What I'm reading

The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker, which I’ll probably review for the AFR. It’s very well written and generally well-argued but, as in most books on the perennial nature-nurture debate, caricatures the other side and promises more than it delivers. Here’s an extract from my draft review.

Pinker is a linguist and takes the acquisition of language, more precisely, the acquisition by children of their native language, as the paradigm example of learning. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that children’s brains are hardwired for the learning of language, based on the simple observation that two-year olds perform with ease a feat which most adults find exceptionally difficult.
But the exceptional nature of this feat should alert us to the dangers in using it as a paradigm. Langugage is the only characteristically human cognitive feat for which we are obviously hardwired (like most other complex animals, we are also hardwired for vision and other senses). For nearly everything else, the Blank Slate metaphor seems appropriate. Thanks to the environment in which I grew up, I can solve functional equations, swim the Australian crawl and perform many other tasks unknown to my hunter-gatherer ancestors. On the other hand, I can’t make or throw a spear or distinguish edible from deadly forms of bush tucker.
A striking instance of the absence of hard-wired functionality relates to kinship systems. Pinker stresses the cultural universality of kinship. Yet even a relatively simple kinship system such as that prevailing in modern Western societies presents a formidable learning task for most children, and puzzles of the form ‘brothers and sisters I have none, but that man’s father is my father’s son’ baffle many adults. There is little to suggest that the capacity to learn kinship systems is any more hardwired than the capacity to learn trigonometry.

Comments much appreciated