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The Blank Slate

Discussion in 'Medical & Social Science' started by Yellow Fang, 6 Dec 2017.

  1. Yellow Fang

    Yellow Fang Veteran Geek

    I am currently reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. It was a bit of confirmation bias on my part to start reading it, because I know I agree with him. I've watched Steven Pinker on YouTube. He explains things in quite an entertaining way. This book is quite a hard read in places. Basically, after the old C19th social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley died away or were discredited. A new set of psychologists/behavourial scients/sociologists came to the fore who argued that everyone was born with a similar blank brain that got filled in, better or worse, according to the culture they imbibed. Genetics did not affect how clever or talented you were. Everyone had the same potential. There were no inbuilt sexual/racial/inherited differences.

    I've never believed this. I've seen little boys and girls play. The boys are typically more noisy and rumbuctious than the girls. Heterosexual men and women fancy different sexes. That fancying goes on in the brain, so that's one innate difference between men's and women's brains, and where there's one there may be others. Humans are animals. Male and female animals behave quite differently. Where male and female animals do behave similarly, they tend to look fairly similar (so I've picked up somewhere). In fact animals behave differently. Breeds of the same species behave differently. Jack Russels are yappy, Labradors are placid, some dogs are bred to be vicious, but usually that is bred out of them.

    Some people just pick things up quicker. I was rubbish at football at school, but I still had to play it often enough. I must have played it a lot more than the American girl I met at confirmation class, but she could kick the ball straighter than me after half an hour. Sure, it's self-defeating if you believe you have no innate talent, because you can surprise yourself how much you can achieve if you put in the work. On the other hand, every activity has an opportunity cost. I think there is an implication that when someone fails to do as well as another it is due to them not putting in the work.

    Anyway, Pinker says things got heated, especially during the 70s when some behavioural/neural/cognition scientists/social-biologists suggested certain behavioural traits might have evolved. There were student demonstrations, academics were labelled racists and fascists, academics were shouted down at lectures, etc. Academics were attacked for views and standpoints which they did not actually hold. It was just the suggestion that not everyone was born equal, that certain individuals may have started off with more potential than others which was the thing that upset them.

    I attended a few seminars on social science when I was last at university. I was sort of impressed by the way they went to such lengths to explain their ontological world view and their epistemological methods. When I read a introduction to Social Science, I was impressed by their efforts to ensure researchers' biases impact the findings of their studies. As soon as natural science starts to stray into human territory you have to be careful. Yet time after time, I read of practitioners of a branch of social science who apparently do not apply these principles to their own work.
  2. amusicsite

    amusicsite dn ʎɐʍ sᴉɥ┴ Staff Member

    That's quite funny as the blank canvas seem the total opposite to what I've been hearing from the AI people who are trying to recreate the brain's functions. The latest trend seems to be that we are born with a basic tool set. We don't learn to move our limbs, that's in the standard toolkit. We don't learn to see, it's in the standard toolkit...

    So the quest at the moment is to work out the toolkit you need to make a full brain-like system. We have vision, audio and touch fairly sorted now and have found that's only level one on the quest. You then need to tools to keep track of where your limbs are, tools to associate things, tools to learn how to learn. So without some sort of tools we would just be wobbling piles of jelly.

    This would indicate there is not a blank template but it comes with some built in macros, which will differ between people and some hard coded to influence things and indeed give some people an advantage. To take it to the extremes we are not all capable to be the best musician, best scientist or best of most fields. Some people just have a natural ability that sines. At the other end there are certainly people that seem to be unable to learn something even if it's drummed into them every day. Like the funny story...

    Some people pick things up quickly, others don't and there does not seem to be any social reasons as to who gets what. People from the same family can have vastly different skill sets and other half the world apart can have the same.
    Yellow Fang likes this.