Blind Men with an Elephant: Nature and Nurture Revisited

Article excerpt

As a former behaviorist trained by a protege (Jim Dinsmoor) of Skinner's best friend in the field (Fred Keller), I am provisionally ready to accept Schlinger's recent claim at the conclusion of his article, "The Almost Blank Slate". "One can only hope that with time and better scientific training of psychologists, learning will be universally recognized as the most important element of human behavior." Nonetheless, I also support Schlinger's adversary, Steve Pinker, in many of the issues raised by his wonderfully provocative 2002 book, The Blank Slate.

Their disagreements on the ageless nature-nurture controversy surrounding our psychological constitutions echo aspects of the old Skinner-Chomsky debate and remind me of the parable of the blind men in contact with an elephant. In this case, we might imagine the psycholinguists like Pinker or Chomsky grabbing hold of the elephant's tail, while the behaviorists like Schlinger or Skinner have a firm grip on its think. Although explicitly engaged in studying human language, the former group members are often guilty of overgeneralizations to other behaviors and their neural/genetic/evolutionary underpinnings. The latter group members, on the other hand, in the exploration of individual behavior proclaim a disinterest about those same underpinnings. It is as if the blind guys holding the tail were pretty sure they knew from its ability to swat flies much of what the rest of the elephant was about, while the blind guys holding the trunk were so fascinated with its capacity to trumpet and pick up peanuts that they choose to ignore its connection with the elephant! Our collective relative ignorance about human psychology demands that we avoid the twin perils of overconfidence about resolving the nature-nurture issues.

Schlinger reveals his primary motivation to be social rather than scientific for supporting the nurture side of the debate when he writes, "If we overlook learning as the primary determinant of human behavior in our search for elusive genes and vague mental constructs, we will be at a big disadvantage in solving serious problems. …