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The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, Words and Rules by Steven Pinker

I’ll bet you never thought of science as a contact sport.

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, Words and Rules by Steven Pinker
The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker (Penguin Books Ltd, June 2003; Penguin Books, August 2003); Words and Rules, Steven Pinker (Orion Publishing Co, October 2000; Harper Perennial, March 2011)

In the weeks before The Blank Slate landed on my desk a few months ago, there was some exciting reading in The New York Review of Books. MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and philosopher John Searle were having at each other hammer and tongs. After a critique of his book Words and Rules, Pinker wrote in reply that “John Searle ... is apt to substitute condescension for analysis”. Ouch!

Pinker doesn’t spare his intellectual opponents in his book The Blank Slate either. Unwary readers should be warned that this is the continuation of a long-running argument which has been going on with, apparently, considerable vehemence and more than a little nastiness for quite some time.

The Blank Slate, subtitled The Modern Denial of Human Nature, takes aim at the idea that humans are born as mental empty vessels into which our personalities, abilities and vices are planted by our upbringing, experience and culture. The appeal of the “Blank Slate” idea is obvious: it is the epitome of liberalism and fair play. If humans are born without such negative traits as violence and prejudice, without preset likes and dislikes, without any preconceived notions, without any inherent levels of ability, then any and all problems must have been caused by something society, parents, schools, etc. did wrong. And, therefore, by not doing that (by not allowing violent video games or by prohibiting hate speech), the problem can be made to go away.

If however, humans have in-built (i.e. genetic) tendencies, capabilities and predispositions, then merely removing “negative influences” would, even if possible, perhaps make little difference.

These are issues that go to the core of public policy, education and parenting. While The Blank Slate is not an altogether easy book, it is written for the attentive layman rather than the specialist, and is accessible to anyone wishing to make the effort. It assumes very little background in the subject. Pinker can be an entertaining writer, and in The Blank Slate, he doesn’t pull his punches either, leaving more than a few intellectual bloody noses behind him.

The Blank Slate does two things: it first reviews recent science to demonstrate that humans are born with a slate that is far from blank. Not only is the “Blank Slate” (and related ideas) wrong, but to persist in claiming otherwise, says Pinker, actually hinders resolution of social problems. But the book is also an attack on political correctness as well as an attack on those scientists and thinkers who allow politics and philosophy (whether politically correct or not) to affect their objectivity.

This is something of tour-de-force, or least a steamroller. One gets the impression that Pinker is more than just a little angry: he names names and rolls back and forth over opposing ideas until he is sure they are flattened.


Does it compute?

The thesis of the book, which in many ways is a continuation of Pinker’s previous books, is based on two inter-related hypotheses: that the brain is a sort of computational device (albeit an extraordinarily complex one) and that it (and therefore we humans) come with a rather large amount of functionality (and therefore tendencies and predispositions) built in. Sort of like pre-installed Microsoft XP.

Both of these strike me as largely self-evident. If the brain is not a computational device then it is a non-computational device which behaves and functions like a computational device ... and the difference is what exactly? The second point, i.e. that humans are to a greater or lesser extent hard-wired is also self-evident. Computational devices need bootstrap routines and operating systems; otherwise they just sit there.

The potentially contentious point is the amount of human nature that is built-in. “Built-in” means “the result of genes” and this is what gets people’s gander up. After all, “genes” (“blood”, etc.) have been used to justify most of the really horrendous acts in history. Pinker argues that the response has been to deny that there is any innate human nature at all, that everything is the result of “society” or “upbringing”, an attitude he finds contrary to fact and actually dangerous.

Without reprising the many facts and arguments in the book, it seems clear that many human attributes and characteristics are a function of our genetics, even when we would prefer them not to be. This is also strikes me as rather obvious (although whether it was obvious before I started reading Pinker four books ago I cannot recall)—but if you are not yet convinced that, for example, a human (especially male) capacity for violence, differences between the sexes and contextual morality (we care more about what happens to our children than to unidentified others) are to a significant extent genetically programmed, then you owe it to yourself to hear the arguments. After all, genetic engineering is likely to be one of the great social issues of the next few decades. The more people that have a grasp on the issues the better.


