The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker

The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker; narrated by Victor Bevine

In The Blank Slate, Pinker outlines three dogmas that he says are the prevailing views of human nature in modern philosophy: 

1) The blank slate, in which the mind has no innate (genetic) properties and, as John Watson boasted, through conditioning you could train a child to become anybody you want her to become. 

2) The noble savage, in which people are born good, and society forms them into deviants. Pinker suggested that Rousseau was a strong proponent of this theory, but according to Wikipedia (which is always accurate), Rousseau never used this term. 

3)  The ghost in the machine, in which people’s choices are solely dependent upon their soul. 

Personally, I’m a little skeptical that these are the dominant views of most scholars of human nature. I’m sure there are quite a few people who believe quite firmly in a genetic component to behavior, as Pinker does. But perhaps I’m biased because I’m a biologist and not a psychologist. 

Pinker provides evidence that these three dogmas are false, and that there is a strong genetic drive in human behavior.  
The first section in The Blank Slate that really caught my attention was the one on racism. He brings up the controversial book The Bell Curve, by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Much to the dismay of the politically correct (I’m sure), Pinker suggests that Herrnstein’s data are correct and that African Americans have a lower IQ than white people, and that this difference is at least partly genetic. He says that the reason people are so horrified by The Bell Curve is due to their fear of inequality. That it is not racist to report such data – what is racist is to judge someone solely upon that data and not upon the person’s demonstrated abilities. 

Pinker also suggests that we only fear inequality when bigotry on the subject already exists. For instance, there is another set of studies in which height and IQ are positively correlated. He points out that no one frets about those studies, because there isn’t an already existing negative bias about short people. 

I was originally offended by Pinker’s thoughts on racism, but then I realized that at some level, at least, he is correct. I don’t like the data because it implies something that I don’t want to believe. I still cringe at the data presented in The Bell Curve, and I like to think there was some bias in the studies which led to incorrect results. That Herrnstein and Murray were terrible racists who should be shunned from academia. But Pinker managed to sew a seed of doubt. 

More interesting sections were those on violence and rape. Pinker suggests that both violence and rape are part of human nature. He says that most people cringe at this concept because we believe that anything that is “human nature” must be good. But why do we believe that? Are we all proponents of “the noble savage” dogma? 

In the section on rape, Pinker references Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s book A Natural History of Rape. This book posits that rape is motivated by sexual and aggressive urges, not upon a male desire to dominate females (as many feminists claim). Personally, I have no problem believing that rape is motivated by sex and violence and not by male domination. In fact, it never occurred to me that men rape women for the purpose of oppressing them. Is this really a currently common belief? I guess I should follow the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter more. Perhaps that would educate me on this subject. If you follow that hastag, please let me know your thoughts.

This brings us into Pinker’s section on the genetic differences between women and men. Pinker points out that it is not sexist to suggest that there are genetic (and therefore emotional as well as physical) differences between women and men. There are two kinds of feminism: gender feminism and equity feminism. Gender feminists believe that the male and female “roles” are determined by society and not by genetics. Pinker argues that these roles are genetically driven – that girls naturally want to play with dolls and boys naturally want to roughhouse. He points out that although his beliefs are contrary to gender feminism, they are compatible with equity feminism, in which women and men deserve civil and legal equality. Pinker says that most modern women don’t consider themselves feminists because they equate “feminism” with gender feminism. That most women are equity feminists, they just don’t know it. 

In fact, that’s true of me. I always considered myself “not a feminist” because I believe that my feminine qualities are naturally derived and not societally derived. Now I know that I am a feminist. 🙂

Overall, I found this book fascinating. I didn’t think I was going to agree with Pinker…especially when I first started the book. But he presented some pretty good arguments. One problem I did have with the book, though, is how arrogant Pinker is. Instead of saying “I will now provide evidence that…” he says “I will now prove…” 

He also makes an off-putting comment that poked a pet peeve of mine. He says that any scientist that believes in the three prevailing dogmas of human nature should be as skeptical of evolution as the Pope. I guess I’ve never asked the Pope his personal opinions of evolution, but being a Roman Catholic, I know that evolution is quite acceptable in the Church. If you don’t know anything about what Catholics believe, then don’t write about them. 

This is a pet peeve of mine because I’ve had people tell me: “I know about Catholics because I’ve read about them. If you don’t believe [insert false belief here] then you aren’t a very good Catholic.” Someone literally said that to me (where the inserted false belief was that mother Mary is divine). It is ignorant statements by otherwise intelligent and educated people like Pinker that make well-read people think they know more about my religion than I do. 

That aside, I still recommend the book. 🙂

4.5 snowflakes for fascinating subject, good research, and writing style

Reason for reading: Interest, TBR pile
Format: Audiobook

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, by John Coates

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust

Written by John Coates, Narrated by Paul Michael Garcia

Reason for Reading: This book was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize. 

In this Wellcome Trust shortlisted book, Coates describes his research into the feedback loop between testosterone and success in the financial market. When a person has high levels of testosterone, they are prone to risk taking – which generally promotes the market; however, success raises their testosterone levels, which increases their risks and creates bubbles (like the dot-com bubble) which are unnatural and eventually pop. Loss of money leads to decreased testosterone levels and release of stress hormones – which, if sustained for long periods of time can lead to a depressed, risk-averse market. This is when the government should step in and perk up the market themselves. (You can probably guess Coates’ politics from that statement, but the book is generally apolitical.)

