I hope you are doing well. I have finally finished Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. In this email, I will be talking about all about it.
The Blank Slate is a book about the question of whether we are nature or nurture. Are we born like blank slates to be written on by our life experience or do we have an innate nature that remains consistent through our lives?
The title of the book is deceiving. It explicitly argues against the conception of people as blank slates, this is a book about the idea of us as blank slates. It's easier to see with the subtext:
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
It's remarkable to notice the patterns in politics that take place through time. Written in 2002, The Blank Slate remains as relevant as ever summing up our hopes and fears and how these impact the kind of politics we have.
Sam Harris has pointed out how uncanny it is, that by knowing a person's political position on one issue, we can predict their views on others. For example: if we know how they feel about gun control, we can often predict how they view climate change, immigration or abortion.
The there is a failure to view these issues independently implies that there is a level of group tribalism at work and declaring a view may be an expression of loyalty. Even so, why have the issues been divided in the way they have been?
There is a connection between how we perceive human nature and how we believe our world should run - that is, our politics.
- If there is a fundamental human nature, then we should design our society to accommodate it.
- If we are like blank slates then we ensure that our environments bring the best out of us.
It should be obvious that we are neither completely unaffected by our environment nor completely determined by it. Yet depending on how we believe human nature, the way we create social norms, culture and the political system becomes very different. Pinker divides the two extremes in view and calls them the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision.
The Tragic Vision of a fixed flawed human nature is the essence of conservatism, while the Utopian Vision of an infinitely malleable one can be said to be the essence of progressivism. The truth seems to lie in between.
These differing visions were laid out so clearly in the Blank Slate, that I feel like I must include them...
The Tragic Vision:
Traditions such as religion, the family, social customs, sexual mores, and political institutions are a distillation of the time-tested techniques that let us work around the shortcomings of human nature. They are as applicable to humans today as they were when they were developed, even if no one today can explain their rationale. However imperfect society may be, we should measure it against the cruelty and deprivation of the actual past, not the harmony and affluence of an imagined future. We are fortunate enough to live in a society that more or less works, and our first priority should be not to screw it up, because human nature always leaves us teetering on the brink of barbarism. And since no one is smart enough to predict the behaviour of a single human being, let alone millions of them interacting in a society, we should distrust any formula for changing society from the top down, because it is likely to have unintended consequences that are worse than the problems it was designed to fix. The best we can hope for are incremental changes that are continuously adjusted according to feedback about the sum of their good and bad consequences It also follows that we should not aim to solve social problems like crime or poverty, because in a world of competing individuals one person's gain may be another person's loss. The best we can do is trade off one cost against another.
The Utopian Vision:
In the Utopian Vision, human nature changes with social circumstances, so traditional institutions have no inherent value. That was then, this is now. Traditions are the dead hand of the past, the attempt to rule from the grave. They must be stated explicitly so their rationale can be scrutinised and their moral status evaluated. And by that test, many traditions fail: the confinement of women to the home, the stigma against homosexuality and premarital sex, the superstitions of religion, the injustice of apartheid and segregation, the dangers of patriotism as exemplified in the mindless slogan "My country, right or wrong." Practices such as absolute monarchy, slavery, war, and patriarchy once seemed inevitable but have disappeared or faded from many parts of the world through changes in institutions that were once thought to be rooted in human nature. Moreover, the existence of suffering and injustice presents us with an undeniable moral imperative. We don't know what we can achieve until we try, and the alternative, resigning ourselves to these evils as the way of the world is, unconscionable.
There more to the Blank Slate I would love to get into. The effects of genes, the family and environment on our behaviours, the difference between the genders, how we should raise our children and our aesthetic preferences in art are all discussed in the book. Unfortunately, it seems this email is already getting kind of long.
I will leave you with this quote:
"People are appalled by human cloning and its dubious promise that parents can design their children by genetic engineering. But how different is it that from the fantasy that parents can design their children by how they bring them up?"
Like I said last email, feel free to reply. I would really love to hear what you think. What do you think human nature is like? Does the Utopian or Tragic Vision resonate more with you? How should we run society?
Also, I have added a few new book recommendations to the website.
Until next time,