Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Blank Slate

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
In his apologia for evolutionary psychology, Pinker treads on many toes--right, left, social constructionist, innatist, fundamentalist, radical feminist, neo-Marxist, and more. His book has been reviewed elsewhere, so I won't attempt to say anything new or profound; what I'll do is quote passages I found either interesting, challenging to my preconceptions, or both.

First up, critics of "reductionism" (and there are many):
Good reductionism (also called hierarchical reductionism) consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them. The building blocks used by one field are put under a microscope by another. The black boxes get opened; the promissory notes get cashed....An isolated geographer would have to invoke magic to move the continents, and an isolated physicist could not have predicted the shape of South America (p. 70).

A useful summation of the key themes of cognitive science:
1. The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.
2. The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blank slates don't do anything.
3. An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind.
4. Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variations across cultures.
5. The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts (pp. 31-45).
I appreciate Pinker's perspective on education; it is a refreshing change from standard constructivist gobbledygook, the sort that echoes throughout the academy. is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. Children don't have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.... Students cannot learn Newtonian physics until they unlearn their intuitive impetus-based physics. They cannot learn modern biology until they unlearn their intuitive biology, which thinks in terms of vital essences. And they cannot learn evolution until they unlearn their intuitive engineering, which attributes design to the intentions of a designer. (222-223)

[David] Geary points out a final implication. Because much of the content of education is not cognitively natural, the process of mastering it may not always be easy and pleasant, notwithstanding the mantra that learning is fun. Children... are not necessarily motivated to adapt their cognitive faculties to unnatural tasks like formal mathematics. A family, peer group, and culture that ascribe high status to school achievement may be needed to give a child the motive to persevere toward effortful feats of learning whose rewards are apparent only over the long term (223).

Every teacher who's ever had students work in groups learns this the hard way:
When people are part of a group, they pull less hard on a rope, clap less enthusiastically, and think up fewer ideas in a brainstorming session--unless they think their contributions to the group effort are being monitored (257).

Pinker is at his best when he dresses up arguments in droll (often personal) anecdotes.
As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike.... By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist) (331).

And, last, a scientist's lament:
...when it comes to genes, people suddenly lose their ability to distinguish 50 percent from 100 percent, "some" from "all," "affects" from "determines." The diagnosis for this intellectual crippling is clear: if the effects of the genes must, on theological grounds, be zero, then all nonzero values are equally heretical (378).

The book is readable and vastly researched--although one wonders if Pinker quotes his sources too uncritically (he quotes standard critiques of "Whole Language," for example, which are based on scurrilous, politically-motivated studies). He succeeds at demolishing the Blank Slate and the Noble Savage, but spends less time addressing The Ghost in the Machine (which seems to disappear, pun intended, in later chapters). But these criticisms are tempered by great admiration for the book's wit and clarity. I'll re-read it again this summer and have even more to say. (Sorry.)


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