Posts Tagged ‘the blank slate’

The Slow Death Of The Blank Slate Continues

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Some years ago, a popular science writer named Malcolm Gladwell penned a book in which he insinuated — short of outright claiming — that what made epic talent was practicing a certain number of hours. In his view, because the greats did this, it meant that it was what made them great.

We call that “blank slate” reasoning because it assumes that people are identical in ability. Our society must assume that, because it is based on the assumption of human equality, and ability serves as a proxy for wealth and power. Therefore, we must pretend that everyone is the same, even though when it is time to choose a doctor we want a smart and naturally talented one.

Gladwell has one massive talent, and that is recognizing the crest of a wave created by a notion that will flatter people that is about to float into public consciousness. What the top ten percent knew twenty years ago will become available to the lower ninety percent today, and the writer who scripts it in an engaging text will get quite rich.

Against the blank slate assumption however have emerged a number of challengers, especially The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. In this view, people are not equal; genes determine abilities, and some people get more of this or more of that than others, in a matter of degree. This explains how some people have genius or talent that can be shaped by those hours of practice.

On the topic of genius studies, a recent article on the innate nature of genius hammers a further nail into the coffin of the blank slate:

“Whether we like it or not, these people really do control our society,” says Jonathan Wai, a psychologist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program in Durham, North Carolina, which collaborates with the Hopkins centre. Wai combined data from 11 prospective and retrospective longitudinal studies2, including SMPY, to demonstrate the correlation between early cognitive ability and adult achievement. “The kids who test in the top 1% tend to become our eminent scientists and academics, our Fortune 500 CEOs and federal judges, senators and billionaires,” he says.

Such results contradict long-established ideas suggesting that expert performance is built mainly through practice — that anyone can get to the top with enough focused effort of the right kind. SMPY, by contrast, suggests that early cognitive ability has more effect on achievement than either deliberate practice or environmental factors such as socio-economic status.

Since democracy inevitably mutates from the idea of “political equality,” or treating everyone the same by making them go through a bureaucratic process, to the notion of “actual equality,” or the mistaken thought that people are identical in ability, the notion of democracy — and related notions of class warfare, diversity, sexual equality and pluralism — will die with the blank slate.

For that reason, the Left and the everyday useful idiots who fear change are hanging on with their fingernails to the idea that Gladwell advanced, which is that you can take any human and run him through the right education, instill in him the right opinions, and make him undertake 10,000 hours of practice and he will be a genius. The reality is the opposite: a genius, if not deprived of the ability to practice extensively, will gift us with acts of genius, where the average person will merely occupy space that displaces geniuses in a society based on equality.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker

Friday, August 19th, 2016


The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
by Steven Pinker
509 pages, The Penguin Group, 2002

This book brilliantly debunks an illusion, and then resurrects it through its unsourced emphasis on individualism as a solution to the questions raised. Pinker identifies “The Blank Slate” as a modern ideology, but really, it is the modern ideology: individualism. For that reason, his backpedaling mars the latter half of this book.

The Blank Slate begins by pointing out how prevalent the illusion of equality is throughout academia. The utter intolerance and demonization of any other viewpoint than biological equality is revealed, and then Pinker describes his own struggles with ostracism and professional attacks for daring to believe otherwise than that God created us all identically, just with different skin tones, gender, features and origins.

The thesis of this book retains the simplicity of common sense truth: we are not all equal in ability, inclinations or outlook because we are different in genetics, and that explains our differences. Instead of assuming equality because it makes us feel good, Pinker argues, we should look toward actual diversity, which is that humans are massively different from each other, including by race, ethnic group and family.

He backs up this thesis with extensive data from twin studies, genetic assays and logical analyses which take complex concepts and boil them down to simple language which branches like computer code. For example, Pinker on environmental effects:

A given practice would have to affect some children one way, and other children another way, and the two effects would have to cancel out [for environmental effects to be explained as an interaction between parents and children]. For example, sparing the rod would have to spoil some children (making them more violent) and teach others that violence is not a solution (making them less violent). Displays of affection would have to make some children more affectionate (because they identify with their parents) and others less affectionate (because they react against their parents). The reason the effects have to go in opposite directions is that if a parenting practice had a consistent effect, on average, across all children, it would turn up as an effect of the shared environment. Adopted siblings would be similar, sibs growing up together would be more similar than sibs growing up apart — neither of which happens. (388)

Pinker writes convincingly of the basics of Human Biological Diversity (HBD) by attacking the idea that humans are uniform. Expanding on that, he shows instances where genetic history was so predictive of personality, abilities and preferences as to seem almost magic and uncanny. This provides a convincing counterpart to the begging-the-question fallacy of equality, which asserts itself as true and then attacks any who question the assumption.

