The Blank Slate: A review

A close friend asked me to give an opinion on Steven Pinker’s 2002 book, The Blank Slate. He was quite overcome by the book and adamant that I finish reading it before I say anything. While I have now finished the book, I have repeatedly insisted to him that I was so familiar with the arguments it contains that this was not really necessary. My opinion on these arguments has not changed, so it is this familiarity with which I will start.

Pinker’s book is ostensibly about the nature/nurture debate. As an undergraduate, I majored in Psychology. At that time, I would have called myself a sociobiologist, which is a kind of ‘nature’ theory. Briefly, Sociobiology is a branch theory of evolutionary psychology which posits genetic control over a wide range of social behaviours. As a result, social behaviours are selected for by the same biological mechanisms that select for the genetic code controling certain anatomical structures and physiology of our bodies. We could thus talk about natural selection for aggression or altruism or even suicide. Psychology, as such, is merely a specialized branch of Biology. The best popular science book available on Sociobiology continues to be Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. (Unrelated to this post is the fact that it is this book that began the discussion of Meme Theory.)

Pinker talks a lot about Sociobiology in his book. During my time as a student, I took classes in human evolution, ecology, and animal behaviour. I have studied with Birute Galdikas, Chuck Crawford, and Dennis Krebs. At that time, I can honestly say that there would have been nothing relevant to this debate I would not have known. On the other hand, my MA is in Sociology and while this may seen strange, I had not taken a single course in Sociology until I became a graduate student. The significance of this will become evident as I continue with my critique of Pinker’s book.

But let’s return to Pinker’s book.

What did I think of the book? I didn’t like it. Not at all. It is misleading, misinformed, and badly written. It is a long and cumbersome book covering a vast array of facts on the topic. It left me feeling that there was just a lot of stuff on this issue that Pinker wanted to talk about and even if it wasn’t related to the point he was trying to make, he was going to say it anyway.

Social Sciences and a Grand Theory of Human Behaviour

So why is Pinker misleading?

I do not like the genre that Pinker writes in. Make no mistake about it, The Blank Slate is not popular science. An uninformed reader, one with no knowledge of the principles of evolution or scientific psychology, would not learn anything about them from the book. This is in stark contrast to say Issac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins or Steven Jay Gould, whose books and articles allow lay readers to learn the concepts, theories, and even technical terms used by expert scientists.

The Blank Slate is not popular science, it is an attempt at a grand unifying theory of human behaviour. That is, Pinker is trying to defend his belief that there exists a single unifying explanation by which ALL human behaviour can be explained and predicted. Pinker’s point is that this grand theory must take into account behaviours that have been selected for by evolutionary forces and that such behaviours are significant, frequent, and important in our daily lives. To be fair to Pinker, he is no different on this point from other well-known theorists such as B.F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud or Wilhelm Reich, but my point is that The Blank Slate is grand theory and not popular science.

Pinker fails to mention this to his lay readers. The problem with this is that he leaves the impression for non-specialists there is much agreement between scholars of Social Science about what a grand theory should look like. This is not true. While there is much agreement to be found in a cluster of scholarly writings emanating from departments of Psychology, Linguistics, and Computer Science, there is certainly no such agreement beyond that rather limited and academic boundary.

Social Sciences are organized in a fundamentally different way from Physical Sciences. ALL Physical Sciences agree on the relevance of certain aspects of their subject – and they have done so for decades, even centuries. Issac Newton wrote his theory of Universal Gravitation in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica more than 300 years ago. Dmitri Mendelevv developed the Periodic Table of the Elements around 1869. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection and Mendellian Genetics have been around about the same length of time. No one working in Biology would doubt the relevance – or truth – of the Periodic Table or Universal Gravitation. In fact, learning the principles of Chemistry is essential to understanding Biology as it currently is performed in the university setting. The same could possibly be said for Physics and even Mathematics.

There is no such consensus among Social Scientists or scholars of the Humanities about what are relevant facts or theories. Social Sciences are in an era of pre-consensus similar to Biology before Darwin. Experimentation in Biology prior to Darwin was an amazingly creative experience. There was no agreement about what was important or even what should be studied. Experiments were performed under the label of Biology that today we would see much more as studies in Chemistry, Physics, or even Theology. Of course that’s the case; at that time, no one knew what was important in Biology. But it is just this point that I see Pinker as trying to address. As Grand Theory, the Black Slate is an attempt to bring together all that he sees as relevant information and unify it in a single statement. The Blank Slate is not just an argument for a theory, it is a statement about what is and isn’t worth listening to.

