The Blank Slate

If the claims made in this book are true, it is probably the most important, the most surprising, and the most controversial book I have ever read.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a 2002 book by Steven Pinker. It challenges three modern ideas of human nature. These are:

  • The blank blank slate – the idea that the human mind has no innate traits
  • The nobel savage – the idea that humans are inherently good and it is society that turns them bad
  • The ghost in the machine – the idea that we each have a soul that is separate from our biological brain

Pinker argues that the brain is predisposed to certain beliefs and practices, that it is inherently violent and needs society to quell this. The “soul” refers to the Cartesian model of consciousness that Dan Dennett tackled in his book Consciousness Explained.

It’s a big book and for me to do the arguments it puts forward justice in one blog post would be absolutely impossible. In part, because I probably do not have my head round all of them. However, I have discussed some of the most interesting and most controversial points below.

Why is it that Europe flourished while Africa did not? It could of course be luck. However, one explanation that helps explain it is that cultural practices are probably easier to share across Europe and Asia than they are across Africa. Methods of agriculture for example can be shared across a wide thin continent because being at the same longitudes, they have similar clients. Whereas Africa, being a thin tall continent, has different climates at different longitudes, so agricultural practices need to be developed again and again.

Pinker argues that the slate cannot be blank, because blank slates cannot do anything. Take the computer for example. We have to programme it to do anything useful. Something must be innate. This is probably why artificial intelligence research has been unable to replicate human intelligence with a generalised artificial neural network – these networks can learn anything, but the human brain is actually a series of specialised sub-systems.

The problem with this from a neuroscience point of view, is how the brain takes shape. Our genome contains about 750 megabytes of data. This is no where near enough to specify such complex systems. However, we know that all input affects the brain (otherwise we would have no memory) and that the body uses feedback circuits to shape themselves – joints for example grow to fit each other. There is nothing supernatural about the brain, so it seems sensible to assume it works the same way.

That is not to say that the brain is fixed. Indeed, from what we have seen above, it is clear that it is not. Areas of the brain can be re-purposed – musicians have an expanded cortex that controls finger movement and dead people re-use their auditory cortex for processing sign language. However, this does not mean the brain is plastic to be moulded into any shape any more than a joint’s ability to fit together implies it could also be your liver. We can sometimes re-purpose things, but they do have a purpose.

The blank slate is thus destroyed. However, it is not as easy to let go as all that because it is a scary thing to do. We have linked the blank state to our system of morality. Everyone is equal because our brains are equal, and if we let that idea slide that could open up the door for thinking people are not equal. Godwin know’s where that leads.

Pinker rebukes this idea though. He points out that differences in race are smaller than differences in individuals. Two races may have slightly different standard deviations, but they will mostly overlap. Secondly, the idea of the blank slate is actually more dangerous. If we accept the blank slate, we accept the idea that people could be conditioned enjoy or accept slavery. The hatcheries of Brave New World would work today.

Thankfully, the slate isn’t blank, and humans will not submit to this. Orwell’s Big Brother does not control human nature. It is hard-wired into us.

How about the nobel savage. Are humans inherently good and corrupted by society? Pinker argues not. The evidence shows that pre-state societies were in fact the most violent and murderous. Pre-states had a homicide rate of 10-60% (that is to say 10-60% died of being murdered, rather than natural causes). Even in America, a country stereotyped for everyone shooting each other, has a homicide rate of 1.5%.

He discusses altruism, and breaks it down into two kinds. The first is nepotistic. he look after our family more than other people. This is because they share our genes, and so we are biologically wired to protect them. This seems a big doom and gloom – was Thatcher right about there being no such thing as society? Maybe, but this does not prove it in my opinion. You’re right, I am going to look after my kids first of all, because they share half of my genes. However, I share a lot of genes with the rest of the human race, and many with other living creatures too. So I would suggest nepotistic altruism could have an effect on how we treat everyone, though to a much weaker level.

Secondly, reciprocal altruism. This is the concept of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. This is probably the key to how society works. The selfish gene produces the altruistic organism because we work better when cooperating. However, this only works in a structured and regulated society.

In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer discusses why he is right wing, or at least supports some authoritarian in a state. He points out that people are only altruistic, and people only follow the law, if they can see that justice is being done to those who do not.

Pinker argues the same thing. He points out that communes never work because people will inherently do a little as possible if not being monitored and have a psychological tendency to overestimate the share of work they have done, so even if they are being honest with themselves, they may well have not done enough. This, combined with humans being hard-wired to care more about their own offspring than others, seems to be an excellent explanation of the ultimate failure of kibbutzim.

This has implications for things like judicial sentencing. I have previously believed that rehabilitation is the most important, possibly the only important, consideration when sentencing someone. However, under the model of the ignoble savage, there is nothing “fix” and deterrence becomes the most important consideration.

How about differences in gender? Now Pinker is on thin ice, politically. He starts by talking about sexual reproduction and suggests that males seek quantity whereas females seek quality. He puts this down to our evolutionary background. Men have very little investment in a child – they just need to provide some seed, so in order to maximise spreading their genes they should attempt to have as many mates as possible. A child is a much bigger investment for a female however, as they have to grow it and care for it once it is born, so they are more interested in picking a high quality mate that will produce a health child and hopefully stick around to look after this.