Although the vast majority of the book consists of scientific data and its analysis, Pinker necessarily mixes in critical thinking and philosophy to defend what was — at the time — an unorthodox thesis. In fact, the ideas in this book remain highly controversial, but Pinker astutely focused on families and individuals more than heritage-based groupings, which escaped the raging animosity that other books on this topic have provoked.

Some people have suggested to me that these grandiloquent arguments are just too fancy for the dangerous world we live in. Granted, there is evidence that people are different, but since data in the social sciences are never perfect, and since a conclusion of inequality might be used to the worst ends by bigots or Social Darwinists, shouldn’t we err on the side of caution and stick with the null hypothesis that people are identical.

…In the case of human differences, as in the case of human universals, the dangers go both ways. If people in different stations are mistakenly thought to differ in their inherent ability, we might overlook discrimination and unequal opportunity. In Darwin’s words, “If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” But if people in different stations are mistakenly thought to be the same, then we might envy them the rewards they’ve earned fair and square and might implement coercive policies to hammer down the nails that stick up. (151)

This book represents the cutting edge of a social and scientific revolution, popularized without adulterating its factual and analytical ferocity. In this pursuit, Pinker adopts a Nietzschean outlook which sees the methods of nature as not random, but intelligent, and through them, shows us why the “cruel” aspects of nature are gentler than our pretense of individual removal from Darwinistic struggle allow us to see.

That outlook makes The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature a rebellion against the pretense of our age which holds that nature was stupid and destructive, and our “enlightened” ways are far superior. It rejects the idea of egalitarianism indirectly by showing that its assumptions are false, and then looks deeper into the evidence to find a logic of nature that approximates the Nietzschean desire for supremacy, competence and elitism.

When the predictions were combined with some basic facts about the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in which humans evolved, parts of the psyche that were previously inscrutable turned out to have a rationale as legible as those for depth perception and the regulation of thirst. An eye for beauty, for example, locks onto faces that show signs of health and fertility — just as one would predict if it had evolved to help the beholder and find the fittest mate. The emotions of sympathy, gratitude, guilt and anger allow people to benefit from cooperation without being exploited by liars and cheats. A reputation for toughness and a thirst for revenge were the best defense against aggression in a world which one could not call 911 to summon the police. (53)

In this way, Pinker foreshadows Jonathan Haidt and his discovery that people are wired for three or more of six concerns, all of which relate directly to group survival that benefits the genes of the individual. This perspective shows us inequality as not just natural, but beneficial, and from that paves the way for another way of looking at human differences which exalts the benefits for the species and civilization in lieu of concern by the individual for the individual exercised through constraint of society to recognize inequality.

Parts of this book drift toward utopianism and this constitutes Pinker’s apology, perhaps, for having discovered and majestically explained the natural reasoning behind a great social taboo. He caps off his analysis with the sort of good-will-toward-all-men language that Nietzsche would have chuckled at, but he does this after he has thoroughly demolished illusions and asserted sanity. For this, he is a hero of the human reinvention of what it is to be human brought on by knowledge of our inherent differences.

Class war in reverse

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Just about any issue you encounter in the modern world can be separated according to the salesperson model. There is a surface layer, in which broad positive assertions are made, and after that an underlying experience layer, in which you figure out the more complex truth.

When you go to a store and see the new dishwasher on sale, promises are made: it cleans more efficiently, it is whisper-quiet, you can fit more stuff into it. When you get it home and use it over the next year, you find out the limitations: it still uses a ton of water, whisper-quiet is relative to a jet plane, and some of the stuff you can fit into it doesn’t get cleaned. Sales pitches do not equate to reality although they purport to do so.

In the same way, all political discourse splits into two threads. The first is how it will work out in the complex interaction between finance, politics and social factors; the second is how you spin it to the voters in a 30-second sound bite on the local news. The two are often completely divergent because the demands of political situations rarely fit into half-minute explanations at a fifth-grade reading level.

The real problem with this situation is that once we tell these pleasant lies, and as grotesque oversimplifications they are that, they snowball as people “trust” them to be literal interpretations. As a result, we quickly reverse course from truth-seeking to myth-building.

One such example is class warfare. Here’s the official story, which is official because it’s the most popular with the widest segment of our population:

Conservative social scientists argue that income inequality is mainly the result of more workers in the average household and their age and education, and that the disappearance of the middle class is more statistical than real.[4] In a 2004 poll of 1,000 economists (from the AEA), a majority of polled economists favored “redistribution”. Note that in voting, the majority of respondents were of the Democratic ideology (Democratic:Republican ratio of 2.5 to 1.) [5] A study by the Southern Economic Journal found that “71 percent of American economists believe the distribution of income in the US should be more equal, and 81 percent feel that the redistribution of income is a legitimate role for government.”[6] One social scientist argues that without holding education, experience and industry constant, inferences to inequality are mere guesses.[7] – Wikipedia

For an even more dramatic view, you can feed into the burn-the-witch-err-the-rich view:

The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. – Vanity Fair

Why do so many economists, journalists and others think that wealth redistribution is a good idea?

