I received an unexpected e-mail from the Dutch zoologist/cognitivist/linguist Johan Bolhuis that, among other things, asked rhetorically, “How do you evolve a blank slate?” He was referring to John Locke’s famous metaphor for the human mind of the newborn baby. We are born, said Locke, with a blank paper on which experience writes what we learn. The image gained a powerful place in western philosophy and afforded one more separation between humans and animals. Humans learn what their world teaches them and what they figure out; animals, meanwhile, live by instincts.
Although I have thought about the issues behind Bolhuis’s question for many years, I don’t think I have ever heard the matter put so bluntly and neatly. If animals have instincts and humans have blank slates, and if humans evolved from animals with instincts, how did we come to replace those instincts with a blank slate?