Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker

The subtitle here is “The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” and with good reason, although it wasn’t something that was immediately apparent to me. Many people believe that people are born as blank slates, without any innate nature bred or programmed or carved into them, and are raised as total products of their environment. I don’t think that. To me, the opposite is virtually self-evident. But evidently many people operate and make momentous decisions based on this false premise. And that, according to Pinker, is a problem.

The refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians’ embarrassment about sex, only worse: it distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse, and our day-to-day lives. Logicians tell us that a single contradiction can corrupt a set of statements and allows falsehoods to proliferate through it. The dogma that human nature does not exist, in the face of evidence from science and common sense that it does, is just such a corrupting influence.

Want an example?

In a famous case study, an eight-month-old boy lost his penis in a botched circumcision … His parents consulted the famous sex researcher John Money, who had maintained that “Nature is a political strategy of those committed to maintaining the status quo of sex differences.”

In other words, gender identity has no biological basis. It is entirely a construction of our environment, built on the blank slate of the baby’s mind.

He advised them to let the doctors castrate the baby and build him an artificial vagina, and they raised him as a girl without telling him what had happened. … A New York Times article from the era reported that Brenda (nee Bruce) “Has been sailing contentedly through childhood as a genuine girl.” The facts were suppressed until 1997, when it was revealed that from a young age Brenda felt she was a boy trapped in a girl’s body and gender role. She ripped off frilly dresses, rejected dolls in favor of guns, preferred to play with boys, and even insisted on urinating standing up. At fourteen she was so miserable that she decided either to live her life as a male or to end it, and her father finally told her the truth. She underwent a new set of operations, assumed a male identity, and today is happily married to a woman.

The fact that such edifices have been built upon the faulty foundation of the blank slate should strike fear into our hearts. But for many of us, it doesn’t. Because rejecting the blank slate means rejecting other artifices that are even more dear to us.

Killing the Ghost in the Machine

I am not a dualist. I have been convinced for a number of years now that I—if I exist at all—am a product of what my brain does, not an entity that lives inside it. But most people, I know, disagree with me. To them, the Ghost in the Machine is very real. Self-evidently so.

Francis Crick wrote a book about the brain called The Astonishing Hypothesis, alluding to the idea that all our thoughts and feelings, joys and aches, dreams and wishes consist in the physiological activity of the brain. Jaded neuroscientists, who take the idea for granted, snickered at the title, but Crick was right: the hypothesis is astonishing to most people the first time they stop to ponder it. Who cannot sympathize with the imprisoned Dmitri Karamazov as he tries to make sense of what he has just learned from a visiting academic?

“Imagine: inside, in the nerves, in the head—that is, these nerves are there in the brain…(damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves, and as soon as they begin quivering…that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes and then they begin quivering, those little tails…and when they quiver, then an image appears…it doesn’t appear at once, but an instant, a second, passes…and then something like a moment appears; that is, not a moment—devil take the moment!—but an image; that is, an object, or an action, damn it! That’s why I see and then think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul, and that I am some sort of image and likeness. All that is nonsense! Rakitin explained it all to me yesterday, brother, and it simply bowled me over. It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! A new man’s arising—that I understand…And yet I am sorry to lose God!”

Dostoevsky’s prescience is itself astonishing, because in 1880 only the rudiments of neural functioning were understood, and a reasonable person could have doubted that all experience arises from quivering nerve tails. But no longer. One can say that the information-processing activity of the brain causes the mind, or one can say that it is the mind, but in either case the evidence is overwhelming that every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of the brain.

I’m not sure why, but this last paragraph really came as a revelation to me. I don’t talk a lot about these beliefs, partly because I know most people don’t agree with them and I’d prefer to avoid an argument, and it was probably that mindset that always preserved a worthy opponent’s respect in my mind for the dualist view. I didn’t agree with it, and it seemed illogical to me, but I was willing to allow that it could be true. Lots of people, after all, are smarter than I am, and perhaps they have evidence or a line of reasoning I would find compelling if presented with it.

But I think I’m ready to drop my view that the opposing view deserves respect as a viable alternative. People will continue to cling to dualism, and non-violent people will always receive my respect, but I’m not sure I can any longer think of this position as rational.

Mourning the Death

One of my favorite things is when the religious-minded react with horror to the implications they see inherent in the material view of life. They inevitably—and unconsciously—undermine their own worldview with the “impossible” questions they reactively pose.

You most often see this in action with regard to evolution and its implications for the authority of the Bible.

The religious opposition to evolution is fueled by several moral fears. Most obviously, the fact of evolution challenges the literal truth of the creation story in the Bible and thus the authority that religion draws from it. As one creationist minister put it, “If the Bible gets it wrong in biology, then why should I trust the Bible when it talks about morality and salvation?”

To which the obvious answer is, “Yes, exactly.” If only they would embrace the logical conclusion of the question they just asked. But sadly, they more frequently retreat from it, and dismiss the truth they have just glimpsed.

The same is true with neuroscience.

