The Blank Slate

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker takes a critical look at our human brain and argues that it’s NOT a blank slate. Pinker (also known from The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now), combines his skills of storytelling and deep (and wide) knowledge to put down a convincing argument for how the brain/mind? interacts with our environment.

Here is a short summary from the book:

One of the world’s leading experts on language and the mind explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colourings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for axe-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgement of human nature based on science and common sense.

Here is the table of contents:

  • pt. 1. The blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine
    • The official theory
    • Silly putty
    • The last wall to fall
    • Culture vultures
    • The slate’s last stand
  • pt. 2. Fear and loathing
    • Political scientists
    • The holy trinity
  • pt. 3. Human nature with a human face
    • The fear of inequality
    • The fear of imperfectibility
    • The fear of determinism
    • The fear of nihilism
  • pt 4. Know thyself
    • In touch with reality
    • Out of our depths
    • The many roots of our suffering
    • The sanctimonious animal
  • pt. 5. Hot buttons
    • Politics
    • Violence
    • Gender
    • Children
    • The arts
  • pt. 6. The voice of the species

The chapter I want to highlight/make some observations about is the one on children. It is this chapter where I was most surprised by the evidence.

In psychology (what I studied) you learn about the 50/50ish division between genes and environment (nature vs nurture) and of course that there are interactions between both.

An example would be your length. Your genetic make-up determines for the most part how tall you will become. But if you’re malnourished whilst growing up, you will come up a few centimetres short in the end.

Or think of your temperament. You may be a stoic, or a hot head. And during the years of your life you will learn to deal with how you’re wired. And some do better than others. They learn better techniques, or they might be unlucky in their childhood.

And this is where Pinker, armed with data, made me think about things a bit different than before. He argues that your family and all the experiences shaped by your parents (the ‘shared’ experiences you could have had with siblings) don’t matter at all. And they don’t matter for the variance of outcomes you will have.

I.e. if we’re looking at your expression of your temperament or the chance that you will end up in jail, then it’s explained for about 50% by your genes, and 50% by your unique experiences.

Unique experiences? The friends you have and smoked weed with when you were still 15. The tv shows you watched in your bedroom. The teacher who took you under his wing. All things that are (almost) completely outside of the control of your parents.

But, but… parents should have an influence, right? I also can’t shake the feeling that what a parent does should have an influence. But when looking at (identical) twins who grew up in different families, or looking at different families in similar circumstances, and many other configurations, Pinker concludes that the shared experiences really count for nothing.

Looking at this in another way, you can say that there may just be many more (influential) unique experiences. Say for instance that your experience of sex(uality) should be formed by different factors. There are of course the genes. But what would have more influence, parents telling you about the birds and the bees, versus your first good/bad/average very intimate evening. Or the stories your peer group tell you. And the expectation that may differ from class to class, from peer group to peer group.

What if you can still shape this environment? As a parent can’t you choose where your kid grows up and influence it in this way? I guess that may still be true. Still, you’re only marginally improving the environment (which accounts for 50%) with still so much variation of unique experiences.

Say you choose the best school, but because your kid is now surrounded by other kids who are smarter he becomes very insecure and gets bullied. Or you move to the countryside because you believe it’s safer and he gets hit by a car in the middle of nowhere.

Ok, enough rambling, Pinker does end the chapter in a good way. You can see your kids not as a blank slate you need to shape and fill. No, see your kids as your friends. As (little) people you want to hang out with. To enjoy your time together (they have half your genes, so you might get along great). And yes, don’t be a bad parent, why would you want to even consider that. Be a good parent just because (and not for their outcomes) it’s the moral thing to do.