thought to reflect innate disparities intalent or temperament could vanishthrough immigration, social mobility,and cultural change. But another partofits appeal was political and moral. If nothing in the mind is innate, then dif-ferences among races, sexes, and classescan never be innate, making the blankslate the ultimate safeguard against rac-ism, sexism, and class prejudice. Also,the doctrine ruled out the possibilitythat ignoble traits such as greed, preju-dice, and aggression spring from humannature, and thus held out the hope ofun-limited social progress.Though human nature has been debat-ed for as long as people have ponderedtheir condition, it was inevitable that thedebate would be transformed by the re-cent efflorescence ofthe sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Oneoutcome has been to make the doctrineofthe blank slate untenable.
No one,ofcourse, can deny the importance of learning and culture in all aspects of human life. But cognitive science hasshown that there must be complex in-nate mechanisms for learning and cul-ture to be possible in the ½rst place. Evo-lutionary psychology has documentedhundreds ofuniversals that cut acrossthe world’s cultures, and has shown thatmany psychological traits (such as ourtaste for fatty foods, social status, andrisky sexual liaisons) are better adaptedto the evolutionary demands ofan an-cestral environment than to the actualdemands ofthe current environment.Developmental psychology has shownthat infants have a precocious graspofobjects, intentions, numbers, faces,tools, and language. Behavioral geneticshas shown that temperament emergesearly in life and remains fairly constantthroughout the life span, that much of the variation among people within a cul-ture comes from differences in genes,and that in some cases particular genescan be tied to aspects ofcognition, lan-guage, and personality. Neurosciencehas shown that the genome contains arich tool kit ofgrowth factors, axonguidance molecules, and cell adhesionmolecules that help structure the brainduring development, as well as mecha-nisms ofplasticity that make learningpossible.These discoveries not only have shownthat the innate organization ofthe braincannot be ignored, but have also helpedto reframe our very conception ofnatureand nurture.
ature and nurture, ofcourse, are notalternatives. Learning itselfmust beaccomplished by innate circuitry, andwhat is innate is not a set ofrigid in-structions for behavior but rather pro-grams that take in information from thesenses and give rise to new thoughts andactions. Language is a paradigm case:though particular languages such as Jap-anese and Yoruba are not innate, the ca-pacity to acquire languages is a uniquelyhuman talent. And once acquired, a lan-guage is not a ½xed list ofsentences, buta combinatorial algorithm allowing anin½nite number ofnew thoughts to beexpressed.Moreover, because the mind is a com-plex system composed ofmany inter-acting parts, it makes no sense to askwhether humans are sel½sh or generousor nasty or noble across the board. Rath-er, they are driven by competing motiveselicited in different circumstances. And
The Blank Slate
; Gary F. Marcus,
The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of GenesCreates the Complexities of Human Thought
(NewYork: Basic Books, 2004); Matt Ridley,
NatureVia Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What MakesUs Human
(London: Fourth Estate, 2003);Robert Plomin, Michael J. Owen, and PeterMcGuf½n, “The Genetic Basis of Complex Hu-man Behaviors,”
264 (1994): 1733–1739.
Dædalus Fall 2004Steven Pinkeronhumannature
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