I just finished the best book that I’ve ever read, ever. In fact, it’s more than the best book I’ve ever read… I would argue that it’s the best collection of words I’ve ever seen in any sort of literary piece ranging from novels to essays to textbooks.
The book is called The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist, linguist, and evolutionary psychologist (on occasion). The contents of the book have pretty dramatically changed the way I think about the world, given me a much clearer understanding of how things work, and given me a ton of insight into the brain and its functions. It has explained to me many behaviours and many human tendencies, and given a lot of credit (and some solutions) to my worry about how the current political climate is affecting our ability to think rationally and reasonably.
The nature vs. nurture debate is a somewhat solved one, in that we all know that pretty much everything is a combination of both. The goal of Steven Pinker’s book is to argue that we rely very heavily on this idea of the blank slate, the idea that everything we do and think is programmed into us from our environment, and that relying so heavily on this very false idea leads to serious issues in policy, education, politics, legal discussions, and more. The first half of the book dispells three popular myths, then discusses how some “hot button” topics such as gender, violence, and children could look when approached through a lens of human nature. Throughout the book, he argues that an understanding of human nature is necessary to understand who we are and how we act, and that challenging socio-political topics cannot be properly answered by ignorantly blaming our environment. In fact, a better understanding of these issues which takes into account the perspective of human nature and evolutionary psychology helps us to make progress toward goals of equality, freedom, and peace.
The first of the three myths he dispells is that of the blank slate itself. The idea that our environment has more of a role than our genes do in terms of our development is false. I’d guess that (especially in the current socio-political climate) the average person would say that over 90% of our thoughts and behaviour are caused by our environment, and that intuition couldn’t be farther from the truth. The best example of the many, many studies that suggest that our genes make up at least 50% of what we consider “personality” is a series of studies with identical twins who were raised in different homes vs. adopted children who are raised in the same home. Time after time, the identical twins showed more similarities in terms of personality, mannerisms, even strange tendencies like twirling a pen when they’re nervous, when compared to the adopted children who were raised with the same parents, same parenting style, same rules, etc. It may be surprising, but you’ll understand if you read the book, which you absolutely should. Ignoring the idea that much of our personality is genetically determined can lead to dangerous decisions, and he outlines that perfectly in his book.
The second is the idea that he calls the ghost in the machine. This is the feeling that there is a “you” inside your head which consists of your conscience and tells your brain what to think, which subsequently tells your body what to do. In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism (i.e. the separation between mind and body). The “you” simply is your brain, an extremely complex computer, a circuit of connections and pathways and chemical reactions shaped by your genes and your experiences. With a proper understanding of the brain, there is no need for a soul or a separate “you” that lives inside your head, as if that ghost in your machine can manipulate your thoughts disconnected from your brain.
Lastly, he makes an extremely strong case against the idea of the noble savage. This is the somewhat popular (and completely incorrect) belief that if we didn’t have our current society (technology, capitalism, borders, governments, etc.) that we would live peacefully, like the small tribes of people who have been secluded from modern civilization for hundreds of years. The truth of the matter is that in these pre-state societes, murder rates are unfathomably high, and rape, revenge killings, and violent inter-tribe war are common. The few studies that did find these “peaceful tribes” were completely disproven shortly after their publication, yet their legacy lives on in our ignorant but hopeful minds.
Pinker goes on to talk about some what he calls “hot-button topics” and brings up some interesting, controversial, and I think extremely true things. Among the less controversial are statements like “intelligence depends upon lumping together things that share properties, so we are not flabbergasted by every new thing we see”. This is written when attacking the post-modernist idea that everything is socially constructed, including not only “race, gender, masculinity, nature, facts, reality, and the past” but now extending the list to include things like “authorship, choice, danger, dementia, illness, inequality, school success”, and more. He talks about the mental processes of conceptual categorization and explains how it works and why stereotypes are not necessarily a bad thing, provided you don’t assume that every member of a group shares all of the properties of the stereotype of that group.
Another example is when he talks about violence, and how we wrongly blame violent toys and violent media for turning children into violent creatures. We have always been and will always be violent, men will always be more violent than women by nature, and we should try to understand our violent nature in order to correct it and keep improving toward a world where people live happily and peacefully. Not only do we ignore some genetic predisposition toward violence by invoking the blank slate theory, but we also miss the mark in trying to fix the issues that come from it. There’s a whole chapter on this, and then another entire book called The Better Angels of Our Nature where he expands even more on the topic, though I haven’t read that book yet.
The concept of the blank slate is dangerous in a few ways, and I think this is best described by Pinker himself:
The vacuum that it [the blank slate] posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides. It perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering. It torments mothers who work outside the home and parents whose children did not turn out as they would have liked. It threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering. Its corollary, the Noble Savage, invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of “a government of laws and not of men”. It blinds us to our cognitive and moral short-comings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions.
I highly, highly suggest you read this book. It’s sparked even more curiosity for me to dive into the world of learning about psychology, evolutionary psychology, biology, and philosophy and I think it has presented me with some very good answers. These answers are not only to questions that I hadn’t thought of before, but also intelligent answers to questions which I knew the right answer to, but didn’t know how to express the answer intelligently. This is important because a lot of things in this book can be seen as controversial, but I think many people know that the truth is sometimes not politically correct, and if you can’t defend controversial points well, it discredits the ideas that you might stand behind.
And to end with two quotes for reflection:
“… Popular ideologies may have forgotten downsides – in this case, how the notion that language, thought and emotions are social conventions creates an opening for social engineers to try to reform them.”
“The strongest argument against totalitarianism may be a recognition of a universal human nature; that all humans have innate desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The doctrine of the blank slate… is a totalitarian’s dream.”