Students Leave Lecture Without Blank Slate

November 10, 2002

Lynn Rice, <i>Hullabaloo</i> Staff Writer

No standing room remained in Dixon Recital Hall Oct. 25; every seat, step and patch of flooring was occupied. Despite Parents Weekend and the accompanying Homecoming festivities, hundreds of students and faculty members gathered to hear Steven Pinker speak on his theory of human nature.

Steven Pinker, professor of Psychology in the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researches language and cognition. He has authored nine books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules and, most recently, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Pinker has received numerous awards for his writings and research, including an honorary doctorate and a Troland award from the National Academy of Sciences. Pinker traveled to Tulane University through the Crossroads Colloquium program, a workshop and lecture series designed to bring together students from the humanities and the sciences to discuss issues relevant across the two fields.

The colloquium was established one year ago when Peter Aaron, a Tulane College alumnus, made a donation to the English department. Aaron's generous donation allowed the department to branch out and bring in nationally recognized big name scientists to speak at the colloquium. Stephen Jay Gould, professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University, now deceased, established himself as the first speaker in the Crossroads Colloquium when he delivered an animated speech in October of 2001 on "Evolution and Human Nature: Quirky Consequences and Unpredictable Contingencies."

Gould and Pinker harbor many common interests, but their fundamental views on human nature are very different. In 1997, the two actually went head to head and debated in an exchange on evolutionary psychology for the New York Book Review. The similarities between the speakers, however, are purely coincidental; evolutionism is not the focus of the colloquium.

Gaurav Desai, associate professor of English at Tulane and head of the program, said, "The program is broadly conceived and the subject matter is really wide open. The goal is to bring students together into a multidisciplinary, intellectual forum outside the scope of required academic lectures."

This year's program began with a workshop with Pinker, moderated by Geoffrey Harpham, professor of English at Tulane. The workshop gave Tulane students, staff and faculty the opportunity to meet Pinker and ask questions in an informal setting. The scope of the questions was broad, ranging from technical questions regarding neuroscience and brain imaging to ethical questions on parenting. A reception and Pinker's formal lecture followed the workshop.

During the formal lecture, Pinker challenged Locke's theory of empiricism, that the human mind is a tabula rasa at birth upon which genetics have no bearing. He presented alternate theories, including the ghost in the machine and the noble savage, and then went on to discuss society's fears and anxieties associated with rejecting the blank slate notion. These included the fear of inequality, the fear of imperfectability, the fear of determinism and the fear of nihilism.

Pinker offered a logical response to each of these fears. He concluded his lecture by bringing his theories into a more practical context and discussing how the conception of human nature affects us on a human level as opposed to a causal level.

Of Pinker's style, Chuck Michelson, a graduate student in neuroscience, said, "My favorite aspect of his talk was the way he pointed out the non-sequiters associated with the different fears and then responded to them."

His arguments were subtle and logical. Indeed, Pinker did not take an extreme stance. He credited the importance of both genetic determinism and environmental factors in human development. His arguments for determinism, however, were emphasized throughout the lecture. Pinker, who engages in twin studies in his laboratory, discussed the striking similarities between identical twins, even when raised separately. He told the story of a set of identical twins separated at birth, one raised by a Nazi Catholic family and the other by a Jewish family in Germany.

Both twins dipped their buttered toast in coffee, flushed the toilet before and after using it and purposely sneezed in elevators just to make people jump. He also emphasized the fatality of the blank slate, citing proponents of the theory such as the Khmer Rouge and Mao Zedong. At the end of the lecture, there were too many questions and not enough time.

Pinker entertained as many questions as time would permit. Regarding social Darwinism, Pinker strongly affirmed that he is not a social Darwinist. Instead, he believes that morality stems from reciprocal altruism in a moral evolutionary sense. Additionally, he does not feel that human perception can alter reality. Response to the lecture was overwhelmingly positive. Students and faculty alike found the lecture enjoyable and thought provoking.

Laura Manning, a University College student, said, "I've been a Steven Pinker cheerleader for a while, and while he didn't present any new information in his lecture, he did an excellent job of presenting the theory of genetic determinism to a general audience." The English department has yet to determine what's on tap for the Crossroads Colloquium next year.

Desai said, "I'd like to find someone in the field of public health or possibly an astronomer, ideally female. Its hard to know where student interest lies, though. We were very pleased with our large turnout the past two years, and would like to see the trend continue."

For more information on the Crossroads Colloquium, visit ~crosscol/. Additional information on Steven Pinker and his research can be found at his personal home page, Signed copies of Pinker's book, The Blank Slate, are available in the Tulane Bookstore for a limited time.

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