We're not blank slates

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Kevin Devine and Susan Rosenthal make some valid points about the importance of social environment in the genesis of mental disorder, in their defence of Oliver James’s book Not In Your Genes (Feedback, September SR).

But this doesn’t prevent their “blank slate” view of the mind being not just scientifically flawed, but also potentially reactionary in a political sense.

Lest we forget, the view that the organism can be treated as a black box, infinitely malleable by the environment, was the dominant scientific viewpoint in Stalinist Russia. There it was led by the pseudo-scientific ideas of Trofim Lysenko, whose botched agricultural methods killed hundreds of thousands of Russian peasants.

In the US in the 1950s psychologists such as B F Skinner based their view of human behaviour on the model of rats pressing levers for a reward. This viewpoint led to autistic and schizophrenic individuals being seen as the product of so-called “refrigerator mothers” — high-achieving, emotionally cold women too concerned with forging a brilliant career to give their children a loving and nurturing home environment.

James’s book not only completely misrepresents the situation when he says that we have learned nothing about human disorders — including mental conditions — from recent genetic studies. It is also that his alternative explanation — that it is primarily “bad” parenting that causes mental disorders — both misunderstands the subtle nature of the interaction between environment and biology, and also ends up blaming parents for their children’s schizophrenia, autism, and so on.

So James blames (posthumously) Paula Yates for the death of her daughter, Peaches Geldof, while later in the book we are told that autism in children is largely due to their mothers being “stressed or anxious” during pregnancy.

The main problem here is not the emphasis on the environment, or the role of the family in mental disorder. It is rather the lack of recognition of the importance of individual biology that helps us to understand how one person can respond to society and family stress in one way, while another person responds in a completely different way.

Essentially, this viewpoint is a form of dualism, in treating the body and mind as different entities. In other words, it is a form of idealism.

Ultimately this viewpoint can lead to ordinary parents being blamed for their children’s mental disorders, while undermining the medical research — now threatened by neoliberal austerity measures — that can help to better understand, and therefore treat, disorders of the mind.

John Parrington
Oxford