By exorcising the ghost in the machine, brain science is undermining two moral doctrines that depend on it. One is that every person has a soul, which finds value, exercises free will, and is responsible for its choices. If behavior is controlled instead by circuits in the brain that follow the laws of chemistry, choice and value would be myths and the possibility of moral responsibility would evaporate. As the creationist advocate John West put it, “If human beings (and their beliefs) really are the mindless products of the material existence, then everything that gives meaning to human life—religion, morality, beauty—is revealed to be without objective basis.”

Again. “Yes, exactly.”

This is actually a short primer on a major section of Pinker’s book, in which he tackles four fears people have about the killing the ghost in the machine, or writing on the blank slate. He calls them:

1. The Fear of Inequality: If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified.
2. The Fear of Imperfectability: If people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile.
3. The Fear of Determinism: If people are products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions.
4. The Fear of Nihilism: If people are products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose.

I’m not going to dig deeply into each of them, but some do conjure up some thoughts that are worth dealing with.

Genes Drive Our Behavior

Most people don’t think of this at all, and of those that do, most probably don’t like thinking about it. The example from Pinker’s text is related to the raising of stepchildren.

The psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have documented that stepparents are far more likely to abuse a child than are biological parents. The discovery was by no means banal: many parenting experts insist that the abusive stepparent is a myth originating in Cinderella stories and that parenting is a “role” that anyone can take on. Daly and Wilson had originally examined the abuse statistics to test a prediction from evolutionary psychology. Parental love is selected over evolutionary time because it compels parents to protect and nurture their children, who are likely to carry the genes giving rise to parental love. In any species in which someone else’s offspring are likely to enter the family circle, selection will favor a tendency to prefer one’s own, because in the cold reckoning of natural selection and investment in the unrelated children would go to waste. A parent’s patience will tend to run out with stepchildren more quickly than with biological children, and in extreme cases this can lead to abuse.

The implications can be frightening. You’re not choosing to love your own child? A gene that has been bred into you over the millennia has given you a preference for your child over others? And only because “in the cold reckoning of natural selection,” the gene in question finds itself replicated more frequently across your population? Is it any wonder that people fear and reject the arguments derived from evolutionary psychology?

But wait. It gets worse.

Free Will?

The debate over whether or not we have free will is a difficult and sometimes painful one. Like most everyone, it wasn’t a subject I even thought about for most of my life—assuming that the fact of free will was as self-evident as any of the other self-evident truths I saw around me. But as I have read, listened and thought, I have come to realize that there actually is a debatable question here. And, like most philosophical arguments, it really depends on how we define our terms.

For Pinker, who does not believe we have free will, the experience of choosing is not part of his definition.

The experience of choosing is not a fiction, regardless of how the brain works. It is a real neural process, with the obvious function of selecting behavior according to its foreseeable consequences. It responds to information from the senses, including the exhortation of other people. You cannot step outside it or let it go on without you because it is you.

Speaking of philosophers, one of them could spend a lifetime teasing all the meaning out of these words. For our purposes here, let’s focus solely on the idea that you are the neural processes of your brain. Your brain doesn’t have neural processes. That’s the wrong way to phrase it, because it creates a separation between you and your brain. You are the neural processes of your brain.

And when it comes to free will, the only real question is whether those neural processes are “determined” or not (another philosophically loaded word that is best defined in every usage). I get that the neural processes are dependent on the biological, chemical and physical properties of the brain—but that doesn’t mean that their outcome is necessarily determined by them. That’s why it’s called “the process of choosing” instead of just “choosing.” There is no chooser, just the process, but the process can result in non-determined outcomes.

It’s much like what Pinker says about consciousness.

Consciousness is a manifestation of the neural computations necessary to figure out how to get the rare and unpredictable things we need.

In other words, we are not conscious. Again, that implies a separation between us and our conscious state. We are consciousness—the manifestation of the neural functioning of our brain. It works that way because, like all evolutionary successes, it helps us survive and reproduce ourselves.

A Morality Play

One of the deepest fears people have of a biological understanding of the mind is that it would lead to moral nihilism. If we are not created by God for a higher purpose, say the critics on the right, or if we are products of selfish genes, say the critics on the left, then what would prevent us from becoming amoral egoists who look out only for number one.

This one continues to flabbergast me. Look around. Are you trying to tell me that human beings—regardless of their opinions about the source of moral authority—are not amoral egoists? To my way of thinking, there are times when individual humans transcend that position, and there are several individual and societal benefits that come with that transcendence, but at our core and as a species we are amoral egoists. Even believers—for whom altruism is leveraged as a tool to get them into their heaven—have a hard time honestly defending that perspective as anything other than amoral egoism.

But Pinker thinks differently, and he’s probably right. We do have an innate sense of morality, and it can be seen manifesting itself in some strange ways. Consider this story:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that; was it OK for them to make love?

This comes from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has presented this story to many people and tracked their reactions.

Most immediately declare that what Julie and Mark did was wrong, and then they grope for reasons why it was wrong. They mention the dangers of inbreeding, but they are reminded that the siblings used two forms of contraception. They suggest that Julie and Mark will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they were not. They venture that the act would offend the community, but then they recall that it was kept secret. They submit that it might interfere with future relationships, but they acknowledge that Julie and Mark agreed never to do it again. Eventually many of the respondents admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”

Haidt calls this “moral dumbfounding,” and it is a very curious phenomenon indeed. Why do we perceive things that are factually not immoral as immoral. Pinker tells us:

…private acts among consenting adults that do not harm other sentient beings are not immoral.

