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Consciousness and Evolution Review Note on Pinker's the Blank Slate

Nov 05, 2002 08:02 AM
by nemonemini

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
by Steven Pinker

Confusing history and evolution

A basic confusion in most evolutionary theories lies in their tacit mixing of 
domains, and their inability to either unify or contrast history and 
evolution. We need a theory that can show how man's actions in history evolve 
in relation to values, and this in relation to possible scenarios of the 
Paleolithic. Darwin's theory is incapable of providing that transitional 
mixture and nosedives into its 'slow change' conservatism applied to modern 
politics (the left is often no better). Such things ought to be embarrasing 
but instead they pass as science. Darwinism especially suffers this problem 
as the 'value of natural selection' as emergentist process is misapplied to 
value issues, speculation restated as fact, and the result is the bedlam of 
ideological entanglement in the 'blank slate/human nature' debate as this 
betrays its ideological character at every point, starting with the now 
archetypical 'Rousseau bashing' of the sociobiologists who have missed the 
point about the Noble Savage.
However, the actual issue of the blank slate is slightly different and its 
extreme form is fairly well challenged here by Pinker. The genetic 
revolution, however, is still a work in progress, so what's in fact is the 
But one can only say good riddance to such an extreme view as the Blank Slate 
in its straw man version, and shrug at the suggestion that something like a 
'human nature' has a genetic component, mindful that for all its flaws the 
blank slate stance was a justified caution near the catastrophic abuse of 
Darwinian racism characteristic of this century. This field is dangerous, and 
has a criminal record, and Pinker's indignation at our caution is not really 
justified. Having declared in part for human nature, we should ask who can 
define it, and how, and how did its definition become outright political 
football? The basic issue is the inadequacy of Darwin's theory of natural 
selection. Without that mechanism, reask the question, What is human nature, 
please? Millennia of men, for example, have held beliefs in the soul, and the 
technocratic definition of man, which Rousseau foresaw with dread, and 
speaking oneself as a secularist, is simply presumptuous in the extreme if it 
thinks that Darwinian selectionism can settle this issue in the negative. The 
crackpot secularism thinking it has Darwinian grounds to outlaw these 
'superstitions' will end in a collision. The question is not even spiritual 
in its Buddhist version, the material soul being an aspect of quite another 
'evolutionary psychology', fully atheist and materialist, as seen in the 
ancient Jainism. By the way, how and when did such commonsensical 
evolutionary psychologies evolve themselves, to be visible at such an early 
date? The point is that we know virtually nothing about the full scope of the 
true version of the Descent of Man. These are the fatal limits of Darwinism. 
We should not be confusing the theory of how things evolved, especially if 
their evidence is inadequate, with how things should be now and in the 
future, or the result is the flaunting of wretched whiggery so evident in 
Pinker's denial of ideology, with its standard debunking of the 'utopian 
nonsense'.Reviewing books on evolution can become repetitive: it is always 
the same problem, natural selection run riot as an explanatory device of 
theory. Thus it is tempting to join the fray on particulars, but this results 
in chaotification of discourse, a characteristic of the Blank Slate 
proponents, now in retreat, seemingly, in the genetic revolution. Since the 
technocratic redefinition of man has succeeded in imposing this Darwinian 
belief system, with insufficient evidence, one feels a sense of helplessness 
in joining the fray. One can only say, be wary. The nature of man, and his 
human nature, cannot be determined properly with Darwin's theory. Since this 
point can no longer be defended properly in public, one simply goes 
underground like a Buddhist.
This is said as a challenge to the sociobiological triumphalism so evident in 
this otherwise interesting book. Such an attitude is mostly the result of its 
own overpromotion, and a factor in its success is precisely the appeal to a 
version of conservatism that transmits Burkean views of Rousseau. This joke 
isn't very funny, and Marxists have themselves failed to sort out the 
confusion. The question, re Rousseau, is not the blank slate, but the actual 
urgency of 'real change' against resistance, whether external or internal. It 
is pointless to lambast utopian Marxism, if the same argument could, and 
certainly was, applied to the revolutionary appearance of democracy. It is 
worth noting the suspicious resemblance of the sociobiologists' views to 
those of Hume. What has research changed here?

John Landon
Website on the eonic effect

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