All About Books: Clay Naff

Clay Farris Naff  is a freelance writer, a science and religion correspondent for the Humanist magazine. He is Executive Director of Lincoln Literacy.

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How The Blank Slate Changed Me

By Clay Farris Naff

When I was a boy, I dreamed of being a novelist. I cherished books, lived in the stories they told, and loved to write.

But somehow my characters never seemed quite real. The reason, I finally realized, was simple: novelists are natural psychologists. They know what darkness lurks in the hearts of men. They get what women want. The hopes and fears of all the years are an open book to them. To me … not so much.

Like most people I had rely on sayings, stereotypes, or Freud. But these can be truly awful.

There’s this gem from St. Jerome: “Woman is the root of all evil.”

Or this stern warning given by many a mother to her daughter: "Men are all alike."

Sigmund Freud gave us a fancy new way to misunderstand each other. Instead of calling someone a "momma's boy", we could now say “That fellow has an Oedipus complex."

I've never gone in for negative stereotyping, but lacking a novelist’s intuition left me with a Pollyanna perspective. Not good. And so, it seemed, I was stuck.

Then, I discovered a marvelous book by psychologist Steven Pinker. Titled The Blank Slate, the book unveils the science of human nature. It was long time coming, but the study of evolution has finally yielded deep and reliable insights into human behavior. Charles Darwin anticipated it, and others before Pinker wrote about it, but no one does a better job of putting the case for … evolutionary psychology.

Pinker’s title is ironic. He intends to demolish the myth that the human mind at birth is a blank slate on which parents, schools, and culture inscribe a person. Quite the contrary, Pinker argues, people are born with distinctive personalities, and although cultures vary there are many human universals, such as smiles, jealousy, and war. These universal traits point to genetic roots.

Moreover, we can be certain that these are rooted in our evolutionary history. One of strongest indicators is the remarkable similarities of identical twins who were raised apart. Pinker tells of twins who were separated during World War II and later reunited as adults participating in a twin study. Among their astonishing similarities - they wore the same style of shirt, had the same habit of keeping rubber bands around their wrists, and both liked to fake a sneeze in a crowded elevator just to startle the other occupants.

Pinker weighs the evidence with care.. He’s not saying we are all genetic robots. Even identical twins have their differences. As for the rest of us, we vary tremendously, because we are shaped both by genes and experience. One of the best features of Pinker’s book is that he goes well beyond the data to address the fears that it conjures up.

Equality, he argues, does not mean sameness. Attempts to make everyone the same, like the communist experiments of Stalin and Mao, always fail. We differ in physical and cognitive abilities. We differ in drive, ambition, and temperament. Some of us are great sprinters, musicians, or math whizzes, some of us are plodders. Yet none of those differences displace fairness as a guiding principle of society.

Pinker concludes with a fascinating speculation on the influence of genes on parenting, politics, and the arts. Research in the decade since the book came out has validated many of his views.

Still, want proof that genes don’t dictate our lives? I’m it.

Reading this book made me a different person. I don’t apply evolutionary psychology as a template to everyone I meet, but I do have much better insight into people’s motivation and behavior. When my windows rattle as a flashy car with a speaker like a bass drum drives by, I get it. There, I say, goes a young man lekking. Lekking is competitive male behavior intended to impress females … such as the dance performed by cranes in springtime or cranking up the music.

To paraphrase Cole Porter, birds do it, bees do it, even human beings do it. Except, bees don’t. ‘Cause their genes are organized along totally different lines. But that’s another story. Me, I’m sticking with this one: Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

 

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