Which is as near a statement of fact as I’ve ever heard. So, what’s going on here?

Out of Our Depths

It’s related, I believe, to a dynamic described in another section of Pinker’s book that deals with his view that the way our brains inherently work is increasingly at odds with the strange and modern world around us. He lists ten cognitive faculties and core intuitions that evolution has bred into our brains (destroying the myth of the blank slate in just proposing them, I suppose). They are very simple things. For example, we all possess:

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 law of motion and force. These are not Newton’s laws but something closer to the medieval conception of impetus, an “oomph” that keeps an object in motion and gradually dissipates.

The list is comprehensive and defensible. An intuitive moral sense is not listed among them, but the thing that gives us our intuitive moral understanding is undoubtedly the same thing that gives us our other intuitive understandings. In this domain, Pinker’s larger point is well summarized here:

These ways of knowing and core intuitions are suitable for the lifestyle of small groups of illiterate, stateless people who live off the land, survive by their wits, and depend on what they can carry. Our ancestors left this lifestyle for a settled existence only a few millennia ago, too recently for evolution to have done much, if anything, to our brains. Conspicuous by their absence are faculties suited to the stunning new understanding of the world wrought by science and technology. For many domains of knowledge, the mind could not have evolved dedicated machinery, the brain and genome show no hints of specialization, and people show no spontaneous intuitive understanding either in the crib or afterward. They include modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and mathematics.

It’s not just that we have to go to school or read books to learn these subjects. It’s that we have no mental tools to grasp them intuitively. We depend on analogies that press an old mental faculty into service, or on jerry-built mental contraptions that wire together bits and pieces of other faculties. Understanding in these domains is likely to be uneven, shallow, and contaminated by primitive intuitions.

I can’t stress enough how important this concept is—that we understand morality and reality not as they are, but only through the constructions of our aboriginal mind. It’s like an eclipse, that can’t be observed directly, but only a pinhole camera. What we see is not morality or reality in their raw sense, but only an approximation of both.

And it is this dynamic that often manifests itself as a series of logical fallacies that we all succumb to in thus trying to make sense of our modern world. There’s, for example, the naturalistic fallacy—the assumption that everything natural is good and everything unnatural is bad—wonderfully illustrated in the book through an examination of the hoopla surrounding genetically modified foods.

Genetically modified foods are no more dangerous that “natural” foods because they are not fundamentally different from natural foods. Virtually every animal and vegetable sold in a health-food store has been “genetically-modified” for millennia by selective breeding and hybridization. The wild ancestor of carrots was a thin, bitter white root; the ancestor of corn had an inch-long, easily shattered cob with a few small, rock-hand kernels. Plants are Darwinian creatures with no particular desire to be eaten, so they did not go out of their way to be tasty, healthy, or easy for us to grow and harvest. On the contrary: they did go out of their way to deter us from eating them, by evolving irritants, toxins, and bitter-tasting compounds. So there is nothing especially safe about natural foods. Their “natural” method of selective breeding for pest resistance simply increases the concentration of the plant’s own poisons; one variety of natural potato had to be withdrawn from the market because it proved to be toxic to people. Similarly, natural flavors—defined by one food scientist as “a flavor that’s been derived with an out-of-date technology”—are often chemically indistinguishable from their artificial counterparts, and when they are distinguishable, sometimes the natural flavor is the more dangerous one. When “natural” almond flavor, benzaldehyde, is derived from peach pits, it is accompanied by traces of cyanide; when it is synthesized as an “artificial flavor,” it is not.

A blanket fear of all artificial and genetically modified foods is patently irrational on health grounds, and it could make food more expensive and hence less available to the poor.

And there’s the physical fallacy—an economist’s term that refers to the mistaken belief that an object had a true and constant value, as opposed to being worth only what someone is willing to pay for it at a given place and time.

The belief that goods have a “just price” implies that it is avaricious to charge anything higher, and the result had been mandatory pricing schemes in medieval times, communist regimes, and many Third World countries. Such attempts to work around the law of supply and demand have usually led to waste, shortages, and black markets. Another consequence of the physical fallacy is the widespread practice of outlawing interest, which comes from the intuition that it is rapacious to demand additional money from someone who has paid back exactly what he borrowed. Of course, the only reason people borrow at one time and repay it later is that the money is worth more to them at the time they borrow it than it will be at the time they repay it. So when regimes enact sweeping usury laws, people who could put money to productive use cannot get it, and everyone’s standards of living go down.

Just as the value of something may change with time, which creates a niche for lenders who move valuable things around in time, so it may change with space, which creates a niche for middlemen who move valuable things around in space. A banana is worth more to me in a store down the street than it is in a warehouse a hundred miles away, so I am willing to pay more to the grocer than I would to the importer—even though by “eliminating the middleman” I could pay less per banana. For similar reasons, the importer is willing to charge the grocer less than he would charge me.

And these fallacies can have dangerous consequences.

