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Reflections on the Blank Slate

by Caspar Hewett

John Dupre at the Café Scientifique, Monday 16th September 2002
Steven Pinker in conversation with Matt Ridley, International Centre for Life, Wednesday 25th September 2002

Newcastle has recently been host to two interesting and highly contrasting speakers. The first, John Dupre, Professor of Philosophy of Science and Head of Sociology at the University of Exeter, opened the fourth season of Newcastle's Café Scientifique at the Live Theatre. Café Scientifique is the now well established series of monthly sessions organised by PEALS at which invited speakers give short talks followed by question and answer sessions, providing a welcome addition to intellectual life in Newcastle. The second, Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at MIT, appeared in conversation with Matt Ridley as part of the University of Newcastle's public lecture programme, 'Insights,' and was the first of its type to be held in the conference centre at the International Centre for Life.

John Dupre, whose recent publications include 'Human Nature and the Limits of Science' and 'Humans and Other Animals,' entitled his talk 'Beyond Human Genetics.' He opened by emphasising the difference between genomics and genetics. Genomics is the study of the genome and, for Dupre, the important point here is that the genome interacts with the world - developmental and environmental considerations are just as important as the genes themselves in understanding the genome. He pointed out that less than 10% of the genome are instructions - despite the huge length of the DNA sequence which makes up the genome, there are only a few genes. This has only been understood recently and has made us realise that a single gene contributes to building many different proteins. This has important implications when we consider the number of genes we share with other animals - for having a particular gene in common is no guarantee that the function of that gene is the same or even similar.

Emphasising this further, Dupre argued that we don't even know what a gene is - the concept of a gene as a 'particle' passing on a specific trait, which originates with the work of Mendel in the 19th century, is no longer useful and is deeply problematic in relation to current understanding. In evolutionary theory using the phrase 'gene for . . .' has a well-defined meaning tempered by the reality of what genes are, but when the term gets picked up and used in crude ways by others it loses all of its subtlety and meaning. Media stories about discovering 'the gay gene' and 'genes for violence' for example show how this language can lead to fundamental misconceptions.

Dupre went on to state that it is possible that some dispositions are inherited but that, because of the enormously complex interactions between biological and environmental influences, there are few implications to this. He added that there are some cases where 'gene for . . .' is a useful concept. For example in certain kinds of monogenetic diseases where identification of a specific gene could be useful for therapeutic purposes. The concept is also adequate for describing inheritance of certain superficial features such as eye colour.

These point made, Dupre argued that genetics is not a useful basis for any kind of human typology. He pointed to the superficiality of biologically based classifications of people, for example race is biologically trivial because of the amount of genetic variation within any racial group, which heavily exceeds that generally found between two individuals (be they of the same race or not). For Dupre, then, there is really nothing very special about genes; they are ascribed an exaggerated uniqueness in evolutionary theory. The range of things required to make a human are vast: Cells, parents, society, food, sun etc. make human beings and the fact is human development requires all of these things. The old nature-nurture debate should be long buried as we have come to recognise the part played by both.

Dupre drew attention to the theory of development which developed separately from the theory of evolution and which Dupre sees as running counter to the 'ultra-Darwinian' approach of theorists such as Richard Dawkins. Developmental systems theory considers the complete lifecycle of an organism as the unit of selection, in strong contrast to Dawkins who invites us in 'The Selfish Gene' to forget about development when we consider natural selection.

Dupre strongly disagrees with Steven Pinker and other proponents of Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary Psychology argues that human beings are adapted to a life very different to the one we live. The argument runs that our ancestors lived as hunter gatherers on the savannahs of Africa, and it is under these conditions that we evolved into what we are today. Thus we can best understand the human mind, our predispositions and preferences in terms of the traits those early humans needed to survive. According to the evolutionary psychologists many of modern human's psychological problems can be explained in this way. Dupre thinks there is no reason to take this atavistic view. He sees humans as having evolved greatly despite little or no change in the genome because of social change. This is not proposing a blank slate theory, but is a recognition that there are different developmental systems in play - 'How the Flintstones lived does not have to guide how we live now or in the future.' In conclusion, Dupre called for the need to 'emancipate genomics from its history.'

Steven Pinker, speaking at the International Centre for Life 9 days later, could not have provided more of a contrasting view. Matt Ridley opened the proceedings by giving a brief introduction to Pinker, whose new book 'The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,' was the subject of discussion. The blank slate of the title refers to the notion that our minds are shaped entirely by our experience. His book is both an attack on this idea and an argument for an alternative view. Pinker rather thinks that all humans are born with a common set of predispositions and abilities which come from our evolutionary past. These are what he describes as human nature. Along with other exponents of Evolutionary Psychology, Pinker attempts to explain the roots of the behaviour of modern humans in terms of abilities that our ancestors of 100,000 years ago needed to survive. He applies this thinking to a whole range of subjects from the differences between the sexes to parenting to violence.

