2003-03-21: The Blank Slate

The Blank Slate

The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

This book is Pinker’s attempt to marshal enough arguments supporting the cognitive science view of how human minds work to demolish the alternative, entrenched views. He follows others in calling the entrenched view the “Standard Social Science Model, in which cultures are arbitrary symbol systems that exist apart from the minds of individual people.” He also uses the (perhaps more neutral) term “social constructionism”.

I obtained this book from the library, and it became due before I finished it. Accordingly, this report will be done in segments, as I am able to obtain the book; I don’t expect to buy it.

He opens the introduction to Part I with:

Everyone has a theory of human nature. Everyone has to anticipate the behavior of others, and that means we all need theories about what makes people tick. A tacit theory of human nature–that behavior is caused by thoughts and feelings–is embedded in the very way we think about people. We fill out this theory by introspecting our own minds and assuming that our fellows are like ourselves, and by watching people’s behavior and filing away generalizations. We absorb still other ideas from our intellectual climate: from the expertise of authorities and the conventional wisdom of the day.

From this rather obvious beginning, he sets out to eliminate the authority of certain authorities and to spread his wisdom, to make it more conventional. I fear Pinker is unlikely to have the effect he wants. The book is likely to be read and recommended only by those who already hold his position.

Without recommending it, he mentions a book: Growth and Structure of the English Language by Otto Jespersen, 1905.

He says of Social Darwinism that it should be called Social Spencerism; maybe it should be called just Spencerism.

In explaining the origin of his target, and the alternative, he quotes J. S. Mill, and then goes on:

By “intuitional psychology” Mill was referring to Continental intellectuals who maintained (among other things) that the categories of human thought were innate. Mill wanted to attack their theory of psychology at the root to combat what he thought were its conservative social implications. He refined a theory of learning called associationism (previously formulated by Locke) that tried to explain human intelligence without granting it any innate organization. …

My interest in this is obvious, though for different reasons. He also clarifies the meaning of culture:

The word culture used to refer to exalted genres of entertainment, such as poetry, opera, and ballet. The other familiar sense–“the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought”–is only a century old.

My quibble here is the inclusion of “beliefs” as part of culture; I only include the expression of beliefs, in writing, speech, or other kinds of behavior. I also make a culture relative to a community, rather than the totality of “human work and thought”.

In chapter 3, The last Wall to Fall, Pinker identifies five relevant ideas from “the cognitive revolution”. (I like this for the relatively rare formulation of an idea in a sentence.)

The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.

The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don’t do anything.

An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind.

Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variation across cultures.

The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts.

These are familiar to me, but will be hard for unsympathetic readers to swallow in whole. He illustrates number 4 with the following:

Chomsky proposed that the generative grammars of individual languages are variations on a single pattern, which he called Universal Grammar. For example, in English the verb comes before the object (drink beer) and the preposition comes before the noun phrase (from the bottle). In Japanese the object comes before the verb (beer drink) and the noun phrase comes before the preposition, or more accurately the postposition (the bottle from). But it is a significant discovery that both languages have verbs, objects, pre- or post-positions to start with, as opposed to having the countless other conceivable kinds of apparatus that could power a communication system. And it is even more significant that unrelated languages build their phrases by assembling a head (such as a verb or preposition) and a complement (such as a noun phrase) and assigning a consistent order to the two. In English the head comes first; in Japanese the head comes last. But everything else about the structure of phrases in the two languages is pretty much the same. And so it goes with phrase after phrase and language after language. The common kinds of heads and complements can be ordered in 128 logically possible ways, but 95 percent of the world’s languages use one of two: either the English ordering or its mirror image the Japanese ordering. A simple way to capture this uniformity is to say that all languages have the same grammar except for a parameter or switch that can be flipped to either the “head-first” or “head-last” setting. The linguist Mark Baker has recently summarized about a dozen of these parameters, which succinctly capture most of the known variation among the languages of the world.

Distilling the variation from the universal patterns is not just a way to tidy up a set of messy data. It can also provide clues about the innate circuitry that makes learning possible. If the universal part of a rule is embodied in the neural circuitry that guides babies when they first learn language, it could explain how children learn language so easily and uniformly and without the benefit of instruction. Rather than treating the sound coming out of Mom’s mouth as just an interesting noise to mimic verbatim or to slice and dice in arbitrary ways, the baby listens for heads and complements, pays attention to how they are ordered, and builds a grammatical system consistent with that ordering.

The Atoms of Language is the only book by Mark Baker in the bibliography.

In discussing the parts of which the mental system is composed, he says:

The mind is modular, with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action. It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules. Cutting across these data-processing systems are mental faculties (sometimes called multiple intelligences) dedicated to different kinds of content, such as language, number, space, tools, and living things. …

The upshot is that an urge or habit coming out of one module can be translated into behavior in different ways–or suppressed altogether–by some other module. … the interplay of mental systems can explain how people can entertain revenge fantasies that they never act on, or can commit adultery only in their hearts. In this way the theory of human nature coming out of the cognitive revolution has more in common with the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature … than with behaviorism, social constructionism, and other versions of the Blank Slate. Behavior is not just emitted or elicited, nor does it come directly out of culture or society. It comes from an internal struggle among mental modules with differing agendas and goals.

In discussing genetics and psychology:

The megalomania of the genes does not mean that benevolence and cooperation cannot evolve, any more than the law of gravity proves that flight cannot evolve. It only means that benevolence, like flight, is a special state of affairs in need of an explanation, not something that just happens. It can evolve only in particular circumstances and has to be supported by a suite of cognitive and emotional faculties. Thus benevolence (and other social motives) must be dragged into the spotlight rather than being treated as part of the furniture. In the sociobiological revolution of the 1970s, evolutionary biologists replaced the fuzzy feeling that organisms evolve to serve the greater good with deductions of what kinds of motives are likely to evolve when organisms interact with offspring, amtes, siblings, friends, strangers, and adversaries.


Evolutionary psychology also explains why the slate is not blank. The mind was forged in Darwinian evolution, and an inert medium would have been outperformed by rivals outfitted with high technology–with acute perceptual systems, savvy problem-solvers, cunning strategists, and sensitive feedback circuits. Worse still, if our minds were truly malleable they would be easily manipulated by our rivals, who could mold or condition us into serving their needs rather than our own. A malleable mind would quickly be selected out.

