The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Book Review-The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – The Implications

In part 1 of this book review of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, I focused on the basics of the argument. We learned about the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. In this part, I focus on what the implications are of disproving these ideas.

Intelligent Design

The argument for intelligent design is how could it possibly be that such beauty and complexity could emerge spontaneously? The comforting thought is that there’s an unseen hand that has helped guide evolution to its current point. However, what we know from the historical evidence is that the process of evolution often is wasteful and cruel. It’s a robust system that can unnecessarily take out species or a people in the service of the greater good – or at least in the response to the randomness of time.

It may be comforting to think that there’s a hand compassionately guiding the process of evolution, but the evidence seems to point to a process that wouldn’t be considered compassionate.

Put Out the Fire

Genetic Variation

Biologists expect genetic variation. They expect that overtime the number of variations will stack up within a species. The problem is that all the diversity that we have in the human species doesn’t add up. We focus on differences (see The Difference), but the reality is that there’s really not much in the way of genetic diversity. In fact, from a biologist’s point of view, our race should be much smaller.

The cause of the lack of diversity may be in our population explosion. Roughly ten thousand years ago, we discovered agriculture, and the caloric surplus that it afforded us allowed us to rapidly increase in number. Instead of a steady increase in numbers, we have a slow increase followed by rapid growth. The result is a relatively small degree of diversity.

Taboo Items

As was covered in The Righteous Mind, there are some things that, though they leave everyone better off, can still be considered taboo. Pinker reminds us that it’s illegal to sell your vote, organ, or children – but some could argue that both parties would benefit. It’s difficult to consider these items without getting caught up in the hidden feelings. Haidt uses the following story, which Pinker quotes:

Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. So, what do you think about this? Was it wrong for them to have sex?

Haidt shares that people try to create reasons for their discomfort with the story. It just feels bad – and it is hard to put our finger on why. Most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable with vegetables grown in sanitized human waste or an elevator with a glass floor – not because we logically believe they’re risky, but instead because the ideas just give us “the willies.”

Discrimination

Discrimination is really differentiating between two things. It’s discernment. However, we often use it when we take one trait and use it to predict the behavior of someone. Pinker share a perspective on discrimination: “It would be reprehensible for a bank to hire a man over a woman as a manager for the reason that he is less likely to quit after having a child. Would it also be reprehensible for a couple to hire a woman over a man as a nanny for their daughter because she is less likely to sexually abuse the child?” Again, this sits the wrong way with most moral people. We know that we leap to conclusions, and we simplify, and that discrimination is a part of that process – whether we like it or not. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more.)

Inside and Outside (Our Group)

The Lucifer Effect chronicles the issues that came from the Stanford Prison Experiment, which took normal students and split them into a guard and a prisoner group. The results were telling in our ability to harm folks who are not in our group. The line we draw between us and them isn’t factual; it can be drawn at random, and we’ll accept it. We’ll treat outsiders with disrespect and contempt. We’ll try to conquer them – unless we trade with them. You can’t trade with someone, kill them, and continue to trade with them.

The specialization of skills and the need to trade may have helped to buffer us from the constant fighting and bickering that could have destroyed us as a species. As it is, there are some tribes where males’ deaths can be attributed to war more than half of the time.

It’s this tendency that has the Dalai Lama encouraging us to expand our circle of us – our circle of compassion – to everyone. (See The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.)

Responsibility and Accountability

One of the challenges with accepting that 50% (or so) of our behavior is driven by genes is the concern that it will absolve people of responsibility for their actions. After all, my genes made me do it. What’s next? “My genes ate my homework?” There’s no biological exoneration of wrong-doers.

We tend to not blame people who make bad decisions if they could not have seen the consequences. We tend to punish only the believed intent of the actions. We believe there’s a lower level of accountability to be extracted from those who couldn’t have known better. If someone couldn’t have known better because of their genes – or their raising – can we really hold them accountable? The point of holding people responsible is to prevent others from committing similar acts. What happens when that deterrent doesn’t work? (See Moral Disengagement for more.)

The Moment of Ensoulment

When you believe there’s a ghost inside the machine – an immortal soul – the question comes when that soul is installed in the body. Catholics believe that this moment is the moment of conception. However, this is a convenient line to draw. As I mentioned in Fractal Along the Edges, sometimes the lines aren’t all that clear. Pinker points out that sometimes it can take a day after the fertilization of an egg for the genes to become merged and more time for the merged genome to control the cell.

Using conception – or fertilization – as the moment of ensoulment, then what happens to the roughly 3/4ths of the fertilized eggs that never implant in the uterus or are spontaneously aborted for no clear reason? Are these souls lost or returned to the pool of available souls?

My point isn’t to dislodge the belief of ensoulment but rather to share that our view on the process is naïve and incomplete.

Tit-for-Tat and Reciprocity

Our evolution seems to have been dominated by tit-for-tat as a bargaining approach. If you do bad to someone, then bad will be done to you, so we’ve been conditioned to be mostly fair but slightly selfish. We know that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind, but we’re conditioned to it anyway. We believe in reciprocity. We want it in our losses, and we seek it in the gifts that we give.

