The Blank Slate is Steven Pinker’s most prominent book. Over the years I have been feeling that it is more and more important to read just to get a sense of how the world works, perhaps because I’m now a parent. Obviously incorrect assumptions about the nature of reality, and human nature, can lead to disastrous consequences (see: Communism). One of the major issues that one can see from the personal perspective is that the blank slate deludes us with the perception that we are more in control than we are as to how the world shakes out. In a previous post about autism and heritability I tried to calm people down, including myself. And, in earlier comments about behavior genetics and heritability I thought it was useful to emphasize that genetics is the one thing you can control, via picking your partner. Many of the outcomes that are due to environment, and they are not trivial, are just not accounted for. We know that something non-genetic has occurred, but we have no idea.
But, there’s another side of the issue, and that is the conclusion that people take from the blank slate model of human behavior, where there has to be a cause, and where it leads people as they flail about for effective choices that make them feel empowered. Recently I was having a conversation with a friend who works in child development, and she mentioned that she knew of a family where all three sons were at some point along the autism spectrum. The two older sons were on the severe end. As someone conscious of genetics it seems highly unlikely that there isn’t a biological reason for why this couple had three children who exhibit tendencies along the spectrum. But here’s the kicker: the mother did not vaccinate her youngest son. Without awareness and acceptance of a likely genetic factor in this instance she attempted to impose the simulacrum of control upon her world by removing one possible environmental causal variant, even if all the research suggests that is not at issue. It’s easy to take a step back when you are not in the specific situation, and coldly evaluate statistics. That’s obviously not going to happen in this case, but, our society’s lack of awareness of the biological parameters which shape outcomes is clear in this particular case.