Edna Davoudi, Greta Kent-Stoll

 

Pinker, Steven (2002). The Fear of Inequality. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (141-158). New York: Viking Penguin. 

 

The doctrine of the Blank Slate serves as a guarantor of political equality.   The argument goes as such; if we are all blank slates, then we must all be equal. This allows for the three evils to be controlled according to Pinker.  The first evil is prejudice and the argument says that if groups of people are biologically different, than it would be rational to discriminate against the members of some of the groups.  The second evil is Social Darwinism.  If differences among groups in their status, crime rate, and income come from their innate constitutions, then the differences cannot be blamed on discrimination, and that makes it easy to blame the victim and tolerate inequality. The third evil is eugenics: if people differ biologically in ways that other people value or dislike, it would attract them to try to improve society by intervening biologically.

Steven Pinker (2002) discuses that natural selection works to homogenize a species into a standard overall design by concentrating the effective genes and getting rid of the ineffective ones.  We all have the same physical organs and thus we all have the same mental organs.  For example, language is a universal ability of all humans in that we are all equipped to learn any human language.   Thus, people are all qualitatively the same but may differ quantitatively.  According to Pinker (2002), “quantitative differences are small in biological terms, and they are found to a far greater extent among the individual members of an ethnic group or race than between ethnic groups or races” (p. 143). 

Pinker does not argue that biology can justify racism or sexism in any way.  According to Pinker (2002), humans vary in traits such as IQ or strength, but regardless of these variable traits, all humans can be assumed to have certain traits in common. For example, no one likes being enslaved, humiliated, or treated unfairly, according to traits that one cannot control.  However much people vary on some traits, they do not vary on discrimination and slavery.   Thomas Jefferson expressed this idea when he said that all men are created equal.  However, he was referring to an equality of rights, not a biological sameness.  Just as Abraham Lincoln said that the signers of the Declaration of Independence, “did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity”, but only in respect to “certain inalienable rights” (p.146). 

Thus, one needs to factor that an average is an average when it comes to a person making a decision.  Race and gender are being used as a means of predictive information.   So therefore, in order to cure discrimination, more accurate and more extensive testing of mental abilities is necessary because it would provide so much predictive information about an individual that no one would be tempted to factor in race for gender. 

Just as the blank slate is not necessary to combat racism and sexism, it is not necessary to combat Social Darwinism.  Take for example, that a million people are willing to pay ten dollars to see Pavarotti sing, but won’t pay for a regular person.  Than Pavarotti would be ten million dollars richer than the regular person and thus the argument would say that the genes of the regular person kept him from being ten million dollars richer than Pavarotti whose genes allowed him to have singing talent and be rich. 

Pinker (2002) discusses that the existence of inborn talents does not call for Social Darwinism and when this does occur it is based on two fallacies.  One is the all-or-none mentality, which would state that inborn talents would be the contributors to social status.  The argument against this would be that the likelihood that inborn differences are one contributor to social status does not mean that it is the only contributor.   But even if inherited talents can lead to socioeconomic success, it doesn’t mean that the success is deserved in a moral sense. Just because it happens in nature does not mean that it is good.  This is based on the Spencer assumption that we can look to evolution to discover what is right or good.   The dangers of the blank slate and the dangers of the human nature theory both exist.  Either one can be both good and bad.  Unequal treatments in the name of equality can take many forms.  For example, heavy estate taxes, streaming by age rather than ability in schools.  Every political system has a tradeoff and to deny that there isn’t is wrong. 

The third evil of eugenics involves the key to distinguish biological fats from human values.  The argument is that if people differ biologically, then we can breed for the best.  But selective breeding is straitforward for genes that have the same impact regardless of the other genes in the genome.  Some traits such as scientific genius, athletic virtuosity, and musical giftedness are what behavioral geneticists call emergenic: they materialize only with certain combinations of genes and therefore don’t breed true. Also, genes can lead to different behavior in different environments.  Thus, one cannot just simply breed for intelligence, athleticism, or any other gene (Pinker, 2002).   

Pinker (2002) also states that remembering what the Nazi regime did with the ideas of eugenics and Social Darwinism is what will keep it from happening again.  He argues that just because the Nazis misused the idea, it does not mean that it is false or evil.   Thus, if we fear the repeat of that time, then we would have to censor the study of evolution and genetics period.   

