Redefining the ‘Blank Slate’


Following on from the previous post, today I came across a newly published article by D.S. Wilson titled ‘In Defense of the Blank Slate‘. This is a provocative title given that the Blank Slate (Tabula Rasa) is the almost entirely discredited theory that “individuals are born without built-in mental content and that therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception” (Source: Wikipedia). If that sounds like an odd position for a noted evolutionary theorist to be defending, that’s because it is. Hence, Steven Pinker previously devoted an entire book, called the Blank Slate, to present evidence as to why the theory is well intentioned but entirely invalid.

D.S. Wilson certainly is aware of this and so choosing to title his post as he has seems to be an intentional decision to cast himself as the opponent of Pinker’s view*. But is he? From my reading it doesn’t actually seem so. To elaborate, Wilson begins his article by recounting an interaction with Michael Shermer on twitter concerning the recent unearthed evidence of an ancient massacre. Shermer seemed to think this counts as evidence against the Blank Slate thesis and Wilson was (rightly) perplexed about how such ancient evidence of a massacre had any relevance to such debates (see also Peter Turchin’s excellent coverage of the discovery). Shermer’s response was that it demonstrated that war was not a modern invention but based on our ‘evolutionary propensity to aggression’. Here, I concur with Wilson’s assessment that:

To my mind, that’s like mixing apples and oranges. How far warfare extends back in human history is one matter. The open-ended flexibility of the human mind is another. I don’t care how much they have been conflated in the past. If we’re interested in our capacity to behave in almost any fashion, then an ancient massacre tells us nothing. Zero. Zip.

However, that’s about the point I stop agreeing with Wilson’s arguments, as he then goes on to redefine the ‘Blank Slate’ to mean recognising that “human behavioral and cultural flexibility has an open-ended component”, while simultaneously noting that this does not replace the need to consider our evolutionary history and it’s impact on our physical and cognitive systems. The issue here isn’t that Wilson is wrong; he is completely correct when he says that “a fully rounded evolutionary approach requires attention to both proximate and ultimate causation, or ‘function’, ‘phylogeny’, ‘mechanism’ and ‘development’”. The issue is that is not what the Blank Slate theory advocates. Those promoting a Tabula Rasa approach to understanding human cognition or societies do not say we need to give due consideration to our evolutionary history, they say that such history is an irrelevance. (Note: This has been argued by some to be a strawman that no-one actually endorses but my experiences during my undergraduate and masters studies in Social Anthropology strongly suggest otherwise.)

So what D.S. Wilson is defending is not the Blank Slate theory as traditionally understood but a redefinition of the term that makes it into something that almost no modern evolutionary theorist would disagree with. This choice to redefine a generally accepted view under the label of an almost universally discredited one is confusing, but it bears an uncanny resemblance to his recent efforts to redefine Social Darwinism (see this previous post for more details).

I like Wilson’s work, and I am generally more in agreement with his views on cultural group selection than the likes of Pinker (and I suspect Shermer), but I can’t help thinking that with this kind of argument he is engaging in the academic equivalent of click baiting.


*This is not an entirely surprising choice given that on the value of group selection for modern evolutionary theory they are certainly at odds


One comment

  1. I saw your tweet last night – ‘Personal Pain & Social Gain …’ – sounds like an interesting read! Hope the remainder of the process goes smoothly for you.

    On ‘In Defense of the Blank Slate’ – I’d say it’s lighthearted sarcasm for Shermer’s benefit perhaps? If so, your description as “the academic equivalent of click baiting” isn’t too far off the mark. But then, as you note, he goes on – regardless, it *is* confusing!

    Even though some of the confusion may be my own lack of knowledge, *muddled* comes readily to mind.


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