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Pinker's latest bestseller - The Blank Slate

  1. Mar 24, 2003 #1


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    Pinker's latest bestseller - "The Blank Slate"

    I remember having a discussion on this a while back ... with Wu Li, if I'm not mistaken.
    I am reading Pinker's latest bestseller - "The Blank Slate" and found some very relevant parts in it.

    Learned behaviour and public health theories are moral declarations, public avowals that the declarer is opposed to violence. Condemning violence is all to the good, of course, but not if it is disguised as an empirical claim about our psychological makeup.
    Perhaps the purest example of this wishful confusion comes from Ramsey Clark, attorney general in the Johnson administration and author of the 1970 bestseller "Crime in Amerca". In arguing that the criminal justice system should replace punishment with rehabilitation.
    Clark explained :
    " The theory of rehabilitation is based on the belief that healthy, rational people will not injure others, that they will understand that the individual and his society are best served by conduct that does not inflict injury, that a just society has the ability to provide health and purpose and opportunity for all its citizens. Rehabilitated, an individual will not have the capacity - cannot bring himself - to injure another or take or destroy property. "

    Would that it were so ! This theory is a fine example of the moralistic fallacy : it would be so nice if the idea were true that we should all believe that it is true. The problem is that its not true.
    History has shown that plenty of healthy, rational people can bring themselves to injure others and destroy property because, tragically, an individual's interest sometimes ARE served by hurting others (especially if criminal penalties for hurting others are eliminated, an irony that Clark seems to hav missed).
    Conflicts of interest are inherent to the human condition, and as Martin Daly and Margo Wilson point out - " Killing one's adversary is the ultimate conflict resolution technique. "


    Boys in all cultures spontaneously engage in rough-and-tumble play, which is obviously practice for fighting. They also divide themselves into colaitions that compete aggressively. And children are violent well before they have been infected by war toys or cultural stereotypes. The most violent age is not adolescence but toddlerhood. In a recent large study, almost half the boys just past the age of two, and a slightly smaller percentage of the girls, engaged in hitting, biting and kicking. As the author pointed out, " Babies do not kill each other because we do not give them access to knives
    and guns. The questions ... we've been trying to answer for the past 30 years is how do children learn to aggress ... [but] thats the wrong
    question. The right question is how do they learn not to aggress. "

    - S.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 4, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 24, 2003 #2
    Re: Rehabilitation

    i disagree with your view Siv, i was a bully back in my youth and i belive it was due to being misguided by my environment were i saw such things as acceptable practice; it was mental illness in my opinion. i never received formal rehabilitation but it was though seeing others who do not practice or condone such behavior that i learned to rid myself of doing the same.

    so that i might refute your position better would you please provide what you see as a practical example to back this claim? :

  4. Mar 24, 2003 #3


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    Re: Rehabilitation

    Siv, do you have the reference for this handy? The last I've heard, secondhand, was that age two was when direction of personality development and socialization was essentially fixed.
  5. Mar 27, 2003 #4
    People often think of children as being pure and what not, and then being influenced badly later in life. However, I think that often we have to teach them to overcome their childish ways--that children really aren't so "pure". That's not to say that there aren't some who have very placid, pleasant natures who are influences to go in less harmonious ways--no two people are the same.

    I believe in a blank slate in specific ideas, but not tendencies--No one is born thinking "I hate niggers!", but there can be xenophobic tendencies inherent in the personality.

    As far as my "rough and tumble" activites such as wrestling, it's not out of a like of violence, but rather a competitive spirit and a desire for superiority.
  6. Mar 27, 2003 #5
    Kids are evil.
  7. Mar 27, 2003 #6
    imperfect is not evil, just not perfect. like in the teachings of the near/far east it is understood that we come into the material world so that we mid learn to overcome our misunderstanding of the ways of life, or in Judeo-Christian traditions it is explained that we are "born of sin" but we can make a conscious effort to do good and teach others to do good as well. granted, we can also be scornful and vengeful to those who wrong us, but i think that rehabilitation is a better plan.
  8. Mar 27, 2003 #7


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    I think the competing ideas - we are naturally peaceful and learn violence- and - we are naturally violent and learn civility - grow out of our being social animals. The welfare of the individual in a pack of social animals is dependent on the welfare of the pack. Behavior that harms the pack will indirectly harm the individual. But within the pack, there are behaviors that benefit the individual greatly, and harm the pack only a little. Becoming pack leader through violence and intimidation may make the pack a little less productive or a little weaker, but it will greatly improve your breeding chances.