Pointing out that 'The Blank Slate' is his most political book to date, Matt Ridley asked Steven Pinker why he considered the blank slate idea to be an extreme position. Pinker thinks it to be an incoherent idea; 'Blank slates don't do anything,' whereas the human mind does many things; he pointed to two examples; that we are all born with a natural ability to use language and that babies appear to have distinct preferences and characters from birth.

Matt Ridley then asked who is denying that we are born with some predispositions. Is Pinker 'beating a straw man with a dead horse?' Pinker doesn't think so. He hears the blank slate idea being asserted by academics and politicians alike; for example in the area of research on parenting there is an implicit assumption that parental practice shapes a child, especially in the discussion of problem behaviour such as violence. Many argue that violence is learned behaviour and there is a cycle of violence passed on across the generations. According to Pinker such arguments are flawed since they ignore the fact that parents give their children genes. He argues that the results of research will remain ambiguous unless it is done with adopted children. This is familiar territory for Pinker. In 'The Blank Slate' he argues that violence has an evolutionary logic, but that we are programmed to develop contingent strategies for violence; 'Animals deploy aggression in highly selective ways and humans are, of course, even more calculating. Most people today live their adult lives without ever pressing their violence buttons.'

There is a contradiction that runs through this argument. On the one hand Pinker is anxious to emphasise that we all share a genetic predisposition to violent behaviour, on the other he recognises that social progress has led to a situation in which violence is generally seen as repugnant. Pinker refuses to recognise that this is contradictory. He finds himself accused of 'saying it's all in the genes' when he is actually only saying that it is 50% in the genes, but surely this is not the point. His emphasis on aspects of human behaviour such as violence makes people uncomfortable and rightly so. For why choose one of the most negative aspects of human behaviour as the focus of study when we are equally disposed towards co-operation, say? Violence, and in particular male violence, appears as a strong motif in much Evolutionary Psychology - take for example Wrangham and Peterson's 'Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence' and seems to reflect a strongly anti-humanistic view. Missing is the image of humankind in control of its own destiny, shaping the world around it to suit its needs - man the subject. If anything, this image, which has its origin in Enlightenment thought, is viewed with disdain by many in the current climate and I think that this informs the emphasis of Evolutionary Psychology. For all Pinker's protestations he is to some extent claiming that we are at the mercy of these predispositions, i.e. that there is some likelihood of us acting on them for, if there were not, there would be no point in mentioning them!

Steven Pinker went on to talk about the differences between the sexes. He observed that there are more men than women in mechanical engineering, while the opposite is true in the study of languages. This is often attributed to discrimination and inequality but doing so discounts the possibility that human nature plays a part. Matt Ridley asked him if there is not a risk of legitimising prejudice by rehearsing such arguments. Pinker thinks not. He believes that it is important to defend principles such as equality, but dangerous to use innate arguments in their defence because they are open to being disproved. He thinks we should clarify why we oppose discrimination and argues that there is nothing progressive about thinking that all professions should be made up of 50% of each sex.

Matt Ridley asked where this leaves the meritocracy, to which Pinker replied simply that being selected for a job on the basis of your qualifications is not unreasonable; while there are genetic differences between individuals that is not the best way to target selection criteria for a job! 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.

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.' This is not a denial of choice, but a denial that choices do not have causes. Pinker thinks there is no 'ghost in the machine' outside of the purview of physical laws. 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. 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.e. to adaptations. 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. Most importantly we have sophisticated minds that enable us to reflect on our actions and to exceed our genetic and cultural programming. As Kenan Malik points out in his article What Can Science Tell Us About Human Nature? we do things for reasons. 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. When we become adults we make choices about the way that we behave and this provides the basis of all our ideas about individual responsibility and freedom. When we act it is rarely in an arbitrary way and, in fact, what gives us our free will is precisely this ability to decide how to act based on reasons. These aspects of what we are needs to be injected back into the discussion of human nature.

Caspar Hewett, 2nd October 2002

Related Pages On This Site

The Great Blank Slate Debate page

Modern Theory and the Human Mind by Caspar Hewett

What Can Science Tell Us About Human Nature? by Kenan Malik

Sexual Selection: The Human Mind and the Peacock's Tale by Caspar Hewett

The Great Debate: Darwinism Today by Caspar Hewett

Minds, Genes and Consciousness by Caspar Hewett

Minds, Genes and Consciousness: What Decides? by David Large

Determinism and Free Will in Science and Philosophy by David Large

Philosophical Responses to Evolution by David Large

Caspar Hewett

Matt Ridley

Kenan Malik

Other Links

Café Scientifique
The Human Nature Review
New Scientist Hot Topics: Human Nature
Human Nature and the Limits of Blank Slateism by Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair. A review of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Genomics News Wire
Evolutionary Psychology: Introduction to the Field
Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES)

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© C J M Hewett, 2003