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The Blank Slate Book Summary – Steven Pinker

What you will learn from reading The Blank Slate:

– Why the Blank Slate can’t possibly exist.

– Why the idea of a ingrained human nature is so often opposed.

– The evolving nature of language and what this means for our understanding.

The Blank Slate Book Summary:

This is one of my favourite books of 2020. A wide ranging conversation around the blank slate. Arguing against it’s existence convincingly whilst explaining why it is a controversial area in politics. This book contains so many gems of insight into the human condition. 

If you want to understand why we are the way we are then this is a fantastic book to begin your journey.


Against the Blank slate:

Evolutionary psychology also explains why the slate is not blank. The mind was forged in Darwinian competition, and an inert medium would have been outperformed by rivals outfitted with high technology-with acute perceptual systems, savvy problem-solvers, cunning strategists, and sensitive feedback circuits. Worse still, if our minds were truly malleable they would be easily manipulated by our rivals, who could mold or condition us into serving their needs rather than our own. A malleable mind would quickly be selected out.


The Cognitive Revolution:

The cognitive revolution unified the world of ideas with the world of matter using a powerful new theory: that mental life can be explained in terms of information, computation, and feedback. Beliefs and memories are collections of information-like facts in a database, but residing in patterns of activity and structure in the brain. Thinking and planning are systematic transformations of these patterns, like the operation of a computer program. Wanting and trying are feedback loops, like the principle behind a thermostat: they receive information about the discrepancy between a goal and the current state of the world, and then they execute operations that tend to reduce the difference. The mind is connected to the world by the sense organs, which transduce physical energy into data structures in the brain, and by motor programs, by which the brain controls the muscles. 

None of this is to say that the brain works like a digital computer, that artificial intelligence will ever duplicate the human mind, or that computers are conscious in the sense of having first-person subjective experience. But it does suggest that reasoning, intelligence, imagination, and creativity are forms of information processing, a well-understood physical process.

Cognitive modelers have found that mundane challenges like walking around furniture, understanding a sentence, recalling a fact, or guessing someone’s intentions are formidable engineering problems that are at or beyond the frontiers of artificial intelligence. The suggestion that they can be solved by a lump of Silly Putty that is passively molded by something called “culture” just doesn’t cut the mustard.


Intelligence and correct predictions:

If a sequence of transformations of information stored in a hunk of matter (such as brain tissue or silicon) mirrors a sequence of deductions that obey the laws of logic, probability, or cause and effect in the world, they will generate correct predictions about the world. And making correct predictions in pursuit of a goal is a pretty good definition of “intelligence.”” 


Our Innate Circuitry:

Distilling the variation from the universal patterns is not just a way to tidy up a set of messy data. It can also provide clues about the innate circuitry that makes learning possible.  

If the universal part of a rule is embodied in the neural circuitry that guides babies when they first learn language, it could explain how children learn language so easily and uniformly and without the benefit of instruction. Rather than treating the sound coming out of Mom’s mouth as just an interesting noise to mimic verbatim or to slice and dice in arbitrary ways, the baby listens for heads and complements, pays attention to how they are ordered, and builds a grammatical system consistent with that ordering. 

People may dress differently, but they may all strive to flaunt their status via their appearance. They may respect the rights of the members of their clan exclusively or they may extend that respect to everyone in their tribe, nation-state, or species, but all divide the world into an in-group and an out-group. But all of them explain certain events by invoking the existence of entities with minds that strive to bring about goals. The behaviorists got it backwards: it is the mind, not behaviour, that is lawful. 

Behavior is not just emitted or elicited, nor does it come directly out of culture or society. It comes from an internal struggle among mental modules with differing agendas and goals. 

Humans behave flexibly because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software that can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior. Behavior may vary across cultures, but the design of the mental programs that generate it need not vary. 

Intelligent behavior is learned successfully because we have innate systems that do the learning. And all people may have good and evil motives, but not everyone may translate them into behavior in the same way. 