It’s the dominant media myth: that we’re experiencing class war from the top down.

In fact, if we look at the layer beneath the sales job, we will see that the reverse is true.

Throughout history, societies have collapsed because of class war, true — but class war from the bottom upward.

What kind of war is this? Demographic warfare.

Think about it this way:

  1. You start a civilization with ten of your buddies and their families. A few others come along, and while they’re not quite as sharp, you let them tag along as unskilled labor.
  2. You and your buddies find a way to prosper. First, you organize specialized roles and get everyone working efficiently; then through hard work, you make the land ready for sustainable farming, and start producing.
  3. Over time, a surplus of food is created. This enables you to spin off more people — grandchildren, at this point — into specialized roles such as doctor, hygienist, inventor and law enforcement. Stability increases, efficiency increases, and with your new technology, so does safety.
  4. What happens next is a shift in perspective, but a valid one: because you offer more of a safety net, the poorer and/or less intellectually powerful people in your society have more of their children survive, which means you have a sudden surge in the lowest sectors of your population:

    Throughout human history around half of humans died during childhood, and without reproducing:

    In developed countries, almost all children (about 99 percent) now survive to adulthood, and even among the most impoverished, ignorant or undeveloped segments of these populations, the proportion of children who die during childhood is biologically almost insignificant.


    But childhood mortality was probably considerably lower than 50 percent among the wealthier, more intelligent, higher in status.

    Therefore, the modern population in developed countries (you and I) are almost entirely the offspring of the wealtheir, more intelligent, more conscientious, higher status classes of history.


    No matter how relatively underdeveloped and underprivileged a population – no matter how stupid, feckless and uncaring the mothers – for almost everywhere in the world at present, childhood death rates are all-but irrelevant to reproductive success: almost all children are ‘kept alive’ by ‘society’.

    Consequently, for the first and only time in human history, pure fertility drives demographic change – and also evolutionary change. – Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany

    With the advent of a modern-type society, childhood mortality falls and so those who pop out the most kids dominate demographically. That means a shift from the wealthy and powerful, to the poor and less powerful.

    In other words, you replace the founders of a society who could craft civilization out of raw wilderness. You replace them with the people who tagged along and ended up being unskilled labor.

  5. The unskilled labor starts demanding that it be recognized, because it can. It now knows that the civilization you built is passing on to those who came along for the ride. This is as natural as a leech draining blood, or rats stealing grain, or snakes snagging the eggs of unwary birds. It’s class warfare of the unskilled labor against the skilled founders.
  6. Eventually, degenerate members of the founders class — generally those with stern and judgmental parents — decide to “defect” and take up the cause of the poor. They invent theories of equality and the brotherhood of humanity to sugar-coat what is essentially a seizure of society by its least competent members.
  7. A revolution occurs. Like the revolutions in France and Russia, as well as the political intrigues of old Rome and Athens, it is followed by executions of those with the wisdom to point out what is going on. Socrates dies alongside the Romanovs; the guillotine severs the head of Lavoisier and drops the average IQ by ten points.
  8. Now the civilization enters its death cycle. The unskilled promote their Middletons own, who gain riches for their party-planning businesses relatively trivial acts. These nouveau riche are nothing like aristocrats; they squander wealth and use it as an excuse to be abusive. Society as a result enters into a downward spiral of class warfare that is actually not class warfare; you’re not seeing the hereditary upper classes versus the poor/unskilled, but the former-poor against the poor. This isn’t productive class warfare, but incompetents squabbling over social status as they try to divide up what’s left of the pie.

The official narrative is that the poor/unskilled are persecuted by the rich. The truth, if we look at broader history, is that the poor/unskilled overwhelmed the ability of that society to produce wealth. The root of class warfare is overpopulation from the bottom, and because they won’t blame themselves, they blame “the rich” which becomes a broad brush to target anyone with more than subsistence income.

Naturally, this has dire implications for democracy. What is the point in having universal voter participation if each idea to be voted upon is in fact a sales job? The myth of the “informed voter” dissolves when we look at how little of the situation is actually conveyed, and how a stalemate would occur if we tried to tell the voters the truth. Politics becomes a stage-play after which the actors scurry home and get real work done.

