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The Great Blank Slate Debate

Nature versus Nurture, or Science versus Art?
A Reply to ‘Of Course Someone’s At Home - Grandma, the Wolf and a Boojum' by David Large

by Nikolas Lloyd
May 2003

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Here is my reply to David Large's reply to my reply to him. It strikes me that it is likely to be a waste of time to reply to everything he has written, because so much of it argues against standpoints that I do not take. One example is that I never wrote that intelligent people cannot have stupid ideas, so his scorning this concept is no useful part of this debate. The challenge I now face in writing this is to try and strike to the heart of what he says, and ignore the irrelevances.

The following quote from his piece should be replied to, in my opinion: "Another thing I insist on is that data is just data. It doesn't matter how much you have of it, it doesn't turn into something else or acquire new properties; it's still just data. No one should be impressed simply by the amount of data gathered nor by the number of citations listed. Size is not important." I had pointed out that contrary to his apparent beliefs, there is a great mass of data in support of evolutionary psychology. He now attempts to suggest that this is irrelevant. It is not irrelevant. It is very relevant. Science requires data.

That the Sun rose this morning is not good evidence that it will do so again. That the Sun rose this morning and every morning for many thousands of years is very good evidence in support of the theory that it will rise tomorrow. The more data you have, the more certain can be your conclusions. No amount of data is proof, but once the amount of data gets above a certain amount, the probability that the observations of it are the result of freak coincidence becomes so tiny that a reasonable person can discount it. Perhaps a different sun rose every morning, each one so similar to the last that they all seemed to be the same sun. Perhaps stars from around the Galaxy flew in random directions, and happened to be observed passing Earth at 24-hour intervals just by coincidence. That three sunrises might occur by this method exactly 24-hours apart is unlikely. That thousands of them might so occur is so unlikely that I feel confident in discounting the notion. The theory that the Earth is round and spinning, and that we see the same sun from a point on the Earth's surface every day is a good one. Not only is it good because it is backed up by lots of data, but it is good because it explains a lot of things. It explains why for instance when I telephone someone in Australia at noon, he insists that it is the middle of the night. It explains why the shadow on the Moon is curved. It explains why weather patterns rotate in the way they do. It explains why ships disappear below the horizon. Evolution is the second most successful scientific theory of all time. It explains the whole of biology, and is backed up by more data than the world's greatest stick-shaker could take on. To suggest that amount of data is unimportant is to demonstrate a failure to understand what science is all about.

The next statement is equally false: "Science, especially non-physical science, works by persuasion. It attempts to explain by description why a particular theory is a correct theory." No it doesn't. Science works by making observations, coming up with theories to explain those observations, and then attempting to disprove those theories by experiment. Once a scientist has done these things, he can present his results. After a while, many scientists working all round the world, using large amounts of data, build up a picture of the way the world is. They share their results. Evolutionary psychologists, like other scientists, benefit from the results of others. An army of scientists has worked on evolution for over a century, and Darwinian evolution has proven utterly robust. Science is not just an exercise in rhetoric. Scientific theories have to pass tests, and those theories that fail the tests are dropped. Anyone who thinks that science works by persuasion does not know what science is.

Large contends that Pinker ignores the fact that one datum can disprove a theory. If a piece of evidence were confirmed, and contrary to the theory being tested, then the theory would collapse. What then, is this datum that proves Pinker wrong? If such a datum existed, then why does Large keep us in the dark? Surely it would be very easy to tell us.

Large writes: ".one thing that just isn't clear to me is the enormous emphasis on our Stone Age ancestors. This approach seems to run on the worst sort of genetic determinism; roughly, once we find out, in space and time, where our genes came from then we can know what we are and why we are like we are, on the basis of what we were and what things were like when these genes came into being. Well surely, to give one example, this sort of argument would hold that anything with wheels is a standing stone transporter!"

I think I made it very clear in my last piece why stone age ancestry is important. I am deeply suspicious of Large's phrase, "the worst sort of genetic determinism". It suggests that all genetic determinism must be bad, and that the more deterministic something is, the worse it is. Science tries to find out the way the world is, not the way it ought to be. If our behaviour is partly determined by genes, then it is better that we discover this and learn from it. We could use this knowledge, perhaps, to lessen the amount of genetic determinism. That Large doesn't like the idea that genes affect behaviour does not make it the case that they do not.

Genes allow humans to create more humans, and they recombine into new recipes for making individuals. This is now firmly established. It is important to study them if we want to find out about ourselves. They were not created in the future, or in a lab in the present. They were created in the past. Science must therefore study the past. It really is that simple. The alternative is to stick (metaphorically) our heads in the sand.

The last sentence of Large's paragraph shows me that he does not understand evolution at all, or pretends not to for rhetorical effect. We do not hold that anything with wheels is a standing stone transporter for the following reasons:

1. Standing stones are artefacts from the neolithic and bronze ages, and evolutionists study ages far older than that.

2. We have reason to believe that the things with wheels were created by humans in the modern era. Many people have been witnessed manufacturing "cars" and have admitted to it.

