Undiscerning words

January 17, 2003

Michael Rutter calls my book The Blank Slate "intemperate" ( THES , December 13) and its main premise - that many intellectuals believe the mind is a blank slate - "simply nonsense", "tabloid evangelism" and "fundamentally silly". Talk about intemperate.

The belief is widespread. It can be found in pronouncements by intellectuals such as Jose Ortega y Gasset ("Man has no nature"), Ashley Montagu ("Man has no instincts") and Stephen Jay Gould ("The brain is capable of a full range of human behaviours and predisposed to none"); in the takeover of the humanities by social constructionism and postmodernism; in the pervasive interpretation of all gender differences in universities as proof of discrimination; in the repeated manifestos avowing that "violence is learned behaviour"; in extravagant interpretations of neural plasticity, connectionism and the human genome size; and in the error of supposing that correlations between parents and children demonstrate the effects of parenting. Rutter says the book is "not science" and that it relies on "unpublished papers" and "media reports".

The first complaint is partly true. The Blank Slate is about the political, emotional and moral implications people see in the science of mind, not just the science. But the second complaint is false: I cite more than 900 scholarly sources, including 300 articles in peer-reviewed journals. Equally unfair are claims that the book ignores environmental influences and misrepresents the technical distinction between shared and non-shared environment.

Rutter's research is a fine example of the nuanced approach to nature and nurture I endorse. It is a pity he did not apply this discernment in his review.

Steven Pinker
Professor of psychology
Department of brain and cognitive sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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