Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Article excerpt

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Steven Pinker

Allen Lane, 2002, 0-713-99256-5

John Locke famously compared the mind to "white paper void of all characters, without any ideas". He claimed that its contents were furnished by experience. The Blank Slate is in part a history of this beguiling theory. Because of its influence, whether in the form of behaviorism, cultural anthropology or historical materialism, social science has not done justice to genetic factors. Until recently that is. For according to Pinker a model of the mind is now being developed that acknowledges the importance of heredity as well as the environment.

Locke and his disciple John Stuart Mill were empiricists. They believed that human intelligence could be explained without recourse to the notion of innate organisation and they attributed all knowledge to experience. Behaviorism is a form of empiricism and it profoundly affected the social sciences of the last century, especially psychology. Indeed, according to a study carried out by Haggbloom (2002), B.F. Skinner was the most eminent psychologist of the last century. Because experience was all-important for the behaviorists, they blamed poverty and ignorance on defects in social institutions. A behaviorist could not have written The Bell Curve.

Professor Arthur Jensen (1998a) recalls that when he began to study psychology at Berkeley in the 1940's the influence of genes was completely ignored. The orthodox view in American psychology was that "...individual differences in the behavioral realm originated entirely outside the organism, through its exposure to different environmental contingencies..." B.F. Skinner maintained that studying the brain was misguided. Even Hans Eysenck, the doyen of the hereditarian London School thought that overt behavior was the only legitimate domain of psychology. Eysenck regarded Freudian theory as empirically unverifiable and he championed a form of therapy based on the learning theory of Pavlov and Skinner Jensen, 2000).

Robert Plomin (1997) has constructed a pleasing diagram that illustrates the historical swings of the pendulum between nature and nurture. It shows an emphatic movement towards the latter in the 1950's. Evidently the Holocaust made the concept of human nature, not to mention eugenics and racial science, anathema in that decade. Yet as Pinker observes, state sponsored mass murder also took place under Marxist regimes that had an explicitly anti-innatist ideology. It is therefore hardly logical to disapprove of behavioral genetics or evolutionary theory because of their historical association with National Socialism. Nor are twin studies immoral because Dr. Joseph Mengele undertook them.

At the beginning of the 20th century the anthropologist Franz Boas elaborated what eventually became the standard social science model. Boas believed that differences between races and classes were cultural not biological. All ethnic groups were endowed with the same basic mental abilities, in his view. Although Boas regarded Western civilisation as superior, he thought that all peoples were capable of attaining it. Pearson (1993) has highlighted the pivotal position attained by Boas' disciples in American social science, in particular anthropology. "Boas created a monster", as Pinker colourfully puts it.

Like E.O. Wilson, Pinker supports the unification of knowledge or consilience. The wall dividing biology from culture must come down. But arguably Pinker exaggerates the egalitarianism of those who built this wall. The autonomy of culture was the founding principle not only of cultural anthropology but also of sociology. Comte and Durkheim, two of sociology's founding fathers, regarded society as sui generis. Indeed, Durkheim feared that if the pre-social features of the individual, namely his race and heredity, were considered by sociology it would "dissolve into psychology" (Lukes, 1973). Yet both Comte and Durkheim were conservatives who sought a secular basis for social order. …

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