The Blank Slate the Modern Denial of Human Nature (Jan 2016)

The Blank Slate The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Author: Steven Pinker
Publisher: Penguin Books 2002

I first heard of this book on a YouTube video by Jonathan Haidt with the title of: The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. The book is beyond interesting. It deals with a subject that is a taboo in today’s world, human nature. There are several philosophies: the “Blank Slate”, the “Noble Savage” and the “Ghost in the Machine”. The two basic beliefs that encompass the three philosophies boil down to nature vs. nurture, inherent human nature vs. society and upbringing.

Pinker says concerning the convictions of today’s intellectuals; “I will refer to those convictions as the Blank Slate: the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.” In the first sentence of Chapter 1, The Official Theory, he says: “”Blank Slate” is a loose translation of the medieval Latin term tabula rasa-literally, scraped tablet.”

Concerning the “Noble Savage” he writes: “The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists’ discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization.”

The concept “Ghost in the Machine” was from Descartes but so named some 300 years later the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. The Ghost in the Machine is the belief the mind and body are two separate things and the mind, or often described as the soul, manipulates the body and can live on after the death of the body.

I will quote the author with a few sentences and paragraphs. While dealing with such a complicated subject as human nature this book is, overall, a fairly easy read. It is a fairly long book having 434 pages but goes quickly. It is well referenced, for examples, the chapter on violence has 113 references and the chapter on gender” (in which he delves in detail on the subject of rape) has 105. He deals with all the theories from both liberal and conservative points of view. He ends up drawing a very strong conclusion that both are relevant.

Some of the many chapter titles are: The Fear of Inequality, The Fear of Imperfectibility, Politics, Children, Violence, and Gender. This gives an indication of the in depth study of the book.

If you read this book it will  give you a greater understanding of humanity and a greater understanding of the disastrous state we are in. If we are going to come up with solutions we need to understand the problems and how human nature plays into the equation. The book is a must for any library or personal collection.

Chapter 3: The Last Wall to Fall

“But it is the doctrine of the Noble Savage that has been most mercilessly debunked by the new evolutionary thinking. A thoroughly noble anything is an unlikely product of natural selection, because in the competition among genes for representation in the next generation, noble guys tend to finish last. Conflicts of interest are ubiquitous among living things, since two animals cannot both eat the same fish or monopolize the same mate. To the extent that social motives are adaptations that maximize copies of the genes that produce them, they should be designed to prevail in such conflicts, and one way to prevail is to neutralize the competition. As William James put it, just a bit too flamboyantly, “We, the lineal representatives of the successful enactors of one scene of slaughter after another, must, whatever more pacific virtues we may also possess, still carry about with us, ready at any moment to burst into flame, the smoldering and sinister traits of character by means of which they lived through so many massacres, harming others, but themselves unharmed.”

“To begin with, the stories of tribes out there somewhere who have never heard of violence turned out to be urban legends. Margaret Mead’s descriptions of peace-loving New Guineans and sexually nonchalant Samoans were based on perfunctory research and turned out to be almost perversely wrong. As the anthropologist Derek Freeman later documented, Samoans may beat or kill their daughters if they are not virgins on their wedding night, a young man who cannot woo a virgin may rape one to extort her into eloping, and the family of a cuckolded husband may attack and kill the adulterer. The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert had been described by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as “the harmless people” in a book with that title. But as soon as anthropologists camped out long enough to accumulate data, they discovered that the !Kung San have a murder rate higher than that of American inner cities”

“Anthropologists and historians have also been counting bodies. Many intellectuals tout the small numbers of battlefield casualties in pre-state societies as evidence that primitive warfare was largely ritualistic. They do not notice that two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million in a country the size of the United States.”


Chapter 5: The Slate’s Last Stand

“……. The study of neural plasticity is hot. Almost every week sees a discovery about how the brain gets wired in the womb and tuned outside it. …..”

