Dominic Fairfax Forum
Dominic Fairfax Forum

TABULA RASA - True or not?

Are we tabula rasa? The idea that human beings are tabula rasa – blank slates onto which virtually anything can be written has been around for a very long time. Philosophers such as Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas lent support to this view. The term was coined by the 17th Century philosopher, John Locke.


Ever since that time, social and experimental psychologists have debated whether nurture or nature or both are responsible for our personalities and behavioural traits. Biological determinism enthusiasts have vehemently defended their perspective that nature not nurture is responsible for differences in human beings and it has often been cited as a case for eugenics. Nature is obviously the determining factor for physical appearances and things such as whether an individual has red hair and good eye sight or not but with regard to intelligence, behaviour and personality, it is much more complex. Unless an individual is born with obvious learning difficulties or an organic mental condition it is difficult to see how intelligence cannot be affected by the environment in which he or she grows. We all know that trees and plants thrive in environmental conditions necessary for their health. We also know that they will wither, become blighted and unhealthy or even die if planted in inappropriate conditions. Environment plays a vital part, even more so for human beings. We also know that if we are brought up in one country we will generally adhere to the norms, modes and values of that country or culture and may even be nationalistic. We must be aware, however, that if we were brought up in a completely different culture or country we would just as easily adhere to the values, modes and norms of that one.


It is the case however, that some children are born gifted in the field of music or mathematics to parents of only average intelligence and sometimes below. Where did the genius IQ come from? The brain works in mysterious ways and I don’t think anybody really knows all the answers. We can only glean that it is the result of the way the brain’s electrical impulses work - the neurons, neurotransmitters and synopses. Why they should work in this way on one person and that way on another is an enigma. If it was known, perhaps intelligence could be enhanced and peculiar thought patterns like schizophrenia could be stopped by altering the brain’s impulses. Another peculiar example is savant autism whereby an individual cannot wholly learn the basic life and social skills to survive yet is a genius at piano, violin, art, architecture or memorising.


Evolutionary psychologists invariably postulate their ideas regarding reproduction and ‘mate selection’. They tend to believe that females are ‘hard wired’ to seek out men who are tall, broad-shouldered, small-buttocked, small-waisted, healthy, intelligent and wealthy in the hope that their children will inherit such qualities. They wouldn’t have much luck round here then. Males, they state, are hard-wired to look for women who are attractive with body sizes conducive to child-bearing. They also look for big eyes, youth, clear skin, health and good teeth. Again, they wouldn’t have any luck around here although ironically, the locals nearly all have mates who do not possess the above attributes. In fact, it is much more likely that all over the world, the majority of ‘mates’ are fairly plain, not tall, not intelligent, overweight, underweight, spotty, unhealthy with bad teeth and lank hair but they do not appear to have any difficulty mating.  


All things considered it would seem that although there seem to be some genetically based predispositions towards certain personality traits within families, it is likely that we are mostly tabula rasa. Feral children provide an indication of this. There are reports of abandoned children being ‘brought up’ by dogs, wolves, chickens and the like who emulate the behaviour of the animal. This is an extremely odd and somewhat disturbing feature of we human beings since it makes it seem as if we are ‘no thing’ and can only become what we know as human as long as we have others to imitate. If a kitten is reared by a kangaroo or a human it cannot possibly imitate its carer; it still behaves like a kitten because it is pre-programmed to do so. Although organic we are a bit like computers; if we were not given any information, we would not know. It must be true that we are mainly tabula rasa because otherwise we would observe innate or pre-determined, intelligent behaviour in feral children. It would seem that it is interaction, continuous stimulation, language and the socialisation process that ‘makes us human’. Without these, we would probably be feral ourselves. Although unethical, imagine for a few horrible moments, that in a controlled experiment, a baby monkey, a rabbit, a puppy, a kitten and a human being were all reared in cages in total isolation from each other, never seeing the experimenters faces but all were fed, cleaned and attended in their basic needs. At the end of say, six years, each except the human being would behave more or less the same as its type, although of course, the animals might be aggressive or timid due to isolation. It is hard to imagine what the human being would be like. It would be as if he or she were ‘no thing’. It is really horrible. The idea of ‘hard wiring’ to behave in certain ways seems mainly to apply to basic instincts. It is likely that if we were not filled with knowledge and other’s guidance we would be in a sorry state. Consider for example a world where there were only children; no guidance, no parents. William Golding explored this theme in his novel Lord of the Flies and it is not at all pleasant.


The environment must play the greater part in determining the outcome of the individual. In particular, social class is the most fundamental aspect. Insufficient exogamy in deprived areas means that people are only likely to meet partners from the same. They will have children and their children will emulate them and so on. In general, it is self-perpetuating because that is all they know. It may even be the case that nature and nurture work simultaneously. Generally, if people are undereducated with poor manners their children are likely to be the same unless they come into contact with influences from very different environments. It is probably stratification that causes the differences in intellect. There are exceptions of course but for every child from a poor background who makes it into the world of high academia there will be millions who will not. A child who is brought up in a bookish, studious home with loving parents and a comfortable degree of economic security will inevitably fair better than a child brought up in scrimp-scrape poverty with angry, frustrated, anxious, warring or absent parents who came from the same kind of background themselves. Such parents are essentially hurt children. They have unresolved issues and conflicts from their own childhoods which they oft times take out on their child albeit unwittingly. A child from an impoverished, loveless, fearful and insecure background will lack self-confidence and this is the all-important ingredient that thwarts or promotes his or her intellectual and emotional growth. This is not to say that all economically poor families cannot look after their children or that all financially secure people can but you get the general gist. It is the love that is the main ingredient but environment really does matter. And yes, it is probable that with the exception of basic biological instincts, we are essentially tabula rasa.

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