14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
Blank Slate is a defence of, for want of a better term, pseudo-genetic determinism. Pinker argues that while genetic research has not reached an appropriate level of knowledge to identify specific genes that effect behaviour, the wholesale dismissal of genetic conrtibutions to human psychology are detrimental to scientific inquiry. Having read Neuroscience at UCL I am enouraged by the interest in neuroscience elicited by Pinkers popularization of neuropsychology. However Pinker fails to provide substantive evidence to suppport his claims, besides twin studies and anecdotal evidence. The fact of the matter is that genes are nucleotide bases that code for amino acids which in turn are aggregated to form proteins; how we get from this cellular biochemical arrangement to complex psychological behaviours is beyond me. Although i admire Pinker greatly I can't help but feel that his time would be better spent buttressing evo-psy theory by doing genetic reseach rather than hijacking the hard won discoveries of others in an attempt to support rather flimmsey rationalizations. Genes do determine physical traits and the mind is a product of the biological machinery of the brain (especially the frontal lobes in the case of an individuals personna)however the issue doesnt revolve around which genes do what but rather the extent to which a particular gene is expressed. For example AMPA & NMDA-receptors have been linked to memory formation, it could rather naively be asserted that an increased expression of the genes which code for these proteins may give an individual an intellectual advantage. However synaptogenesis (the formation of synapses) involves myriad genes (Spinster), proteins (Wnts), receptors (Neurexin) and even neuronal activity in the form of action potentials/membrane depolarizations. Furthermore by avoiding physiological differentials between ethnic groups (which unlike hate, anger and criminality can easy be falsified in other mammals) he runs the risk of forming a rather incomplete exposition of genetic determinism. For example Black/African people do produce/express more menalin than caucasian people. Melanin absorbs UV light and prevents it from penetrating the skin where it can have tumourigenic effects on visceral cells. In adition black people have been shown to produce more muscle per unit fat than caucasian people, and they also have denser bones. While these facts are of interest and merit further investigation to fully delineate their clinical relevance, were i or anyone else to use these findings to attribute brutishness or any other undesirable trait requiring physical-prowess to Black/African people i would rightly be chastised. Thus Pinkers frequent reference to the Askenazi Jews and the group of genes reported to be prevelant amongst them which he links to intelligence (as they increase myelination around axons which in turn increases the conduction speed and inferentially the rate at which cognition occurs)is equally repellent. I am not of the credo advocating a moral qualification to the areas of science researched but rather some one who requires that the problems we seek to resolve as scientists are tractable. Perhaps Pinker is a head of his times may be in 100/200 years we may have sectioned out the precise functions of all the genes within the human genome. But until then i reiterate my advice that he join us on the lab bench rather than inflamming the discussion he so desperately wishes to promote.
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Initial post: 28 May 2012 17:08:44 BDT
M. Groves says:
Having a perfect understanding of how genes shape our behaviours, characters and personalities would indeed be useful, and would of course finish the debate between nature and nurture. Pinker doesn't pretend to have this knowledge, and to establish his hypotheses, he has to rely on what information we do have, along with some pretty robust statistical tools, and a chain of reasoning. He shows the evidence for the existence of a subtantial "human nature", and points out the glaring flaws in the idea that our personalities and behaviours are simply products of our environment.
While I admire the work that goes on in labs establishing the detailed facts of how genes work, I think an analysis of what the emerging evidence shows is both interesting and important, particularly since, as Pinker's book emaphasises, a huge amount of social attitude and public policy is based on the incorrect assumption that the environment is what determines our behaviour, our aspirations, our intelligence, our morality, our abilities, etc. There's no such thing as too soon to shed more light on the matter!
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