“This dynamic allocation of tissue can also be seen as the brain puts itself together in the womb. Unlike a computer that gets assembled in a factory and is turned on for the first time when complete, the brain is active while it is being assembled, and that activity may take part in the assembly process.”


Chapter 8: The Fear of Inequality

“The greatest moral appeal of the doctrine of the Blank Slate comes from a simple mathematical fact: zero equals zero. This allows the Blank Slate to serve as a guarantor of political equality. Blank is blank, so if we are all blank slates, the reasoning goes, we must all be equal. But if the slate of a newborn is not blank, different babies could have different things inscribed on their slates. …..”

“And here is the remarkable fact: though both Nazi and Marxist ideologies led to industrial-scale killing, their biological and psychological theories were opposites.”


Chapter 9: The Fear of Imperfectability

“Not only acknowledging human nature compatible with social and moral progress, but it can help explain the obvious progress that has taken place over millennia. Customs that were common throughout history and prehistory-slavery, punishment by mutilation, execution by torture, genocide for convenience, endless blood feuds, the summary killing of strangers, rape as the spoils of war, infanticide as a form of birth control, and the legal ownership of women-have vanished from large parts of the world.”


Chapter 13: Out of Our Depths.

“These ways of knowing and core intuitions are suitable for the lifestyle of small groups of illiterate, stateless people who live off the land, survive by their wits, and depend on what they can carry. Our ancestors left this lifestyle for a settled existence only a few millennia ago, too recently for evolution to have done much, if anything, to our brains. Conspicuous by their absence are faculties suited to the stunning new understanding of the world wrought by science and technology.”


Chapter 14: The Many Roots of Our Suffering

“ “Nature is a hanging judge,” goes an old saying. Many tragedies come from our physical and cognitive makeup. Our bodies are extraordinarily improbable arrangements of matter, with many ways for things to go wrong and only a few ways for things to go right. We are certain to die, and smart enough to know it. Our minds are adapted to a world that no longer exists, prone to misunderstandings correctable only by arduous education, and condemned to perplexity about the deepest questions we can entertain.”

“It’s no mystery why organisms sometimes harm one another. Evolution has no conscience, and if one creature hurts another to benefit itself, such as by eating, parasitizing, intimidating or cuckolding it, it’s descendants will come to predominate, complete with those nasty habits.”

“The weakening of parents’ hold over their older children is also not just a recent casualty of destructive forces. It is part of a long-running expansion of freedom in the West that has granted children their always present desire for more autonomy than parents are willing to cede. In traditional societies, children were shackled to the family’s land, betrothed in arranged marriages, and under the thumb of the family patriarch. That began to change in medieval Europe, and some historians argue it was the first stepping stone in the extension of rights that we associate with the Enlightenment and that culminated in the abolition of feudalism and slavery.”

“These experiments may be artificial, but the motives they expose play themselves out in the real life experiments known as utopian communities. In the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth, self-contained communities based on a philosophy of communal sharing sprang up throughout the United States. All of them collapsed from internal tensions, the ones guided by socialist ideology after a median of two years, the ones guided by religious ideology after a median of twenty years.”

“Beginning with Ashley Montagu in 1952, thinkers with collectivist sympathies have tried to eke out a place for unmeasured generosity by invoking group selection, a Darwinian competition among groups of organisms rather than among individual organisms. The hope is that groups whose members sacrifice their interests for the common good will outcompete those in which every man is for himself, and as a result generous impulses will come to prevail in the species. Williams dashed the dream in 1966 when he pointed out that unless a group is genetically fixed and hermetically sealed, mutants or immigrants constantly infiltrate it. A selfish infiltrator would soon take over the group with its descendants, who are more numerous because they have reaped the advantages of others’ sacrifices without the making their own. This would happen long before the group could parlay its internal cohesion into victory over neighboring groups and bud off new offspring groups to repeat the process.”

