• I will refer to these convictions as the Blank Slate: the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.
  • —Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature1. p. 2
  • “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t exist”
  • —slogan on Old Spice deodorant
Steven Pinker published The Blank Slate in 2002 to argue that some popular academic dogmas about human nature have been falsified by evolutionary psychology. Like the Old Spice slogan, evolutionary psychology sees human traits as arising from the imperative to have surviving children. So I like to refer to evolutionary psychology as Old Spicism, in contrast to Blank Slatism.

Pinker writes,

  • During the past century the doctrine of the Blank Slate has set the agenda for much of the social sciences and humanities… The social sciences have sought to explain all customs and social arrangements as a product of the socialization of children by the surrounding culture… A long and growing list of concepts that would seem natural to the human way of thinking (emotions, kinship, the sexes, illness, nature, the world) are now said to have been “invented” or “socially constructed.”
  • … According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences—by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards—and you change the person. Underachievement, poverty, and antisocial behavior can be ameliorated… p. 6

The Blank Slate is the doctrine that people’s minds have so little inherent structure that they can be readily reconfigured through deliberate social engineering. Pinker argues that this doctrine is often tied up with two other doctrines: the Noble Savage, which sees violence and other undesirable human traits as arising from harmful modern social arrangements; and the Ghost in the Machine, which sees the mind as something separate from the physical brain, and hence not subject to genetic determinants.

The doctrine of the Noble Savage has been debunked by primatologists and anthropologists. They find fierce competition and violence to have been prevalent among prehistoric humans as well as our chimpanzee relatives.

Pinker derides the Ghost in the Machine, arguing that mental phenomena ultimately can be reduced to physical activity in the brain. But today, one can read Erik Hoel’s The World Behind the World as raising doubts about our ability to complete the project of reducing the mental to the physical. Even so, it seems well established that people differ in their cognitive abilities and in psychological propensities, and that at least some of these differences can be shown to be grounded in genetics.

Pinker regards the genetic differences among healthy humans as small.

  • Natural selection works to homogenize a species into a standard overall design by concentrating the effective genes—the ones that build well-functioning organs—and winnowing out the ineffective ones.
  • … All species harbor genetic variability, but Homo Sapiens is among the less variable ones. p. 142

He says that the data support thinking of people as individuals, rather than in terms of racial groupings.

  • People are qualitatively the same but may differ quantitatively. The quantitative differences are small in biological terms, and they are found to a far greater extent among individual members of an ethnic group or race than between ethnic groups or races.
  • But… Individuals are not genetically identical, and it is unlikely that the differences affect every part of the body except the brain. And though genetic differences between races and ethnic groups are much smaller than those among individuals, they are not nonexistent. p. 143
“On the delicate issue of race, intelligence, and personality, Pinker says that some average group differences might be biological, but he himself believes that differences in historical social experience are more important.”

On the delicate issue of race, intelligence, and personality, Pinker says that some average group differences might be biological, but he himself believes that differences in historical social experience are more important. And he emphasizes the large within-group variation in characteristics, which again argues for treating people as individuals.

When it comes to gender, Pinker says that because of the way they differ in reproductive organs, we should expect to observe differences between men and women

  • in their sexuality, parental instincts, and mating tactics…[but] one would expect them not to differ as much in the neural systems that deal with the challenges that both sexes face, such as those for general intelligence. p. 144-145

Pinker argues that gender differences have been established, including

  • Men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners… Men are more likely to compete violently… The ability to manipulate three-dimensional objects and space in the mind also shows large differences in favor of men.
  • … Also, confirming an expectation from evolutionary psychology, for many traits the bell curve for males is flatter and wider than the curve for females. That is, there are proportionally more males at the extremes. Along the left tail of the curve, one finds that boys are more likely to be dyslexic, learning disabled, attention deficient, emotionally disturbed, and mentally retarded… At the right tail, one finds that in a sample of talented students who score above 700 (out of 800) on the mathematics section of the Scholastic Assessment Test, boys outnumber girls by thirteen to one, even though the scores of boys and girls are similar within the bulk of the curve. p. 344-345

This argument about the right tail was made by Larry Summers in 2005 when he was President of Harvard, resulting in a controversy that got him fired.

Perhaps Pinker anticipated such a controversy when he wrote in favor of “equity feminism” rather than “gender feminism” (the connotations of those terms may have been clearer to Pinker in 2002 than it is to me today).

  • Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no moral commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans have a single social motive—power—and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups—in this case the male gender dominating the female gender. p.341

Gender issues are contested even more today than they were twenty years ago. Some evolutionary psychologists explain the tendency of cultures to repress female sexuality as a way to limit unwanted pregnancies and to reassure a man who supports a child that the child is his. But with birth control, and now paternity testing, should all cultural barriers to female promiscuity be lifted? Or does the sexual marketplace function better if women are more chaste? These and other arguments are raging.

In the end, for all of Pinker’s attempts to use common sense, logic, and evidence to make the case for Old Spicism, and for all of his efforts to claim a progressive opinion regarding race and gender, his project apparently failed. In the academic community to which The Blank Slate was addressed, Blank Slatism is still much more widely held than Old Spicism.

Politically, Blank Slatists are a concentrated force, situated on the far left. Old Spicists may agree that the ultimate goal should be to treat people as individuals, but in the meantime they cannot agree on how to deal with differences in male-female or white-black outcomes. Their views range from well left of center to the far right.

If anything, Blank Slatists are more militant now than they were in 2002. Old Spicists are still around, and they still appear to me to have the stronger arguments, but on campus their influence has diminished. Differences in outcomes between men and women or between whites and blacks are viewed as stemming from power structures. And Blank Slatists continue to view individual differences as less important than group differences.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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