Must Read Book: The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

The past week I’ve been engrossed in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. It is the last book I read in 2005 and I can say firmly it was the most influential thing I’ve read all year. You can bet that I will be reccomending this book to people for months…

You may know Steven Pinker. For a long time he was an acclaimed MIT professor of cognitive science and linguistics (though he recently jumped ship to that school across the way which begins with an H…its name escapes me). I was a fan of his book How the Mind Works and flipped through The Language Instinct. I was fan of the article on the blank slate in Reason.

The Blank Slate totally blew me away. As I furiously annotated, underlined, and nodded (I had to seclude myself from my friends during our tourney in San Diego), I kept thinking this book was custom made for me. First, it’s generally about the nature vs. nurture debate, which I find fascinating and the debate is far from over. Second, it’s not at all about the nature vs. nurture debate – it explores dimensions of basically every discipline I’m interested in: psychology, cognitive science, postmodernism, philosophy, morality, politics, race, childrearing, IQ/intelligence/bellcurve, language, altruism, gender differences, culture, on and on and on. Third, it’s driven by empirical, scholarly research spanning all fields, yet is imbued with an entertainingly provocative writing style that makes it fun and engaging.

Instead of writing a formal review, which I do for some books I really like, for this one I wrote up my notes, below. I also found this Detailed Summary/Review (pdf) online.

The Blank Slate: The theory of the mind as a white paper first proposed by John Locke. Blank Slate doctrine has fueled much of humanities. "Change the experiences – by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social experiences – and you can change the person."
Noble Savages – Humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and all blights are the products of civilization.
Ghost in the Machine – Descartes’ theory that a human being has both a mind and body. Behavior is freely chosen. Dualism.
Blank Slate theory dominates intellectual life.
Behaviorism – overt behavior controlled by present and past environment. Skinner.
"Though psychology is not as politicized as some of the other social sciences, it too is sometimes driven by a utopian vision in which changes in childrearing and education will ameliorate social patholgies and improve human welfare."

The Last Wall to Fall: "New ideas from the four frontiers of knowledge – the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution – are breaching the wall [of blank slate] with a new understanding of human nature."

  1. The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.
  2. The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don’t do anything.
  3. An infinite range of behavior can be genered by finite combinatorial programs in the mind.
  4. Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variations across cultures.
  5. The mind is a complex system composed of many interesting parts.

"It is still tempting to think of the brain as it was shown in cartoons, as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user – the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the "me." But cognitive neuroscience is showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems."

Personalities differ in five major ways: introverted/extroverted, neurotic or stable, incurious or open to experience, agreeable or antagonistic, and conscientious or undirected." Much of this is partly heritable.

Evolutionary psych: study of the history and adaptive functions of the mind, in hope of understanding design/purpose of mind.

"The difference btwn the mechanisms that impel organisms to behave in real time and the mechanisms that shaped the design of the organism over evolutionary time is important enough…for jargon. A proximate cause of behavior is the mechanism that pushes behavior buttons in real time, such as the hunger and lust that impel people to eat and have sex. An ultimate cause is the adaptive rationale that led the proximate cause to evolve, such as the need for nutrition and reproduction that gave us the drives of hunger and lust.

Culture: Culture relies on the neural circuitry that accomplishes the feat we call learning. No such as thing as "intuitive psych." Our minds are designed to read goals of other people and copy their intended acts. Social psych: human conformity. Culture is a pool of tools that help people live their lives, not a collection of arbitrary roles that befall them.

Bad reductionism is explaining something in its smallest parts. Good reductionism is explaning the connections and unifying things.

"Anthropoligical surveys have shown that hundreds of univerasls, pertaining to every aspect of experience, cut across the world’s cultures."

Fears: 1. If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified. 2. If people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile. 3. If people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions. 4. If people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose.

The Fear of Inequality: Prejudice and Social Darwinism.

If people do turn out to be different, it doesn’t make discrimination/oppression OK! "The quantitative differences are small in biological terms, and they are found to a far greater extent among the individual members of an ethnic group or race than between ethnic groups or faces." This being said, there are small genetic differences btwn groups. It’s not true that race is merely a social construction. "The case against bigotry is not a factual claim that humans are biologically instinguishable. It is a moral stance that condems juding an indivudal according the average traits of certain groups to which the individual belongs" A conception of human nature is why we oppose discrimnation. Regardless of IQ or physical trait we all have certain traits in common (no one likes being enslaved, humiliated, etc.).The revulsion we feel towards discrimination comes from a conviction that however much people differ on some traits, they do not vary on these.

