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Tuesday, September 24, 2002
The Blank Slate (2002 Charles Simonyi Lecture, Pt 3)

Now, at last, to some of the substance of Pinker's thesis.

One of his attempts to demonstrate that heredity is more important than environment is the example of twins, separated at, or soon after, birth. When brought up separately and independently, 'Identical twins are far more similar than fraternal twins, whether they are raised apart or together' (TBS p. 43). This would seem to be difficult to deny, given the evidence cited.

On the other side, Pinker is at pains to stress that social influences are important, too. For example, peer groups tend to have more influence on children than parents. He gave the example of children's musical tastes usually following peer groups, rather than that of parents.

(I can testify to this from my own, very limited, experience: My son, who was played Mozart in utero and brought up on 'Classical' music has become a rock musician. I wonder if Pinker would say 'At least he has turned out to be musical, like his parents.' Hmmm.)

Pinker is only too aware that explanation and exculpation are not the same thing. He derides arguments such as: 'I did wrong but I couldn't help it - it was in my genes'. This attempted evasion of moral responsibility for action, used to excuse criminal behaviour, is on a par with 'I couldn't help it - it was my upbringing, so it's not my fault.'

Misreading Dawkins perhaps accounts for misunderstandings in this whole area. A book entitled The Selfish Gene is likely to give rise to facile arguments such as 'Selfish genes means selfish people.' Nothing could be farther from the truth. Selfishness is not an inevitable component of human nature. Altruism can be acknowledged on many grounds, evolution among them. This is my example, not Pinker’s: Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by in The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley.

Some of Pinker's most interesting comments were a little off the main topic. President George W. Bush, in deciding to oppose '...perhaps the most promising medical technology of the 21st century...' (human embryonic stem cell research), had consulted 'thinkers' about the concept of 'ensoulment' i.e. when the soul enters the embryo. This is entirely consonant with Dubya's thinking on most things: dark age (see TBS, p.12).

Finally, a statistic from page 2 (I have tried to follow this up without success - it sounds fishy to me): '...76% of Americans believe in the biblical account of creation...'. Pinker could not resist adding, to the unanimous delight of his audience, that this was at odds with the 'beliefs' of both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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