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Introducing Loss of Childhood
The Blank Slate and the
Standard Social Science
+ The SSSM as the extreme of ‘blank slate’
thinking in the C20th
The term ‘Standard Social Science Model’ was coined by its critics
rather than its proponents, who define its precepts as:
Humans born as a blank slate
Brain is a “general-purpose” computer
Culture and socialization is what programs behavior
Cultures are free to vary any direction on any trait
Biology is relatively unimportant to understand behavior
Pinker and the SSSM
A prominent critic of the ‘straw man’ that is the SSSM is the
evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. He suggests that
there is ‘a grave moral significance currently attached to the
denial of human nature and of a materialist understanding of
the mind.’ (Pinker 209)
However, despite Pinker’s oversimplifications, he allows us to
move beyond a straight forward oppositional structure of
nature OR nurture.
Pinker on Locke, Rousseau and
Pinker correctly associates the SSSM with Locke’s ideas of the
‘blank slate’ (or ‘white paper’) but he also critiques two other
significant concepts; Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ and
Descartes’ ‘ghost in the machine’. He does this to remove
extreme moral positions from the nature/nurture debate he is
engaging in. This is also how he attempts to remove ethics
and morality from his discussion of science (all the while
qualifying this move by suggesting we may be able to cure
Alzheimer's faster by doing so).
We should consider how the various positions he critiques
are all oversimplifications of (admittedly problematic) moral
philosophies. What repercussions might such a removal of
ethics/morality have?
Nurture or The Blank Slate
‘The first is John Locke’s doctrine of the tabula rasa, the Blank
Slate: that the human mind is infinitely plastic, with all its
structure coming from reinforcement and socialization.’
(Pinker 191)
Nature or the Noble Savage
‘The second belief is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s doctrine of the
Noble Savage: that evil comes not from human nature but
from our social institutions.’ (Pinker 191-2)
Mind/body dichotomy or the Ghost in
the Machine
‘The third doctrine is what Gilbert Ryle called the Ghost in
the Machine: the belief that we are separate from biology,
free to choose our actions and define meaning, value, and
purpose.’ (Pinker 192)
Can we get rid of ethics in science?:
the language problem
Pinker attempts to separate the scientific from the ethical in
order to give space to discuss the nature of the brain away
from its nurture:
‘With a clearer separation of ethics and science, we can have our
values and greet the new understanding of mind, brain, and
human nature not with a sense of terror but with a sense of
excitement.’ (Pinker 209)
This kind of separation becomes impossible when you
consider the simple fact that language is a product of
Thereby the means of discussing or investigation ‘nature’ are
always already infected by ‘nurture’.
Nature as Nurture
The thinkers we will be looking at throughout the module
will help us to see the impossibility of separating ethics from
science – or any discussion of ‘nature’ from ‘nurture.’
They will help us ask questions like:
Are we are we really tied to either nature or nurture defining what
we consider childhood to be?
If we can move beyond the prejudices of both nature and nurture,
what are we left with when we think about childhood?
Is it simply contingent and relative?
Does this mean principles of childhood should be stalwartly
defended against relativism?
If so, what are they and how can this be done?
Has childhood really been lost or is it merely in the process of
becoming something else?