But because lenders and middlemen do not cause tangible objects to come into being, their contributions are difficult to grasp, and they are often thought of as skimmers and parasites. A recurring event in human history is the outbreak of ghettoization, confiscation, expulsion, and mob violence against middlemen, often ethnic minorities who learned to specialize in the middleman niche. The Jews in Europe are the most famous example, but the expatriate Chinese, the Lebanese, the Armenians, and the Gujeratis and Chettyars of India have suffered similar histories of persecution.

I have to admit, I never saw the persecution of Jews through this prism before, but it connects the way Pinker explains it, and it makes me wonder how much a human history can be explained by similar stories of people acting in accordance with their evolved psychology rather than more educated ways of thinking and understanding. Almost all of it, I would imagine. It forms an interesting cautionary tale for anyone looking to introduce new ideas into the world.

Political Evidence That the Slate is Not Blank

Another large section of the book is devoted to politics, and the observable fact that much of our political existence is actually premised on the idea that human nature exists—that people are not born as entirely malleable by the environment they are exposed to and the conditioning that they receive.

As the chapter on politics will explain, constitutional democracy is based on a jaundiced theory of human nature in which “we” are eternally vulnerable to arrogance and corruption. The checks and balances of democratic institutions were explicitly designed to stalemate the often dangerous ambitions of imperfect humans.

Excellent point. What was it that Madison said? Ambition must be made to counteract ambition? But let’s dig deeper.

A nonblank slate means that a tradeoff between freedom and material equality is inherent to all political systems. The major political philosophies can be defined by how they deal with the tradeoff. The Social Darwinist right places no value on equality; the totalitarian left places no value on freedom. The Rawlsian left sacrifices some freedom for equality; the libertarian right sacrifices some equality for freedom. While reasonable people may disagree about the best tradeoff, it is unreasonable to pretend that there is no tradeoff. And that in turn means that any discovery of innate differences among individuals is not forbidden knowledge to be suppressed but information that might help us decide on these tradeoffs in an intelligent and humane manner.

And, as a matter of fact, it is not just constitutional democracy that assumes an innate human nature exists. Pinker points out that both Nazism and Marxism shared a desire to reshape humanity—something that wouldn’t be necessary if an innate human nature did not exist. They also shared “a tyrannical certainty in pursuit of this goal, with no patience for incremental reform or adjustments guided by the human consequences of their policies.” This, in large part, is what led to their atrocities.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.”

Political ideology is a powerful thing—and those that seek to “reshape humanity” have within them the seeds for wholesale slaughter of the humans they seek to reform.

Tragic vs. Utopian?

Pinker’s chapter on politics spends a lot of time describing how our usual classification of political philosophies—conservative and liberal—is hopelessly muddy, the lines between the two ill-defined and their spheres of concern often overlapping. He tries to establish another way of examining political differences, and coins two new terms—the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision—to elucidate the actual political differences that exist in society, both referring to a unique vision of mankind and its capabilities.

In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. … In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.

It’s an interesting dichotomy to explore, which Pinker does for several more pages. And as he did I tried to follow along, expecting to find myself squarely on one side or the other. In fact, I realized with some confusion that some of my perspectives are Tragic, while others are Utopian. Too much like the conservative/liberal axis, then, the tragic/utopian one is less useful as a guiding political philosophy, and more so as another construction through which to examine one’s various political opinions.

There are, however, more examples that support the Tragic Vision—that humans have an inborn and limited nature—than the Utopian One—that all human limitations come from the environment around them.

When law enforcement vanishes, all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansing, and petty warfare among gangs, warlords, and mafias. This was obvious in the remnants of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and parts of Africa in the 1990s, but can also happen in countries with a long tradition of civility.

Pinker offers a personal anecdote that helps demonstrate this.

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 back 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 carloads 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).

It’s enough to make you reconsider any Utopian vision you might have. Unless, of course, you choose to argue that the violence was direct result of the inequitable social construction that overlaid Canadian society in the late 1960s. That’s what makes politics so frustrating. The political mind doesn’t fashion philosophy from events. It weaves events into a pre-existing philosophy. Don’t know if that’s Tragic or Utopian, but it certainly seems true.

Modernity and Egalitarianism

Here’s another interesting idea, this one in reference to the growing equality of the sexes.

Another cause is the technological and economic progress that made it possible for couples to have sex and raise children without a pitiless division of labor in which a mother had to devote every waking moment to keeping the children alive. Clean water, sanitation, and modern medicine lowered infant mortality and reduced the desire for large broods of children. Baby bottles and pasteurized cow’s milk, and then breast pumps and freezers, made it possible to feed babies without their mothers being chained to them around the clock. Mass production made it cheaper to buy things than to make then by hand, and plumbing, electricity, and appliances reduced the domestic workload even more. 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, amniocentesis, ultrasound, and reproductive technologies made it possible for women to defer childbearing to the optimal points in their lives.

Modernity makes egalitarianism possible. Without our modern way of life, there would be no egalitarianism. The implications may be unsettling to our modern sensibilities, but can another conclusion honestly be reached?

