Tuesday, February 21, 2006
First Aired: 
Dec 13, 2004

What is it

The philosopher John Locke thought we had no innate ideas; our minds are blank slates, upon which experience writes.  Nurture is everything, nature nothing.  Modern popular genetics gives the impression that we are nothing but the stage on which a play written by our genes is performed; nature is everything, nurture nothing.  What are the facts, and what are the philosophical principles that are used to interpret these facts? John and Ken nurture their conversation with Alison Gopnik from UC Berkeley, author of The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind.

Listening Notes

What is nativism? There is a version that talks about individual differences. There is another version that talks about universals of human nature. How settled are things when you are born? Ken introduces Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at Berkeley. Is it simply nature versus nurture, or is it more complicated? Gopnik thinks that it is a conceptually confused contrast. The things that make us human, our capacities for learning, also allow us to interact with and change our environment more than any other species. Nature interacts with nurture and vice versa. Gopnik says that studies of newborn babies show that the blank slate idea is false. 

Pinker and Chomsky think that the things that are innate are also the things that never change. Gopnik thinks that the innate knowledge can be changed. Are our preferences for things innate? Babies understand at an early age that people have desires that might be different from theirs. Do beliefs work the same way? How does innate knowledge get into babies' brains? How does imagination interact with innate knowledge? Do other animals use pretense and imagination? What do twin studies show about the nature versus nurture debate? Gopnik says that if you look at rich children, nature plays a bigger role than in poor children, for whom nurture plays a bigger role. Gopnik says that people shape their environments based on innate tendencies so that, for example, people with a tendency for depression are more likely to experience things that will lead them to depression. 

Why do people get upset when they hear nativism defended? Is there anything that helps babies learn? Gopnik thinks that imaginate play and “getting into stuff” are the things that help babies understand the world the most. We talk about innate beliefs and theories, but how do we have innate beliefs when it is only stuff in the brain that can be innate?

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:30): Amy Standen goes to a San Francisco preschool to find out how little children behave to get an idea about innate behavior. 
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:25): Ian Shoales gives us the rundown on what philosophers and psychologists have said about the nature versus nurture debate, from Locke to Freud to Chomsky.

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Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley

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