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The Blank Slate, Still Intellectual Ammo After 13 Years

24/11/2015 11:05 GMT | Updated 23/11/2016 10:12 GMT

"Everyone has a theory of human nature," Steven Pinker begins, "Everyone has to anticipate the behaviour of others." Any creature, like a computer program, must interpret the actions of others and respond proportionately. The mind, according to the cognitive revolution, is a collection of information and operations designed to achieve goals. One goal is communication between individuals, and, as a process, language is thought of as an operation in the mind. We don't produce random sequences of words, like dog red cat, we filter them with grammatical rules. These rules are inborn, Chomsky's universal grammar, and are seen in a child's instinctive ability to formulate sentences. Dr. Pinker's first casualty, the Blank Slate, says there is no innateness in the human mind, it is the product only of its environment. But as with a computer, information, if absorbed, cannot organise itself, any more than a collection of books, becomes a Dewey Decimal library.

Challengers to the doctrine have been attacked like heretics, none less than Dr. Pinker himself, "The worst fallout from the blank slate is not that people misunderstood the effects of genes. It is that they misunderstood the effects of the environment." The Blank Slate is an excellent book, providing heavy munitions in the argument against those who believe humans are not part of nature.

Morally the blank slate is indefensible as well as intellectually. Is it better to say that discrimination is wrong because everyone is indistinguishable, or that we have free will because people's actions are mysterious? Well no Dr. Pinker rightly points out. How about we have higher meaning because we are biologically inexplicable, or violence is wrong because we are naturally peaceful. The blank slate is a greater threat if correct. Steven Pinker gives the major fears--inequality, imperfectability, determinism, and nihilism--its own chapter, explaining how we need not be scared of understanding human nature.

Fears, like biological determinism, mean any hope of change is futile. But this, Dr. Pinker writes, is completely "daft," genes cannot possibly predict every possible environment and eventuality, in order to control us. So they give us the ability to learn, language, art, and culture. Genes aren't even completely in control themselves, as the same gene will have different effects in different environments, for example a height gene in two plants--one arid the other irrigated-- would produce two different heights, simply by the environment, but the plant's height certainly isn't a blank slate. Even something as heavily inherited as personality can be affected by the environment. As was the case with Phineas Gage who changed from productive and friendly to rude and lazy after getting a rail spike through his frontal lobe. The Harvard Law of Animal Behaviour gives it best, 'under controlled and ideal conditions, the organism will behave as it damn well pleases.'

The second myth of the human mind is the Noble Savage, as described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "[Authors] have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, ... whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state." When we go back 800,000 years violence and cannibalism are well documented and 90% of hunter-gatherer societies engaged in warfare. The noble savage was put to the test, during the 1969 Montreal police strike, Dr. Pinker's home town, when 6 banks were robbed, a policeman died, and a taxi company burned down the garage to a rival limo company over airport customers.

Programs to deal with concepts like the "cycle of violence," are doomed to failure because they rely on the noble savage fallacy. Modern data shows violence is not a primitive, irrational pathology but the evolved outcome of rational, social organisms. Toddlers are the most violent age group, with almost half employing biting, hitting, and kicking techniques. And aggressive parents tend to have aggressive kids because of inheritance, rather than parenting. Many authoritative ethnic parents have been unnecessarily chastised by these social programs. What is moral about keeping the noble savage myth?

It's also good news for same-sex parents, the argument that boys must learn masculinity from their fathers and girls femininity from their mothers is wrong. Behaviour is mostly coded in the genes, and there's no scientific reason why children can't have two parents of the same gender.

If genes can give us behaviour and language why not culture? Several traits, like romantic love and food taboos, are historically ubiquitous. Our universal grammar helps us learn language, so, in theory, there must be a universal regulator to help us learn culture. Culture can be seen as part of the human phenotype, a tool to allow us to survive, prosper, and procreate. Darwin showed us nature's illusion of design can be explained by natural selection, so the rule of law, regulating life in complex societies, may have evolved as a way to dampen conflicts between members. The antithesis of these facts are the postmodernists, infecting the humanities and social sciences, they still believe that culture is like Descartes' mind and body separation. Somehow culture exists beyond human experience and understanding, they are beyond wrong.

For good and for bad your genes mostly make you, there might not be free will, or the Ghost in the Machine, which Steven Pinker attacks. Human nature can be studied scientifically, and is known as behavioural genetics. It works according to three laws:

1. All behaviour is heritable;

2. Family environment matters less than genetic effects; and

3. The rest comes from other effects which are not family and genes.

Human behaviour can be understood through psychology, which is understood through neuroscience, evolution, game theory, etc. This does not mean that our decisions are any less meaningful, nor arts and humanities can be ignored. The physics of the atom are no more useful to explaining the First World War than analysing the surface of the CD would tell you about the movie, you could, but why would you? Read The Blank Slate and use that innateness to take it in.