The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker - Finally! I've been reading this book forever. That's mostly my fault, I just wasn't reading often. It is only slightly the book's fault in that it is rather textbook like. It could almost serve as the book for a psych class (or a number of other connected disciplines). Each chapter could foster a full discussion, especially the later chapters. As such, this is gonna be a hella long review, so stop reading if you don't care.
The basic premise of the book is an argument against the Blank Slate (and also Noble Savage) theories of nature vs. nurture, an argument for a strongly present nature element, and how these two things affect, to his mind, a number of aspects of our world. The first quarter or so is the argument against. For those unfamiliar, the Blank Slate theory says we come out of our mama's business completely blank, ready to be molded by: parents, peers, society, etc. The Noble Savage is an alternate but simliar theory elevating native peoples saying that before us whiteys came along and fucked them up, they were all honor and decency and virtue. The latter seems a bit of white guilt to me and I don't know that anyone really agrees with it. As he points out, every society fights, murders, rapes, and wages war. The one or two stories of amazing isolated tribes without these faults have in fact been found to be lies.
The degree to which the former is true is the heart of the nature vs. nurture debate, and of this book. The problem with the blank slate is its a 100% theory, i.e. we are ALL nurture. That's pretty hard to defend in any instance. He argues strongly that genes have a significant role in who we are. This is very interesting because I have been taught my whole life that the liberal proper way of thinking is that we are all what we are made to be or make ourselves to be. That seems to elimiate racism & sexism, the inevitability of war, or of violence, it makes us all pure until we mess each other up. But Pinker's point is plainly that it is not true. He cites a large number of studies to prove his argument. Which is the unavoidable fault of this book, I have to trust him. He spends the middle half of the book citing various bits of evidence, including lots of twin studies, which he holds up as the only way to have proof. The idea is to compare twins raised together, twins raised apart, and adopted siblings raised together. Studying where you find similarities most often suggests where those similarties come from: genes or environment. His claim is that in nearly every case it is genes: twins have the same sameness whether raised together or apart, and adopted siblings have the same sameness as two random unrelated people not raised together. If this is as true as he suggests, it basically destroys the blank slate as a theory. It says that as much as 50% of our personalities/skills comes from our genes. That's pretty amazing and unnerving. But it does rely on me trusting his evidence. Is he citing ALL the studies? Just the ones he likes? How many studies are there really? How many twins together and apart can their really be, and how many of those are in studies? What kind of sample base do we have to make the results statistically significant? These questions can only be answered by someone writing a book called "eff that pinker guy", or something similar, and then I'd have to ask if I trust him. But, assuming that he is right, that the blank slate is wrong, and that our worst elements are built into us to varying degrees, how does that change our view of our world?
That assumption, and those questions, are the last quarter of the book, the issues being some obvious ones: politics, race, violence, gender, parenting, and art. His answers would make any liberal squirm: yes, a race might have a different propensity for a skill than another; yes, one gender might be more lilkey to puruse one career than another; yes, rape is somehow in our genes; no, how you parent doesn't really matter.
The race/gender ones, I think, are the easiest to handle. Is it really so surprising that more men than women, in a completely neutral world, would opt to build or operate big machines and that more women would opt to take care of people or communicate? We do have 10s of thousands of years of somewhat defined roles in us, after all. Being in science, women in science is a big issue, one that I believe in. But he has convinced me that we don't have to make it 50/50, that maybe it shouldn't be. That doesn't change that every girl should be encouraged (as should every boy), that no one should be limited, and we shouldn't assume just cuz only 30% of girls (that's a random number) would want to build a computer or an engine, that this girl in front of us at this moment wouldn't want to. I think he goes too far, I think I'd much rather react strongly against any sign of prejudgment, but clearly his priority is speaking against the assumptions the blank slate has provided us, so it pushes him too far for me. Race is a little harder, we don't have defined race roles based on our biology, and we have thousands of years of social and economic situations for certain races as opposed to others. Those factors will manipulate what instincts our genes provide us, and it could have been the other way around. But it does make us squirm, if we did a broad IQ test, would black people rank, on average, below white people? would white be below asian? those are the stereotypes, the might be born out, then what do we do? The answer is it's silly, and we do nothing. His analogy, which I appreciate, is that if a study showed that tall people, on average, are smarter than short people, would employers start only hiring the tallest of us? That would seem stupid, and clearly race comes up for other reasons, not the results of a study. The whole conversation is uncomfortable, but interesting and managable.