This last is said apparently without irony.

Pinker establishes his pedigree: “Newton’s theory that a single set of laws governed the motions of all objects in the universe was the first event in one of the great developments of human understanding: the unification of knowledge, which the biologist E.O. Wilson has termed consilience.”

Part of the view Pinker is battling is that humans are what their culture makes them. He enlists Thomas Sowell: “A culture is not a symbolic pattern, preserved like a butterfly in amber. Its place is not in a museum but in the practical activities of daily life, where it evolves under the stress of competing goals and other competing cultures. Cultures do not exist as simply static “differences” to be celebrated but compete with one another as better or worse ways of getting things done–better and worse, not from  the standpoint of some observer, but from the standpoint of the people themselves, as they cope and aspire amid the gritty realities of life.” This is central to my view of memetics.

Pinker mentions a book by Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which “he rejected the standard assumption that history is just one damn thing after another and tried to explain the sweep of human history over tens of thousands of years in the context of human evolution and ecology.” While explaining a bit about Diamond’s view, he mentions a curious case in Tasmania: “The Tasmanians, who were nearly exterminated by Europeans in the nineteenth century, were the most technologically primitive people in recorded history. Unlike the Aborigines on the Australian mainland, the Tasmanians had no way of making fire, no boomerangs or spear throwers, no specialized stone tools, no axes with handles, no canoes, no sewing needles, and no ability to fish. Amazingly, the archeological record shows that their ancestors from the Australian mainland had arrived with these technologies ten thousand years before. But then the land bridge connecting Tasmania to the mainland was submerged and the island was cut off from the rest of the world. Diamond speculates that any technology can be lost from a culture at some point in its history. Perhaps a raw material came to be in short supply and people stopped making the products that depended on it. Perhaps all the skilled artisans in a generation were killed by a freak storm. Perhaps some prehistoric Luddite or ayatollah imposed a taboo on the practice for one insane reason or another. Whenever this happens in a culture that rubs up against other ones, the lost technology can eventually be reacquired as the people clamor for the higher standard of living enjoyed by their neighbors. But in lonely Tasmania, people would have had to reinvent the proverbial wheel every time it was lost, and so their standard of living ratcheted downward.”

Discussing reductionism (which is a dirty word to many blank slaters):

Reductionism, like cholesterol, comes in good and bad forms. Bad reductionism–also called “greedy reductionism” or “destructive reductionism”–consists of trying to explain a phenomenon in terms of its smallest or simplest constituents. Greedy reductionism is not a straw man. I know several scientists who believe (or at least say to granting agencies) that we will make breakthroughs in education, conflict resolution, and other social concerns by studying the biophysics of neural membranes or the molecular structure of the synapse. But greedy reductionism is far from the majority view, and it is easy to show why it is wrong. As the philosopher Hilary Putnam has pointed out, even the simple fact that a square peg won’t fit into a round hole cannot be explained in terms of molecules and atoms but only at a higher level of analysis involving rigidity (regardless of what makes the peg rigid) and geometry. And if anyone really thought that sociology or literature or history could be replaced by biology, why stop there? Biology could in turn be ground up into chemistry, and chemistry into physics, leaving one struggling to explain the causes of World War I in  terms of electrons and quarks.  Even if World War I consisted of nothing but a very, very large number of quarks in a very, very complicated pattern of motion, no insight is gained by describing it that way.

Good reductionism (also called hierarchical reductionism) consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them. The building blocks of one field are put under a microscope by another. The black boxes get opened; the promissory notes get cashed. A geographer might explain why the coastline of Africa fits into the coastline of the Americas by saying that the landmasses were once adjacent but sat on different plates, which drifted apart. The question of why the plates move gets passed on to the geologists, who appeal to an upwelling of magma that pushes them apart. As for how the magma got so hot, they call on the physicists to explain the reactions in the Earth’s core and mantle. None of the scientists is dispensable. An isolated geographer would have to invoke magic to move the continents, and an isolated physicist could not have predicted the shape of South America.

So, too, for the bridge between biology and culture. The big thinkers in the sciences of human nature have been adamant that mental life has to be understood at several levels of analysis, not just the lowest one. The linguist Noam Chomsky, the computational neuroscientist David Marr, and the ethologist Niko Tinbergen have independently marked out a set of levels of analysis for understanding a faculty of the mind. These levels include its function (what it accomplishes in an ultimate, evolutionary sense); its real-time operation (how it works proximately, from moment to moment); how it is implemented in neural tissue; how it develops in the individual; and how it evolved in the species. For example, language is based on a combinatorial grammar designed to communicate an unlimited number of thoughts. It is utilized by people in real time via an interplay of memory lookup and rule application. It is implemented in a network of regions in the center of the left cerebral hemisphere that must coordinate memory, planning, word meaning, and grammar. It develops in the first three years of life in a sequence from babbling to words to word combinations, including errors in which rules may be overapplied. It evolved through modifications of a vocal tract and brain circuitry that had other uses in earlier primates, because the modifications allowed our ancestors to prosper in a socially interconnected, knowledge-rich lifestyle. None of these levels is can be replaced by any of the others, but none can be fully understood in isolation from the others.

Pinker closes chapter 4 with:

Our understanding of life has only been enriched by the discovery that living flesh is composed by molecular clockwork rather than quivering protoplasm, or that birds soar by exploiting the laws of physics rather than defying them. In the same way, our understanding of ourselves and our cultures can only be enriched by the discovery that our minds are composed of neural circuits for thinking, feeling, and learning rather than blank slates, amorphous blobs, or inscrutable ghosts.

In this he reveals some of the same naivete that he later describes in E. O. Wilson. There are people whose “understanding of life” and “understanding of [them]selves” is not sufficiently developed to be enriched by these discoveries. Those people are not directly in Pinker’s audience, but they participate in communities which benefit some of the people opposed to Pinker.