The self is a just a module of the Brain:

Educated people, of course, know that perception, cognition, language, and emotion are rooted in the brain. But it is still tempting to think of the brain as it was shown in old educational cartoons, as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user-the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the “me.” But cognitive neuroscience is showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems.


Our programming:

An eye for beauty, for example, locks onto faces that show signs of health and fertility-just as one would predict if it had evolved to help the beholder find the fittest mate. 

The emotions of sympathy, gratitude, guilt, and anger allow people to benefit from cooperation without being exploited by liars and cheats. 

A reputation for toughness and a thirst for revenge were the best defense against aggression in a world in which one could not call 911 to summon the police. 

Children acquire spoken language instinctively but written language only by the sweat of their brow, because spoken language has been a feature of human life for tens or hundreds of millennia whereas written language is a recent and slow spreading invention. 


Proximate vs Ultimate Causes:

The difference between the mechanisms that impel organisms to behave in real time and the mechanisms that shaped the design of the organism over evolutionary time is important enough to merit some jargon. 

A proximate cause of behavior is the mechanism that pushes behavior buttons in real time, such as the hunger and lust that impel people to eat and have sex. An ultimate cause is the adaptive rationale that led the proximate cause to evolve, such as the need for nutrition and reproduction that gave us the drives of hunger and lust. 

The distinction between proximate and ultimate causation is indispensable in understanding ourselves because it determines the answer to every question of the form “Why did that person act as he did?” To take a simple example, ultimately people crave sex in order to reproduce (because the ultimate cause of sex is reproduction), but proximately they may do everything they can not to reproduce (because the proximate cause of sex is pleasure). 


The Value of Shared Practices and rites of passages:

Shared arbitrary practices also help people cope with the fact that while many things in life are arranged along a continuum, decisions must often be binary. 

Children do not become adults instantaneously, nor do dating couples become monogamous partners. Rites of passage and their modern equivalent, pieces of paper like ID cards and marriage licenses, allow third parties to decide how to treat ambiguous cases-as a child or as an adult, as committed or as available-without endless haggling over differences of opinion. And the fuzziest categories of all are other people’s intentions. Is he a loyal member of the coalition (one that I would want to have in my foxhole) or a quisling who will bail out when times get tough? 

Culture, then is a pool of technological and social innovations that people accumulate to help them live their lives, not a collection of arbitrary roles and symbols that happen to befall them. 


On Culture:

Thomas Sowell explained his starting point for an analysis of cultural differences: 

A culture is not a symbolic pattern, preserved like a butterfly in amber. 

Its place is not in a museum but in the practical activities of daily life, where it evolves under the stress of competing goals and other competing cultures. Cultures do not exist as simply static “differences” to be celebrated but compete with one another as better and worse ways of getting things done-better and worse, not from the standpoint of some observer, but from the standpoint of the peoples themselves, as they and aspire amid the gritty realities of life. 


Good reductionism:

Good reductionism (also called hierarchical reductionism) consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them. The building blocks used by one field are put under a microscope by another. 


The Plasticity problem:

If the plasticity of sensory cortex symbolized the plasticity of mental life as a whole, it should be easy to change what we don’t like about ourselves or other people. But as we all know, that’s easier said than done. 


History is a long battle of opinions:

Throughout history, battles of opinion have been waged by noisy moralizing, demonizing, hyperbole, and worse. Science was supposed to be a beachhead in which ideas rather than people are attacked and in which verifiable facts are separated from political opinions. But when science began to edge toward the topic of human nature, onlookers reacted differently from how they would to discoveries about, say, the origin of comets or the classification of lizards, and scientists reverted to the moralistic mindset that comes so naturally to our species. 


Why do we avoid the topic of Human Nature:

The anxiety about human nature can be boiled down to four fears: 

If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified. 

If people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile. 

If people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions. 

If people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose. 


Success as evidence of criminality:

If people are assumed to start out identical but some end up wealthier than others, observers may conclude that the wealthier ones must be more rapacious. And as the diagnosis slides from talent to sin, the remedy can shift from redistribution to vengeance. Many atrocities of the twentieth century were committed in the name of egalitarianism, targeting people whose success was taken as evidence of their criminality. 