Noam Chomsky: "A correlation btwn race and IQ entails no social consequneces except in a racist society in which each indivudal is assigned to a racial category and dealt with not as an individual in his own right but as a representive of this category."

Ok, so what about sterotyping? It makes sense in certain situations, so we couldn’t expect a policy where everyone is treated absolutely as individauls independent of hteir group. "The more information we have about the qualifications of an individual, the less impact a race-wide or sex-wide average would have in any statistical decision concerning that person. The best cure for discrimination, then, is more accurate and more extensive testing of mental abilities, b/c it would provide so much predicativei nformation about an individual that no one would be tempted to factor in race or gender. This, however, has no political future." We should do cost-benefit analyses on case by case basis to decide whether discrimination makes sense.

Social Darwinism: Number of people deny that there is such a thing as inborn intelligence. BS. But, the existence of inborn talents does not call for social darwinism. "Even if inherited talents can lead to socioeconomic success, it doesn’t mean that the success is deserved in a moral sense." Evolutionary success and goodness are not the same thing. John Rawls: imagine a social contract drawn up by self-interested agents negotiating under a veil of ignorance, unaware of the talents or status they will inherit at birth. He argues that a just society is one that these disembodied souls would agree to be born into, knowing that they might be dealt a lousy social or genetic hand. "If you agree that the agnets would insist on a broad social safety net and redistribute taxation, then you can justify compenatory social policies even if you think differences in social status are 100 percent genetic." It’s important to distinguish biological facts from human values.

Fear of Imperfectability: Naturalistic fallacy – whatever happens in nature is good. Moralistic fallacies – if a trait is moral, it must be found in nature.

Peter Singer: continuous moral progress can emerge from a fixed moral sense. Circle of moral consideration has expanded to include the nation, race, and humanity, not just family.

Fear of Determinism: Are we in control of our own choices? yes! The experience of choosing is not a fiction, it’s real neural processes. "Hume noted the dilemma inherent in equating the problem of moral responsibility with the problem of whether behavior has a physical cause: either our actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or they are the result of random events, in which we are not responsible for them." Most philosophers "believe that unless a person was literally coerced (ie gun to head) we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull." We have to have responsibilty to use as a deterrent.

Fear of Nihilism: Evolution endowed with a moral sense…"Doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on this earth." Altruism – sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is wire unselfness motives into the human brain. Moral realism – right and wrong exist and have inherent logic.

In Touch With Reality: Postmodernists who say that categories like "homosexual" and "negro" are social constructions are wrong. Many stereotypes are true, and many people underestimate the real differences btwn sexes and ethnic groups. One ought to ignore group-wide averages for judging an individual.
"Pygmalion effect" – people perform as other people expect them to. Small, though.
Language – not a prisonhouse of thought. Thoughts exist independent of language. The very existence of ambigious sentences proves that thoughts are not the same thing as strings of words.

Out of Our Depths: Cognitive faculties: intuitive physics, biology, engineering, pyschology, spatial sense, number sense, probability, economics, logic, and language. What we the call the soul consists of information-processing activity of hte brain, an organ governed by biology. "Physical fallacy" – belief that object has a true and constant value, as opposed to supply and demand.
"The truism that all good things come with costs as well as benefits applies in flul to the combinatorial powers of the human mind." It’s impossible to think thoughts that are literally incoherent (What was before the big bang? What’s beyond the edge of the universe?).

Many Roots of Our Suffering: Altruism – Organisms may benefit other organisms at a cost to themselves. Evolved two ways. First, since relatives share genes, makes sense to help relatives to increase the survival of a copy of itself. "Nepotistic altruism." Second, there’s reciporcal altruism.
"The most obvious human tragedy comes from the difference btwn our feelings toward kin and our feelings toward non-kin, one of the deepest divides in the living world…Family love subverts the ideal of what we should feel for every soul in the world." People are neither amoral eogists of laizze faire theory nor communists of utopian fantasies.

Noam Chomsky: People are born with fraternal feelings toward social groups and the feelings are driven out of their heads by training.
"Social loafing" – when people are part of a group, the pull less hard….unless their contributions to the group effort are being monitored.  Israeli kibbutzim dismantled b/c of freerider problem.
"In social psych experiments, people consistenly overrate their own skill, honesty, generosity, and autonomy. They overestimate their contribution to a joint effort, chalk up successe to skill and failure to luck, and always feel like the other side has gotten the better deal in a compromise." ie cognitive dissonance.