Nazism and Marxism shared a desire to reshape humanity, according to Pinker (2002).  Pinker discusses that the ideology that “history is a preordained succession of conflicts between groups of people and that improvement in the human condition can come only form the victory of one group over the others” (p. 157) is what Hitler and Marx had in common.  For the Nazis the groups were races; for the Marxists they were classes.  The ideology of intergroup struggle ignites a nasty feature of human social psychology: the tendency to divide people into in-groups and out-groups and to treat the out-groups as less than human.  Thus using the blank slate, it helps to explain parts of the Marxists ideologies that emerged, such as the Marxists states that controlled every aspects of life (childbearing, art, etc.).  

Therefore, Pinker (2002) says that one should not see the discussion as a means to say that the Blank Slate is evil, no more than the human nature theory is evil. But to understand that both have good and bad and that people need to look at the consequences and arguments of each. 

 

Pinker, Steven (2002). The Fear of Imperfectibility. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (159-173). New York: Viking Penguin. 

 

In Chapter Nine of The Blank Slate, Pinker addresses some of the concerns and fears that are expressed by politicians, social activists, and other thinkers in response to the work of evolutionary scientists. This type of fear seems to be centered on the idea that the work of evolutionary scientists reveals a “permanently wicked human nature.” This assumption then leads to two main concerns, one being practical, and the other, Romantic.

            The practical fear is that if science proves that human nature cannot be changed, social reform is useless. The other concern stems from Romantic belief that claims that what is natural is good. This Romantic viewpoint is in direct ideological conflict with the evolutionary standpoint because evolutionary scientists do not draw this parallel between what is natural and what is good. In fact, evolutionary science may even acknowledge that what is natural is often times completely unmoral. For example, rape is a common phenomenon in nature. However, this by no means justifies it as a moral or socially acceptable act. Nonetheless, Romantics make a false assumption that if science proves that certain acts are natural, this would also be evidence that these same acts are good. Feminists and progressives are some of those who object to the work of evolutionists based on this line of logic. The chief concern of feminists is that acts of male sexual aggression and sexual jealousy would be justified by science. Pinker brings attention to the flaw with this mode of thinking: “Note the fallacy: if something is explained with biology, it has been ‘legitimated’; if something has shown to be adaptive, it has been ‘dignified’ “ (2002). Yet, there is no reason for this connection to be made unless one is operating under the false assumption that ‘natural’ automatically implies ‘good.’

Progressives fear that the proof that we have evolved as a result of the struggle of selfish genes would imply that we are unavoidably selfish organisms. However, this logic is inaccurate because, as Pinker states: “selfish genes do not necessarily grow selfish organisms” (2002). In response, one could employ the logic that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, simply because we have evolved due to the success of our selfish genes, does not imply that selfishness is all that we are capable of. Pinker argues that it is true that we have innate desires, many of which are selfish. Yet, innate desire is just one component of our mind. We are also capable of reasoning, sympathy, altruism, sacrifice, and cooperation. Furthermore, as human beings we are gifted with the capacity of self-examination and self-awareness that makes it possible for us to in fact overcome our instinctual nature. Pinker quotes a line spoken by Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen that eloquently sums up this idea: “ ‘Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this world to rise above’ “ (2002).

Continuing with this line of logic, one might note that often what is considered moral is in fact quite unnatural. Moral people advocate faithfulness to one’s spouse, loving thy neighbor, and turning the other cheek. One would be hard-pressed to find such behaviors in the animal kingdom. Humans have the capacity to train themselves to behave in a moral way because we have the gifts of self-awareness and foresight. We can see the benefits of cooperation and respect for others, and can therefore choose to engage in these moral behaviors. Pinker calls attention to the argument put for forth by Wright that there are three features of human nature that have led to the widening of the circle of human cooperation. The first is “the cognitive wherewithal to figure out how the world works” (2002). If humans cooperate in order to spread knowledge and goods over larger expanses of territory, they can in turn reap greater rewards from a more advanced trading system that offers a greater selection of goods and more opportunity for profit. The second human feature is our capacity for language, which allows for communication so that we can pass on information and make agreements. The third feature is certain components of our emotional brain that allows us to feel sympathy, trust, guilt, and other emotions that “impel us to seek new cooperators, maintain relationships with them, and safeguard the relationships against possible exploitation . . . As technology accumulates and people in more parts of the planet become interdependent, the hatred between them tends to decrease, for the simple reason that you can’t kill someone and trade with him too” (Pinker, 2002). Thus, it would follow that as this planet becomes more densely populated and interdependent, we will also become more cooperative. Furthermore, cooperation inherently involves at least some degree of moral behavior for the partnerships to last.