“The possibility that some individuals are born with a weak conscience runs squarely against the doctrine of the Noble Savage. It calls to mind the old-fashioned notions of born criminals and bad seeds, and it was blotted out by 20th-century intellectuals and replaced with the belief that all wrongdoers are victims of poverty or bad parenting. In the late 1970s Norman Mailer received a letter from a prisoner named Jack Henry Abbott, who had spent most of his life behind bars for crimes ranging from passing bad checks to killing a fellow prisoner. Mailer was writing a book about the murderer Gary Gilmore, and Abbott offered to help him get into the mindset of a killer by sharing his prison diaries and his radical critique of the criminal justice system. Mailer was dazzled by Abbott’s prose is and proclaimed him to be a brilliant new writer and thinker –” an intellectual, a radical, a potential leader, a man obsessed with a vision of more elevated human relations in a better world that revolution could forge.” He arranged for Abbott’s letters to be published in the New York review of books and then as a 1980 book, In the Belly of the Beast.”

“Over the objections of prison psychiatrists who saw that Abbott had PSYCHOPATH written all over his face, Mailer and other New York literati helped him win an early parole. Abbott was soon fêted at literary dinners, likened to Solzhenitsyn and Jacob Timerman, and interviewed on Good Morning America and in People magazine. Two weeks later he got into an argument with an aspiring young playwright who was working as a waiter in a restaurant and had asked Abbott not to use the employees’ restroom. Abbott asked him to step outside, stabbed him in the chest, and left him to bleed to death on the sidewalk.”

“Psychopaths can be clever and charming, and Mailer was only the latest in a series of intellectuals from all over the political spectrum who were conned in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1973 William F. Buckley helped win the early release of Edgar Smith, a man who had been convicted of molesting a 15-year-old cheerleader and crushing her head with a rock. Smith won his freedom in exchange for confessing to the crime, and then, as Buckley was interviewing him on his national television program, he recanted confession. Three years later he was arrested for beating another young woman with a rock, and is now serving a life sentence for attempted murder.”

“Not everyone was conned. The comedian Richard Pryor described his experience at the Arizona State Penitentiary during the filming of Stir Crazy: “It made my heart ache, you know, to see all the beautiful black men in the joint. Goddam; the warriors should be out there helping the masses. I felt that way, I was real naïve. Six weeks I was up there and I talked to the brothers. I talked to ‘em, and . . .[Looks around, frightened} . . . Thank God we got penitentiaries! I asked one, “Why did you kill everybody in the house?” He says, “They was home” . . .”


Chapter 17: Violence

“Modern foragers, who offer a glimpse of life in prehistoric societies, were once thought to engage only in ceremonial battles that were called to a halt as soon as the first man fell. Now they are known to kill one another at rates that dwarf the casualties from our world wars. The archaeological record is no happier. Buried in the ground and hidden in caves lie silent witnesses to a bloody prehistory stretching back hundreds of thousands of years. They include skeletons with scalping marks, ax-shaped dents, and arrowheads embedded in them; weapons like tomahawks and maces that are useless for hunting but specialized for homicide; fortification defenses such as palisades of sharpened sticks; and paintings from several continents showing men firing arrows, spears, or boomerangs at one another and being felled by these weapons. For decades “anthropologists of peace” denied that any human group had ever practiced cannibalism, but evidence to the contrary has been piling up and now includes a smoking gun. In an 850 year old site in the American Southwest, archaeologists have found human bones that were hacked up like the bones of animals used for food. They also found traces of human myoglobin (a muscle protein) on pot shards, and – damningly – in a lump of fossilized human excrement. Members of Homo antecessor, relatives of the common ancestors of  Neanderthals and modern humans, bashed and butchered one another too, suggesting that violence and cannibalism go back at least 800,000 years.”