As I will explain below, Pinker’s work is completely irrelevant in other Social Sciences – and I mean irrelevant and not just wrong.

The Nurture Argument is not the Same as Sociology

Why is Pinker misinformed?

He seems completely unaware that the topic of Sociology and Anthropology is not the same as Psychology. Pages 22 through 29 are his refutation of Sociology and Anthropology. But reading through these pages left me confused and bewildered. His rendition of Sociology has nothing to do with what I learned about in graduate school.

The hierarchical organization of Physical Sciences implies that there is a logical connection between Physics and Biology. Everything in Biology can be explained in terms of Chemistry which can in turn be explained in terms Physics – if we took the time to calculate it out. Of course this is impossible, so we can think of Chemistry or Biology as shorthand for Physics.

Pinker seems to imply that Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology are also organized hierarchically. If Sociology is the study of groups of people in a society and Anthropology the study of an even bigger group – a culture – then they are just shorthand for the Psychology of many people acting together. His argument continues that theories of culture are simply nurture theories not taking into account the powerful role of evolution and therefore wrong, and that within the hierarchy of Social Sciences, there has been no place for evolutionary thinking, and there should be.

But this is not at all what I studied at graduate school. The other Social Sciences are not so much hierarchical thinking about human behaviours as they are whole other traditions about what’s going on with people. The questions that Pinker thinks he has answered are completely irrelevant to the way of thinking that one studies in a Department of Sociology. for example, Sociology has much more to do with the limitations on human choice. Perhaps the most fundamental question anyone studying Sociology must ask is, if people can make any choice they want, why do they make the choices they make. This concept of choice is very much a common sense interpretation and when Sociologists write about the origins of human action, their reasoning attempts to follow closely a logic that would make sense to lay people.

But it is exactly this point that Pinker contends is in error. People do not make choices.

That’s right, people do not make choices. Or at least choice is not what we think it is when we talk about it with our family, friends, or political representatives. To quote Pinker (p. 31-2),

The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by concepts of information, computation, and feedback…This general idea may be called the computational theory of mind…It is not the same as the computer metaphor of mind…It says only that we can explain minds and human-made information processors using some of the same principles.

He then discusses Artificial Intelligence and a concept he refers to as “human chauvinism” (p. 33).

Pinker goes to great lengths to point out he is not saying that humans are deterministic robots, but his explanation is limited. It is very hard not to read in him that human behaviour is calculable, predictable, and that the everyday concept of choice is simply meaningless. To quote Pinker from another source,

Neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life — every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory — can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain. Cognitive science has shown that feats that were formerly thought to be doable by mental stuff alone can be duplicated by machines, that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation…What we call free will is a product of particular circuits of the brain, presumably concentrated in the prefrontal lobes, that respond to contingencies of responsibility and credit and blame and reward and punishment and alter their operations as a consequence.

My point is not that Pinker is incorrect. I have little understanding of this field. But I can say that as an academic subject, these ideas have so little to do with what is being done in Sociology or Anthropology that in these fields, no one talks about them.

The Blank Slate as Scientific Psychology

But then again, I am wrong. The Blank Slate in concise. It is complete. It is a thorough review of the relevant literature. If you read it, you will gain a strong understanding of the field of Scientific Psychology and the directions it is moving in.

The single most important thing in understanding Pinker’s book is that it is a collection of techniques of inquiry that fall under the title of Scientific Psychology. Scientific Psychology is one of the major projects practiced in the research programs of Psychology Departments. Its goal is summed concisely in the statement from Steven Pinker which I quoted above and will do so again here.

…all aspects of mental life — every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory — can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain…that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation…What we call free will is a product of particular circuits of the brain.

In brief, it is the expansion of the goals of Physical Science – prediction and control – into Human and Social Sciences.

In a sense, the project of Scientific Psychology is bold. It is a project that, if successful, will give an explanation to emotions, feelings, thoughts, and memories that render them into the same kind of things as chemicals and other inanimate objects. There will be engineers and doctors with the knowledge to manipulate and control the most fundamental aspects of humanity.

And while this is fascinating, exciting, and frightening all at the same time, it has little to do with what goes on in other Social Sciences or in the Humanities. The clearest example of this is revealed in a closer look at the ideas Pinker holds in contrast to his own thinking.