Partners in a Human Relationship

In one of his last chapters, Pinker tackles the question of child rearing, and demonstrates to good effect how the theory of The Blank Slate can complicate if not poison that process. He cites a fair amount of evidence that supports the idea that environment and a parent’s actions towards a child—outside of actual neglect and abuse—have very little effect on the kind of person a child is and the kind of adult they turn out to be. Much of this, it seems, is encoded in our innate natures, not molded and shaped by our external environment. Most people—especially parents—rebel at this idea, but at the same time, how many of us know a pair of siblings, raised in the same house by the same parents, who are as different as night and day?

To people who, when confronted with this evidence, say “I hope to God this isn’t true. The thought that all this love that I’m pouring into my child counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate,” Pinker has some pointed advice.

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, have a growing say in their dealings with their parents. As [scholar Judith Rich] Harris puts it, “If you don’t think the moral imperative is a good enough reason to be nice to your kid, try this one: Be nice to your kid when he’s young so that he will be nice to you when you’re old.” There are well-functioning adults who still shake with rage when recounting the cruelties their parents inflicted on them as children. There are others who moisten up in private moments when recalling a kindness or sacrifice made for their happiness, perhaps one that the mother or father has long forgotten. If for no other reason, parents should treat their children well to allow them to grow up with such memories.

And then comes this paragraph, which I believe contains more seeds of effective parenting than some entire books written on the subject.

I have found what when people hear these explanations they lower their eyes and say, somewhat embarrassedly, “Yes. I knew that.” The fact that people can forget these simple truths when intellectualizing about children shows how far modern doctrines have taken us. They make it easy to think of children as lumps of putty to be shaped instead of partners in a human relationship. Even the theory that children adapt to their peer group becomes less surprising when we think of them as human beings like ourselves. “Peer group” is a patronizing term we use in connection with children for what we call “friends and colleagues and associates” when we talk about ourselves. We groan when children obsess over wearing the right kind of cargo pants, but we would be just as mortified if a very large person forced us to wear pink overalls to a corporate board meeting or a polyester disco suit to an academic conference. “Being socialized by a peer group” is another way of saying “living successfully within a society,” which for a social organism means “living.” It is children, above all, who are alleged to be blank slates, and that can make us forget they are people.

It’s a good note to end on. The Blank Slate, in addition to all its other destructive consequences, makes people forget that other people are just as human as they are.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


“He knew he himself was nothing, and he knew death was nothing. He knew that truly, as truly as he knew anything. In the last few days he had learned that he himself, with another person, could be everything.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


“Every one needs to talk to some one. Before we had religion and other nonsense. Now for every one there should be some one to whom one can speak frankly, for all the valor that one could have one becomes very alone.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Pilar)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Three


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 69,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1991. All rights reserved.

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At the time, I had thought my secret meetings with Roy Stonerow, where he taught me rudimentary magic and gave me a different vision of the universe, were just that—secret. But now I can’t help but wonder if Otis and my mother might have had some inkling of what I was up to. With the benefit of adult hindsight, it is difficult to believe a young teenage boy could have kept such a thing hidden from his parents in such a small town. But I still like to think they were ignorant, especially my mother. Even now I am just beginning to realize the kind of pain she must have felt knowing what her son was doing in that little red house down the street. I guess I will never know if she knew or not, but I have to say I did not do what I did, I did not learn what I learned, out of any kind of spite for the way of life she offered me. It is a good way, her life, and for thousands it is all they will ever need, but it was not for me. I am not proud of this, but neither am I ashamed.

+   +   +

Brisbane followed the back of the black-clad ork down a short, dark hallway with Ternosh and Wister right behind him. The procession marched on in silence and shortly they emerged in another large chamber lit by the flickering light of torches.

How do they keep all these torches lit? Brisbane wondered briefly. And where is all the smoke? These things are burning constantly and none of these rooms are smoky.

Brisbane’s wonderment about the torches did not last long. His attention was quickly captured by the shape and contents of the chamber before him. It was circular, nearly as huge as the banquet chamber, and in the center of the room was a pit, an arena that dropped ten feet below the floor of the chamber with no visible means of entrance or exit. The floor just suddenly gave way and dropped straight down to the circular pit. All around the pit, the pug-trolang which it had to be, were stone benches like the ones surrounding the table in the banquet chamber, except in two places. If the pit was the face of a clock, at six o’clock sat a stone chair and at twelve o’clock stood a stone pedestal. On the pedestal was a golden incense burner like the one Ternosh had used to summon his Demosk.

And, leaning against the face of the pedestal, scabbarded and point down on the edge of the pug-trolang, was Angelika, her emerald twinkling in the torchlight.

Brisbane’s heart rose into his throat as he saw her. Angelika! his mind called out to her. I have found you!

Be patient, was her only reply. Be patient and be strong.

The black-clad orks quickly went ahead and took their seats around the pit. Ternosh held Brisbane back and Wister stood solidly beside Tornestor. The Sumak gestured to the outer wall of the circular chamber and Brisbane saw it was lined with racks of weapons, red-eye shields, and black armor.

“Grum Wister and Grum Brisbane,” Tornestor said. “These are the finest weapons and armor of the clan. Choose well and may they serve you well in the pug-trolang.”

Wister immediately went to the wall and began to put on a chainmail vest that had been hanging there. Brisbane turned to Tornestor.

