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Sunday, December 21, 2003

Nature vs. Nurture

Read an interesting (and suprising) essay in The Best American Science Writing 2003 that orginally appeared in Discover magazine titled "The Blank Slate". It chronicles the rise of the modern "blank slate" school of thought that teaches that all human differences (in individuals, genders, and nations) arise through culture and socialization.

Further, when taken to its logical conclusion, it teaches that there is in fact nothing one can call "human nature". The author is quite critical of the tabula rasa position and notes the persistant human tendencies to treat death, sex, and other human conditions in much the same way in societies throughout history as well as studies of identical versus fraternal twins. This is a refreshing perspective since so much of the intellectual community has been (J.B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, F. Boas) and is still clearly in the blank slate camp. One notable example is Stephen Jay Gould, who preached in many essays and his full length book The Mismeasure of Man that group differences in intelligence are not genetic and do not exist.

Clearly the author sees a genetic component to human behavior and argues for a better balance between nature and nurture. He argues that the pendulum in the intellectual world has swung so far towards nurture in the wake of the holocaust that it defies common sense.

"Academics were swept along by the changing attitudes, but they also helped direct the tide. The prevailing theories of the mind were refashioned to make racism and sexism as untenable as possible. The blank slate became sacred scripture. According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences."

However, he incitefully points out that while extreme views of biological determinism led to the horrors of the Nazis so rightly condemned, the extreme egalitarianism of the blank slate led to the equally horrific crimes of communism executed by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and the Khmer Rouge. Homicidal dictators can always use the intellectual climate of the day to their advantage.

In America, we're afraid to even raise the possibility of group differences for fear that it will lead to the discrimination of individuals. However, thinking people should realize that groups and individuals are different and that even in cases where groups differ, there is a large overlap between group abilities as I discussed in a previous post on Kenyans and long distance running.

In the end the author calls for the separation of the worth of the individual from the abilities of that individual or the group to which they belong. And of course, given a moment's thought this is the patently obvious way that moral people have always dealt with others - one by one. As Jefferson said "All men are created equal" in terms of the rights that they have, not the abilities with which they've been endowed. It is refreshing to see this perspective once in awhile.

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