The Sanctimonius Animal: autonomy-community-divinity trio for moral emotions. We shouldn’t abandon moral reasoning when it comes to cloning (not the "shudder test"). The difference btwn a defensible moral position and a gut sense is the former we can give reasons. Certain things now have a moral color (fast food, advertising to children, sugar, guns, Barbie dolls).

Politics: Liberal and conservative attitudes are largely, though far from completely, heritable. They’re not synthesized into DNA, but b/c they come naturally to people with different temperaments. "Conservatives tend to be more authoritarion, conscientious, traditional, and rulebound." Right-left axis aligns a ton of beliefs that seem to have nothing in common. "Why on earth should people’s beliefs about sex predict their beliefs about the size of the military? What does religion ahve to do w/ taxes?"
Tom Sowell: Conflict of Visions. Restrained vs. Unrestrained or Tragic Vision vs. Utopian Vision. Tragic Vision: our moral sentiments, no matter how beneficiant, overlie a deeper bedrock of selfhness. In Utopian Vision, psych limitations are artifacs that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what it possible in a better world. [This is a great section!!]

Violence: Blaming culture is stupid. Violent tendences could be inheritied as well as learned. Virtually no connection btwn violence in the media and violent behavior….Hobbesian trap – "self assured destruction.&quo t; "Social constructionists are not wrong in pointing to a culture of combative masculinity as a major cause of violence. But they are wrong in thinking that it is pecularly American, that it is caused by separation from one’s mother or an unwilingness to express one’s emotions, and that it is an arbitrary social construction that can be ‘deconstructed’ by verbal commentary."
In some black culture, reputation on the streets is their only claim to status. When deprived of legimiate means of acquiring status (conspicious consumption) you go to the streets.

Gender: Feminism is widely seen as being opposed to the sciences of human nature…"There is no incompatibility btwn the principes of feminism and the possibiltiy that men and women are not psycholigcally identical. Equality is not the emperical cliam that all groups of humans are interchangable; it is the moral prinicple that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properites of their group."
Equity feminism vs. Gender feminism. The former is moral doctirne about equal treatment that makes no comment on psych or biology. The latter says that differences btwn men and women are socail constructs, motivated by power. 70% of women don’t consider themselves feminists b/c gender feminism is most associated with teh word. Can’t be deceived by the extermes on the bell curve….Gender is definitely a product of biology.
"Glass ceiling" is not so simple, nor is the outcry over the lack of women in the engineering and sciences. The gender gap is always analyzed as "any imbalance btwn men and women in their occupations or earnings is direct proof of gender bias – if not in the form of overt discrimination, then in the form of discouraging messages and hidden barriers. Women shouldn’t be prevented from pursuing ambitious and should never face discrimiation….But, should the proportions of men and women be equal in every field? A given job requires a mixture of certain cog talents, personality traits, tolerance of lifestyle demands. And it offers a mixture of rewards. There may be more high paying jobs that call for typical male strengths. Some of the gap is discrimination, but not all.
Marriage can magnify effects of sex differences even if they are small to begin with (see Becker).

Children: Three laws of behaviorial genetics: 1. All human behavioral traits are heritable. 2. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of genes. 3. A substantail portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
This is NOT genetic determism – "some" "most" is different than 100%.
Handy Summary: Genes 50 percent, shared environment 0 percent, unique environment 50%.
Peer socialization far more important than parents. Parents’ behavior does not seem to shape intelligence or personality over the long term.

The Arts: The supposed decline in high culture is an oft-repeated lament. "best works of art are more likely to appear in past decade than now…b/c there is more of them."
Hunger for status drives the arts.

5 comments on “Must Read Book: The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
  • if you’re into cognitive science, you should read Phantoms in the Brain by Vilanyur Ramachandran. he’s a professor at UCSD, and he did the first successful phantom limb “amputation”. really interesting stuff. not too technical. also, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks is really interesting too.

  • I’ll be reading it. I decided as soon as I saw Noam Chomsky’s name. Anyway, here’s my childish question for the day: do you always take notes when reading?

  • Pinker is quite good. You should visit the website and look up his video debate with Elizabeth Spelke on sex differences. It is well worth the time.

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