Saying something is natural, doesn’t condone it:

The boy has biology on his side. George Williams, the revered evolutionary biologist, describes the natural world as “grossly immoral.” Having no foresight or compassion, natural selection “can honestly be described as a process for maximizing short-sighted selfishness.” On top of all the miseries inflicted by predators and parasites, the members of a species show no pity to their own kind. Infanticide, siblicide, and rape can be observed in many kinds of animals; infidelity is common even in so-called pair-bonded species. 

As soon as we recognise that there is nothing morally commendable about the products of evolution, we can describe human psychology honestly, without the fear that identifying a “natural” trait is the same as condoning it. 


Understanding is not forgiveness:

The difference between explaining behaviour and excusing it is captured in the saying “To understand is not to forgive,” and has been stressed in different ways by many philosophers, including Hume, Kant, and Sartre. 


The Role of Responsibility:

We only have to think clearly about what we want the notion of responsibility to achieve. Whatever may be its inherent abstract worth, responsibility has an eminently practical function: deterring harmful behavior. When we say that we hold someone responsible for a wrongful act, we expect him to punish himself-by compensating the victim, acquiescing to humiliation, incurring penalties, or expressing credible remorse-and we reserve the right to punish him ourselves. 

Many judicial theorists argue that criminal law is simply a controlled implementation of the human desire for retribution, designed to keep it from escalating into cycles of vendetta. The law holds people responsible and punishes accordingly. 

Religious conceptions of sin and responsibility simply extend this lever by implying that any wrongdoing that is undiscovered or unpunished by one’s fellows will be discovered and punished by God. 


We are all hypocrites:

Why do Secular thinkers fear that biology drains life of meaning? It is because biology seems to deflate the values we most cherish. If the reason we love our children is that a squirt of oxytocin in the brain compels us to protect our genetic investment, wouldn’t the nobility of parenthood be undermined and its sacrifices devalued? If sympathy, trust, and a yearning for justice evolved as a way to earn favors and deter cheaters, wouldn’t that imply that there are really no such things as altruism and justice for their own sake? 

We sneer at the philanthropist who profits from his donation because of the tax savings, the televangelist who thunders against sin but visits prostitutes, the politician who defends the downtrodden only when the cameras are rolling, and the sensitive new-age guy who backs feminism because it’s a good way to attract women. 

Evolutionary psychology seems to be saying that we are all such hypocrites, all the time. 


Prototypical examples:

As the social psychologist Roger Brown pointed out, the main difference between categories of people and categories of other things is that when you use a prototypical exemplar to stand for a category of things, no one takes offense.  

When Webster’s dictionary used a sparrow to stand for all birds, “emus and ostriches and penguins and eagles did not go on the attack.” But just imagine what would have happened if Webster’s had used a picture of a soccer mom to illustrate woman and a picture of a business executive to illustrate man. Brown remarks, “Of course, people would be right to take offense since a prototype can never represent the variation that exists in natural categories. It’s just that birds don’t care but people do.” 


Semantic Memory:

Chances are you cannot recall a single sentence verbatim, probably not even a single phrase. What you remembered is the gist of those passages-their content, meaning, or sense-not the language itself. 

Many experiments on human memory have confirmed that what we remember over the long term is the content, not the wording, of stories and conversations. Cognitive scientists model this “semantic memory” as a web of logical propositions, images, motor programs, strings of sounds, and other data structures connected to one another in the brain. 


The Evolving nature of language – The Euphemism Treadmill:

The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long. Names for minorities will continue to change as long as people have negative attitudes toward them. We will know that we have achieved mutual respect when the names stay put. 


The Natural = Healthy Fallacy:

Plants are Darwinian creatures with no particular desire to be eaten, so they did not go out of their way to be tasty, healthy, or easy for us to grow and harvest. On the contrary: they did go out of their way to deter us from eating them, by evolving irritants, toxins, and bitter-tasting compounds. So there is nothing especially safe about natural foods. The “natural” method of selective breeding for pest resistance simply increases the concentration of the plant’s own poisons; one variety of natural potato had to be withdrawn from the market because it proved to be toxic to people. 


