Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

Grad Idea Forum

19 November 2002
The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker

Prepared by Judy McCoyd
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum.

Samantha Glazier, post-doc chemistry; Paul Grobstein, Biology Dept. and SCISOC; Katherine La France, post bac; Judie McCoyd, PhD cand. GSSWSR; Xenia Morin, Keck fellow, Bio & Chem.; Cheryl Selah, PhD cand. Chem; Corey Shdaimah, PhD cand., GSSWSR; Liz Shea, PhD cand. Biology; Roland Stahl, PhD cand. GSSWSR

Few had managed to plow the whole way through the verbose 430+ pages of The Blank Slate, but all had fairly strong reactions. The policy implications of maintaining the paradigm of the Blank Slate were foremost in mind; non-responsiveness of the educational system and criminal justice system to innate differences were 2 foci.

The biology people were particularly receptive noting that a focus on the diversity of innate difference might be a neutral position from which to argue the morality point of political equality. A common critique within the group was that Pinker dismisses "the ghost in the machine" , but postulates an innate moral sense that could be appealed to, while never tracing the origin of such an entity. Although many were enticed by the natural diversity argument, Pinker's sub argument that we should not elevate the natural order as "noble' and "best" without strong evidence was used to question whether diversity is so wonderful in and of itself.

The social science contingent were particularly concerned about this aspect since humans tend to equate difference with hierarchy and to create in groups and out groups that then turn all diversity into a way of differentiating and evaluating, and ultimately excluding, groups.

Nevertheless, all were concerned by the implication that the "blank slate" paradigm leads to one size fits all education, one size fits all child rearing, and one size fits all physical and mental health treatment (made all the worse by the push for standardized treatments via managed care and other bureaucracies). Xenia raised the hope that mapping the genome may allow individualized care based on genomic differences. Nevertheless, she and others expressed concerns that, as humans, we tend to try to control biological processes (genetically engineered crops, etc.) and attempts to do this in the genetic arena may lead us ever closer to the specter of eugenics.

Another critique of the book is that it emphasizes Pinker's disdain of social structural theories like Durkheim's (Pinker does not "buy" social structures outside human individual interactions). He thereby dismisses the chance that collective and social products such as generational conveyance of knowledge and social institutional existence could influence human outcomes much. His bold assertion that variance in behavior is 50% genetic, 0-10% family "shared environment" and 40-50% peers or "unique environment" was roundly criticized on statistical, social, and biological bases.

Despite the above, most felt this is an important book to fight the adage that "you can be anything you want to be" and to insist on tailoring of education, criminal justice, etc. Comments were made about how younger people may find the "blank slate" idea more intriguing as they have not yet aged enough to find comfort in acknowledgement of their own limitations.

The next meeting will address the reading "On Being a Scientist" and will include critique and professional development foci. Originally scheduled for Dec. 10, the date was changed to Dec 5, and is now being re negotiated due to a conflict with a socsci speaker. [an error occurred while processing this directive]