On Pinker’s Blank Slate

Nor is a belief in the blank slate absent among prominent scientists. Richard Lewontin, Leon Kamin, and Steven Rose, in a book entitled Not in Our Genes, asserted that “the only sensible thing to say about human nature is that it is in that nature to construct its own history.” 8 Stephen Jay Gould wrote that the “brain [is] capable of a full range of behaviors and predisposed to none.”9 Anne Fausto-Sterling expressed a common view of the origin of sex differences: “The key biological fact is that boys and girls have different genitalia, and it is this biological difference that leads adults to interact differently with different babies whom we conveniently color-code in pink or blue to make it unnecessary to go peering into their diapers for information about gender.”10

This is a quote from a paper available here. It was published about a year-and-a-half ago in Daedalus. Just ran across it and was rather dumbfounded by Pinker’s sophmoric misquote of Gould.

Here, just for giggles, is the original context of the Gould quote:

Thus my criticism of Wilson does not invoke a nonbiological “environmentalism”; it merely posits the concept of biological potentiality–a brain capable of the full range of human behaviors and rigidly predisposed toward none–against his idea of biological determinism–specific genes for specific behavioral traits.

Others have noted Pinker’s tendency in The Blank Slate to distort opponents’ views and to do battle with straw men, but I don’t think I’ve seen as brazen an example of it as this rather bald misquotation.

In the nature/nurture debate, pretty much everyone accuses everyone else of mischaracterization and falsely dichotomizing. Here, though, is a fine example of outright distortion: first Pinker seems to think that that “rigidly” qualifies Gould’s statement far too much–he’d rather fight more simplistic enemies, so out that goes, without even an elipsis to hold its place. Second, it wouldn’t really do to have Gould positing this “biological potentiality” merely as a working hypothesis with which one can interpret the paltry (in 1976, when Gould was writing) scientific evidence in the nature/nurture matter. He is merely demonstrating that this assumption is at least as consistent with the facts as Wilson’s working hypothesis.

And Pinker has been going around everywhere citing this misquotation–it’s part of his little repertoire of “anti-scientific horrors from the past” (see here, for instance). He should really tell his research assistants to be a bit more careful.

Now, the “strong biology” side of this argument have been on a long offensive on this issue–protesting the mischaracterization of their own position and working hard at mischaracterizing the other side–and they’ve had some crucial help from supposedly neutral suck-ups like Ullica Segerstrale.

[Note that I think Segerstrale’s work is great: well-researched, readable, revealing. I am a better person for having read Defenders of the Truth and I suggest you read it, too. BUT Segerstrale strikes me as a long way from being unbiased in this case. She seems to like Wilson more than the other scientists involved in the controversies she covers (she’s met all the major protagonists). And she is deeply interested in establishing the sociological study of science on a non-confrontational basis vis-a-vis scientists, and the best way to accomplish this is to favor those that science as an institution seems to favor. And when the question is the power of science itself, we know which side that will be: the side that favors stronger, broader truth claims by science. In this case that’s Wilson & Dawkins. And lastly, she seems to have caught to anti-political-correctness bug and bought in rather naively (pace her attempts to deny it) to Wilson’s positioning of himself as a “victim” of political correctness. In short Segerstrale is a fine researcher and a good writer, but she IS NOT a neutral adjudicator in this scientific dispute as she is often held up as being.]

But the worm seems to be turning again. (See here for instance.) Molecular biology and associated sciences seems to be indicating that things are a great deal more complicated when it comes to gene expression than we might have thought in the 1970s. There are suggestions that low IQ numbers are a lot more dependent upon environment (see some of the recent work of James Flynn) than Gould’s enemies were willing to admit 30 years ago. And it is beginning to look more and more like we ought to be thinking of evolution and even particular lifeforms as complex systems rather than as quasi-mechanical ones–that is, that scientists like Dawkins and Wilson have indeed been overstepping the bounds of called-for reductionism. Especially in their calls for the application of their reductionist paradigms to other fields of study and to policy making. All of this very much as Gould was arguing.

None of this is to say that Gould was innocent of argumentative excesses himself. Surely he wasn’t. But at least he could read.

One begins to wonder with Pinker, though.

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4 thoughts on “On Pinker’s Blank Slate

  1. Not to be obtuse, but why is this a misquote? Indeed, in context it seems even more fully comitted to a blank slate position vis a vis Wilson’s more genetically determined one. I don’t get it.

  2. You’d really have to explain your interpretation of Gould’s passage.It’s a misquote because Pinker excerpts a word–rigidly–without indicating it in any way. And that word tends to change the meaning of the passage significantly.Anyhow, how exactly does “a brain capable of the full range of human behaviors and rigidly predisposed toward none” constitute “Blank Slate” thought?

  3. Pinker wrote: <>Stephen Jay Gould wrote that the “brain [is] capable of a full range of behaviors and predisposed to none.”<>Gould wrote: <>a brain capable of the full range of human behaviors and <>rigidly<> predisposed toward none–against his idea of biological determinism–<>specific genes for specific behavioral traits.<><>E.O. Wilson < HREF="http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~lridener/courses/SOCBIO.HTML" REL="nofollow">wrote<>: <>I also believe that it will soon be within our ability to locate and characterize specific genes that alter the more complex forms of social behavior. Obviously, the alleles discovered will not prescribe different dialects or modes of dress. They are more likely to work measurable changes through their effects on learning modes and timing, cognitive and neuromuscular ability, and the personality traits most sensitive to hormonal mediation.<>So, what would you have Pinker do about Gould’s framing his argument against a strawman position Gould attributes to Wilson? Wilson isn’t advancing the position that there is a gene for being a smart alec, or another gene for liking women with blond hair. Gould modified Wilson’s position by choosing to use the word rigidly. Pinker simply set the record straight by realigning Gould’s statement to the position that Wilson actually holds.

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