Human Transactions:

The anthropologist Alan Fiske has surveyed the ethnographic literature and found that virtually all human transactions fall into four patterns, each with a distinctive psychology.  

The first is Communal Sharing: groups of people, such as the members of a family, share things without keeping track of who gets what.  

The second is Authority Ranking: dominant people confiscate what they want from lower-ranking ones. But the other two types of transactions are defined by exchanges. 

The most common kind of exchange is what Fiske calls Equality Matching. Two people exchange goods or favors at different times, and the traded items are identical or at least highly similar or easily comparable. The trading partners assess their debts by simple addition or subtraction and are satisfied when the favors even out. 


The Economics of Ideas:

Romer points out that the combinatorial process of creating new ideas can circumvent the logic of Malthus: 

Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding. Possibilities do not add up. They multiply. 

Romer’s second point is that ideas are what economists call “non rival goods.” Rival goods, such as food, fuel, and tools, are made of matter and energy. If one person uses them, others cannot, as we recognise in the saying “You can’t eat your cake and have it.” But ideas are made of information, which can be duplicated at negligible cost. A recipe for bread, a blueprint for a building, a technique for growing rice, a formula for a drug, a useful scientific law, or a computer program can be given away without anything being subtracted from the giver.  

The seemingly magical proliferation of non rival goods has recently confronted us with new problems concerning intellectual property, as we try to adapt a legal system that was based on owning stuff to the problem of owning information-such as musical recordings-that can easily be shared over the Internet. 


The Role of Emotions:

The demands of reciprocal altruism can explain why the social and moralistic emotions evolved.  

Sympathy and trust prompt people to extend the first favor. Gratitude and loyalty prompt them to repay favors. Guilt and shame deter them from hurting or failing to repay others. Anger and contempt prompt them to avoid or punish cheaters. And among humans, any tendency of an individual to reciprocate or cheat does not have to be witnessed firsthand but can be recounted by language.  

This leads to an interest in the reputation of others, transmitted by gossip and public approval or condemnation, and a concern with one’s own reputation. Partnerships, friendships, alliances, and communities can emerge, cemented by these emotions and concerns. 

Reciprocators who help others who have helped them, and who shun or punish others who have failed to help them, will enjoy the benefits of gains in trade and outcompete individualists, cheaters, and pure altruists. Humans are well equipped for the demands of reciprocal altruism.

They remember each other as individuals (perhaps with the help of dedicated regions of the brain), and have an eagle eye and a flypaper memory for cheaters. They feel moralistic emotions-liking, sympathy, gratitude, guilt, shame, and anger-that are uncanny implementations of the strategies for reciprocal altruism in computer simulations and mathematical models.

Experiments have confirmed the prediction that people are most inclined to help a stranger when they can do so at low cost, when the stranger is in need, and when the stranger is in a position to reciprocate. They like people who grant them favours, grant favours to those they like, feel guilty when they have withheld a possible favor, and punish those who withhold favours from them


The Seeds of Conflict:

Trivers noticed that the confluence of genetic interests that gave rise to the social emotions is only partial. Because we are not clones, or even social insects (who can share up to three-quarters of their genes), what ultimately is best for one person is not identical to what ultimately is best for another. Thus every human relationship, even the most devoted and intimate, carries the seeds of conflict. 

Why do people range across such a wide spectrum? Perhaps all of us are capable of being saints or sinners, depending on the temptations and threats that are at hand. 


A therapists insight into self-deception:

Self-deception is among the deepest roots of human strife and folly. It implies that the faculties that ought to allow us to settle our differences-seeking the truth and discussing it rationally-are miscalibrated so that all parties assess themselves to be wiser, abler, and nobler than they really are. Each party to a dispute can sincerely believe that the logic and evidence are on his side.

Any therapist will tell you that people protest too much, deny or repress unpleasant facts, project their flaws onto others, turn their discomfort into abstract intellectual problems, distract themselves with time-consuming activities, and rationalise away their motives. 


