Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pinker - The Blank Slate, Preface

I just picked up Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate The Modern Denial of Human Nature and I wonder how I managed to avoid this book for so long.  I'm sure that I've read it quoted many a time at various blogs but even the preface reads as if Pinker read my thoughts and articulated them better than I ever could (I really should have studied more in school).

My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing - no one believes that - but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme.
Nor does acknowledging human nature have the political implications so many fear.  It does not, for example, require one to abandon feminism, or to accept the current levels of inequality or violence, or to treat morality as a fiction.  For the most part I will try not to advocate particular policies or to advance the agenda of the political left or right. I believe that controversies about policy almost always involve tradeoffs between competing values, and that science is equipped to identify the tradeoffs but not to resolve them. Many of these tradeoffs, I will show, arise from features of human nature, and by clarifying them I hope to make our collective choices, whatever they are, better informed.
It is so sweet to read words like these.  It's like the first time I read Bertrand Russel only without the glassy eyed idealism that always left me shaking my head.  He continues.

The refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians' embarrassment about sex, only worse: it distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse, and our day-to-day lives. 
Trying to talk to most intelligent, well-educated people about child-rearing, food or politics is always frustrating for me because someone always tries to point out that we're only conditioned to think and act the way we do... and if "we could only get past our preconceptions we can become anything we want."  [Eye-roll-to-face-palm-to-double-fist-clench-gaze-to-the-heavens-to-double-handed-forehead-slap-pull-hair-to-primal-scream].  How many times did I meet a girl who seemed reasonably intelligent and we got along so well until we hit this wall.

I blame the Bobo Experiment.  Everyone in my university took Psych 101.  One of the most prominent and easiest to remember sections was on Albert Bandura's experiment that seemed to suggest that children could be taught not to behave aggressively by being shown positive role models - and only positive role models.  I wondered, while I read about the text book, why there wasn't already a formula for world peace over 30 years after this remarkable discovery.  Whenever this came up and someone tried to argue that this proved violence/rape/theft/etc. were learned behaviours, I tried to point out that human nature has a role in such negative behaviour too.  I believe that my inability to keep my mouth shut on this subject was the main reason I didn't have many dates in University.

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