Pinker describes the emotional response to early expressions of these ideas, after Wilson’s Sociobiology: “As the notoriety of Sociobiology grew in the ensuing years, Hamilton and Trivers, who had thought up many of the ideas, also became targets of picketers, as did the anthropologists Irven DeVore and Lionel Tiger when they tried to teach the ideas. The insinuation that Trivers was a tool of racism and right-wing oppression was particularly galling because Trivers was himself a political radical, a supporter of the Black Panthers, and a scholarly collaborator of Huey Newton’s. Trivers had argued that sociobiology is, if anything, a force for political progress. It is rooted in the insight that organisms did not evolve to benefit their family, group, or species, because individuals making up those groups have genetic conflicts of interest with one another and would be selected to defend those interests. This immediately subverts the comfortable belief that those in power rule for the good of all, and it throws a spotlight on the hidden actors in the social world, such as females and the younger generation. Also, by finding an evolutionary basis for altruism, sociobiology shows that a sense of justice has a deep foundation in people’s minds and need not run against our organic nature. And by showing that self-deception is likely to evolve (because the best liar is the one who believes his own lies), sociobiology encourages self-scrutiny and helps undermine hypocrisy and corruption.”

Considering the ideas of Intelligent Design, he says:

It is not clear whether these worldly thinkers [he names Irving Kristol, Robert Bork, William F. Buckley, and Leon Kass, among others] are really convinced that Darwinism is false or whether they think it is important for other people to believe it is false. In a scene from Inherit the Wind, the play about the Scopes Monkey Trial, the prosecutor and defense attorney (based on William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow) are relaxing together after a day in court. The prosecutor says of the Tennessee locals:

“They’re simple people, Henry; poor people. They work hard and they need to believe in something, something beautiful. Why do you want to take it away from the? It’s all they have.”

That is not far from the attitude of the neocons. Kristol has written: “If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded–or even if it suspects–that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.”

He spells out the moral corollary: “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.”

As the science writer Ronald Bailey observes, “Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is ‘the opium of the people’; they add a heartfelt, ‘Thank God!’”

In the chapter “The Fear of Inequality” Pinker says: “This book is primarily about human nature–an endowment of cognitive and emotional faculties that is universal to healthy members of Homo sapiens. Samuel Johnson wrote, “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.” The abundant evidence that we share a human nature does not mean that the differences among individuals, races, or sexes are also in  our nature. Confucius could have been right when he wrote, “Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that carry them far apart.”

The notions covered by the word equality can be confused, sometimes deliberately. The relevant notions are specified by Ernst Mayr:

Equality in spite of evident nonidentity is a somewhat sophisticated concept and requires a moral stature of which many individuals seem to be incapable. They rather deny human variability and equate equality wit identity. Or they claim that the human species is exceptional in the organic world in that only morphological characters are controlled by genes and all other traits of the mind or character are due to “conditioning” or other nongenetic factors. Such authors conveniently ignore the rsults of twin studies and of the genetic analysis of nonmorphological traits in animals. An ideology based on such obviously wrong premises can only lead to disaster. Its championship of human equality is based on a claim of identity. As soon as it is proved that the latter does not exist, the support of equality is likewise lost.

In other words, any form of tyranny is excused if identity is disproved, just as slavery and genocide have shown.

Some argue that sociobiology will lead to the overthrow of ethics:

The “naturalistic fallacy” was named by the moral philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 Principia Ethica, the book that killed Spencer’s ethics. Moore applied “Hume’s guillotine”, the argument that no matter how convincingly you show that something is true, it never follows logically that it ought to be true. Moore noted that it us sensible to ask, “This conduct is more evolutionarily successful, but is it good?” The mere fact that the questionmakes sense shows that evolutionary success and goodness are not the same thing.”

Can one really reconcile biological differences with a concept of social justice? Absolutely. In his famous theory of justice, the philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine a social contract drawn up by self-interested agents negotiating under a veil of ignorance, unaware of the talents or status they will inherit at birth–ghosts ignorant of the machines they will haunt. He argues that a just society is one that these disembodied souls would agree to be born into, knowing that they might be dealt a lousy social or genetic hand. If you agree that this is a reasonable conception of justice, and that the agents would insist on a broad social safety net and redistributive taxation (short of eliminating incentives that make everyone better off), then you can justify compensatory social policies even if you think differences in social status are 100 percent genetic. The policies would be, quite literally, a matter of justice, not a consequence of indistinguishability of individuals.

Indeed, the existence of innate differences in ability makes Rawls’s conception of social justice especially acute and eternally relevant. If we were blank slates, and if a society ever did eliminate discrimination, the poorest could be said to deserve their station because they must have chosen to do less with their standard-issue talents. But if people differ in talents, people might find themselves in poverty in a nonprejudiced society even if they applied themselves to the fullest. That is an injustice that, a Rawlsian would argue, ought to be rectified, and it would be overlooked if we didn’t recognize that people differ in their abilitries.

Concerning ideologies:

The ideological connection between Marxist socialism and National Socialism is not fanciful. Hitler read Marx carefully while living in Munich in 1913, and may have picked up from him a fateful postulate that the two ideologies would share. It si the belief that history is a preordained succession of conflicts between groups of people and that improvement in the human condition can come only from the victory of one group over the others. For the Nazis the groups were races; for the Marxists they were classes. For the Nazis the conflict was Social Darwinism; for the Marxists, it was class struggle. For the Nazis the destined victors were the Aryans; for the Marxists, they were the proletariat. The ideologies,, once implemented, led to atrocities in a few steps: struggle (often a euphemism for violence) is inevitable and beneficial; certain groups of people (the non-Aryan races or the bourgeoisie) are morally inferior; improvements in human welfare depend on their subjugation or elimination. Aside from supplying a direct justification for violent conflict, the ideology of intergroup struggle ignites a nasty feature of human psychology: the tendency to divide people into in-groups and out-groups and to treat the out-groups as less than human.  It doesn’t matter whether the groups are thought to be defined by their biology or by their history. Psychologists have found that they can create instant intergroup hostility by sorting people on just about any pretext, including the flip of a coin.

In listing some of the consequences of such ideology, Pinker includes: “If individual minds are interchangeable components of a superorganic entity called society, then the society, not the individual, is the natural unit of health and well-being and the proper beneficiary of human striving. The rights of the individual person have no place.”

