Steven Pinker: THE BLANK SLATE, post 1

Subtitled: “The Modern Denial of Human Nature” (Viking, Oct. 2002, 509pp, including 75pp appendix, notes, references, and index)

This is an enormous, thorough book on a topic already covered to some extent by several of the other major books I’ve read in recent years, from E.O. Wilson’s ON HUMAN NATURE (review here), Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS (notes not yet posted), Jonathan Haidt’s THE RIGHTEOUS MIND (three posts), and more recently read Steven Pinker’s HOW THE MIND WORKS (several posts) and Joshua Greene’s MORAL TRIBES (here). It’s advised to be aware that books like these build upon one another, Greene extending ideas of Haidt for example, so the chronological sequence of these is:

1978: Wilson HUMAN NATURE
199s: Sagan/Druyan SHADOWS
1997: Pinker MIND
2002: Pinker BLANK
2012: Haidt RIGHTEOUS
2013: Greene TRIBES
And maybe even Bregman’s HUMANKIND, 2020, also not yet written up here. And those books about narrative. And others…

The distinguishing feature of this Pinker book is that it’s about not one but three misapprehensions about the human mind: that it’s a “blank slate”; that there is such a thing as a “noble savage”; and that there is a “ghost in the michine,” some nocorporeal force (like a homonculus, or a soul) riding in our brain and making our decisions for us.

Pinker explains why these things are not true. Then he explains why *thinking* these things are true have given rise to many misconceptions about human nature but also why humans behave the way they do. In the final section of the book, he steps through several themes, much as Wilson did and Pinker did in his previous book, themes like politics, violence, gender, children, and the arts, and shows why the appreciation that there is a base human nature, derived by evolution, does *not* undermine the values we thought we held on the basis of those initial three misapprehensions.

His initial point, that the human mind is not ‘blank’ when a child is born, does not even bear close reflection, he points out. The analogy between brain and mind, and hardware and software, may not be rigorous, but it’s apt for such reflection. A computer, as a piece of hardware, *is* blank; but it requires an operating system (like human nature) to even load software programs (like human experience and learning) before anything can get done at all. (Actually it might be more like firmware than an operating system per se.) The mere fact that humans — and other animals — have instincts, and the ability to learn, indicates something besides ‘blank’ hardware is present in the first place.

I’ve tried to briefly summarize long books before and failed, but let’s try again. Just a paragraph or two about each of the 20 chapters? With some quotes along the way? But I always fail at this. Every big book worth reading has a lot of detail worth capturing. So for this post, just the first couple chapters, and some quotes. And a couple key points.

Part I: The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine

— Ch1, The Official Theory
Tabula rasa goes back to John Locke; the doctrine of the Blank Slate has dominated the social sciences and humanities ever since, leading to the notion that everything in human culture is ‘socially constructed.’ Rousseau put forth the idea of the ‘noble savage,’ as opposed to Hobbes’ characterization of life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” with the necessity of a ‘Leviathan’ to keep people in line. And Descartes, with his dualist take on body and mind, is the source of the notion of a ‘ghost in the machine’. The three ideas are independent but are usually found together.

— Ch2, Silly Putty
Biases over time, accepted without question, have changed (e.g. about women, races). Page 16.4:

Today no respectable public figure in the United States, Britain, or Western Europe can casually insult women or sling around invidious stereotypes of other races or ethnic groups. Educated people try to be conscious of their hidden prejudices and to measure them against the facts and against the sensibilities of others. In public life we try t judge people as individuals, not as specimens of a sex or ethnic group. We try to distinguish might from right and our parochial tastes from objective merit, and therefore respect cultures that are different or poorer than ours. We realize that no mandarin is wise enough to be entrusted with directing the evolution of the species, and that it is wrong in any case for the government to interfere with such a personal decision as having a child. The very idea that the members of an ethnic group should be persecuted because of their biology fill us with revulsion.

[[ Remember, this book was published in 2002. Pinker didn’t anticipate 21st century Republicans! This kind of consideration for others is precisely what conservatives used to deride as “political correctness” and now deride as being “woke.” They *want* to live tribalistically, indulging in stereotypes and demonizing various racial and sexual groups outside their tribes. (Is that what Jesus did?) ]]

Why did these changes from earlier centuries come about?

[T]hey emerged earlier in the twentieth century, the spinoff of an unplanned experiment: the massive immigration, social mobility, and diffusion of knowledge in the modern era.

[[ Here again is the principle by which ethics and morality *should* change — they’re not written in stone! — i.e. as experience and knowledge expand. This is an essential theme of several of these big books I’ve read. Otherwise we’ll live forever as our tribalistic forebears did. ]]

The doctrine of the Blank Slate led to the Standard Social Science Model (discussed at length in Pinker’s earlier book), in which the social order was divorced from biology. Thus ‘associationalism’ and ‘behaviorism’; there being no such thing as innate talent or ability, any child could be raised to become any kind of specialist. There were no such thing as instincts; everything, even sexual desire, was a conditioned respond. Thus BF Skinner. Benjamin Spock’s book about child care was in part a reaction to behaviorist ideas.

Meanwhile Franz Boas drew on Berkeley’s idealism to put forth the idea of culture as defining, rather than race; any person anywhere is capable of full potential. The idea went too far, suggesting that every aspect of human existence must be explained in terms of culture. Albert Kroeber [[ does Pinker mean Alfred Kroeber?? father of Ursula K. Le Guin? I can’t find anything about a Franz Boas student named Albert Kroeber ]] favored the idea despite evidence; a culture is ‘superorganic’ independent of individuals. Emile Durkheim extended these ideas; his group disliked ideas of instincts and evolution. Margaret Mead. This idea became an article of faith in social science, that’s driven the identity politics of today: rights belong to groups, more than to individuals.

Meanwhile intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and H.L. Mencken accepted the notion of the Noble Savage, hoping that scientists could bring about the perfection of mankind. They embraced the ghost in the machine, as liberating human will, in order to bring about the perfection of mankind, with the belief that the human mind could not be explained by evolution; thus God. Granted, this was a time when biologists still believed in elan vital, that life and nonlife were separate realms.

[[ Once again, these ideas are applicable to science fiction, e.g. Gene Roddenberry’s notion, in the original Star Trek series, that the future would be conflict-free. This was a problem for writers of that and later series, since drama inherently involves conflicts. How many other SF works presuppose the malleability of human nature? ]]

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