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The Great Blank Slate Debate


I Talk to the Genes (but they donít listen to me)*
Closing Remarks on 'Nature versus Nurture, or Science versus Art?: A Reply to ĎOf Course
Someoneís At Home - Grandma, the Wolf and a Boojum' by David Large'
, by Nikolas Lloyd

by David Large
June 2003

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Itís a shame that Nikolas has taken my remarks as being directed at him and his work, rather than, as they are, at Steven Pinkerís work. I further regret that Nikolas has chosen to adopt such a cavalier attitude. That he cherishes the notion of scientific truth and insists on an ideal form of scientific practice in the real academic environment reflects a certain, uncharming, naivety.

In his haste to insist on the power of science, Nikolas fails to acknowledge that if all conjectures, theories, and ideas turned out to be false, things would be just the same as they are; the world would be the same as it is. Similarly, I still say that data is just data. Evolutionary psychologists may choose to gather and use it for their own ends, but they should not think that this turns their beliefs into facts, their ideas into reality. To do so is hubris.

Further, with any human endeavour, science included, we are not obliged to have only one view; we have all the alternatives there are and no fewer. One alternative is to stick our heads in the sand, another is to grasp the wrong end of the stick, and so on.

The onus is on the scientist to conduct well-formed research projects. The research proposal should include controls and alternative outcomes. In other words, you should set out all you are going to do before you start. Pinker is, to say the least, allusive about this and, being charitable, I put this down to the sort of piece - popular science - he was writing.

Before I replied to his original piece I asked Nikolas if I could read his work in this area and, in particular, if he would explain to me why the Stone Age was so important. He referred me to his web site where I found what he thought but not why he thought it.

With respect to the debate we succeeded in having, wheels and cars are excellent examples of the sort of replicators and, to push a point, self-replicators evolutionary psychologists need to peddle their theories. Here, it seems Nikolas does not take the notion seriously, at least not as seriously as Dawkins. Itís one thing to talk about DNA, itís quite another to talk about replicators. This area of debate was not helped by Nikolas, who seems unable to distinguish between the abstract notion of regress and an empirical, indeed physical, notion of regression.

As it turns out, I am delighted to learn from Nikolas that no one denies there is such a thing as human nature. Why didnít he say this before? And, if people like Pinker are really being misrepresented then why donít they say so? I have in mind the recent Open University programme where Pinker is interviewed by, among others, the novelist Ian McEwan, who finds his work interesting precisely because his approach is as I describe.

And, we now agree, science is not the only fruit: No matter how you slice it, you canít learn to ski by baking a cake, irrespective of how many people like cake and how much money you can get to bake cakes. So human nature is not just a question of Ďevolutioní, but about reasons and persons after all; so no more nonsense about it being genetic predispositions from the Stone Age.

The important questions are then: Do you really know what youíre investigating? Do you know how much research you need to do before you are in a proper position to begin an experimental programme? And, do you really know what youíre talking about?

* Apologies Clint, you made my day.




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Related Links

The Great Blank Slate Debate page
No One at Home - What's New? : David Large reflects on the thoughts of Steven Pinker
Someone's at Home - This is Good : Nikolas Lloyd replies to David Large
Of Course Someoneís At Home - Grandma, the Wolf and a Boojum by David Large. A Reply to ĎSomeone's at Home - This is Goodí by Nikolas Lloyd
'Nature versus Nurture, or Science versus Art? by Nikolas Lloyd A Reply to ĎOf Course Someoneís At Home - Grandma, the Wolf and a Boojum' by David Large'

Reflections on the Blank Slate Caspar Hewett reports on a talk by John Dupre at the Cafť Scientifique and on Steven Pinker in conversation with Matt Ridley, International Centre for Life.
Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human Gill Norman reviews a lecture given by Matt Ridley
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
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
The Human Nature Review
Evolutionary Psychology: Introduction to the Field
Future of Life website
Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES)
Review of Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley, The Observer, Sunday 30 March 30 2003
Review of Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley, Colin Tudge, The Independent, 29 March 2003
Natural gold dust Dylan Evans reviews Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley



Buy these books from Amazon
The Blank Slate Nature via Nurture The Red Queen Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Introduction Alas Poor Darwin


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