One of the few places the word value is used in a meaningful sense is in the following: Acknowledging the naturalistic fallacy implies only that discoveries about human nature do not, by themselves, dictate our choices. The facts must be combined with a statement of values and a method of resolving conflicts among them. Given the fact of appendicitis, the value that health is desirable, and the conviction that the pain and expense of the operation are outweighed by the resulting gain in health, one ought to have the operation.”

Concerning the fact that people have urges (e.g., sexual or violence), Pinker says: “If, however, the mind is a system with many parts, then an innate desire is just one component among others. Some faculties may endow us with greed or lust or malice, but others may endow us with sympathy, foresight, self-respect, a desire for respect from others, and an ability to learn from our own experiences and those of our neighbors. These are physical circuits residing in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain, not occult powers of a poltergeist, and they have a genetic basis and an evolutionary history no less than the primal urges. It is only the Blank Slate and the Ghost in the Machine that make people think that drives are ‘biological’ but that thinking and decision making are something else.”

He points out the phenomenon of expansion of the moral circle, for instance from adult white males to all adult males to all adults, and even on to great apes, warm-blooded creatures, or animals with central nervous systems, zygotes, blastocytes, fetuses, and the brain-dead, species, ecosystems, and the entire planet. The capacity for moral feeling is elastic. “Wright argues that three features of human nature led to a steady expansion of human cooperators. One is the cognitive wherewithal to figure out how the world works. This yields know-how worth sharing and an ability to spread goods and information over larger territories, both of which expand opportunities for gains in trade. A second is language, which allows technology to be shared, bargains to be struck, and agreements to be enforced. A third is an emotional repertoire–sympathy, trust, guilt, anger, self-esteem–that impels us to seek new cooperators, maintain relationships with them, and safeguard the relationships against possible exploitation. Long ago these endowments put our species on a moral escalator.”

Concerning justice and punishment, he quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes: “If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ‘I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.’”

Concerning evil acts: “The recurrence of evil acts committed in the name of God shows that they are not random perversions. An omnipotent authority that no one can see is a useful backer for malevolent leaders hoping to enlist holy warriors. And since unverifiable beliefs have to be passed along from parents and peers rather than discovered in the world, they differ from  group to group and become divisive identity badges.”

Pinker summarizes Part 3, Human Nature with a Human Face, as follows:

It is a bad idea to say that discrimination is wrong only because the traits of all people are indistinguishable.

It is a bad idea to say that violence and exploitation are wrong only because people are not naturally inclined to them.

It is a bad idea to say that people are responsible for their actions only because the causes of those actions are mysterious.

And it is a bad idea to say that our motives are meaningful in a personal sense only because they are inexplicable in a biological sense.

These are bad ideas because they make our values hostages to fortune, implying that someday factual discoveries could make them obsolete. And they are bad ideas because they conceal the downsides of denying human nature: persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth.

From In Touch With Reality:

Most cognitive psychologists believe that conceptual categories come from two mental processes. One of them notices clumps of entries in the mental spreadsheet and treats them as categories with fuzzy boundaries, prototypical members, and overlapping similarities, like the members of a family. That’s why our mental category “duck” can embrace odd ducks that don’t match the prototypical duck, such as lame ducks, who cannot swim or fly, Muscovy ducks, which have claws instead of webbed feet, and Donald Duck, who talks and wears clothing. The other mental process looks for crisp rules and definitions and enters them into chains of reasoning. The second system can learn that true ducks molt twice a season and have overlapping scales on their legs and hence that certain birds that look like geese and are called geese really are ducks.

The point of this passage is to introduce a discussion about stereotypes, but I find it too glib about categories. It seems there are two processes in the creation of categories: noticing similarities and noticing distinctions. Similarities lead to lumping together similar individuals, and generalizing similar collections; distinctions leads to dividing collections into smaller collections.

In Out of Our Depths, he gives

“a tentative but defensible list of of cognitive faculties and the core intuitions on which they are based:

An intuitive physics, which we use to keep track of how objects fall, bounce, and bend. Its core intuition is the concept of the object, which occupies one place, exists for a continuous span of time, and follows laws of motion and force. These are Newton’s laws but something closer to the medieval conception of impetus, an “oomph” that keeps an object in motion and gradually dissipates.

An intuitive version of biology or natural history, which we use to understand the living world. Its core intuition is that living things house a hidden essence that gives them their form and powers and drives their growth and bodily functions.

An intuitive engineering, which we use to make and understand tools and other artifacts. Its core intuition is that a tool is an object with a purpose–an object designed by a person to achieve a goal.

An intuitive psychology, which we use to understand other people. Its core intuition is that other people are not objects or machines but are animated by the invisible entity we call the mind or the soul. Minds contain beliefs and desires and are the immediate cause of behavior.

A spatial sense, which we use to navigate the world and keep track of where things are. It is based on a dead reckoner, which updates coordinates of the body’s location as it moves and turns, and a network of mental maps. Each map is organized by a different reference frame: the eyes, the head, the body, or salient objects and places in the world.

A number sense, which we use to think about quantities and amounts. It is based on an ability to register exact quantities for small numbers of objects (one, two, and three) and to make rough relative estimates for larger numbers.

A sense of probability, which we use to reason about the likelihood of uncertain events. It is based on the ability to track the relative frequencies of events, that is, the proportion of events of some kind that turn out one way or the other.

An intuitive economics, which we use to exchange goods and favors. It is based on the concept of reciprocal exchange, in which one party confers a benefit on another and is entitled to an equivalent benefit in return.

A mental database and logic, which we use to represent ideas and to infer new ideas from  old ones. It is based on assertions about what’s what, what’s where, or who did what to whom, when, where, and why. The assertions are linked in a mind-wide web and can be recombined with logical and causal operators such as and, or, not, all, some, necessary, possible, and cause.

Language, which we use to share the ideas from our mental logic. It is based on a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of combinatorial rules. The rules organize vowels and consonants into words, words into bigger words and phrases, and phrases into sentences, in such a way that the meaning of the combination can be computed from the meanings of the parts and the way they are arranged.

The mind also has components for which it is hard to tell where cognition leaves off and emotion begins. These include a system for assessing danger, coupled with the emotion called fear, a system for assessing contamination, coupled with the emotion called disgust, and a moral sense, which is complex enough to deserve a chapter of its own.