The tension in relationships give life meaning:

The same is true for our emotions toward family and friends: the richness and intensity of the feelings in our minds are proof of the preciousness and fragility of those bonds in life. In short, without the possibility of suffering, what we would have is not harmonious bliss, but rather, no consciousness at all. 

Nature may have played a cruel trick by slightly mistuning the emotions of people who share their flesh and blood, but in doing so she provided steady work for generations of authors and playwrights. Endless are the dramatic possibilities inherent in the fact that two people can be bound by the strongest emotional bonds in the living world and at the same time not always want the best for each other. Aristotle was perhaps the first to note that tragic narratives focus on family relations. 


The principle conflicts of man:

It has, I believe, been given to only one literary text to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s).  

The conflicts which come of these five orders of confrontation are not negotiable. Men and women, old and young, the individual and the community or state, the quick and the dead, mortals and immortals, define themselves in the conflictual process of defining each other. Because Greek myths encode certain primary biological and social confrontations and self-perceptions in the history of man, they endure as an animate legacy in collective memory and recognition. 


Our Moral Sense:

Haidt has recently compiled a natural history of the emotions making the moral sense. 

The four major families are just what we would expect from Trivers’s theory of reciprocal altruism and the computer models of the evolution of cooperation that followed. 

The other-condemning emotions contempt, anger, and disgust-prompt one to punish cheaters. 

The other praising emotions-gratitude and an emotion that may be called elevation, moral awe, or being moved-prompt one to reward altruists. 

The other suffering emotions-sympathy, compassion, and empathy-prompt one to help a needy beneficiary. 

And the self-conscious emotions-guilt, shame, and embarrassment-prompt one to avoid cheating or to repair its effects. 


Conflating prestige and morality:

The ethic of community also includes a deference to an established hierarchy, and the mind (including the Western mind) all too easily conflates prestige with morality. We see it in words that implicitly equate status with virtue-chivalrous, classy, gentlemanly, honorable, noble-and low rank with sin-low-class, low-rent, mean, nasty, shabby, shoddy, villain (originally meaning “peasant”), vulgar. The Myth of the Noble Noble is obvious in contemporary celebrity worship. 


Degradation and cruelty:

One of the haunting questions of the twentieth-century history is how so many ordinary people committed wartime atrocities. The philosopher Jonathan Glover has documented that common denominator is degradation: a diminution of the victim’s status or cleanliness or both. When someone strips a person of dignity by making jokes about his suffering, giving him a humiliating appearance (a dunce cap, awkward prison garb, a crudely shaved head), or forcing him to live in filthy conditions, ordinary people’s compassion can evaporate and they find it easy to treat him like an animal or object.” 


The Moral Switch:

Another strange feature of the moral emotions is that they can be turned on and off like a switch. These mental spoinks are called moralization and amoralization, and have recently been studied in the lab by Rozin. They consist in flipping between a mindset that judges behaviour in terms of preference with a mindset that judges behaviour in terms of value. 

There are two kinds of vegetarians: those who avoid meat for health reasons, namely reducing dietary fat and toxins, and those who avoid meat for moral reasons, namely respecting the rights of animals. 


Flaws in human moralising:

But there is still much to be wary of in human moralizing: the confusion of morality with status and purity, the temptation to overmoralize matters of judgment and thereby license aggression against those with whom we disagree, the taboos on thinking about unavoidable tradeoffs, and the ubiquitous vice of self-deception, which always manages to put the self on the side of the angels. 


Status is relative:

Once again the psychology of status and dominance has a role to play in this assessment. In absolute terms, today’s poor are materially better off than the aristocracy of just a century ago. They live longer, are better fed, and enjoy formerly unimaginable luxuries such as central heating, refrigerators, telephones, and round-the-clock entertainment from television. 

But if people’s sense of well-being comes from an assessment of their social status, and social status is relative, then extreme inequality can make people on the lower rungs feel defeated even if they are better off than most of humanity. 

