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Unread April 5th, 2006, 11:36 AM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Pinker's Blank Slate

As recommended by the moderator, I've finished the first part of The Blank Slate- titled The Blank Slate, The Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. Pinker states that he makes his case for hereditary determinism here in these first five chapters - and then uses the remaining sections of the book to discuss the implications.

I did not find that he made his case here. I found an old history of mistaken notions about psychology and epistemolgy from a few hundred years ago. I found circumstantial evidence for his case but nowhere did I find the slam dunk I was expecting. One problem may be that I have never doubted that genes have a lot to do with who we are. My problem comes when someone tells me that those genes will make it impossible for women to be good at science or that some racial subgroups could never handle democracy. But I also disagree with the cultural determinists about many things.

I think both sides - in fact all the human sciences - are stuck in a cognicentric view of human nature that causes their practitioners to look scrupulously under the wrong rocks to find their answers. IMO the rocks that reveal who we are are labeled emotions. The already proven genetic connection to the systems that mediate our neurotransmitters, hormones and other brain chemicals hold the answers to who we are. Those emotions can act over long periods to shape our minds, as our identity emotions do. Or, they can act violently over shorter periods of time to shape our minds, as happens to those who experience combat or natural disasters find that their minds (the emotional responses that direct their cognition) no longer fit into a more normal existence - PTSD.

But, the title of the book, The Blank Slate, is a bit of a Red Herring. I heard about the blank slate in school, not in psychology but in philosophy. And it was introduced as an interesting part of the nature - nurture question, not as dogma. That was way back in the sixties. I haven't read any contemporary books supporting the concept of the blank slate. Everyone these days seems to think it is still an interesting question that's about to find some new evidence as nuero-biologists find new clues every day. Like at Scans suggest IQ scores reflect brain structure

Using Pinker's metaphor I'd say that our minds are not a blank slate at birth, but are a slate with a grid pattern on it, like a scheduling board in a factory. Certain kinds of information are processed in the various grid boxes. There are probably some small differences in the sizes of those boxes between genders and racial sub-groups. But, the gridded slate called human is different in very regular ways from other mammals. I suspect the number of functional boxes and their relative sizes are similar for all humans. The variations that do exists between genders or racial sub-groups are the genetic treasure that carry the adaptability that we may need as global and long-lasting environmental changes come along.

Here is my bias. I find it very strange when one group of humans claim that their particular box sizes and connections - that are due to a million years of both genetic and environmental influences - are superior to those of other humans. This is a question that our genome will work out by itself over the next millenium and it will be reflected in changes in that genome. It is not a question that can be effectively answered by human minds conceptualizing their own existence, driven by their own egos. IMO the task of science is to figure out how to make life better for this human genome and whatever variations may exist - not to use science as just another version of the ancient claim for tribal privilege.

I think the lines that separate the grid zones in our minds are wide and do not have sharp edges. Adjacent zones share some information processing characteristics so that according to the recurring emotional experiences we have in life - some kinds of information can work its way over into an adjacent zone making its box relatively larger than the genes originally specified. I also suspect that the innate efficiency of the connections between the functional boxes could vary somewhat by gender or racial sub-group - and even more so by individual. But, I believe that our emotional experiences in life constantly refine those connections to make them more efficient (adaptable) to our life experience and the particular world we live in.

That all says nothing about the particular mental images that are processed in those zones - which I believe are almost entirely cultural.

Back to The Blank Slate. Before I read about the implications of herditary determinism I'm going back to read this first section again to make sure I've given him the best shot I can at making his case. I'd appreciate anyone here who has read this book and who does see where he proves his case in there to tell me where I should be paying most attention. Or better yet, restate what you consider to be his best case for proof of hereditary determinism here in your own words.

Margaret
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