Once we recognize that there is some degree of freedom in terms of our capacity to shape human behavior, we are then compelled to ask the question, “To what degree can we, or should we, mold human behavior?” B.F. Skinner subscribed to the Blank Slate ideology. He believed that operant conditioning could be used to shape all of human behavior. With the right schedule of reinforcement, any human tendency could be changed. This was a very idealistic standpoint, but despite its optimistic nature, the implications of this viewpoint are less than rosy. This is because there are great costs involved to train many of our natural inclinations or instincts out of us. Pinker uses the example of the rats that Skinner used in his experiments where he demonstrated the success of operant conditioning: “Even Skinner’s preferred method of operant conditioning required starving the organism to 80 percent of its free-feeding weight and confining it to a box where schedules of reinforcement were carefully controlled” (Pinker, 2002). Thus, it may be quite possible to train human behavior, but are we willing to do this at any cost? The type of methods required to alter some behaviors would most likely be cruel and unethical.

Interestingly, when one looks at the history of utopian communities, there is usually a corrupt and dictatorial element that is employed in order to keep civilians obedient to the standards of the community. Such totalitarian regimes have existed in China, Cambodia, and the Soviet Union. Though these governments may have been initiated under an idealistic communist ideology that was originally intended to promote the common good, the end result was bloodbaths and suffering. This is because in order to force citizens to adhere to the ideals of the utopian society, they have to be robbed of their personal freedom. Our inborn desires for autonomy, comfort, aesthetics, and personal gains are in conflict with the principles of a utopian community. The utopian community punishes those who try to excel above the average in order to achieve more creature comforts for themselves and their family members. Thus, totalitarian measures such as same-sex adult dormitories, forced labor, and the separation of parents and children are employed. Even more drastic, genocide can in fact result from the desire to create these ‘perfect’ communities. This, after all, was the logic employed by Nazi Germany to justify the extermination of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, and homosexuals.

By attempting to control human nature, we can in fact end up destroying lives in order to squash out our natural desires. On the other hand, recognition of a human nature does not imply free-running surrender to whatever whims happen to possess us. If we are educated about our nature, we can better understand ourselves, and therefore the reasons behind our emotions or inclinations. We can then choose which behaviors of ours are worth changing and which ones are not. Pinker gives the example of the relationship between a stepparent and a stepchild. It is natural for a stepparent to bestow greater gifts upon his/her biological child, and to perhaps even neglect a stepchild because the biological bond does not exist. This can be explained by evolutionary theory in the following manner: it is in the parent’s interest to do that which will benefit his/her progeny because offspring are the carriers of our genes. Conversely, a stepchild does not have the capacity to carry forth the genes of the stepparent. However, a stepparent may have motivations other than instinct to treat a stepchild with kindness and generosity. The stepparent may wish to please his/her spouse or may act from a moralist standpoint that involves empathy, kindness, and respect to all people. Regardless of the motivation for treating the stepchild like one’s own child, it would be beneficial for both parents to realize that this type of behavior is indeed out of step with human nature. Thus, generosity on the part of the stepparent should be commended. Also, this behavior could very well be something that the stepparent has to work at. However, this is a behavior that is most likely worth training for because it benefits all parties involved.

Recognizing that a human nature exists, and then understanding what it is, gives humans the freedom to work on changing what is undesirable, while leaving alone that which is both natural and desirable. Furthermore, when we recognize that there are some desires that are inherent in all of us, perhaps we can have greater consideration for the desires of others.

 

 

Pinker, Steven (2002). Out of Our Depths. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial   of Human Nature (219-240). New York: Viking Penguin. 

