See Also: Book Notes,
Conceptual Spaces Cheat Sheet,
Clock of the Long Now,
Info Viz & Perception,
Consciousness: a user's guide,
The Quest for Consciousness,
The Space Between Our Ears,
The Stuff of Thought.
The Blank Slate
by Steven Pinker, 2002, New York: Viking Press
"This book is about the moral, emotional, and political colorings of the
concept of human nature in modern life" Intro.
Pinker wrote "the Language Instinct" and "How the Mind Works" and is a cognitive
physiologist and vision research guy - and hard to pin down. On page 88 is
a very current wring diagram for the human visual system. It has more special
purpose microprocessors than any consumer electronics gadgets. Pinker's MIT web site (way out
There is a ton of recent research from all sorts of cognitive psychologists
and other neurotypes. Pinker weaves it all into a framework for trying to
evaluate the mind boggling issues faces us today.
To me, it is about the hijacking of political correctness by zealots with
no common sense.
The book describes 3 concepts: the blank slate, the noble savage, and the
ghost in the machine. Essentially: we are born silly putty; without cultural
brainwashing we would live in Nirvana; and the soul is this intangible essence
added to a bunch of chemicals that makes us human.
Pinker is fully appreciative of the miracle of humans, but, it does not need
to be supernatural to be a miracle.
Page 193, there are four fears.
- It is a bad idea to say that discrimination is wrong only because the traits
of all people are indistinguishable.
- It is a bad idea to say that violence and exploitation are bad only because
people are not naturally inclined to them.
- It is a bad idea to say that people are responsible for their actions only
because the causes of those actions are mysterious.
- It is a bad idea to say that our motives are meaningful in a personal sense
only because they are mysterious in a biological sense.
More gizmo stuff:
We have more specialized intelligence units (p. 220):
- intuitive physics, we don't have to go to school to have a good feeling
about what a bouncing ball is going to do.
- a core intuition of biology and that there is some essence of a species
- intuitive toolmaking (engineering)
- intuitive psychology - we can read others faces
- spatial sense - navigation, map making, tracking
- number sense , one, two, ... some many
- a sense of probability - risk evaluation
- fairness - economics - reciprocity
- logic - AND, OR, NOT, ALL, SOME, NECESSARY, POSSIBLE, and CAUSE
- language - the mother tongue.
I think my favorite chapter is the Sanctimonious Animal. We humans have an
inate sense of right and wrong. However, it does change and is based on very
primal basis. As soon as someone starts to sound righteous, alarm bells go
off in my head. The righteous always seem to be trying to transfer the guilt
they feel to ther people. Look at the most recent great moralist of our time:
William Bennett - lost $8M gambling; look at the Catholic Church. Judge not
and ye shall not be judged - MORE LIKE - Judge not and it is probably a good
inidcator that you don't feel you need judgement. Anyway, I digress. Here's
Pinker (p. 280)
"But there is much to be wary of in human moralizing: the confusion of morality
with status and purity, the temptation to overmoralize matters of judgement
and thereby license aggression against those with whom we disagree, the taboos
on thinking about unavoidable tradeoffs, and the ubiquitous vice of self-deception,
which always manages to put the self on the side of the angels. Hitler was
a moralist...historian Ian Buruma wrote 'true believers can be more dangerous
than cynical operators'"
Hot Buttons: Politics, Violence, Gender, Children and the state of the Arts.
Pinker points out there will never be a clean answer to abortion. There is
no moment of conception. It takes up to 48 hours for the sperm and egg to
evolve into a single cell and ready for mitosis. Between 2/3 & 3/4 of
the fertilized eggs never attach to the uterine wall - are they humans? Some
embryos spit into identical twins - do they each have half a soul? On the
other hand, it is clear that a fetus in the ninth month is basically a baby
waiting to be born. For me, Spirit means breath, and so, a baby must breath
to have a human spirit, IMHO.
The Nature Nurture Debate is over!
A great claim p.372. Eric Turkheimer's Three Laws of Behavior Genetics:
- First: all human behavioral traits are heritable.
- Second: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the
effect of the genes.
- Third: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral
traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
So, that leaves peers, video games, Hollywood, and Neurosmith :-)
There is an appendix of Donald E. Brown's List of Human Universals. These
are universals of behavior and overt language found in ALL cultures.
Read this book!