Pinker does address some of the Social Sciences that he feels (and I believe incorrectly) are based in a nurture model of human nature. But primarily, his examples are drawn from policy. Policy is a plan or course of action, as of a government, political party, or business, intended to influence and determine decisions, actions, and other matters, as in American foreign policy or; the company’s personnel policy. Public policy refers primarily to the former.

On page 313, Pinker quotes former US Attorney General Ramsay Clark from his 1970 book Crime in America. Pinker cites Clark as though his writing reflects a scientific opinion. What Pinker misses is that while Clark no doubt believes his opinion based in scientific fact, his statement is in fact a political statement written for lay people and can not be interpreted the same way a journal article would be. But the Blank Slate is full of misquotes like this – quotes that only make sense if we assume that everyone is writing in the genre of Scientific Psychology. This is significant because Pinker states that the conflict is between nature-based theories and nurture-based theories. This is incorrect. Only a rather strange interpretation of the Ramsay Clark example can render it into a nurture theory. It and the many other quotations from Feminist theorists and politicians are not at all intended to mean that human action is shaped by the environment.

In fact, the basic concept that these writings share is that people make choices about their lives. These choices are constrained. They can be constrained by forces that may even include biololgical constraints, but that this constraint can be predictable and planned, and that the major constraining force in a modern nation state is public policy. But, as I have said, this is not how Pinker talks about the origins of human action. Human action in all its facets is calculable and knowable. Dare I say predictable? And while Pinker may be correct, the fact is that Scientific Psychology is extremely limited in its ability to make these calculations and predictions. In fact, it is so limited that the powerful examples given by Pinker are the same ones I learned about in school more than 20 years ago. Scientific Psychology is still touting examples from the 1980’s as proof of the power of their explanations because that’s all they have. I am not saying that the project of Scientific Psychology is wrong. I am not saying it is impossible for this thinking to overwhelm common sense or free will-based theories of human action. I am saying that Scientific Psychology simply does not have the power to be making statements on the level of historical, political or policy analysis.

And as a result, computational models of mind, theories of evolutionary psychology and Sociobiology have failed as policy science. There are no computational psychologists or evolutionary biologists on the National Security Council. If you study Public Administration or Government at the graduate level, you won’t be learning about these theories either. How many leading public figures have been trained in the disciplines that assume a human choice along the lines of common sense? All of them: Al Gore (Government), Bill Clinton (Law), John Kerry (Political Science), John Edwards (Law) Condoleezza Rice (Political Science). There are no politicians who have stated as their background or have as their quaification that they have studied computational models of mind or evolutionary biology. and if someone did, you would laught at them, even if you thought Pinker’s book was great. The disciplines of a scientific psychology simply lack the power to meaningfully explain anything beyond a few arcane examples.

It’s true that these are really cool examples, and without the explanations derived from computational models of mind, evolutionary psychology and Sociobiology, they are extremely difficult to understand. But these theories of human mind and behaviour do not have the explanatory power to move beyond this point. Yes, it is true that the photoelectric effect was a great party trick until it was explained by Albert Einstein and Max Plank as a key element in quantum theory. This is irrelevant. Computational models of mind, evolutionary psychology, Sociobiology, or whatever other elements of Scientific Psychology you want simply do not have the power to move beyond their current state. And unlike other Social Sciences and Humanities, they do not have much to offer any official policy making body.

Some Closing Thoughts

As a student, I used to argue that the path of science was clearly one of a demystification of the forces of nature. Aristotle wrote that objects accelerate toward the Earth because they are earthly objects and as such became more jubilant as they neared the Earth. And this was the belief until Galileo demonstrated that all objects fall at the same rate regardless of weight. Until Hilaire Rouelle synthesized urea in 1773, it was generally thought that molecules in living things were somehow very different and special from those contained in inanimate objects. Now the production of long chain carbon molecules is so common that it posses a threat to human existence. The focus of the argument has changed, but it continues in its new found form that humans and their thought processes are also natural processes.

All of this is true. And all of this is irrelevant. Just as it would have been very difficult for Aristotle to have understood the calculus that could prove universal gravitation, the proponents of Scientific Psychology simply do not have the technology to meaningfully talk about most of human behaviour. Nothing Pinker says would help me understand why the rate of smoking among Taiwanese women has increased dramatically over the past 2 decades. Nothing he says will help George Bush Jr. deal with the Iraq Crises. As a result, it is just academic scuttlebutt. It is cocktail party chit-chat for the intellectually inclined. It is scholarship as entertainment. It’s fun, but it doesn’t have much meaning and I certainly hope it doesn’t have much impact.

June 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

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