Pinker says: Don't bother disciplining the kids

Previously posted on Annotate
January 2006

I recently started reading Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker, an MIT psychologist, much lauded for his poetic approach to science writing.

There can be no doubt, the man’s a great writer. But he’s also far smarter than the average bear (i.e., me) and I occasionally get lost in the dense thicket of his ideas. Still, I’m always drawn to his work, because he’s willing to confront the scientific fallacies born from political-correctness. He doesn’t shy away from the notion that there are inherent physiological differences between men and women, for instance—differences that may account for men’s proficiency with math and women’s superior language skills.

That said, I don’t always agree with him. I’m particularly skeptical of his take on the nature vs. nurture debate. Those who’ve been following this blog can probably guess where I stand on this issue. I think it’s an artificial dichotomy. I tend to agree with Steven Johnson, author of Mind Wide Open, who says of the protracted nature vs. nurture debate:

Are our mental faculties simply the product of evolved genes, or are they shaped by the circumstances of our upbringing? . . . [This] question has a clear, and I believe convincing answer: they’re both. We are a mix of nature and nurture through and through . . .

In Blank Slate, Pinker paints a decidedly different picture. In the chapter “The Many Roots of Our Suffering,” Pinker writes:

. . . children do not allow their personalities to be shaped by their parent’s nagging, blandishments, or attempts to serve as role models . . . the effect of being raised by a given pair of parents within a given culture is surprisingly small: children who grow up in the same home end up no more alike in personality than children who were separated at birth; adopted siblings grow up to be no more similar than strangers.

I haven’t finished Blank Slate yet, but this paragraph seems to place Pinker squarely in nature’s corner.

Pinker’s thesis seems to fly in the face of common sense. I, for one, am convinced that I wasn’t impervious to my parents “blandishments” as a child and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Pinker appears to be implying that there is no such this as learned behavior. So, how does he account for me, you, and the baby sticklebacks raised by an ornery father? (See "Are rats laughing at us?")

Unfortunately, the nature vs. nurture debate doesn’t seem to be as settled as Johnson suggests. Many are still quick to dismiss the role of nurture.


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