 

What is our mind capable of doing?  This is a question that ponders the thoughts of all people, especially scientists.  Pinker (2002) discusses in this chapter that the mind has many cognitive faculties and core intuitions on which it is based.  These include an intuitive physics, which we use to keep track of how objects fall, bounce, and bend. Second, an intuitive version of biology or natural history, which we use to understand the living world. Third, an intuitive engineering, which we use to make and understand tools and other artifacts.  Fourth, an intuitive psychology, which we use to understand other people. Fifth, a spatial sense, which we use to navigate the world and keep track of where things are.  Sixth, a number sense, which we sue to think about quantities and amounts.  Seventh, a sense of probability, which we use to reason about the likelihood of uncertain events.  Eight, an intuitive economics, which we use to exchange goods and favors.  Ninth, a mental database and logic, which we sue to represent ideas and to infer new ideas from old ones.  And tenth, language, which we use to share the ideas from our mental logic.  The mind also has components for which it is difficult to tell where cognition ends and emotion begins (Pinker, 2002).  In this chapter, Pinker (2002) discusses that together with all the moral, empirical, and political factors that go into debates, we should add the cognitive factors: the way our minds naturally frame issues.

            A theory of education needs to be based on a theory of human nature (Pinker, 2002).  Education need not be a “writing on a blank slate nor allow the child’s nobility to come into flower” (Pinker, 2002, p. 222), however it is a technology that tires to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at.  According to Pinker, the main point for education is that children have not yet evolved the ability to know dates of historical pasts, mathematical computations, or reading because these have been invented to recently for the species to have evolved for it.  And because the content of formal education is not cognitively natural, the learning and mastering it may not always be easy and pleasant.  “Most children are motivated to make friends and explore the physical worlds, but they are not necessarily motivated to adapt their cognitive faculties to unnatural tasks like formal mathematics” (Pinker, 2002, p. 223).

            Our conceptions of the mind have to do with the living and the dead.  According to Pinker (2002) the difference between a living and dead body is that the dead no longer possesses what we call the mind.  The theory of mind is the source of the concept of the soul.  Most believe in souls because we want to believe that others are like us in that they feel, want, and desire.   But science is showing that what we call the soul consists of the information-processing activity of the brain, an organ governed by the laws of biology.  If we look at The Catholic Church and other Christian denominations belief that the moment of conception was the moment of ensoulment, then we need to distinguish the process of conception.  Sperm sometimes, penetrate the outer membrane of the egg, and it takes time for the egg to eject the extra chromosome for conception.  How do you distinguish the soul at this time? Even then the embryo’s cells can split and then how do you distinguish the soul?  According to Pinker (2002), the idea that ensoulment takes place at conception does not have the moral superiority credited to it.   He states that implies that we should prosecute users of intrauterine contraceptive devices and the “morning-after-pill” for murder, and that we should divert medical research from curing canc3r and heard disease to preventing the spontaneous miscarriages of vast numbers of microscopic conceptuses. 

            This belief is also invested in people’s psychology and likely to emerge whenever they have not grasped the finding of biology.  This gives way to the research on cloning. Pinker gives the example of in 1997, when the sheep Dolly was cloned, the cover of Der Spiegel showed a parade of Claudia Schiffers, Hitlers, and Einsteins, as if being a supermodel, fascist dictator, scientific genius could be coped along the DNA.   There are two thoughts of cloning, one of the duplication of a body without a soul, such as an army of zombies, blanks, or organ farms, and the other the duplication of the body with the soul such as a resurrected Hitler. 

            When does one distinguish “personhood”?  To try to set a dividing line would be impossible because where do you draw the line?  The day before twenty-four weeks, the day after, a nine week old fetus, or thus?  How do you know where to draw the line? The brain develops throughout childhood and adolescents, so thus a diving line of brain development has not been found. 

            In looking at animal rights, this same problem is approached.  An animal activist destroys labs of medical research that could have saved thousands of people with cancer.  And a proponent would be a species bigot, because who is to say that an ape who feels loneliness should be denied those interests but for our species be respected?   When looking at all this, it is said that moral conundrums such as abortion, euthanasia, and animal rights will never be resolved in a decisive and intuitively satisfying way (Pinker, 2002).  Thus we have what we call “fuzzy boundaries”.