Studies have shown that we’re more generous to those that we believe are in a position to be more generous to us. We are more willing to give when we think that we’ll get something in return.

Backwards and Forwards

When we look backwards at our memories, we look not at the reality that existed back then, but instead we look at an idealized image of the past that has been distorted and changed by the lenses of our current thinking. Memories are far from infallible. (See Incognito.) Despite this, viewing our current state of moral progress and society is best measured against a distorted past than it is against an idealized future. We cannot expect that we’ll be at some utopian vision of how society can be – we’ll always fall short by that measure. Instead, as we look at where we are, we should look at the progress we’re making towards becoming better, more moral, more caring, and further enlightened.

Anticipated Costs

At some level, our society is held together by a set of expectations. We enforce behaviors that are socially desirable by creating stiff consequences for undesirable behaviors. We attempt to ensure enforcement of these consequences so that the calculus of whether someone should do a socially undesirable behavior or not is clearly weighted towards the desirable behavior. The higher the cost and the more certain the enforcement, the less likely that it is that someone will attempt the behavior. Like any conditioned behavior, once the behavior pattern has been established, it’s possible to remove or reduce the external consequences, because they will be internalized.

That’s why strict parenting creates in children an internalized sense of social norms that leads the children to – on average – not have as many skirmishes with the law.

Government

Democracy is the worst kind of government – except for all the other kinds of government that we have tried. (That is according to Winston Churchill.) Marxist ideas may have been a good idea. Communism may have its place – in a colony of ants. It doesn’t work with humans, but other species may be able to leverage the ideas.

Caring for the Poor

Status is a zero-sum game. As we strive for status, we create a gap between us and others. As others struggle for status, they close the gap, and we must find new and more exotic things to recreate the separation. Thus, there’s a natural rise in the standard. Even the poorest today are better off than the aristocracy of yesterday, but we don’t measure worth against a time years ago. We measure against others – we measure our status relative to our peers.

As a result, we don’t really want to care for the poor. If we care for the poor, then we raise their status, making it necessary to further elevate our status.

Media and Violence

Albert Bandura is famous for his research on televised violence and its impact on children. This is one of the topics that is covered in his book Moral Disengagement. The problem is Pinker cites research and situations that contradict Bandura’s beliefs and findings. Jonathan Freedman did his review and found that there seemed to be little or no effect of televised violence on actual violence. This makes rational sense, as violent crimes were on the decline in the 1990s – at the height of the increased violence on TV and in video games. Places like St. Helena first got television in 1995, and there wasn’t any discernable increase in violence.

Sometimes, even with respectable scientists, the confirmation bias is just too strong. We tend to find what we’re looking for. (See Confirmation bias in Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Do Guns Kill People

There’s a popular mantra that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Of course, at some level, guns make this prospect easier. Pinker comes down on the opposite side of the issue of gun control as Bandura. Where Bandura sees that guns make people less safe, Pinker sees guns as a deterrent that is effective at discouraging violence. There are studies that seem to prove both points. Which author is subject to confirmation bias? Both. In many cases, Pinker makes compelling arguments that some of the places with the most guns (per capita) have lower homicide rates. That seems to indicate that guns don’t mean more murders – they could even mean fewer.

My perspective is that it’s neither good nor bad. My perspective is the impact of the availability of guns to generally well-behaving functional members of society have limited positive or negative effects. In short – it doesn’t matter as much as people matter.

Feminists and Wage-Earning Gap

According to Pinker, most women don’t believe they’re feminists – except that they believe the core beliefs of feminism. Originals covered the tendency for a movement to be known by its most extreme members. Pinker explains that there are two kinds of feminism – equality and gender. The first is focused on the lack of fairness to women, and the second is focused on the perceived system of male dominance. Thus, most women (and men) believe in equality – but few believe in gender feminism.

The gender feminists point to the wage-earning gap between women and men, which is often quoted in the 70 cents per dollar range. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that the wages of childless women were 98 cents to every dollar a man makes. Basically 2% off. The wage discrepancy may (or may not) be because women exit the workforce temporarily or permanently to raise children – and thus have less time to generate work experience than men do.

Birth Order

One consideration for the influence of personalities is birth order. However, most of the studies of birth order used surveys of family members. These studies seemed to indicate differences in personality traits based on birth order. However, these effects seemed to disappear when neutral third parties were surveyed.

The Writing Is on The Wall, We Just Can’t Read It

The Blank Slate doesn’t leave us with clear answers as to exactly how our minds are formed. We know that some part of it is genetics, and some part is environment, and there’s a substantial amount that falls into the category of we just don’t know. Just as two “identical” twins will have different fingerprints, we know they’re different. We know that they’re shaped in important ways with subtle cues from their environment. In the case of fingerprints, we know that it’s pressure waves during gestation, and those waves impact the two twins differently. In terms of their personalities, who they are, the answers are not clear.

What is clear is that though we can expose ourselves to things that help us grow and improve, things like reading The Blank Slate.

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  1. […] was Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate (see my review on the basics and the implications), that pointed me to The Nurture Assumption. Pinker spends a great deal of time in the book trying […]

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