“Sumak Tornestor,” he said, summoning as much respect as he could into his voice. “Am I to understand I may arm myself with any weapon here?”

Tornestor looked at Brisbane with a look mixed of surprise and contempt. “You are unfamiliar with our ways,” the Sumak said. “You are not to speak to me unless I speak to you first. I will forget your indiscretion this time. Yes, the choice of weapon is yours.”

Brisbane bowed his head. “I am sorry for misspeaking.” He brought his head up and pointed at Angelika. “May I use that sword?”

Wister was picking out a shield.

Tornestor looked at the sword and then turned back to Brisbane. “No,” he said. “That weapon bares an enchantment upon it and it has been given as a gift to Gruumsh One-Eye. No one may use it.”

Of course you can’t use her, Brisbane told himself. That would have been too easy. He quickly bowed again and backed away from the Sumak.

Tornestor began to discuss something with Ternosh and Brisbane was left alone to arm himself. He looked back at Wister and saw the ork had chosen a huge battle axe to fight with. Brisbane turned back to the weapons.

Angelika, he thought. They won’t let me use you. What should I do?

Patience, young Brisbane. You will wield me soon enough. You can defeat this evil creature without me. These demons think they can control you and me, but they cannot. Our time will come.

Demons? Brisbane thought.

They are abominations of nature, Brisbane. They must be destroyed.

Brisbane began to look through the pieces of armor, searching for something that would protect him and yet not hamper his movements. He found a chainmail shirt, much like the vest Wister had chosen, and after removing his cumbersome red and white robes, he put it on over the simple cloth shirt and pants he wore underneath. The stiff material under the chains of the armor was black.

Abominations, Angelika?

Abominations, Brisbane. Twisted creatures of evil born against the will of Grecolus. They must be destroyed.

Angelika’s voice was like an itch in his head. Brisbane blindly picked a round red-eye shield off the wall and began to examine a rack full of all sorts of swords.

Choose well, young Brisbane. Even in this den of evil there are some blades of quality. You’ll need something sharp and sturdy to gut this devil.

Brisbane picked up a sword and swung it experimentally through the air. Its balance was too far off so he returned it to the rack. He chose another and, liking the feel of this one, tested its sharpness against the heel of his head. The weapon was double-edged and had been recently sharpened and oiled. Whoever it had belonged to before the orks got hold of it had taken good care of it.

A fine weapon, Brisbane. More than enough to spill evil blood.

Brisbane, oblivious to his surroundings, began to take the sword through the combat exercises Roundtower had taught him so long ago. He whirled it through striking thrusts and defensive postures, getting into the feel of the blade. It felt good in his hands and Brisbane began to speed up the execution of his exercises.

Yes, Brisbane. That’s the way. You and the sword. You are one.

Brisbane finished, bringing the blade to his side as if he had a scabbard to put it in. He suddenly became aware of where he was and he looked stiffly up at the orks watching him. Ternosh had left, but both Tornestor and Wister were there, their eyes betraying a certain amazement they felt for what they had just seen.

Brisbane met Wister’s red eyes. “Let’s do it.”

Wister actually smiled at Brisbane and then started off in the direction of the pug-trolang. Brisbane fell into step behind him and Tornestor followed the human.

When they arrived at the edge of the pit, Tornestor took the seat that had been placed there for him and Wister and Brisbane dropped themselves down into the battle circle. They took positions about ten feet apart, facing each other, and stood still waiting for the command to begin.

Brisbane looked up at the edge of the pit and at the orkish faces looking down on him. The black-clad orks sat evenly spaced around the circle, and the two with red stripes sat on either side of the Sumak as they had at dinner. Brisbane was surprised to see Ternosh standing next to the pedestal—and Angelika—with his hands clasped behind his back. Brisbane turned back to Wister and found himself in the middle of an angry staring match.

A hush fell over the proceedings as Tornestor rose to his full seven feet. “The klatru of the Clan of the Red Eye,” he announced formally, “has gathered here around the pug-trolang to witness a masokom between our brothers as described in the ancient ways. At my signal, Grum Wister and Grum Brisbane was clash in battle that will not stop until one of them is dead and gone on to Gruumsh’s battlefield.”

“Praise be to the victor,” the assemblage chanted as one. “And strength to the loser in his new conflict.”

“Grumak Ternosh,” Tornestor said. “Summon your Demosk to witness the masokom.”

Tornestor sat and Ternosh lifted the lid off the incense burner. The Grumak waved his hand over it and Brisbane saw a spark jump off one of his fingers and fall into the golden vessel.

He’s summoning his Demosk, Brisbane thought as Wister’s eyes bore into him. Super. That smoke is going to make us all loopy. I’ll be lucky just to see Wister, to say nothing about killing him.

He is not your match, Brisbane. None of them are.

Brisbane looked up to see Angelika but his eyes were drawn to the smoke already pouring out of the five-pointed vents in the lid of the incense burner. Ternosh began his eerie chanting and Brisbane turned back to his opponent.