I found Coates’ research quite fascinating, and his writing was engaging to someone who’s interested in the topic. I, unfortunately, am not generally interested in finance and so my attention wavered a bit during the finance-heavy bits. But the book was written in an approachable way such that I (who know nothing of the matter) could understand the financial/market bits and that someone who knows very little medicine could understand the science bits. In fact, it was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize because because it makes medicine approachable to the general population. For anyone interested in how hormones/neuroscience/psychology can affect the market, this would be an excellent book to pick up. An easy and interesting read. 

The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer

2012 Book 133: The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer (9/13/2012)

Reason for Reading This book is longlisted for the Wellcome Trust Prize which “aims to stimulate interest, excitement and debate about medicine and literature, reaching audiences not normally engaged with medical science.”

My Review: 
In The Believing Brain Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic Magazine, shows the reader how and why we believe. He begins the book with a discussion of religious beliefs, providing a few examples of life-altering religious (or irreligious) experiences, including his own. I found these stories engaging and enjoyed Shermer’s philosophical discussion. Then Shermer defines “agenticity”–the tendency to assume patterns have meaning and intention (an outside agent) instead of seeing them as non-intentional or even random events. He describes the cellular mechanics of our brains and why we would have evolved “agenticity,” and then provides many examples of how we see patterns even when they don’t exist. This part was pretty funny. I enjoyed his examples. Shermer describes how we can become convinced that our own beliefs are accurate and unbiased, how confirmation bias leads to unconsciously ignoring data that contradict our ideas while noticing in minute detail all the examples in which the data confirm our ideas. This leads to a political discussion of liberals versus conservatives versus libertarianism (because, after all, we simply MUST hear about Shermer’s libertarian beliefs!). The final third of the book describes the progress of scientific beliefs from world-is-flat to the multi-verse (again, Shermer inserts a commentary about what HE believes, which seemed a small digression from his main point). This third of the book also describes how the scientific method works. I found the final third of the book less interesting than the first two thirds. It seemed a little less organized than the first two parts, but that may have been because my mind was wandering since I was already familiar with the material he covered. In the end, this was a fun and interesting read, but nothing I’m going to read again. 

This is the first book I’ve read on the Wellcome Trust Prize longlist, so I can’t say how it compares to the other books. I think it made medicine fun and interesting and would make medicine more accessible to fresh audiences. However, I think this book might not be the BEST choice because many people in the general public (at least in the US) are offended by skepticism. And Shermer expresses no qualms about his skepticism. Therefore, I think his message about medicine won’t reach much of the general public because they will be too stuck on his “offensive” skepticism. Mind you, I’m not saying he WAS offensive, IMO. But I am only offended with skepticism when it is mixed with judgmental comments about those who believe. Shermer was very respectful of those who believe, he just poo-pooed their beliefs. 😉

Left Neglected, by Lisa Genova

2012 Book 64: Left Neglected, by Lisa Genova (4/22/2012)

Reason for Reading: I think brains are pretty fascinating

My Review 4/5 stars
Sarah Nickerson is a type-A mother-of-three who is living the expensive, busy life of Big Business in Boston. Although Sarah always talks on the phone while driving, THIS time she has a terrible accident and ends up with a brain injury. With Left Neglect, Sarah is unaware of the left sides of everything (including herself). With this new disability, she must pick up the pieces of her shattered life-in the process she reconnects with her family. This book was fantastic in a variety of ways. It describes a fascinating neurological condition (Left Neglect) while enveloping the reader in a bittersweet story about family, identity, and disability. Definitely worth reading!

I probably would have enjoyed this book even more had I not OD’d on bittersweet stories this month. I can only stand so much bittersweet. I need to bite into some zombie-slaying action soon!

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

2012 Book 60: The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon (4/9/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 4/5 stars
Lou Arrendale is a high-functioning autistic man in a near-future world. When his employer starts to put pressure on him to be one of the first human subjects in a dangerous brain-altering experimental “cure” for autism, he questions what it is to be Lou. Is his autism part of his personality? What does it mean to be “normal?” Are the normals even normal? This book is full of deep questions of identity and categorizing of humans. It is also about mistreatment of disabled people by bigots. In fact, I thought the bigotry was a little over-done to the point of not being realistic…but maybe this is Moon’s idea of what the near future will be like. Or maybe I’m naïve. 🙂 This book was very thought-provoking and interesting, though I thought it lacked verisimilitude. And there were three (apparently) independent secondary characters named Bart within a 25 paged interval. Not sure what Moon was trying to say there—maybe she really likes the name Bart. 🙂 Anyway, despite my nit-pickiness, I thought it was quite a good book.

The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard

2012 Book 37: The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard (2/24/2012)

Reason for Reading: I’m interested in science vs. medicine debates

My Review: 3/5 stars
Beauregard’s thesis is that mystical/spiritual experiences have effects on the brain that are too complex to be generalized down to a “God Gene,” a “God Switch,” or a section of the brain dedicated to religiosity. His evidence for this thesis is pretty strong—specifically, he summarizes his own neuroscience research with Carmelite nuns. This thesis does not take an entire book to prove, however, so he spends the rest of the book discussing other aspects of spirituality and neuroscience. Problem is, he’s not an exciting writer, so I really can’t remember any of his other points. I don’t recall any objectionable arguments he made…it’s just that the book is rather forgettable. Maybe worth a read if you have a specific interest in the area—but there are better books out there for casual popular reading.