Later in the chapter, discussing education, he says:

Geary points out a final complication. Because much of the content of education is not cognitively natural, the process of mastering it may not always be easy and pleasant, notwithstanding the mantra that learning is fun. Children may be innately motivated to make friends, acquire status, hone motor skills, and explore the physical world, but they are not necessarily motivated to adapt their cognitive faculties to unnatural tasks like formal mathematics. A family, peer group, and culture that acsribe high status to school achievement may be needed to give a child the motive to persevere toward effortful feats of learning whose rewards are apparent only over the long term.

Later, discussing transactions, he mentions four patterns (named by Alan Fiske): Communal Sharing without keeping track of who gets what, as in families; Authority Ranking where dominant people confiscate from lower-ranking people; Equality Matching , and Market Pricing.  In Equality Matching, two people exchange goods or favors at different times, and the items exchanged are identical or similar enough to be comparable. Trading partners assess their debts by addition and subtraction of relatively small numbers, and are satisfied when debts even out. Differences in perception of a balance can lead to aggressive behavior. Market Pricing relies on multiplication, division, fractions, large numbers, and social conventions of money, credit, contracts, and divisions of labor. When people approach a transaction with different models, the results can be socially disruptive, ranging from “blank incomprehension to acute discomfort or outright hostility.”

In The Many Roots of Our Suffering, he says:

The demands of reciprocal altruism can explain why the social and moralistic emotions evolved. Sympathy and trust prompt people to extend the first favor. Gratitude and loyalty prompt them to repay favors. Guilt and shame deter them from hurting or failing to repay others. Anger and contempt prompt them to avoid or punish cheaters. And among humans, any tendency of an individual to reciprocate or cheat does not have to be witnessed firsthand but can be recounted by language. This leads to an interest in the reputation of others, transmitted by gossip and public approval or condemnation, and a concern with one’s own reputation. Partnerships, friendships, alliances, and communities can emerge, cemented by these emotions and concerns.

Pinker quotes the literary critic George Steiner, on Antigone:

It has, I believe, been given to only one literary text to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are  fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s). The conflicts which come of these five orders of confrontation are not negotiable. Men and women, old and young, the individual and the community or state, the quick and the dead, mortals and immortals, define themselves in the conflictual process of defining each other.    Because Greek myths encode certain primarey biological and social confrontations and self-perceptions in the history of man, they endure as an animate legacy in collective memory and recognition.

In The Sanctimonious Animal, he says:

Haidt has recently compiled a natural history of the emotions making up the moral sense. The four major families are just what we would expect from Triver’s theory of reciprocal altruism and the computer models of the evolution off cooperation that followed. The other-condemning emotions–contempt, anger, and disgust–prompt one to punish cheaters. The other-praising emotions–gratitude and an emotion that may be called elevation, moral awe, or being moved–prompt one to reward altruists. The other-suffering emotions–sympathy, compassion, and empathy–prompt one to help a needy beneficiary. And the self-conscious emotions–guilt, shame, and embarassment–prompt one to avoid cheating or to repair its effects.

Cutting across these sets of emotions we find a distinction among three spheres of morality, each of which frames moral judgements in a different a way. The ethic of autonomy pertains to an individual’s interests and rights. It emphasizes fairness as the cardinal virtue, and is the core of morality as it is understood by secular educated people in Western cultures. The ethic of community pertains to the mores of the social group; it  includes values like duty, respect, adherence to convention, and deference to a hierarchy. The ethic of divinity pertains to a sense of exalted purity and holiness, which is opposed to a sense of contamination and defilement.

The autonomy-community-divinity trichotomy was first developed by the anthropologist Richard Shweder …

Later, discussing the results of some studies on weighing values:

The taboo on thinking about core values is not totally irrational. We judge people not just on what they do but what they are–not just on whether someone has given more than he has taken, but on whether he is the kind of person who would sell you down the river or knife you in the back if it were ever in his interests to do so. To determine whether someone is emotionally committed to a relationship, guaranteeing the veracity of his promises, one should ascertain how he thinks: whether he holds your interests sacred or constantly weighs them against the profits to be made by selling you out. The notion of character joins the moral picture, and with it the notion of moral identity: the concept of one’s own character that is maintained internally and projected to others.

Pinker, in the chapter Politics, discusses Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Vision, which I have already reported on. He also quotes James Madison: “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” He also mentions a term of Gintis to describe the way that people share with others who they think are willing to share, and punish those who are not: “Gintis calls this ‘strong reciprocity,’ which is like reciprocal altruism or ‘weak reciprocity’ but is aimed at other people’s willingness to contribute to public goods rather than at tit-for-tat exchanges.”

In Violence, Pinker attempts to counter the assertion that violence is learned, and not innate to humans. He seems to overlook the fact that humans, even though innately capable of violence, are to a large extent able to control violent urges. He ridicules the statement of someone that “violence is learned behavior”. However, it is obviously true that control of violence is learned behavior, and attention to the lessons around violence is (or should be) an important part of everyone’s education. Again, later in the chapter, he dismisses the “public health” theory of violence, summarized by NIMH: “Violent behavior can best be understood–and prevented–if it is attacked as if it were a contagious disease that flourishes in vulnerable individuals and resource-poor neighborhoods.” In dismissing the infectious nature of violence, Pinker ignores the infectious nature of anti-violence memes.

In discussing violence and sympathy, he says “Such sympathy, however, has not prevented people from committing all of atrocities throughout history and prehistory. The contradiction may be resolved by recalling that people discern a moral circle that may not embrace all human beings but only the members of their clan, village, or tribe. Inside the circle, fellow humans are targets of sympathy; outside, they are treated like a rock or a river or a lump of food. In a previous book I mentioned that the language of the Wari people of the Amazon has a set of noun classifiers that distinguish edible from inedible objects, and that the edible class includes anyone who is not a member of the tribe.” He describes how the moral circle can shrink: “Recall that jonathan Glover showed that atrocities are often accompanied by tactics of dehumanization such as the use of pejorative names, degrading conditions, humiliating dress, and ‘cold jokes’ that make light of suffering. These tactics can flip a mental switch and reclassify an individual from ‘person’ to ‘nonperson,’ making it as easy for someone to torture or kill him as it is for us to boil a lobster alive.”

