Earlier today I finished listening to my copy of Steven Pinker’s the Blank Slate. Now, in earlier posts about Steven Pinker’s work I mentioned that he had changed my mind considerably about how I viewed the world and about human nature.
This book definitely delivered in that prospect, but about a wholly different concept: what is it that determines who we are?
For those of you who may either not be Psychologists or are not Philosophers it might be prudent to explain what I’m talking about here. Steven Pinker’s book challenges Blank Slate thinking as a result of acceptance to the Blank Slate hypothesis, which is largely attributed to the empiricist thinker John Locke, as the idea that human brains contain no innate traits and that human behavior is a result of learning. Pinker’s Challenge is that this idea is plainly false and that human nature is a result of evolutionary adaptations- that genetics likely plays a major role in the behavior and learning capabilities of an individual.
Before I discuss Pinker’s book I want to first discuss a bit about Evolutionary Psychology. The field of Evolutionary Psychology is seen as controversial for several reasons. Firstly, there is the denouncing of it as theoretical idealism and not at all a field that can be tested in a scientific setting. Secondly, it has moral implications involving perceived racism and sexism. Thirdly, it is deeply entangled with the nature-nurture debate of human behavior.
While I am fully willing to agree that many of the hypotheses we could create about human evolution are going to appear speculative- I cannot agree that they are not testable. The environments humans have evolved in over the past 10,000 years have been documented quite clearly through our histories, and we know much about what environments our ancestors experienced before then through archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology. It may be a valid criticism, but I believe it is one that falls apart on its own when it is raised from a “You can’t test that so don’t say it”, to a “Here’s how I propose we test it”. A hypothesis is by its nature speculative, and you cannot shut down a field because we do not know how to test its hypotheses until it is clear that such tests are impossible to result in answers. This is not to say that because you cannot prove it wrong it must be right, but to say that this field is not at all singularly speculative.
When it comes to morality, racism, and sexism arguing situations on an evolutionary perspective comes across as a face-reddening fist beating gesture of pure evil. However there are clear implications that we could learn from the evolutionary perspective which result in a healthier approach to life’s issues than the often wishful thinking of modern society. To say that a child cannot be born with racist thoughts is to be completely wrong- considering how infants tend to prefer the presence of their own race because it is what they are used to. They also prefer the face of an attractive person over a plain face. These are truths that can be either ignored (to the denial of reality) or accepted and worked with, because it is obvious to most members of modern society that the color of someone’s skin or the shape of their face does not necessarily mean that they are untrustworthy, and that an infant doesn’t need to care yet. Why can this not be true of other aspects in human life? Because we do not want it to be true. To be clear, no one in the field of evolutionary psychology thinks that one sex or one race is superior to another. These researchers just want to have a context for why the hell it is people do have such thoughts and beliefs that is realistic.
The nature-nurture debate seems to be the beating heart in the history of Psychology. Are we born knowing everything, or are we born knowing nothing? Evolutionary Psychologists are the scientists that say, “stop wasting your time, the debate is over and you’re both pretty much wrong.” When we look at the choices of identical twins reared together and apart, we find a disturbing reality: they make shockingly similar life decisions. Some separated twins go so far as to choose spouses with similar names, give identical names to their kids, hold the same job, and even have the same hobbies. This is an often discussed and then openly ignored reality about human nature: our genes clearly play a major role in the choices we make.
Twin studies are not the only bit of evidence for that particular point, but hopefully my tackling of these ideas allows you to pay a little bit of credence to Evolutionary Psychology as a legitimate field. The idea that genetic factors play a role in who we are and who we become means that we ought to be paying attention to what we can do to help individuals struggling with the changes we make as a society.
Pinker wrote the Blank Slate before the Alt-Right movement in the US and before much of the ideas he discusses in his more recent books were worth discussing, but his book puts a powerful point to reflect on with our current events: many of the issues we contend with can be explained through an evolutionary perspective and from that a method for solving these issues may become more reasonable. But that is just my belief.
Pinker’s work is a powerful defense of Evolutionary Psychology and honestly a deep upheaval to the “Blank-Slate” systems that still are preferred in today’s probably too politically correct Psychology. I think that anyone who reads it would begin to look at the world through a more realistic view that may or may not be an optimistic one- Pinker tackles aspects of human society and development from multiple angles and leaves his reader at the very least thinking about what is really going on in the organ that governs our existence.
You can find the blank slate though the link I have provided below or through any bookstore with a Psychology/Biology/Social Sciences section. I know I’ve done a lot of Steven Pinker reviews lately so I promise that the next review will be something a bit less psychology and more fictiony.
Keep reading, my friends.