Response To Steven Pinker: Why I Didn’t Write About The G-Word
I was interested to see the following tweet that Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker sent out about my review of Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed”:
@sapinker The Blank Slate persists: NY Times review of development of character doesn’t mention the g-word.
Pinker, of course, is the author of the “The Blank Slate,” the 2002 book arguing that “many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature,” instead embracing the notion that “the mind has no innate traits.” The g-word that I left out of my review is “genes.”
I confess that I never thought about genetic influences while I was reading Tough’s book and writing my review. (Tough never mentions genes, either.) Perhaps that’s evidence that I’m in thrall to exactly the blank slate “dogma” that Pinker denounces.
But I’m left to wonder how a discussion of genes would have factored into my review of Tough’s book, which is about the importance of “non-cognitive” skills like persistence and conscientiousness and how parents and educators can help children build them.
Would it have led to an assumption (or at least a speculation) that those children who thrive despite a disadvantaged background must be genetically blessed? Would it have led to an acknowledgement that some character strengths, like conscientiousness, have a heritable component?
Maybe. But I find it hard to see what the inclusion of a genetic perspective would have added to Tough’s book or my review. We have no way of knowing (not yet, anyway) what combination of genes individual children possess that will allow them to take advantage, or not, of the interventions described in Tough’s book.
Given that, and given the evidence Tough presents that these interventions do make a difference for many children, what would a discussion of genes add to the debate?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. (You can read the full review here.)