Proceedings from the conference "A blank slate? Brain science and cultures"
Volume 15 (2019)
In the year 2002 when Steven Pinker published his “Tabula rasa”, he explained how, based on the physiological activity of the brain, a peculiar “trait” exclusive to the human species makes free choice possible. In that piece of work, Pinker faced “uncomfortable” issues such as the psychobiological differences between men and women or the genetic components governing violence, intelligence and inner sentiments. Referring back to historical-scientific data he tried to demonstrate that recognising Man’s identity as a result of biological evolution is not a socially dangerous hypothesis, but may even be the indispensable integration of the perceptions given to us, in the past, by art and philosophy.
In 2011, Lamberto Maffei, a neuro-scientist at the Italian National Research Centre and at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, affirmed that: An interesting question for the neurobiologist is whether certain characteristics are already present at birth and therefore attributable to genes that are the underlying basis of a particular brain structure, or whether they are the result of experience …To disentangle the intricate skein that is the result of what is inborn and what is acquired is difficult even when looking at the properties of neurons or more complicated nerve circuits. Naturally the problem is even more complex when we consider how the workings of the human mind affect human behaviour. For example, many writers have wondered whether morality or sensibility to what is considered beautiful or ugly is inborn or acquired.
Could some pre-cultural tendencies or attitudes be an inborn trait common to all the human species? Could this indeed be the case, for example, in many non verbal forms of communication, in language expressions, in belonging to a group, in hierarchy, in aggression or altruism, in the division of male and female roles, in the perception of time? Is it conceivable that some aspects of culture could be transmitted through hereditary genetic mutations? Does the human brain work differently in different cultural environments and could it condition the perception of the world? Are there devices or contrivances that distort perception through consolidated stereotypes, or in favour of one’s own group, opposite to all others?
These are controversial and important issues for those who deal with cultural diversity and human behaviour, and would like to encourage processes that help coexistence and mutual understanding in an increasingly multicultural society.
The conference lasted 3 days. Themes were presented and discussed in two-hour, concurrent workshops. Short summaries of discussions were reported in plenary session the next day.
The conference was held in Florence from April 4th to 6th, 2019.
Francesco Cavalli Sforza
David Sloan Wilson