59 percent of Hispanic, and 33 percent of Black children lived with two married parents in 2012.” That leaves 77% of black kids living with one parent or no parents; 77-55= 22% of black kids living with no parents. A large% of those kids live with grandparents, aunts, or other relatives, but a lot are in foster care.

Black marriage rates:

The disparity in male and female marriage rates is partially explained by black men marrying white women at a higher rate than black women marry white men.
From BlackDemographics.com

Conservatives like to claim that if black people would just form two-parent families and raise their kids together, black poverty, incarceration, drug use, low SAT scores, etc., would all disappear.

While a bit of stability might help, (or might not, since males commit the vast majority of violence, so you might just trade neglect for physical abuse,) conservatives are probably on the wrong general track.

The quotes at the top of the post, about the Yoruba, are the sort of thing you might read in your anthropology class and come away with the idea that before evil white people showed up, the rest of the world was full of wonderful gender egalitarians who had lovely, enlightened views about childrearing. Even the title of presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s book, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child,” is supposed to come from an African proverb on child rearing. There’s some controversy over whether or not it is an actual proverb, or just loosely based on one of the many very similar African proverbs, eg, “A child does not grow up only in a single home,” and, “A child belongs not to one parent or home.” (from the Wikipedia page on the book.)

Various conservatives have responded, “No, it takes a family to raise a child,” just showing that no one involved understands tribal family structure, because a “village” in tribal society is an extended family.

But a village isn’t an extended family in the US, which makes the notion of trying to transfer the model to a population where outbreeding has been the norm for over a thousand years, tribalism is almost non-existent, and most people don’t live anywhere near their extended kin (and they are less closely related to their extended kin than people in a tribal society who’ve been marrying their first and second cousins for generations,) sound rather fraught with difficulties.

 

The rest of the post is meant to caution against seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Here we have descendants of that same population (plus others) with very similar marriage and child-rearing norms, but the general reaction is completely opposite. What is a sign of the wonderfulness of tribal Africans is considered a sign of degeneracy and/or dysfunction here at home. (It is, of course, a total mystery how the same group of people could come up with the same childrearing and marriage norms while living in totally different times, places, and dominant cultures. /sarcasm)

Here in the US, we can see for ourselves rates of child abuse, malnutrition and neglect (and we think of this as a problem.) Until someone invents a time machine, we’ll have a much more difficult time getting a first-hand view of the pre-colonial Yoruba. (Heck, the vast majority of us don’t even have a first-hand view of the current Yoruba.) I’m sure some colonialists wrote accounts of what they saw when they arrived in the area–but any colonialist account that paints pre-colonialized people in a negative light is generally assumed to be biased and tainted by racism, which makes such accounts not-so-useful for supporting arguments in polite discussion. We’d need some kind of data, and data is often hard to come by.

Here are my own suspicions, though:

The tribal/village structure of these west African communities probably provided enough kin support that families could move children around like this and still have many of them reach adulthood. The system may, in fact, have been superior to just having the kids home with mom. Similar to modern day care, the extended kin network could look after the kids while mom worked in the fields or traveled to other cities to trade or do other work.

This system has low incentives for marital fidelity or monogamy, leading to an excess of males, which helped catapult the slave trade in the first place, though that is beyond the scope of this post.

The tendency toward monogamy or non-monogamy is probably basically genetic, reflecting the environmental/cultural structure one’s ancestors lived in. Your particular moral norms on the subject most likely just reflect whatever was evolutionarily advantageous for your ancestors–anyone who did what wasn’t evolutionarily advantageous didn’t tend to become your ancestor.

However, rates of child abuse/neglect/abandonment/starvation/malnutrition were probably pretty high, just as they are in various communities today. These sorts of unpleasant details just don’t tend to show up in accounts that are trying to cast their subjects in a positive light, and frankly, horrible rates of infant mortality were so common in the past as to be unremarkable to many observers.

Here in the US, the system is less functional because, for starters, there are few African American men with large farms for their wives to raise crops on. People who would have been on the top of the social pile in Yorubaland, people who had all of the traits necessary to be a successful, thriving, happy member of Yoruba society may not have the traits necessary to out-compete, say, Taiwanese immigrants with their nose-to-the grindstone approach to getting their kids into medical school. Living in modern America is also much more expensive than living in a tribal village–the cost of housing, transportation (car), health care, etc., in the US will set you back many a small third world farm. Not to mention different policing standards.

Per capita GDP in modern Nigeria is $3,005.51. This is after tremendous growth; in 2000, it was only $377.50–I’m guessing oil is mostly responsible for the difference, because I recall hearing about a joint venture between the Russian gas company Gazprom and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, so I’d caution against assuming that a ton of that money went to ordinary citizens. Looking backwards, pre-colonial per capita GDP was probably also pretty darn low, with most people engaged in subsistence agriculture.

Our perceptions of “wealth” are entirely dependent on how the other citizens of a society lives–a guy with a fifty acre farm can be “wealthy” in a third-world agricultural society, while “desperately poor” by first world standards. How he sees himself probably has a lot to do with how he sees his neighbors–is he on top of his society, or at the bottom?

Perception matters.