The medical researcher Richard Wilkinson, who documented these patterns, argues that low status triggers an ancient stress reaction that sacrifices tissue repair and immune function for an immediate fight-or-flight response. Wilkinson, together with Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, have pointed to another measurable cost of economic inequality. Crime rates are much higher in regions with greater disparities of wealth (even after controlling for absolute levels of wealth), partly because chronic low status leads men to become obsessed with rank and to kill one another over trivial insults. 


The Moralistic Fallacy:

Would that it were so! This theory is a fine example of the moralistic fallacy: it would be so nice if the idea were true that we should all believe that it is true. 

The problem is that it is not true. History has shown that plenty of healthy, rational people can bring themselves to injure others and destroy property because, tragically, an individual’s interests sometimes are served by hurting others (especially if criminal penalties for hurting others are eliminated, an irony that Clark seems to have missed). Conflicts of interest are inherent to the human condition, and as Martin Daly and Margo Wilson point out, “Killing one’s adversary is the ultimate conflict resolution technique.” 


Violence and Aggression:

In fact, the entire question of what went wrong (socially or biologically) when a person engages in violence is badly posed. Almost everyone recognises the need for violence in defense of self, family, and innocent victims. 

Animals deploy aggression in highly selective ways, and humans, whose limbic systems are enmeshed with outsize frontal lobes, are of course even more calculating. Most people today live their adult lives withe ever pressing their violence buttons. 

The first step in understanding violence is to set aside our abhorrence of it long enough to examine why it can sometimes pay off in personal or evolutionary terms. This requires one to invert the statement of the problem-not why violence occurs, but why it is avoided. 

Hobbes is commonly interpreted as proposing that man in a state of nature was saddled with an irrational impulse for hatred and destruction. In fact his analysis is more subtle, and perhaps even more tragic, for he showed how the dynamics of violence fall out of interactions among rational and self interested agents. 

Tragically, you might arrive at this conclusion even if you didn’t have an aggressive bone in your body. All it would take is the realization that others might covet what you have and a strong desire not to be massacred. Even more tragically, your neighbors have every reason to be cranking through the same deduction, and if they are, it makes your fears all the more compelling, which makes a preemptive strike all the more tempting, which makes a preemptive strike by them all the more tempting, and so on.

This “Hobbesian trap,” as it is now called, is a ubiquitous cause of violent conflict.

Because of the logic of deterrence, fights over personal or national honor are not as idiotic as they seem. In a hostile milieu, people and countries must advertise their willingness to retaliate against anyone who would profit at their expense, and that means maintaining a reputation for avenging any slight or trespass, no matter how small.


The Logic of male violence in courtship:

In societies in which women have more say in the matter, men still compete for women by competing for the status and wealth that tend to attract them. The competition can be violent because, as Daly and Wilson point out, “Any creature that is recognisably on track toward complete reproductive failure must somehow expend effort, often at risk of death, to try to improve its present life trajectory.” 


Violent culture of honour:

Many on the right oppose decriminalizing drugs, prostitution, and gambling without factoring in the costs of the zones of anarchy that, by their own free-market logic, are inevitably spawned by prohibition policies. 

When demand for a commodity is high, suppliers will materialize, and if they cannot protect their property rights by calling the police, they will do so with a violent culture of honor. 


Sexuality as a source of conflict:

As for the morality of believing the not-sex theory, there is none. If we have to acknowledge that sexuality can be a source of conflict and not just wholesome mutual pleasure, we will have rediscovered a truth that observers of the human condition have noted throughout history. And if a man rapes for sex, that does not mean that he “just can’t help it” or that we have to excuse him, any more than we have to excuse the man who shoots the owner of a liquor store to raid the cash register or who bashes a driver over the head to steal his BMW. 

Thornhill and Palmer explain in Darwinian terms why females throughout the animal kingdom resist being forced into sex, and argue that the agony that rape victims feel is deeply rooted in women’s nature. Rape subverts female choice, the core of the ubiquitous mechanism of sexual selection. By choosing the male and the circumstances for sex, a female can maximise the chances that her offspring will be fathered by a male with good genes, a willingness and ability to share the responsibility of rearing the offspring, or both.