            Some people think that genetically modified foods are more dangerous than natural foods.  Virtually every animal and vegetable sold in a heath-food store has been genetically modified for millennia by selective breeding and hybridization (Pinker, 2002). Natural foods such as plants go out of their way to produce toxins so that they are not eaten.   But this mentality comes from the thought that every lining thing has an essence and genetically modified foods are thought to be tampered with and tainted.  This is a very deeply rooted thinking that dominates science and evolution. 

            Most people do not realize that the chances of being killed by a car accident are eleven times more than by a plane crash. Drowning in your own bathtub is 400 times more likely to occur than being eaten by a shark.  These tap into our fear of predation, heights, confinement and poisoning.  Pinker (2002) says that the mind is much more comfortable in reckoning probabilities in term so f the relative frequent of remembers or imagined events.  Thus, “understanding the difference between our best science and our ancient ways of thinking can only make our individual and collective decisions better informed” (Pinker, 2002, p. 233). 

            Pinker (2002) discusses anthropologist Alan Fiske’s four patterns of human transactions.  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.  The third and most common kind of exchange is what Fiske calls Equality Matching.  Two people exchange food at different times, and the traded items are identical or at least highly similar.  The trading partners assess their debts by simple addition or subtraction and are satisfied when the favors even out.  The partners felt hat the exchange binds them in a relationship, and often people will consummate exchange just o maintain it.  The fourth way is Market Pricing, the system of rents, prices, wages and interest rates that underlies modern economics.   People have different ideas about which of these four mode of interacting applies to a current relationship; the result can range from blank comprehension to acute discomfort or outright hostility.

            According to Pinker’s (2002) discussion, economists refer to “the physical fallacy” which is the belief that an object has a true and constant value, as opposed to being worth only what someone is willing to pay for it at a given place and time. This is simply the difference between the Equality Matching and Market Pricing mentalities.  It is discussed how just as a “value of something may change with time, which creates a niche for lenders who move valuable thing around in time, so it may change with space, which creates a niche for middlemen who move valuable things around in space” (Pinker, 2002, p 235).   Pinker says that the obvious cure for tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education, but there are only twenty-four hours in a day.    Thus we could give away a recipe for bread, a blueprint for a building, without losing much.  Human practical intelligence may have evolved with language and with social cognition, yielding a species that literally lived by the power of ideas (Pinker, 2002).

             Thus we will always ponder the ideas of mind and psyche.  The concepts of mind and matter will always be lingering around.  Thus “there should be truths that are literally inconceivable, and limits to how well we can ever grasp the discoveries of science” (Pinker, 2002, p 239).


 

Critical Review

 

Chapter Eight

 

            We appreciated Pinker’s explanation of the appropriateness of certain types of discrimination under specific circumstances. For instance, having a driving, drinking, and voting age are all forms of discrimination that most of us are probably grateful for. It would not make sense to allow a five-year old to vote or a twelve-year old to drive. Yet, there are other circumstances where discrimination is not justifiable, such as cases of racial profiling. Pinker makes the claim that we must weigh the costs and benefits of each type of discrimination to determine if it is morally valuable or not.

            It is true that talent matters and that those with greater talent will tend to make more money, and thus climb to the top of the socio-economic ladder. On the other hand, we must also keep in mind that cultivation of a talent often requires the right resources, such as education, health care, loving parents, and a safe environment to live and learn in. Pinker does not adequately address this issue. It seems that the children of those in power seem to have an automatic head start over others. Could this be due to more than their lack of talent or good genes, but rather to years of racism and social oppression that has not enabled them to fully flourish as human beings?

 

Chapter Nine

 

            One of the points made by Pinker that is especially compelling is that it is a fallacy to assume that ‘what is natural is good.’ He explains why this is a fallacy, and furthermore, the false assumptions and fears that result from this common misunderstanding. If we are to believe that all that is natural is also good, then we could assume that rape, cannibalism, and infanticide—behaviors all commonly found in nature, are good. Of course, this is not what evolutionists wish to prove. If we did indeed operate under this assumption, then evolutionary theory would certainly lead to a very vicious and frightening world. However, understanding our human nature does not imply giving in to all of our animal instincts. Rather, it affords us the knowledge to better understand ourselves and our world, so that we can choose what about ourselves to accept, and what we can try to change. Furthermore, having an understanding of a common human nature could help us to have more respect for the desires of others, because we may realize that their needs are not far from our own.