3. (This is the biggie) Things with wheels do not self-replicate. It is not impossible that one day something with wheels might self-replicate, but there is no reliable observation so far made of a self-replicating wheeled vehicle. Only self-replicating things are subject to Darwinian evolution. If we found a species of self-replicating wagons, then we could conclude that such a species did not appear overnight, and had in the past evolved. We would then observe the current behaviour of the species, and may theorise that in the past the behaviour evolved in a different environment. Similarly, we may observe a horse pulling a plough, and conclude that perhaps the horse did not evolve in order to pull ploughs, but that its ancestors roamed grasslands. If we found a self-replicating vehicle that was perfectly adapted for transporting standing stones, and no evidence that it had been bred for this purpose, then this would indeed be a massive blow for the theory of evolution. I doubt we will, though.

Large's argument suggesting that regression is bad, or ridiculous, or something, makes no sense to me. Current evolutionary theory is that we evolved from hominid apes, and that these evolved from earlier mammals, which evolved from earlier creatures which lived in the sea. There is good evidence for all this and I see no problem with it.

Large says that it is "useful to introduce the notion of the person to help find a way out of the maze of genetic reductionism", but he does not say why we would need to find our way out of this maze. Pinker and those who think as he does, do not say that everything depends on genes. That nurture has a role in human behaviour is so obvious that one would think that it didn't need to be said. Science tells us that Nature also has a role. That is what Pinker is saying. Large seems to want this to be untrue so badly that he is looking for ways out of some mental "maze". I do not feel this need. It strikes me as both obvious and comforting that Nature plays a part in my behaviour.

Large writes: "Simply looking at the physical and genetic make up misses all this out. If you choose to ignore this situation, if you choose to dismiss these considerations, or replace them with something else, then you throw the baby out with the bath water. " The second sentence is bad because it implies a flagrant falsehood: that evolutionists believe that genes are the only considerations in human behaviour. The first sentence is bad because it says that an evolutionist renders himself blind to all other considerations simply by looking at one set of considerations. This is untrue. It is also common sense to admit that all evolutionists are humans, and have personal experiences on which they consciously draw. Therefore of course they know of other considerations.

I get the impression that someone who has spent a long time studying philosophy that concentrates on notions of responsibility, rights, and the like, is dismayed to find that his education was not as important as he thought it. When he learns that human behaviour is massively influenced by genes, it may seem to him that his knowledge has shrunk in importance. He may then be tempted to resist the new ideas. In fact, no evolutionist is saying that the things the philosopher studied do not exist. They are not throwing the baby out with the bath water, but it seems that the likes of Large are doing precisely that. Evolution does not replace the theory that upbringing affects behaviour, but it does add to it quite a bit. The notion that upbringing and upbringing alone affects behaviour is throwing the baby out into the street.

Large: "No one is saying that you have to accept this view. What I am saying is that if you want to reduce things below this level you have to a) come up with some reasons and arguments for what you are doing and b) show why this, the generally accepted view, is wrong. It seems to me that neither Pinker nor Nikolas have done this."

A) People study because they want to find out things. Knowledge is good. People study genes and how they affect behaviour because such knowledge is clearly likely to be very useful indeed.

B) The "generally accepted view", I would argue, is that there is such a thing as Human Nature. Educated intellectuals deny it, which is evidence in support of the idea that clever people can say stupid things. Even if the accepted view is that there is no such thing as Human Nature, it is still easy to answer this one. All over the world, people have tail bones but no tails, and fear snakes even where there are no snakes. Both of these things are explained by evolutionary theory.

My last quote from Large is: "The news that many empirical scientists deny that there is such a thing as human nature is truly alarming indeed. I have given above one argument why this may be. Put simply, whether they know it or not, human nature is not something that falls within the scope of their enquiry."

I am unaware that any empirical scientists deny Human Nature. Indeed, this is bordering on a contradiction in terms. The last sentence says to me that Large wants to have his own world in which people with his education and views are supreme. It is appalling to read that someone wants to cordon-off some area of knowledge and forbid entry to anyone who wants to investigate it scientifically. Scientists can and do study Human Nature, and have been getting excellent clear results. I'm sorry to learn that Large has so much trouble accepting that his kind is no longer supreme in the academic study of human behaviour. This, though, is not a good reason for the promotion of ignorance.

This is a non-debate. I do not intend to contribute to it further unless I have something of substance to contend with. If Large can come up with a theory to explain human behaviour, tests this theory, and presents his results, then perhaps we will have something to discuss. At the moment, I feel that there is nothing that I can write that will change his mind.


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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 Someone’s At Home - Grandma, the Wolf and a Boojum by David Large. A Reply to ‘Someone's at Home - This is Good’ by Nikolas Lloyd
I Talk to the Genes (but they don’t listen to me) by David Large: Closing Remarks on 'Nature versus Nurture, or Science versus Art?' by Nikolas Lloyd

Reflections on the Blank Slate Caspar Hewett reports on a talk by John Dupre at the Café 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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