This does not justify the social attitude that men who sleep with lots of partners are “players” while women who sleep with lots of parters are “sluts”. However, it does suggest that there is an evolutionary basis for why we might be pre-disposed to think this, rather than it being another evil of “the patriarchy”.

He then goes on to argue that men and women are clearly different, and their brains are not interchangeable. The fact that traditionally women stay at home and look after children while men do not is not a social construct. It happens throughout the animal kingdom with the overwhelming majority of mammal species working the same way.

This has significant impact for the gender pay gap for example. For some reason, we have been unable to solve it, even though it is illegal to pay one gender more. It’s not easy to see why this is. Under the model of the blank slate, we blame the patriarchy, and stereotype threat, and spend a huge amount of money trying to get girls to do STEM, even though research suggests this is not justified.

However, if we accept the non-blank slate model, we can then begin to really tackle these problems, because we can actually tackle the correct problem. However, the current political climate of not even being able to suggest such ideas without being written off as a racist means that most evidence-based solutions for the problem are automatically written off.

Again, it is critical to stress that none of these biological explanations justify the current situation. It is not okay to discriminate against someone because of gender or race. However, the only way we can tackle these issues are to accept that these problems are evolutionary based and that we have biased we need to correct against!

The view that we are noble savages and that society has created racism and sexism is not the case. These things are wired into us and it is society that fixes them. Until we accept that these are natural biases that we need to use society to counteract, we will struggle to make progress.

If this isn’t getting your blood pumping yet, Pinker then goes on to discuss rape. Again, I will stress that I cannot do justice to an entire book in one blog post, so I would recommend you read it yourself to ensure that your understanding of my understanding of what Pinker is arguing actually matches what Pinker has written.

He argues that rape could be “natural”. That doesn’t mean it is good of course – arsenic, cancer and being eaten by a bear are all natural. However, it does seem to have been a feature of pre-state society and takes place in much of the animal kingdom too. Mallard ducks regularly engage in gang rape for example, and many species have bits of their bodies design specifically to restrain the female when mating. He then makes an extended case for the idea that rape genuinely is about sex, rather than being about power or violence.

I do not want to go too deep into this because with it being such a sensitive subject, so again I would not want to do injustice to Pinker’s writing. The last thing I will add on the topic however, is that Pinker points out that civilisation reduces violence against women. Two driving factors behind controlling rape are punishment (in our case being incarcerated) and ostracisation (being thrown our of society). Both of these things require society.

Finally, just when you think your beliefs have been rocked enough, Pinker goes on to discuss parenting. If I was being flippant, I would suggest that he says it “doesn’t matter”. However, like everything else in the book, once he has destroyed the belief you used to have, he then goes on to explain why it should still matter.

He argues that home environments do not matter. For example, if you take identical twins and split them up at birth, they turn out the same even though they were raised in different households. Whereas if you take adoptive siblings, raised in the same household, they are as different as if you picked people at random.

Immediately, I had two issues with this line of reasoning. The first is that “good” parents produce “good” children and “bad” parents produce “bad” children. I am not really sure what terms to use with regards to “good” and “bad”, they are certainly not the best, but I am drawing a blank as to what the best term would be. By this I mean smart, well-educated, care about their children, etc. However, this argument does not hold up, because it could equally be genetic. Of course high IQ parents produce high IQ children, we do not need a non-genetic reason to accept that.

The other issue I would take with it is that clearly genes do not account for all of the variation in a child. However, Pinker argues that this variation actually comes from a child’s peer group, rather than their parents. Children select their peer group, which is why differences show up in individual children, but do not show up across the twin and adopted sibling studies, which would suggest parenting and home life played a role.

If he is right, parenting just became a whole lot easier. For example, all that stuff you are doing to stimulate their brain, is completely pointless.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you do not need to be good parents. Firstly, mistreating your children can seriously damage them. Secondly, there is a plain and simple moral imperative to be nice to them. Thirdly, you still want to build a relationship with your children. After all, they will (hopefully) be looking after you when you are older. However, it does mean that you can spend your time enjoying your time with your kids, rather than worrying about shaping them into the person you want them to be.

This is a massive claim of course, and one that even if I accept, and don’t think I really do at this point, I am not sure I could bring myself to follow through on it because the risk of being wrong are high.


Where does this leave us? Well, if it is all true, and the critics have not been able to do much to dismantle it, it means I need to re-consider my philosophy. The idea that people are inherently good just isn’t true. We are reciprocally altruistic which only works in a society that is fair and just. Of course I want to live in a society that is fair and just anyway, but this suggests that we need a partially authoritarian society to do this, rather than aiming for a utopian dream where everyone is just honest.

As for raising my children, this is a claim I am not sure I can accept. Even if I could accept it, would I really follow through on not trying to stimulate them and shape them into the people I want them to be? Probably not, because the risks of being wrong are large, and if the theory turns out to be right, they will turn out the same anyway. It is like walking eyes-open into another of Pascal’s Wagers, but I’m not sure I can help it.

If anyone else has read it, I would be fascinated to hear what you think of it.

The Blank Slate


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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 19th, 2015 at 10:22 am and is filed under Books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.