            However, one might then question what exactly is meant by the phrase ‘human nature,’ and how we can know what it consists of. Due to our great capacity for conditioning and learning, where do we draw the line between behavior that is within the realms of human nature and that which has been trained? Is a behavior only natural if it can be trained easily and without suffering, or would even easily trainable behaviors be considered unnatural? Furthermore, could one claim that it is in our nature to alter our behavior, so any behavior that we exhibit is part of our nature?

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Pinker is astute in his discussion of the controversy over genetically modified foods. There is a common fear surrounding the use of ‘unnatural’ procedures, one of them being genetic engineering of food crops. However, as our world becomes increasingly technological, very little about our lifestyle is entirely ‘natural.’ It is a given that we live very differently than our ancestors did in prehistoric times. We condone the use of cars for transportation, the use of telephones and computers for communication, and surgery to save lives, so why draw the line with genetically modified foods if there are no health risks involved. Pinker argues for the use of genetically modified foods by pointing out that they are not fundamentally different from natural foods. Hybridization and selective breeding of foods have been going on for centuries, so none of our food is really in its ‘original’ form. Furthermore, some ‘unnatural’ foods may in fact be safer than ‘natural’ foods that contain harmful toxins or chemicals. This debate is pertinent to evolutionary theory because it addresses the controversy that humans are often faced with when trying to differentiate between the brute facts of biology and what our intuition tells us. It may be difficult for us to understand much of biology from an intuitive standpoint. However, that is why research and scientific observation and experimentation are useful.

            Pinker makes an interesting point when he brings up the idea that much of our education is quite unnatural to our human preferences. It is unnatural for a child to enjoy studying. Thus, we must be conditioned through a reward system in order to do so. Education is important, however, because it is a means to help the individual to function in the modern, technological world. Our abilities are more in line with the ancient world that our ancestors lived in, thus education is necessary on these terms. However, I disagree with an aspect of Pinker’s argument that education be used chiefly as a tool for training the individual to function in the modern world. If this were the only reason for education, we could then eliminate exposure to the arts and literature because theses subjects rarely serve a practical purpose. I propose, however, that education be used to enrich the individual intellectually and emotionally and to broaden our capacities to perform in a variety of activities. Furthermore, participation in the arts has been proven to benefit emotional intelligence and neurological functioning. 


Pinker, Steven (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (141-173, 219-240). New York: Viking Penguin.

 

 

 

I.          Fear of Inequality

A.        The three evils associated with misconceptions of evolutionary theory

1.         Prejudice:   if people are biologically different, than it would be rational to discriminate against the members of some groups.

a.         We all have a common human nature.

2.         Social Darwinism:  if differences come from innate constitutions, the differences cannot be blamed on discrimination.

a.         inborn differences are only one contribution to social success

3.         Eugenics:  if people differ biologically, we could intervene to select for certain characteristics.

a.         it is not actually possible to breed for certain characteristics. 

 

II.         Fear of Imperfectibility

A.        Fears related to the discoveries of evolutionary theory.

1.         Practical fear: if human nature cannot be changed, social reform is useless.

a.         innate desire is just one component of our mind. We have foresight and self-awareness.

2.         Romantic viewpoint:  what is natural is good

b.         to be moral, often means to overcome our nature.

B.         Dangers associated with the blank slate

1.         Utopian communities

a.         human nature is in conflict with communism.

b.         totalitarian regimes develop in order to control the citizens and force cooperation within the community.

 

III.       Out of Our Depths

A.        The mismatch of our environment with our mind

1.         children are not motivated to perform formal mathematics and other tasks common in formal education.

2.         discrepancy between intuition and fact

a.         genetically modified foods

b.         false fears of phobias

B.         mind and body as one

1.         misconceptions of the soul

2.         cloning of genes

3.         limited capacity of the mind.