One memetic aspect of violence is the “culture of honor” that appears when people must rely on their own strength to prevent others from taking advantage of them, as in frontier societies or ghettos that don’t receive effective policing. “Cultures of honor spring up all over the world because they amplify universal human emotions like pride, anger, revenge, and the love of kith and kin, and because they appear at the time to be sensible responses to local conditions. Indeed the emotions themselves are thoroughly familiar even when they don’t erupt in violence, such as road rage, office politics, political mudslinging, academic backstabbing, and email flame wars.”

Pinker describes an event from his own experience:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 a.m. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 a.m. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that had competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty car-lods of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).

About the damage done by his opponents: “Schoolchildren are currently fed the disinformation that Native Americas and other people sin pre-state societies were inherently peaceable, leaving them uncomprehending, indeed contemptuous, of one of our species’ greatest inventions, democratic government and the rule of law.”

Pinker quotes Glover again:

Sometimes, apparently rational self-interested strategies turn out (as in the prisoners’ dilemma) to be self-defeating. This may look like a defeat for rationality, but it is not. Rationality is saved by its own open-endedness. If a strategy of following accepted rules of rationality is sometimes self-defeating, this is not the end. We revise the rules to take account of this, so producing a higher-order rational strategy. This in turn may fail, but again we go up a level. At whatever level we fail, there is always the process of standing back and going up a further level.

This looks to me like a an application of the reflective stance.

In the chapter on gender he discusses the impact of the Blank Slate doctrine on feminism: “There is, in fact, no incompatibility between the principles of feminism and the possibility that men and women are not psychologically identical. To repeat: equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group. In the case of gender, the barely defeated Equal Rights Amendment put it succinctly: “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” If we recognize this principle, no one has to spin myths about the indistinguishability of the sexes to justify equality. Nor should anyone invoke sex differences to justify discriminatory policies or to hector women into doing what they don’t want to do.” Also in this chapter, he mentions the distinction between equity feminism and gender feminism. Equity feminism seeks to end discrimination and other forms of unfairness, and doesn’t rely on the Blank Slate; gender feminism is a form of radical politics, and like other forms of radical politics does rely on the Blank Slate. Pinker quotes Margaret Mead (turning her words against her?): “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”

In the chapter Children, Pinker quotes Eric Turkheimer’s three laws of behavioral genetics:

1.  All human behavioral traits are heritable.

2.  The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.

3.  A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

Discussing the data, Pinker concludes that the contributions of genes and families is roughly 50% and 0%, with allowance for errors in measurement of perhaps 25%. In discussing heritable traits, he includes general intelligence, and the OCEAN personality dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, antagonism-agreeableness, and neuroticism. Other heritable traits include dependence on nicotine or alcohol, hours of television watched, and likelihood of divorcing. He doesn’t expand much on these.

One theory on the missing influence on behavioral traits is peers. He discusses Judith Rich Harris’ Group Socialization theory (from The Nurture Assumption):

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 of the adult culture and also develop values and norms of their own. Children do not spend their waking hours trying to become better and better approximations of adults. They strive to be better and better children, ones that function well in their own society. It is this crucible that our personalities are formed.

Multidecade, child-obsessed parenting, Harris points out, is an evolutionarily recent practice. In foraging societies, mothers carry their children on their hips or backs and nurse them on demand until their next child arrives two to four years later. The child is then dumped into a play group with his older siblings and cousins, switching from being the beneficiary of almost all of the mother’s attention to almost none of it. Children sink or swim in the milieu of other children.

Children are not just attracted to the norms of their peers; to some degree they are immune to the expectations of their parents. The theory of parent-offspring conflict predicts that parents do not always socialize a child in the child’s best interests. So even if children acquiesce to their parents’ rewards, punishments, examples, and naggings for the time being–because they are smaller and have no choice–they should not, according to the theory, allow their personalities to be shaped by these tactics. Children must learn what it takes to gain status among their peers, because status at one age gives them a leg up in the struggle for status at the next, including the young-adult stages in which they first compete for the attention of the opposite sex.

This theory helps explain: why children learn to talk like their peers rather than their parents, particularly children of immigrants or deaf parents; how children can create creoles and sign languages; how children of immigrants adopt the culture around them, even when their parents cannot accept it; how whether teenagers smoke, act delinquently, or commit serious crimes depends more on what their peers do than on what their parents do. He quotes Harris: “If teenagers wanted to be like adults they wouldn’t be shoplifting nailpolish from drugstores or hanging off overpasses to spray i love you lisa on the arch. If they really aspired to ‘mature status’ they would be doing boring adult things like sorting the laundry and figuring out their income taxes.”

Discussing the backlash against this theory Pinker says: “The most vehement propagandists for the importance of parents are the beer and tobacco companies, which sponsor ad campaigns such as “Family Talk About Drinking” and “Parents Should Talk To Their Kids About Not Smoking”. By putting the onus on parents to keep teens sober and smoke-free, these advanced consumer capitalists can divert attention away from their own massive influence on adolescent peer culture.”

Responding to the objection: “So you’re saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my children?” here are some obvious reasons why, of course it matters.

First, parents wield enormous power over their children, and their actions can make a big difference to their happiness. Childrearing is above all an ethical responsibility. It is not OK for parents to beat, humiliate, deprive, or neglect their children, because those are awful things for a big strong person to do to a small helpless one. As Harris writes, “We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable.”

Second, a parent and a child have a human relationship. No one ever asks, “So you’re saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my husband or wife?” even though no one but a newlywed believes that one can change the personality of one’s spouse. Husbands and wives are nice to each other (or should be) not to pound the other’s personality into a desired shape but to build a deep and satisfying relationship. Imagine being told that one cannot revamp the personality of a husband or wife and replying, “The thought that all this love I’m pouring into him (or her) counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate.” So it is with parents and children: one person’s behavior toward another has consequences for the quality of the relationship between them. Over the course of a lifetime the balance of power shifts, and children, complete with memories of how they were treated, havea  growing say in their dealings with their parents. As Harris puts it, “If you don’t think the moral imperative is a good enough reason to be nice to your kid, then try this one: Be nice to your kid when he’s young so that he will be nice to you when you’re old.”

