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. 

Remember when Liberals gave a shit about the Environment?

I miss those days.

Sierra Club Supports Path to Citizenship for Undocumented Immigrants (Yes, this is from the actual Sierra Club website):

“Today, the Sierra Club announced its support for an equitable path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“The Sierra Club Board of Directors, made up of elected volunteer leaders, has unanimously adopted the position:

“‘Currently at least 11 million people live in in the U.S. in the shadows of our society. Many of them work in jobs that expose them to dangerous conditions, chemicals and pesticides, and many more of them live in areas with disproportionate levels of toxic air, water, and soil pollution. To protect clean air and water and prevent the disruption of our climate, we must ensure that those who are most disenfranchised and most threatened by pollution within our borders have the voice to fight polluters and advocate for climate solutions without fear.

“‘… America’s undocumented population should be able to earn legalization and a timely pathway to citizenship, with all the rights to fully participate in our democracy, including influencing environmental and climate policies. ‘”

Here, you might need this:

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Normally I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve heard enough people on the left lately explicitly saying that their organizations favor increased immigration because they believe those immigrants will vote Democrat/otherwise support their organizations that I’m starting to think that “import voters” is actually a Democratic strategy.

Which is cheating, BTW.

(Also, the Republican leadership wants more immigrants to keep wages down. Both sides are terrible.)

As logic goes, this is dumbass logic.

1. If the problem is that illegal immigrants can’t protest unhealthy work conditions without getting deported, then this is a good argument in favor of preventing illegal immigration, not encouraging more of it.

2. What makes them think Hispanic immigrants are suddenly going to start advocating for environmental protections, anyway? (I mean, do I have to drag out statistics here to prove that tree-hugging hippies are overwhelmingly white?)

Mexican citizens in their own country created one of the most polluted cities in the world:

Democracy: doesn't always end pollution
Mexico City

Mexico city manages to top the list of the world’s most polluted major cities:

From Air Pollution in Mexico City, by Hofmann
From Air Pollution in Mexico City, by Hofmann

Somehow, I don’t think lack of legal citizenship is the issue.

3. Population growth is one of the worst possible things you can promote if you give a shit about the environment. The Sierra Club used to understand this, back when their official policy favored population stabilization.

In other words, the Sierra Club is now explicitly advocating policies that result in environmental destruction.

Ultimately, I actually think the “they’ll vote for us!” justification is just that: a flimsy justification for doing what they want to do anyway, whether it actually squares with their other goals or not.

Which is to say, I don’t actually think the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors is delusional enough to think that increasing immigration will actually help the environment. Rather, I think the Board consists of liberals who buy into the pro-unlimited immigration propaganda that moving anywhere you want is a basic human right, and are especially interested in proving how much they love POCs, despite (or perhaps because of) working for one of the most overwhelmingly white organizations in the US. But since unfettered immigration => population growth is actually bad for the environment, some justification must be made to reconcile the two positions.

Meanwhile, about 66% of Americans actually do think Global Warming is happening, and only 15% are really committed to the idea that it isn’t.

But aside from a few people placidly saying they’re concerned about global warming, and a few people vocally responding, where is our leadership on the issue?

Al Gore seems to have had some things to say on the environment, but since he lost the Supreme Court vote, the Democratic base has turned increasingly toward more “people” oriented issues like racism, immigration, and gay marriage. And the kinds of people who care deeply about immigration, racism, and gay marriage may not happen to overlap with the kinds of people who think we should give serious thought to long-term global sustainability.

Here’s a question from the blog, “Ask a White Person: white people answering white peoples questions about race issues“:

“I got into an argument with a friend of mine who is a person of color. They were mad at me because I feel very passionately about protecting the ocean and they said that made me a bad person because I should only care about is social justice. I do care about social justice and I stand up to racism where I can, but how do I reply to that?”

From the response:

“Is client change real? Hell yeah! Is the ocean becoming a mass of plastic? Of course. But right in front of you is your friends pain.”

It’s almost like people who tend toward high time discounting don’t understand the logic of people with low time discounting.

“Since I don’t know you I also want to make sure to offer up that white people have a horrible track record of racism when discussing climate change. I am not saying this is you personally, just the system that we have created around climate issues has become its own thing and often is very racist in its approach. The way people talk about “food deserts” for example (which are almost always lower income communities of color) implies that there is not a food culture in those communities.”

Remember, if you’re concerned about the availability of fresh food in inner city communities, you’re a racist.

BTW, the presence or absence of a grocery store in downtown Detroit is not an environmental issue.

“One of the tricks here though is to keep fighting for climate justice and protecting the oceans while not ignoring your friend, and people of color, here on land. All of this shit is interconnected. The same system that is oppressing people is oppressing the ocean. … If we center black lives in our work then we will have to discuss climate issues, and the ocean. Listen to your friend and maybe what they are saying is that this type of centering in your work around oceans is needed. Maybe it is their not so subtle way of saying that they feel ignored in the larger climate and ocean movement?”

Meanwhile, Democrats are so committed to infinite immigration that openly illegal immigrants are being invited to White House Press Conferences.

 

Now, do whites have a great environmental track record?

No.

But it’d be awfully nice if someone could start having one.

Redwood forest
It’d be nice to have a planet that’s nice to live on.