Wister stood taut, like a dog on a chain, and as the white smoke began to swirl around him, Brisbane thought the ork began to look more and more like a dog. His pig snout became a furry muzzle and his pig ears flopped down like those of a lap dog. The vision was fleeting and sporadic, as most of the smoke stayed well above the floor of the pug-trolang. Every once and a while, a wisp would blow in front of Brisbane, smelling thickly of oranges, distorting Wister from an armored pig-man to an armored dog-man. For a gleeful moment, Brisbane tried to decide which vision was uglier.

Brisbane decided it would be best not to take his eyes off Wister again. There was no telling exactly when Tornestor’s order to commence combat would come, but Brisbane knew when it did, Wister would be on him like all the fury in the hells. To his right, Where Ternosh and the pedestal—and Angelika—were, he heard a familiar voice.

“Why have you summoned me, Grumak Ternosh?”

The Demosk. The voice was inside his head again, but this time he could clearly hear it in his ears, too. Except the voice in his mind was speaking common and the voice in his ears was speaking orkish. The effect was strange and unsettling. Wister shifted his grip on the battle axe. Brisbane wondered again exactly what a Demosk was.

“A masokom,” Brisbane heard Ternosh say, “must be witnessed. Grum Wister has challenged Grum Brisbane.”

Brisbane’s head spun as a wisp of smoke flowed around it.

“I am ready,” the Demosk said.

Out of the corner of his smoke-irritated eye, Brisbane saw Sumak Tornestor rise to his feet again. Wister’s right foot took a half-step towards Brisbane and was slowly dragged back.

Here it comes, Brisbane. The evil must be vanquished.

“Begin!” Tornestor’s gravel voice boomed out over the pug-trolang and Wister seemed to fly at Brisbane, his shield held in front of him and the battle axe cocked back, ready to strike.

Brisbane stood his ground, watching the ork advance and the position of the weapon in his hand. Wister brought the axe down on Brisbane with deathly quickness, but Brisbane was able to shift to the ork’s side and deflect the blow with his shield.

The first clang of metal against metal was met with a rousing cheer from the orks assembled around the pit. Wister ran past Brisbane with his momentum and turned back when he was out of his attack range.

“I’m going to kill you, human!” the Grum shouted as he charged in and swung his axe sideways at Brisbane’s head.

Brisbane ducked easily under the sweeping strike and stabbed at Wister as his body turned a flank towards him. His blade glanced off the ork’s chainmail vest and left Wister uninjured. The ork brought the axe back in another sweeping arc, this one aimed at Brisbane’s midsection. Brisbane had plenty of time to back up and out of the path of the sharp blade and, as he did, a surprising realization came over him.

Wister was, quite simply, a terrible warrior. His attack was certainly ferocious, but it lacked any semblance of grace or finesse. The ork had no sort of practiced control over his weapon, he just madly swung it back and forth and up and down, hoping to hit his opponent and finish him off quickly. Surely if that axe blade did connect with Brisbane’s body, the combat would instantly be over, but the ork’s strikes were clumsy and repetitious, and Brisbane had no problem avoiding them.

Wister charged Brisbane again with a cry of rage and Brisbane easily rotated away from him, pushing the blow off his shield. The orks around the pit were cheering with every charge Wister made and they let out disappointed moans each time Brisbane thwarted the attack.

Wister was turning to charge again.

What’s the matter? Angelika’s voice tolled in his head, muted strangely by the effects of the incense smoke. He has left himself open to your blade many times. Why do you not strike him down?

“Die!” Wister screamed as Brisbane brushed off another charge and retreated back several steps.

He’s no warrior, Angelika.

Brisbane thought he was just thinking these words to his sword, but he must have said them aloud because Wister, who had been panting for breath, suddenly opened his eyes wide in senseless rage and jumped into another charge.

Of course not. Evil can never stand up against holy forces. End his unnatural life, Brisbane. Destroy this evil monster.

Brisbane pushed Wister’s charge aside and ineffectually struck his sword against the ork’s armor.

That’s the way, Brisbane. Go for the head. It is foolishly unprotected.

Angelika, this is not combat. It takes no skill to kill such an opponent.

Wister turned and stood panting out of Brisbane’s reach. Sweat was running down his pig face. Groans were beginning to come from the orks assembled around the pit—groans of displeasure. This was evidently not the sort of spectacle they had expected.

“…kill…you…human…” Wister said in between breaths in a mad litany of rage. He rushed into battle again but this time did not charge past Brisbane. Instead he stopped before him and began to engage in more traditional fighting.

This was much better than the crazy charges the ork had made before, but his attack was still unskilled and clumsy. Brisbane had no problem avoiding or deflecting the slow strikes of the battle axe. He could either dodge aside or absorb the impact on his shield and sometimes he could even foil an attack with the blade of his sword. Wister had left himself open to fatal attack many times, but each time he did, Brisbane found himself unable to take advantage of the opening. Occasionally, he would strike at Wister’s armor for show, knowing he would not hurt the ork that way. It was just hard for Brisbane to kill like this. The orks he had killed before had been somehow different. Their skill hadn’t been much better, but the circumstances had been very different. Then, he had been fighting to protect himself and the others in his party from a vicious attack begun by the orks. Now, it was a fight of honor, with rigid rules and customs, wholly different from the slaughter he had taken part in beside the Mystic River. It was hard for Brisbane to pinpoint, but this battle with Wister down here in the pug-trolang with the entire klatru watching was somehow more important than any battle he had ever fought before. It was important that he win this battle, but there was something else that seemed even more important. To strike Wister down so easily, like a rag doll, was far beneath what this kind of combat demanded. In a way, killing the ork with the ease of removing an opponent’s pawn from a chessboard would destroy the entire orkish institution of the masokom and the pug-trolang.