“The reduction of violence on scales large and small is one of our greatest moral concerns. We ought to use every intellectual tool available to understand what it is about the human mind and human social arrangements that leads people to hurt and kill so much. But as with the other moral concerns examined in this part of the book, the effort to figure out what is going on as been hijacked by an effort to legislate the correct answer. In the case of violence, the correct answer is that violence has nothing to do with human nature but is a pathology inflicted by malign elements outside us. Violence is a behavior taught by the culture, or an infectious disease endemic to certain environments.”

“When culture is seen as an entity with beliefs and desires, the beliefs and desires of actual people are unimportant. …….”

“Aggressive parents often have aggressive children, but people who conclude that aggression is learned from parents in a “cycle of violence” never consider the possibility that violent tendencies could be inherited as well as learn.”

“This whole cynical analysis may not ring true to modern readers because we cannot think of other people as mere parts of our environment that may have to be neutralized like weeds in the garden. Unless we are psychopaths, we sympathize with other people and cannot blithely treat them as obstacles or prey. Such sympathy, however, has not prevented people from committing all manner of atrocities throughout history and prehistory.”

“If you have neighbors, they may covet what you have, in which case you have become an obstacle to their desires. Therefore you must be prepared to defend yourself. Defense is an iffy matter even with technologies such as castle walls, the Maginot line, or anti-ballistic missile defenses, and is even iffier without them.”

“The other distinctive feature of Homo sapiens as a species is, of course, toolmaking. Competitiveness can channel toolmaking into weaponry, and diffidence can channel weaponry into an arms race. An arms race, like an alliance, can make war more likely by accelerating the spiral of fear and distrust. Our species’ vaunted ability to make tools is one of the reasons we are so good at killing one another.”

“When law enforcement vanishes, all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansing, and petty warfare among gangs, warlords, and mafias. This was obvious in the remnants of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and parts of Africa in the 1990s, but can also happen in countries with a long tradition of civility. As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montréal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.”

“The generalization that anarchy in the sense of a lack of government leads to anarchy in the sense of violent chaos may seem banal, but is often overlooked in today’s still romantic climate. Government in general is anathema to many conservatives, and the police and prison system are anathema to many liberals……..”

“Where Hobbes fell short was in dealing with the problem of policing the police. In his view, civil war was such a calamity that any government – monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy – was preferable to it.”

“In the 1960s it all seems so simple. War is unhealthy for children and other living things. What if they gave a war and nobody came? War: what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! The problem with these sentiments is that the other side has to feel the same way at the same time. In 1939 Neville Chamberlain offered his own antiwar slogans, “Peace in our time.” It was followed by a world war and a holocaust, because his adversary did not agree that war is good for absolutely nothing.”


PART VI: The voice of the species

“The Blank Slate was an attractive vision. It promised to make racism, sexism, and class prejudice factually untenable. It appeared to be a bulwark against the kind of thinking that led to ethnic genocide. It aimed to prevent people from slipping into a premature fatalism about preventable social ills.”

“But the Blank Slate had, and has, a dark side. The vacuum that posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides. It perverts education, child rearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering.”

Here Pinker quotes a section from “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut:

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal in every way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

Pinker goes on and says:

The handicapper General enforces equality by neutralizing any inherited (hence undeserved) asset. Intelligent people have two-way radios in their ears tuned to a government transmitter that sends out a sharp noise every 20 seconds (such as the sound of a milk bottle struck with a ball-peen hammer) to prevent them from taking unfair advantage of their brains. Ballerinas are laden with bags of birdshot and their faces are hidden by masks so that no one can feel bad at seeing someone prettier or more graceful than they. Newscasters are selected for their speech impediments. The hero of the story is a multiply gifted teenager forced to wear headphones, thick wavy glasses, 300 pounds of scrap iron, and black caps on half his teeth. The story is about his ill-fated rebellion.”

“Polices that insist that people be identical in their outcomes must impose costs on humans who, like all living things, vary in their biological endowment. Since talents by definition are rare, and can be fully realized only in rare circumstances, it is easier to achieve forced equality by lowering the top (and thereby depriving everyone of the fruits of people’s talents) than by raising the bottom.”