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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Biology vs. the Blank Slate: Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker deconstructs the great myths about how the mind works

"Pinker: Some of the issues I explore are concerns of the left, which sees evolutionary and genetic approaches to the mind as reactionary. Others annoy the right, which thinks that a materialist view of the mind that incorporates computation, neuroscience, evolution, and genetics undermines the basis of morality and leaves us with only a dangerous amoralism...

The blank slate is the doctrine that the mind has no unique structure and that its entire organization comes from the environment via socialization and learning. The blank slate mentality is popular with people who believe that any human trait can be altered with the right changes in social institutions. It's popular in the more radical branches of feminism, although not with the original core of feminism that stressed the drive for equity between the sexes. I think it allies to some degree with Marxist approaches to society...

The doctrine of the noble savage is that people have no evil impulses, that all malice is a product of social institutions. The noble savage myth is behind the sensibility that violence is learned behavior, a slogan that is repeated endlessly whenever violence is chronicled in the news. It's also behind the Romantic idea that violent nonconformists are actually seeing the hypocrisy of society and challenging social institutions from a marginalized viewpoint, as opposed to the idea that such people are psychopaths and that we should prevent them from wreaking havoc on everyone else.

The doctrine of the ghost in the machine is that people are inhabited by an immaterial soul that is the locus of free will and choice and which can't be reduced to a function of the brain. The ghost in the machine [idea] lies behind the religious and cultural right -- literally in the case of people who want to couch the stem cell debate in terms of when ensoulment occurs...

Even if you acknowledge, as you have to acknowledge, that learning, socialization, and culture are indispensable aspects of human behavior, you have to admit that you can't have culture unless you have some kind of innate circuitry that can invent and acquire culture to begin with...

Careful studies show that hunter-gatherers are dead serious about war. They make weapons as destructive as their ingenuity permits. And if they can get away with it, they massacre every man, woman, and child. In our own society, which is far more peaceful than the native groups, if you ask people whether they have ever fantasized about killing someone, anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of the men and about 40 percent to 60 percent of women say that they have.

Reason: You say in The Blank Slate that Hobbes was right and Rousseau was wrong. Is civilization basically the development of institutions designed to rein in male violence?

Pinker: That's what the rule of law is, and that's what a democracy is for... We can have lust and mayhem in our hearts, but not necessarily in our actions...

Neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life -- every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory -- can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain. Cognitive science has shown that feats that were formerly thought to be doable by mental stuff alone can be duplicated by machines, that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation... Intelligence, which formerly seemed miraculous -- something that mere matter could not possibly accomplish or explain -- can now be understood as a kind of computation process...

We can't account for about half of the variation in things like personality and intellect. I suspect that this 50 percent of the variation that is neither in the genes nor in the family may be chance events in development, the way your brain wires itself up within the constraints of the genes...

Whether you inhaled a virus or your mother inhaled a virus, whether you got the top bunk bed or the bottom bunk bed. All kinds of uncontrollable events that may have a profound role in making us who we are... When you look at genetically homogenous strains of roundworms and fruit flies growing up in a well-controlled monotonous laboratory environment, they are not the same. They have physical differences. They have longevity differences...

The fear on the left is that if there is a human nature, we won't be free to design a better society in the future. They worry that we are marionettes or meat puppets on the ends of strings and that we're doomed to create a world of oppression and inequality...

What we call free will is a product of particular circuits of the brain, presumably concentrated in the prefrontal lobes, that respond to contingencies of responsibility and credit and blame and reward and punishment and alter their operations as a consequence...

We can adopt measures that achieve greater equality if we decide that that is a social good. I think all that biology tells us is that there may be costs as well as benefits. It is not a new idea, but people have pointed out that equality of outcome and equality of opportunity are not only different but they are necessarily in conflict. That doesn't mean necessarily that you have to sacrifice equality of outcome. It just means that different political ideologies can be arrayed on what point along that tradeoff they argue is best."
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