This article was first published in the July/August 2023 issue of IQ, the exclusive magazine for British Mensa members. Find out more about becoming a Mensa member here.
Katie Cutforth explores another debunked scientific belief that fooled even the brightest minds in the world at the time.
One of life’s great mysteries is what makes human beings tick. On the one hand, there’s the idea that we are born with pre-determined characteristics and knowledge, an idea that can be traced back to Plato. Then there is ‘blank slate’ theory, or tabula rasa (literally meaning ‘scraped tablet’ in Latin), which argues that human beings are born with pristine minds, free of mental content, and that everything we think, know and do is shaped by our environment and our experiences.
This theory can be traced back to Aristotle, who wrote of the mind as an “unscribed tablet”. The idea was supported and developed further by the Stoic school of Ancient Greek philosophy, which encourages individuals to hone their own character through self-discipline and control.
This curious tabula rasa theory is most widely associated with the 17th-century philosopher John Locke. Arguing that we are all born as “blank slates”, Locke emphasised the freedom of every person to be master of their own identity and character without the constraints of inherited or innate nature.
The ‘blank slate’ idea continued into modern psychology. It featured in the theory of psychoanalysis; Freud too was a believer that we are purely products of our upbringing, with a minimal role played by genetics or innate characteristics. B. F. Skinner, the father of Behavioural Psychology, used the analogy to argue that almost all human behaviour is learned from our environment by reinforcement.
However, modern psychologists and neurologists have disproved the idea that we are born as completely ‘blank slates’. The most damning evidence has come from cognitive, neural, and genetic sciences. Empirical studies have shown that humans have an innate sense of spatial awareness and a capacity for emotion, as well as an instinct to acquire spoken language. Studies of identical twins separated at birth have also revealed remarkable similarities that can only be explained by their genetic makeup, particularly regarding personal characteristics, such as IQ, vulnerability to alcoholism and gender identity.
While the idea that we are born with spotless minds has been widely debunked, the question of nature vs nurture is still the subject of much debate – in fact, we may never fully grasp the extent to which genetics and environment contribute to human development, but we can have a lot of fun discussing it.
Tabula rasa – a phrase that keeps popping up in culture
This colourful phrase has frequently found its way into popular culture.
- Tabula Rasa was a multiplayer online video game launched in 2007, which focused on humanity’s last stand against a group of aliens called the Bane.
- Published in 2021, Ruth Downie’s novel Tabula Rasa saw her fictional detective Gaius Petreius Ruso (a Roman army doctor) investigate murders during the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.
- The beautiful Tabula Rasa is also a piece of music written by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 1977, and contains two movements for two solo violins, prepared piano and chamber orchestra.
- The Icelandic singer Bjork also released a song call Tabula Rasa in 2017, which addressed the original meaning of the phrase, albeit with the inclusion of ‘parental advisory’ lyrics.
- And for those who enjoy a contemporary cocktail with their Aristotle there is a café, aperitivo and cocktail bar in Leeds city centre called… Tabula Rasa.