Slightly worse is violence and rape. We are built to be violent, we are built to breed. In some cases they will come together and make rape. It's ridiculous to say its not "natural", it happens in nature. He even argues for a evolutionary imperitive to rape, in small numbers. But it is not as extreme as it sounds, and it makes sense. But that's not even the point, just because something is natural doesn't mean its right, and we should all really own up to that. The whole point of morality is to rein the negative parts of our nature. He thinks, and I agree, that this elevates morality, not denegrates it. There's a whole lot more to this and violence in general, like I say you could talk for hours on every one of these subjects, but its very good reading.
Much much worse is parenting. He argues that parenting basically doesn't matter a lot as far as who the child will end up being. He says that parenting has, at most, a 10% effect on personality/intelligence. 50% is genes, and 40% is other. Here is where I don't understand his argument. They do this measurement with the twins again, and they say they end up 50% alike due to genes (how twins raised apart and twins raised together are same sameness), 10% alike due to parenting or shared experience (how twins raised apart and twins raised together have different sameness), and 40% due to unique experience, which I don't understand. It's supposed to be environemnt, but not in a determiniable way. Two siblings, for instance, receive a shared experience. When they leave the house and go to different schools or have different friends, they hvae unique experiences. I don't really buy this argument, everything is unique to a certain extent, no parents treats all children the same. OR, everything is shared by all the people in that class, or peer group, and THEY should be 40% the same! I think its weak, either its wrong, or he doesn't explain it well. He uses this evidence to say all the effort put into parenting theories and methods is fairly useless, because parents have such a small effect. He argues that this does not invalidate parents, and that you can still mess your kid up or neglect them and that this is still objectively wrong, and that a parents job to keep their kids alive and healthy remains uneffected. But he says whether you play him mozart, read to her starting at age 2, have a full time job or stay at home, or a number of other factors, has no impact on how smart, nice, outgoing, ambitious, or even tempered they will be. This makes me nervous, to be sure, as I feel like I was very much shaped by my parents. But if what he says is true, then they had no impact on who I am. They kept me safe and happy, and didn't hurt me or scar me, but they did not make me whatever I am. I think we all have anecdotal experiences that suggest otherwise. Parents who do "better" with a second child or set of children raised much later than the first set. Parents who spent more time with the first born than the others, etc. He says its not true, its hard for me to believe, and as I don't fully buy his argument (due to poor explanation or falseness, I don't know), makes me want to think he's wrong. But I'm defintely not sure.
The last bit of society affected is the arts, and I agree with him mostly here. He pretty much hates modernism and postmodernism, which I already don't much appreciate, so I'm ok with that. He basically argues that modernism and postmodernism insists on relativism by denying human nature, and universal beauty. He says the basis for this denial is a blank slate idea that we only think this or that looks our sounds pretty because society told us to. He says that's wrong, however, that we think its pretty because we are built to appreciate certain things as beautiful, and to deny that is wrong, and to make art based on that denial is just dumb. I fairly well agree with him, postmodernism kind of annoys me, always has. He goes a bit too far (once again!), because I think you can appreciate the accomplishment of something for its own sake. New styles, new methods, or just plain "wow, isn't it cool how s/he did that?" can be mind blowing, and I don't particularly care if they are denying human nature, what they did was cool. But, as a theory of art, I'm on board with them being sillypants.
Okay, so wow, that was a lot of writing. I maybe should have said at the beginning, not now, that this book is certainly good. If you want a book to debate around, its fantastic, as it has things to say on the most fundamental issues we deal with daily. Whether its right, I don't know, I think it's 75% right, almost certainly. The remaining 25% requires I trust him to a degree I have no reason to, and in that 25% there's a lot of nuance and consequence. I would like to hear someone argue against it, maybe I should look up a book that specifically addresses this one, I know it happens at times. As I said, its not artfully written, its almost textbook like, maybe he should be given praise for the extent to which its not a textbook given the material, I don't know. He does pull together a fantastic ending, though that is by citing people who are magnificently skilled at writing. He uses passages from Dickenson, Vonnegut, Twain, and Orwell to provide the insight he is arguing for into human nature. But even outside the ending, the book is absoultely worth reading, it will make you think and make you question, even if you decide he's wrong.