What do you care of this? They are evil. They are the enemy.

So I’ve been told.

Suddenly, Wister broke off his attack and stepped back and away from Brisbane. The ork looked up at the edge of the pit and Brisbane’s eyes followed his. The smoke from the burning incense was much thicker up there and through it Brisbane could make out the vague shapes of the other orks. The huge Tornestor at one end, the black-clad klatru lining the rim, and Ternosh with his glowing Demosk at the other. All were silent and seemed to be waiting for something.

Wister took a moment to catch his breath. He returned his gaze to Brisbane and quietly addressed the group. “He is toying with me,” the Grum said. “His skill far surpasses mine. I am no match for him. I declare myself the loser.”

With that statement, Wister dropped his shield and his axe on either side of himself and pulled his chainmail vest apart to reveal his hairy chest. “You have won, Grum Brisbane. Send me quickly to the army of Gruumsh One-Eye.” Wister closed his red eyes.

Brisbane was not sure what to do. Wister’s intention was obvious. He wanted Brisbane to plunge his sword into his heart, killing him. Wister had named him the winner, but now Brisbane felt like anything else but.

When Brisbane had not done anything for a full minute, Tornestor spoke. “Grum Brisbane, Grum Wister had conceded defeat. Will you not end the masokom?”

Brisbane kept his eyes on Wister. The ork had not moved or spoken since he had closed his eyes. Until Tornestor had spoken, Brisbane had thought all time had stopped.

“Must I?” Brisbane asked.


“It is your duty,” Tornestor said. “Grum Wister has lost his challenge. He cannot be left alive.”

Brisbane slowly raised his sword. He looked at it carefully. It really was a fine weapon, well cared for and perfectly balanced.

Do it, young Brisbane. It is your first step in regaining me. Do this and none of them will be able to stop you. I will be yours again. I will be yours.

The voice was like sweet music in his head. Deep and throaty, if Angelika had been a woman she would have been fair of face of voluptuous of figure. The voice was that of a secret harem girl, the one kept in hiding who could please her master like no other. Brisbane listened to that voice and realized he was reacting exactly as if she were a woman whispering wet promises of sexual ecstasy instead of a sword directing him to kill Wister. His heart was beating hard and fast and he could feel the beginnings of an erection in his underpants.

Brisbane thrust his sword into Wister’s chest and the ork dropped to the floor, his life flooding out of the wound. There was no release for Brisbane, the way there should have been if the metaphor of sexual congress was to be extended. There was no sense of victory in it. There was only a sinking feeling of disgust that quivered in his gut and pulled his testicles back up close to his body.

It is done. Praise Grecolus for his wisdom and Brisbane for his courage.

Shut up, Angelika. Just shut up.

“Grum Brisbane has defeated Grum Wister,” Brisbane heard the Demosk say. “Do you require anything else of me, Grumak Ternosh?”

Brisbane looked up at Ternosh and the pedestal.

“No,” Ternosh said.

Instantly, the figure of the Demosk vanished and the smoke stopped coming out of the vents. Brisbane went over to the side of the pug-trolang and he was hauled out by some of the black-clad orks. By then the smoke that had filled the room had almost completely dissipated. Slowly and silently, the orks began to file out of the chamber, leaving only Ternosh, Brisbane, and the body of Wister in the pit. The orks all avoided eye contact with Brisbane as they strode past him.

“What now?” Brisbane asked the Grumak.

Ternosh took the sword and shield away from Brisbane and began to help him off with the chainmail shirt. “You have won,” he said. “You now take Wister’s place in the clan. You are now my first Grum.”

Brisbane looked down into the pit. “I’m your only Grum.”

“What was that?” Ternosh asked.

Brisbane shook his head. “What about his body?”

“It will be removed later.”

“What did he mean?” Brisbane asked. “What is the army of Gruumsh One-Eye?”

Ternosh sighed as he helped Brisbane back into his robes. “Another time, Brisbane. It has been a very long day.”

Brisbane agreed it had been a very long day indeed.

Ternosh said goodnight and left Brisbane alone in the chamber. On his way out, the Grumak put the armor and weapon back in the racks against the wall.

Brisbane turned to look at Angelika leaning against the pedestal under the incense burner. He thought about going over there and taking her. He thought about taking her and trying to find his way out of these caves. He thought about taking her and fighting his way out, killing anyone who stood between him and the exit. He thought about taking her and fighting his way out of the compound, killing the orks and their guard dogs in a mad rush for freedom. He thought about all these things, but in the end he decided to leave Angelika where she was for now and go back to his chamber. Ternosh had been right, it had been a long day, and anything he thought about doing could certainly wait until tomorrow.

Brisbane quickly got out of there before Angelika started talking to him again.