In The Arts, Pinker gives Denis Dutton’s seven universal signatures of art:

Expertise or virtuosity. Technical artistic skills are cultivated, recognized, and admired.

Nonutilitarian pleasure. People enjoy art for art’s sake, and don’t demand that it keep them warm or put food on the table.

Style. Artistic objects and performances satisfy rules of composition that place them in a recognizable style.

Criticism. People make a point of judging, appreciating, and interpreting works of art.

Imitation. With a few important exceptions like music and abstract painting, works of art simulate experiences of the real world.

Special focus. Art is set aside from ordinary life and made a dramatic focus of experience.

Imagination. Artists and their audiences entertain hypothetical worlds in the theater of the imagination.

Art is also a tool for dominance, demonstrating status. Pinker mentions Thorstein Veblen: the psychology of taste is driven by three “pecuniary canons”: conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, and conspicuous waste, explaining “why status symbols are typically objects made by arduous and specialized labor out of rare materials, or else signs that the person is not bound to a life of manual toil, such as delicate and restrictive clothing or expensive and time-consuming hobbies.”

He adds his criticism of current philosophies that depend on the Blank Slate:

Modernist and postmodernist artists and critics fail to acknowledge another feature of human nature that drives the arts: the hunger for status, especially their own hunger for status. As we saw, the psychology of art is entangled with the psychology of esteem, with its appreciation of the rare, the sumptuous, the virtuosic, and the dazzling. The problem is that whenever people seek rare things, entrepreneurs make them less rare, and whenever a dazzling performance is imitated, it can become commonplace. The result is the perennial turnover of styles in the arts. The psychologist Colin Martindale has documented that every art form increases in complexity, ornamentation, and emotional charge until the evocative potential of the style is fully exploited. Attention then turns to the style itself, at which point the style gives way to a new one. Martindale attributes this cycle to habituation on the part of the audience, but it also comes from the desire for attention on the part of the artists. …

Quentin Bell suggested that when the variations within a genre are exhausted, people avail themselves of a different canon of status, which he added to Veblen’s list. In “conspicuous outrage,” bad boys (and girls) flaunt their ability to get away with shocking the bourgeoisie. The never-ending campaign by postmodernist artists to attract the attention of a jaded public progressed from puzzling audiences to doing everything they could to offend them. …

Another result is that elite art could no longer be appreciated without a support team of critics and theoreticians. They did not simply evaluate and interpret art, like movie critics or book reviewers, but supplied the art with its rationale. …

Though moral sophistication requires an appreciation of history and cultural diversity, there is no reason to think that the elite arts are a particularly good way to instill it compared with middlebrow realistic fiction or traditional education. The plain fact is that there are no obvious moral consequences to how people entertain themselves in their leisure time. The conviction that artists and connoisseurs are morally advanced is a cognitive illusion, arising from the fact that our circuitry for morality is cross-wired with our circuitry for status. As the critic George Steiner has pointed out, “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” …

The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship. And they’re surprised that people are staying away in droves? …

Ultimately what draws us to a work of art is not just the sensory experience of the medium but its emotional content and insight into the human condition. And these tap into the timeless tragedies of our biological predicament: our mortality, our finite knowledge and wisdom, the differences among us, and our conflicts of interest with friends, neighbors, relatives, and lovers. All are topics of the sciences of human nature.

The idea that art should reflect the perennial and universal qualities of the human species is not new. Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays, comments on the lasting appeal of that great intuitive psychologist:

Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.

In The Voice of the Species, Pinker sums up:

The Blank Slate was an attractive vision. It promised to make racism, sexism, and class prejudice factually untenable. It appeared to be a bulwark against the kind of thinking that led to ethnic genocide. It aimed to prevent people from slipping into a premature fatalism about preventable social ills. It put a spotlight on the treatment of children, indigenous peoples, and the underclass. The Blank Slate thus became part of a secualr faith and appeared to constitute the common decency of our age.

But the Blank Slate had, and has, a dark side. The vacuum that it posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides. It perverts education, childrearing, and the arts into forms of social engineering. It torments mothers who work outside the home and parents whose children did not turn out as they would have liked. It threatens to outlaw biomedical research that could alleviate human suffering. Its corollary, the Noble Savage, invites contempt for the principles of democracy and of “a government of laws and not of men.” It blinds us to our cognitive and moral shortcomings. And in matters of policy it has elevated sappy dogmas above the search for workable solutions.

After discussing the ways in which some literary examples (from Emily Dickinson, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Mark Twain) illustrate his ideas:

The final theme I wish to reprise is that the human tragedy lies in the partial conflicts of interest that are inherent to all human relationships. I suppose I could illustrate it with just about any great work of fiction. An immortal literary text expresses “all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man,” wrote George Steiner about Antigone; “Ordinary people experiencing friction on the page is what warms our hands and hearts as we write,” observed John Updike. But one novel caught my eye by flaunting the idea in its title: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story.

He then goes on to describe aspects of the plot and relationships; I will look for it.

Pinker provides an appendix: Donald E. Brown’s List of Human Universals. This was mentioned in How the Mind Works; a few readers must have asked for it. I have included it below.


