The Blank Slate (2002) Steven Pinker

The “perversity-breeding neediness” of humans

These are some of my favorite passages and quotes from this overarching somewhat history of humanity and ideas about it, the crux of which is that humans do in fact have something called a nature and are not just pieces of Play-Dough which can be wrought from the ground up. An incredibly even-handed, middle-of-the-road analysis.

· The increased value of brains over brawn in the economy, the extension of the human lifespan (with the prospect of decades of life after childrearing), and the affordability of extended education changed the values of women’s options in life. Contraception, [etc] made it possible for women to defer childbearing to the optimal points in their lives.

· “…the tradeoff between working and mothering was not invented by power-suited Yuppies of the 1980s. Women in foraging societies use a variety of arrangements to raise their children without starving in the process, including seeking status within the group (which improves the children’s well-being) and sharing childcare duties with other women in the band. Fathers, of course, are usually the main providers other than the mother herself…” Men can die, though.

· “If someone believes abortion is immoral, then allowing other people to engage in it is not an option, any more than allowing people to rape or murder is an option.” Moral foundations.

· Puritanism: “[T]he haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may he happy.” H L Mencken

· Many of these things [list of potentially harmful activities] can have harmful consequences… The question is whether they are best handled by the psychology of moralization (with its search for villains, elevation of accusers, and mobilization of authority to mete out punishment) or in terms of cost and benefits, prudence and risk, or good and bad taste.

o Hitler was a moralist (indeed, a moral vegetarian) who, by most accounts, was convinced of the rectitude of his cause. As the historian Ian Buruma wrote, “This shows once again that true believers can be more dangerous than cynical operators. The latter might cut a deal; the former have to go to the end-and drag the world down with them.”

· “There is an optimal amount of pollution in the environment, just as there is an optimal amount of dirt in your house.” -economist Robert Frank.

· Much of what is today called “social criticism” consist of members of the upper classes denouncing the tastes of the lower classes (bawdy entertainment, fast food, plentiful consumer goods) while considering themselves egalitarians.

o As for sneering at the bourgeoisie, it is a sophomoric grab at status with no claim to moral or political virtue. The fact is that the values of the middle class — personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidance of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy — are good things, not bad things. Most of the world wants to join the bourgeoisie, and most artists are members in good standing who adopted a few bohemian affectations.

· My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life.

o [M]any of the discoveries recounted in preceding chapters make [Utopia] unlikely… The limited scope of communal sharing in human groups, the more common ethos of reciprocity, and the resulting phenomena of social loafing and the collapse of contributions to public goods when reciprocity cannot be implemented.

· “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflection on human nature?” James Madison.

· “The desire for the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger. It is the principal end of government to regulate this passion.” -John Adams.

· All political philosophies have to decide when their arguments are turning into the questioning of gravity.

· Crime rates are much higher in regions with greater disparities of wealth… chronic low status leads men to become obsessed with rank and to kill one another over trivial insults. Wilkinson argues that reducing economic inequality would make millions of lives happier, safer, ad longer.

o Psychologists find that individuals prone to violence have a distinctive personality profile. They tend to be impulsive, low in intelligence, hyperactive, and attention-deficient… they are vindictive, easily angered, resistant to control, deliberately, annoying, and likely to blame everything on other people.

· American culture is not uniquely violent… As for cultural norms of masculinity and sexism, Spain has its machismo, Italy its braggadocio, and Japan its rigid gender roles, yet their homicide rates are a fraction of that of the more feminist-influenced United States.

· [T]he difference in the minimal parental investments of males and females makes the reproductive capacity of females a scare commodity over which males compete. This explains why men are the violent gender… men still compete for women by competing for the status and wealth that tend to attract them… ‘Any creature that is recognizably on track toward complete reproductive failure must somehow expend effort, often at risk of death, to try to improve its present life trajectory.’ [Daily and Wilson]… Though there are many reasons why countries differ in their willingness to wage war, one factor is simple the proportion of the population that consists of men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine.

· Because of the logic of deterrence, fights over personal or national honor are not as idiotic as they seem. In a hostile milieu, people and countries must advertise their willingness to retaliate against anyone who would profit at their expense… The mentality if foreign to those of us who can get Leviathan to show up by dialing 911.

o [V]iolent cultures arise in societies that are beyond the reach of the law and in which previous assets are easily stolen. [Such as where animals which are herded]

o [There were] shockingly high homicide rates of pre-state societies, with 10 to 60 percent of the men dying at the hands of other men

§ The causes of the decline in American crime in the 1990s are controversial and probably multifarious, but many criminologists trace it in part to more intensive community policing and higher incarceration rates of violent criminals.

· “Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors, or quarks. Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.” Patti Hausman

o [T]he possibility that the sexes might differ… does not force us to choose between scientific findings on human nature and the fair treatment of women. It offers a more sophisticated understanding of the causes of the gender gap, one that is consistent with our best social science. It takes a more respectful view of women and their choices. And ultimately it promises more human and effective remedies for gender inequities in the workplace.

o [M]en say they are more keen to work longer hours and to sacrifice other parts of their lives — to live in a less attractive city, or to leave friends and family when they relocate- in order to climb the corporate ladder or achieve notoriety in their fields. Men, on average, are also more willing to undergo physical discomfort and danger… Men are greater risk takers… [etc etc list of differences in preferences]

· “Once we observe that people sacrifice money income for other pleasurable things we can infer next to nothing by comparing the income of one person with another’s.” Jennifer Roback [economist]

· “The fact that women are vulnerable to attack means we cannot have it all/ We cannot walk at night across an unlit campus or down a back alley, without incurring real danger. These are things every woman should be able to do, but “shoulds” belong in a utopian world. They belong in a world where you drop your wallet in a crowd and have it returned, complete with credit cards and cash. A world in which unlocked Porsches are parked in the inner city. And children can be left unattended in the park. This is not the reality that confronts and confines us.” -Wendy McElroy

· A conventional summary is that about half of the variation in intelligence, personality, and life outcomes is heritable — a correlate or an indirect product of the genes.

o Socialization — acquiring the norms and skills necessary to function in society — takes place in the peer group. Children have cultures, too, which absorb parts of the adult culture and also develop values and norms of their own… It is in this crucible that our personalities are formed.

· “A writer of fiction, a professional liar, is paradoxically obsessed with what is true…” “To be human is to be in the tense condition of a death-foreseeing consciously libidinous animal. No other earthly creature suffers such a capacity for thought, such a complexity of envisioned but frustrated possibilities, such a troubling ability to question the tribal and biological imperatives. So conflicted and ingenious a creature makes an endlessly interesting focus for the meditations of fiction. It seems to me that Homo sapiens will never settle into any utopia so complacently as to relax all its conflicts and erase all its perversity-breeding neediness.”



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