Armchair science

But on the whole, the effort was somewhat wasted on me, for I find underlying hypotheses to be largely self-evident and these, and the most direct consequences, could have been expressed and explained in few dozen rather than 500-plus pages. People who disagree with Pinker as a matter of philosophy or principle are unlikely to be convinced by the bashing he gives his opponents.

If one is new to Pinker, one might prefer to start with Words and Rules, his previous book. Words and Rules is a fascinating and readable introduction to linguistics and the way linguists work. Most interesting are the attempts to extrapolate from observations about linguistic behavior to brain function. These are, on whole, not just interesting but convincing and which lead, inexorably, to the more general conclusions and arguments in The Blank Slate.

But Words and Rules stands alone. Linguistics is probably the only scientific discipline that can be undertaken with hardly any equipment other than a comfortable chair. The data is all around us. And while Words and Rules is not a walk in the park, Pinker has almost a Discovery Channel capability to make science understandable and even entertaining. (My 11-year old son was able to work through some of the examples.)

Why don’t we say “I thunk“, or “I thinked”? And who could have a verb conjugation like “go/went”? Similarly, foot/feet, ox/oxen, fish/fish (or is it fishes?).

There are of course historical explanations for these irregular forms which are fascinating but, as Pinker points out, largely irrelevant (irrelevant in much the same way as JK Rowling’s references to traditional mythology and folklore are irrelevant: readers rarely know and don’t care). Children learning English today presumably don’t take Anglo-Saxon declinations or the Great Vowel Shift into consideration when they try to rationalize the sounds they are hearing.

Pinker uses these examples to explain what has been called the “Universal Grammar”, some general rules, operations and function that all languages seem to follow.

Words and Rules is an accessible book. People in the IT industry may well, as I did, start thinking about the computational issues; people who speak Chinese will find enough basic phonetics, morphology and syntax to take allow them to take a new look at their own language.

Once you have accepted, and it really hard not to, that our brains come hard-wired for language, it is then an short step to start asking, “What other facilities are built-in?” Perception, pretty obviously. And it is then another short step to realize that this functionality must be specified in the genes, and that if those things are, then probably other things, things we would normally consider social, probably are as well.


Can science be immoral?

The Blank Slate is operating at the intersection of science (the understanding of what is really going on), morality (what we as humans think is right and wrong) and policy (what we should do—in practice—to minimize wrongs and improve human welfare).

It is often claimed that if a particular scientific result is morally wrong (e.g. that intelligence is determined to some extent by genes, that the world may not be warming after all, that cloning is possible, etc.) that it is therefore false. Pinker not only exposes this fallacy, but also sets about arguing that the new sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution, far from being dangerous, are in fact complementary to morality, social progress, etc.

In The Blank Slate, Pinker has this non-scientific agenda; after all, the book is subtitled The Modern Denial of Human Nature. As a result, he discusses the opposing points of view in considerable detail with the aim of discrediting them, a result he achieves with a certain amount of ruthlessness.

But one can solve the Gordian knot of the relation between science and morality more easily: there isn’t any. Humans are not slaves to their nature but can rise above it (a point Pinker makes himself). Morality is not a function of genetics. Evolution has no bearing on ethics.

Therefore, when questioning “how much” of who we are is affected by our genes, the way the brain is wired, the effect of hormones or something else, once one gets beyond “more than just a little”, the answer no longer has any significant direct bearing on morality.

The link between science and morality is an indirect one, via policy. Policies (regulations, societal and cultural structures) must be both moral and practical. For this we need to understand the way humans really work so we can design policies that actually work.

Pinker’s robust writing style makes it appear that he is providing answers—about which there can still be considerable practical disagreement even (or especially) if one accepts the underlying hypotheses; I found myself reacting by saying “Yes, but ...” on a number of occasions—whereas what he is really doing is trying to ask a new set of questions.

These are good and relevant questions. It’s not all clear that our 20th century moral structures (which are based on thinking far older) can cope with 21st century science.

For my purposes, the book probably could have been shorter. But then I’d read three others of his. These are probably some of the most serious issues we shall face over the next few decades and clear thinking is required. You need not, and probably will not, agree with everything Steven Pinker says, but it’s worth hearing what he has to say.

But take care before rebutting the book in a publicly-available publication.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.