Donald E. Brown’s List of Human Universals

This list, compiled in 1989 and published in 1991, consists primarily of “surface” universals of behavior and overt language noted by ethnographers. It does not list deeper universals of mental structure that are revealed by theory and experiments. It also omits near-universals (traits that most, but not all, cultures show) and conditional universals (“If a culture has trait A, it always has trait B”). A list of items added since 1989 is provided at the end. For discussion and references, see Brown’s Human Universals (1991) and his entry for “Human universals” in The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (Wilson & Keil, 1999).

abstraction in speech and thought

actions under self-control distinguished from those not under control


affection expressed and felt

age grades

age statuses

age terms




baby talk

belief in supernatural/religion

beliefs, false

beliefs about death

beliefs about disease

beliefs about fortune and misfortune

binary cognitive distinctions

biological mother and social mother normally the same person

black (color term)

body adornment

childbirth customs


childhood fears

childhood fear of loud noises

childhood fear of strangers

choice making (choosing alternatives0


classification of age

classification of behavioral propensities

classification of body parts

classification of colors

classification of fauna

classification of flora

classification of inner states

classification of kin

classification of sex

classification of space

classification of tools

classification of weather conditions


collective identities


conflict, consultation to deal with

conflict, means of dealing with

conflict, mediation of

conjectural reasoning


continua (ordering as cognitive pattern)

contrasting marked and nonmarked sememes (meaningful elements in language)



cooperative labor

copulation normally conducted in privacy

corporate (perpetual) statuses

coyness display


cultural variability


culture/nature distinction

customary greetings

daily routines


death rituals

decision making

decision making, collective

directions, giving of

discrepancies, between speech, thought, and action

dispersed groups

distinguishing right and wrong



division of labor

division of labor by age

division of labor by sex


dream interpretation

economic inequalities

economic inequalities, consciousness of



entification (treating patterns and relations as things)

environment, adjustments to


envy, symbolic means of coping with




face (word for)

facial communication

facial expression of anger

facial expression of contempt

facial expression of disgust

facial expression of fear

facial expression of happiness

facial expression of sadness

facial expression of surprise

facial expression, masking/modifying of

family (or household)

father and mother, separate kin terms for


fears, ability to overcome some


females do more direct childcare

figurative speech



food preferences

food sharing

future, attempts to predict

generosity admired


gift giving

good and bad distinguished




group living

groups that are not based on family


hand (word for)

healing the sick (or attempting to)


hygienic care

identity, collective

incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed

incest, prevention or avoidance

in-group distinguished from out-group(s)

in-group, biases in favor of

inheritance rules



interest in bioforms (living things or things that resemble them)

interpreting behavior

intertwining (e.g., weaving)


kin, close distinguished from distant

kin groups

kin terms translatable by basic relations of procreation

kinship statuses


language employed to manipulate others

language employed to misinform or mislead

language is translatable

language not a simple reflection of reality

language, prestige from proficient use of

law (rights and obligations)

law (rules of membership)



linguistic redundancy

logical notions

logical notion of “and”

logical notion of “equivalent”

logical notion of “general/particular”

logical notion of “not”

logical notion of “opposite”

logical notion of “part/whole”

logical notion of “same”


magic to increase life

magic to sustain life

magic to win love

male and female and adult and child seen as having different natures

males dominate public/political realm

males more aggressive

males more prone to lethal violence

males more prone to theft

manipulate social relations

marking at phonemic, syntactic, and lexical levels



meal times

meaning, most units of are non-universal







mood- or consciousness-altering techniques and/or substances


mother normally has consort during child-rearing years


murder proscribed


music, children’s

music related in part to dance

music related in part to religious activity

music seen as art (creation)

music, vocal

music, vocal, includes speech forms

musical redundancy

musical repetition

musical variation



nomenclature (perhaps the same as classification)

nonbodily decorative art

normal distinguished abnormal states


numerals (counting)

Oedipus complex

oligarchy (de facto)

one (numeral)


overestimating objectivity of thought



person, concept of

personal names


phonemes defined by sets of minimally contrasting features

phonemes, merging of

phonemes, range from 10 to 70 in number

phonemic change, inevitability of

phonemic change, rules of

phonemic system


planning for future


play to perfect skills


poetic line, uniform length range

poetic lines characterized by repetition and variation

poetic lines demarcated by pauses

polysemy (one word has several related meanings)

possessive, intimate

possessive, loose

practice to improve skills

preference for own children and close kin (nepotism)

prestige inequalities

private inner life



pronouns, minimum two numbers

pronouns, minimum three persons

proper names


psychological defense mechanisms


rape proscribed

reciprocal exchanges (of labor, goods, or services)

reciprocity, negative (revenge, retaliation)

reciprocity, positive

recognition of individuals by face

redress of wrongs


right-handedness as population norm

rites of passage


role and personality seen in dynamic interrelationship (i.e., departures from role can be explained in terms of individual personality)


sanctions for crimes against the collectivity

sanctions include removal from the social unit

self distinguished from other

self as neither wholly passive nor wholly autonomous

self as subject and object

self is responsible


semantic category of affecting things and people

semantic category of dimension

semantic category of giving

semantic category of location

semantic category of motion

semantic category of speed

semantic category of other physical properties

semantic components

semantic components, generation

semantic components, sex

sememes, commonly used ones are short, infrequently used ones are longer

senses unified

sex (gender) terminology is fundamentally binary

sex statuses

sexual attraction

sexual jealousy

sexual modesty

sexual regulation

sexual regulation includes incest prevention

sexuality as focus of interest


sickness and death seen as related

snakes, wariness around

social structure


socialization expected from senior kin

socialization includes toilet training


special speech for special occasions

statuses and roles

statuses, ascribed and achieved

statuses distinguished from individuals

statuses on other than sex, age, or kinship bases

stop/nonstop contrasts (in speech sounds)


sweets preferred


symbolic speech



tabooed foods

tabooed utterances




time, cyclicity of


tool dependency

tool making

tools for cutting

tools to make tools

tools patterned culturally

tools, permanent

tools for pounding


triangular awareness (assessing relationships among the self and two other people)

true and false distinguished


two (numeral)

tying material (i.e., something like string)

units of time


violence, some forms of proscribed


vocalic/nonvocalic contrasts in phonemes

vowel contrasts



weather control (attempts to)

white (color term)

world view

Additions Since 1989



critical learning periods

differential valuations


fairness (equity), concept of

fear of death



husband older than wife, on average


institutions (organized co-activities)



judging others

likes and dislikes

making comparisons

males, on average, travel greater distances over lifetime

males engage in more coalitional violence

mental maps


moral sentiments

moral sentiments, limited effective range of

precedence, concept of (that’s how the leopard got its spots)

pretend play


proverbs, sayings

proverbs, sayings – in mutually contradictory forms

resistance to abuse of power, to dominance

risk taking


self-image, awareness of (concern for what others think)

self-image, manipulation of

self-image, wanted to be positive

sex differences in spatial cognition and behavior


stinginess, disapproval of

sucking wounds

synesthetic metaphors

thumb sucking


toys, playthings

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