Even worse is the fact that we’re thinking in reverse. We blame people for being rich, since we assume that the rich are waging class warfare against the poor. As a result, we ignore the fact that people who got wealthier legitimately — professionals (doctors, lawyers, architects, MBAs) and small-business owners or managers — did so because of raw cognitive ability:

Even assuming that, there are massive advantages inherent simply in being born rich (and disadvantages in being poor.) My favorite example, simply because it’s so dramatic, is that a child born into the lowest-earning quintile who manages to attain a college degree is less likely to be in the highest-earning quintile than a child born into the top quintile who does not attain a college degree. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that making it to, and through, college is far harder for poor kids than rich kids even at a given level of aptitude. (Two thirds of the kids with average math scores and low-income parents do not attend college, while almost two-thirds of high-income kids with average math scores do.) – TNR

Even reducing all other factors, what we’re seeing here is that those who are more prosperous tend to be more intelligent.

Not all of them, of course, but statistically, most of them.

This is why books like The Bell Curve freak people out. Sure, there’s that troublesome chapter 13 about race — but even more, there’s the problematic idea that our native abilities determine what we should be doing in life.

When you look at people who got rich for trivial acts, like entertainers or those who sold venal products like liquor to the masses, you’re not seeing the best of society rising. You’re seeing a champion of the unskilled dominating other unskilled through their own incompetence at choosing art over trashy entertainment, or quality liquor over gut-rot.

We love to subsidize the unskilled, and pretend that by raising their income, we somehow make them as intelligent, morally balanced and insightful as the founders who persist in our professional classes:

Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government.

It gets worse. More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined. We have moved decisively from a nation of makers to a nation of takers. Nearly half of the $2.2 trillion cost of state and local governments is the $1 trillion-a-year tab for pay and benefits of state and local employees. Is it any wonder that so many states and cities cannot pay their bills? – WSJ

Our budget in the United States is divided roughly in two. On one side are military and infrastructure costs; on the other, equivalent in dollar value, are entitlements and resulting government costs.

Conservatives want to end war by ending subsidies. This stops the reckless proliferation of the unskilled and preserves the founder class. If you want your country to avoid falling into third-world status, this is your only option.

Liberals want the unskilled to win the class war through wealth redistribution. The idea underlying this is that if uniformity is established, and equality imposed, there will be no cause for conflict. Sadly for liberals, it doesn’t work that way — when equality is established, even more vicious internal fighting results as some try to climb above the rest.

In the process of trying to reach that equality, civilizations and lives are destroyed en masse:

We live in an era of ethnic, national, and religious fratricide. A new two-volume reference work on “the most severe civil wars since World War II” has 41 entries, from Afghanistan and Algeria to Yemen and Zimbabwe. Over the last 50 years, the number of casualties of intrastate conflicts is roughly five times that of interstate wars. The number of refugees from these conflicts similarly dwarfs those from traditional state-versus-state wars. “Cases such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon testify to the economic devastation that civil wars can produce,” note two political scientists. By the indexes of deaths, numbers of refugees, and extent of destruction, they conclude that “civil war has been a far greater scourge than interstate war” in recent decades. In Iraq today—putting aside blame and cause—more Iraqis are killed by their countrymen than by the American military. – Chronicle for Higher Education

What is the source of our failing as a human species?

Class warfare. Specifically, the unskilled/poor crusading against the skilled/wealthier.

Much of the history of the 20th century has resulted from political jockeying to evade this problem. It didn’t work; the problem persists.

And what happens to nations where the unskilled predominate?

Prole behaviour is invariably guided by poor impulse control, and subsequently, their lack of foresight.


This compounds my theory about low IQ people having high testosterone, and therefore poor impulse control and everything else that entails, like breeding more. Obesity and addiction problems are also symptomatic of proles, which can be partially explained by other factors, but when it comes down to it: they are guided purely by caprice and appetite and those very issues engender prole problems. – Sofiastry

Whether we call them proles, drones, unskilled or poor, the reality remains the same: people differ in intelligence and character, and those at the lower end of the scale wind up in less-essential positions with less wealth.

While we may want to treat them well (most of us want to treat everyone well) we also have to look at the implications of their predominance in society. Sofia’s description above is as apt as any: lower-IQ and higher testosterone equals low impulse control, low systematic/planning, a certain amount of opportunism and socialized cost.

Societies do not collapse because the rich decided to wage war on the poor. In fact, it’s ludicrous to think the rich would bother; they’re already rich. Societies collapse because the unskilled overwhelm their resources, force a crisis point, and then bring about collapse.

This offends the public eye, composed equally of guilt-ridden middle-class people and the burnt-out unskilled, which thinks it is “elitist” to notice differences in ability and to deviate from our Soviet-style insistence that all are equal.

However, that pathway leads only to the one kind of class warfare that does exist, which is the unskilled destroying the founders and thus, by killing off the intelligence their society needs, plunging it into darkness.

Recommended Reading