    These tendencies, produced by physical evolution, were magnified by social evolution. A society prospers if its people are law-abiding and peaceful and productive. An individual is more likely to prosper if his society prospers. However, an individual is more likely to prosper if he is in a position of power. It is likely that the position of power may require anti-social behavior to attain. Also, once in that position of power, the anti-social individual can benefit more than the social one. Cruelly exploiting productive civil people is much more profitable than cruelly exploiting barbarians. Civilization bestows benefits on the civil society, and the anti-social individual.

    As you see, both violence and civility are selected for, both through physical and social evolution.

  9. Mar 27, 2003 #8
    I agree with Zero, glad i was never a kid!
  10. Mar 31, 2003 #9


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    Re: Re: Rehabilitation

    You're talking anecdotal evidence, kyleb, and I'm afraid that is never considered as valid scientific evidence. Anecdotes are never objective.

    These theories are based on far more statistical samples and double blind experiments.

    Pinker has definitely cited the sources (there are so many actually) in his book. I'll just need some time to actually go through that again and write them here. Will try and do it within a week or so.

    - S.
  11. Mar 31, 2003 #10
    Re: Re: Re: Rehabilitation

    awe Siv, i was just asking for whatever you consider as valid evidence to back this claim. i mean i am not asking you to make some claim like "Hitler was a healthy, rational person" or anything absurd like that; but at least one relevant example is important as scientific evidence is not valid unless you can demonstrate the results being replicated in the field. i mean you can draw up all sorts of calculations as to how a person could be born with bright red eyes; but, unless you can show us a person with bright red eyes, then "evidence" is only speculation. irregardless, i am interested in Pinker's sources as they should yield many such examples if the studies are valid. oh, and good to see you again Siv, i was just wondering about this topic last night. :smile:
  12. Mar 31, 2003 #11
    I think that it is silly to characterize all the billions of humans that have existed into either one of those, as if there is no such thing as intraspecies variation.

    Some people have more violent dispositions, and some people have more peaceful and/or passive dispositions. I really don't think that anyone is born with the intelligence to understand how violence can bring a goal to fruition, so I'm not sure if the question of the two alternatives provided is even a valid one. I think that by the time any person can make a decision to use violence or not, that person has already had a ton of influence from others.

    Furthermore, we all have violent and peaceful tendencies. No one tries to be aggressive and hurtful in achieving every goal, and we all have circumstances that will evoke a violent response from each of us. At which point do you say one is the more prevalent?
  13. Apr 1, 2003 #12


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    I would favour number 3. We are neither inherently peaceful nor violent, but we invented the concepts of peace and violence using ourselves as a reference point to describe our own behaviour.
  14. Apr 2, 2003 #13


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    Re: Re: Re: Re: Rehabilitation

    The entire book (and all of evolutionary psychology) is based on objective evidence. I just need the time to post the zillions of references cited by Pinker in his book.

    - S.
  15. Apr 2, 2003 #14


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    On the contrary, we are both. We very much have violent and aggressive tendencies as well as tendencies for compassion, kindness etc. The trick is to learn to play off one against the other to achieve our objectives.

    The default objectives of gene propogation were achieved sometimes by violence and sometimes by peaceful means. So its little wonder that we have propensities for both kids of behaviour.

    - S.
  16. Apr 2, 2003 #15
    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Rehabilitation

    i would perfer you just presented what you consider the best of it.
  17. Apr 2, 2003 #16
    I'm with Siv on this one. If you study neuroscience, the emotional systems of the brain are amazingly similar among all mammals. Some things -- heights, or dangerous animals -- are hardwired to make us afraid. Just the same way, some things are hardwired to make us feel caring (eg babies and helpless animals); other to make us feel aggressive (our mate cheating, our home/territory/family being threatened.) We have precious little control over any of these, and reason rarely comes into play.
  18. Apr 3, 2003 #17


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    Even more pertinent is the fact that "we" are the activity of our neural circuits. There is no "we" separate from that.

    - S.
  19. Apr 5, 2003 #18
    oh sure there is, our neural circuits would be lost without anything to flow through them. you can look at half the picture and say it makes sense, but that doesn't make it anything more than half the picture. :wink:
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