The Blank Slate

The Blank Slate
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Pinker argues against the notion that humans are born with a blank slate of personality, etc.

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Instead, he asserts that we are animals just like every other animal that has certain Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. Similarly, asked where this leaves the notion of personal responsibility Pinker simply said that it shouldn't be a worry. The genetic argument is in essence no different from the environmental one for Pinker and any attempt to deny responsibility for one's actions shouldn't carry much weight.

Up to now attempts to use such arguments as mitigation have rarely worked in court. Matt Ridley drew attention to Pinker's comment that 'behavioural science is not for cissys' - what did he mean and did this affect his views? Pinker answered that many notions seen as beyond the pale today and that it can literally be dangerous to be a social scientist in the current climate - some theorists have been physically attacked for stating certain views.

He added that any claim about human nature pushed peoples buttons, and one has the sense that Pinker likes to do exactly that. It is here that I have the most sympathy for Pinker's approach, for the questions raised by his comments are important ones worthy of discussion whether you agree with his conclusions or not.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

For the remainder of the hour questions were taken from the floor. Asked how he can talk of human nature as unified concept, Pinker made the point that, because we are the products of natural selection there is genetic variation among individuals.

However, there are more commonalities than differences and it is these that he describes as human nature. Pinker was asked to comment on the fact that, as adult human beings, we make choices about how we act; this is not a denial of human nature, merely a recognition that we control our own actions. Pinker does not see our ability to make choices as an 'inscrutable process of free will. Pinker thinks there is no 'ghost in the machine' outside of the purview of physical laws.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

There is only the human brain, a physical object which is to a great extent predictable, more so than we might like to admit. So what can be concluded from these two discussions? Both speakers agree that neither nature nor nurture are entirely responsible for determining what and who we are, but some combination of the two.

While John Dupre rejects the absolutism of attempting to understand everything in terms of genes, he explicitly states that he doesn't doubt that we each have different dispositions to particular types of behaviour. Similarly, Steven Pinker may emphasise our evolutionary heritage, but recognises the importance of society in forming our nature.

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Yet there is a definite disagreement here. Dupre's emphasis on development makes an important point about the way the human mind is formed - it may not be a blank slate on which the mind is drawn, but our experiences and environment are critical in making us what we are, and those factors are very different across societies and, even more, across the centuries. Thus he rejects the notion that Evolutionary Psychology is looking in the right place for answers to questions about our nature. Pinker uses language which obscures how his view differs from this.

In his terminology human nature refers to the evolved traits which conferred our stone age cousins or rather their genes with some survival advantage, i. Aspects of the human condition which are derived from the social would thus not fall into his definition of our nature, although he does accept that they play a part in making us what we are. I think that both arguments miss some essential points about what human beings are. Human beings are unique in many ways.

We have language, make societies and adapt our environment to suit our needs rather than vice versa. We invent ethics, morality and science.

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Most importantly we have sophisticated minds that enable us to reflect on our actions and to exceed our genetic and cultural programming. This aspect of the special nature of humanity does not signify in the arguments of Dupre or Pinker. I think this is fundamentally important.

Human beings are not at the mercy of their genes or their upbringing. For the latest books, recommendations, offers and more.

A Blank Slate

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