The folks at The Corner like to fancy themselves intellectuals. But their grasp of philosophical and scientific issues is, shall we say, not impressive. This post is from Derbyshire
These just-published results on the recent and continuing evolution of the human brain are going to cause a lot of fuss ... They are telling us that: (1) Human evolution, including the evolution of the brain, did not come to a screeching halt when modern man emerged from (as we now believe) Africa around 50,000 years ago, and scattered to populate different regions of the earth, with very different environments. (2) Evolution, including brain evolution, did not proceed in precisely the same direction, at precisely the same rate, in every human group, in every region and environment.
From anyone acquainted with elementary biology, these two propositions will come as no surprise. They none the less are a lance right through the heart of the current "Blank Slate" model of human nature, on which all our current social policy is based -- which, indeed, forms the foundation of the Standard Social Science Model, with all its blather about "social constructions" and "power relations." Blank Slatism will be a long time a-dying, for reasons to do with politics and wishful thinking, but it is now on the retreat, and all the battles will be, for the Blank Slaters, rearguard actions.
...[An interesting irony here, one I rather enjoy, is that the Intelligent Design people should have no trouble accepting these results ... So I.D.-ers and orthodox Darwinists like myself are on the same side here, standing up for science, while the Blank Slaters -- for example, practically the entire Humanities faculty of every American university -- are the redneck fundamentalists with their heads in the sand!]
OK, I haven't done a poll or anything, but I find it highly
unlikely that "practically the entire Humanities faculty of every American university" subscribes to the 'Blank Slate' view. I don't know anyone
who believes in a Blank Slate; even Locke didn't really believe in it, at least not the version of it that Derbyshire is attacking.*
Right-wingers are awfully fond of making generalizations about universities, and they almost always end up looking like jackasses. For example, any conservative worth his topsiders can tell you that almost every university is a "hotbed" of postmodernism. This is, of course, a crock of shit
. But when did conservatives ever let that stop them?
* Here's what Simon Blackburn
had to say about Locke in his review of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate
, which he regards (correctly, in my opinion) as a similar exercise in tearing down straw men:
[Pinker] hails from the citadel of nativism, the linguistic and philosophy departments at M.I.T. The enemy is empiricism, and the blank slate of the title is the “tabula rasa” or white paper to which John Locke famously compared the human mind. The doctrine of the blank slate is taken to deny that we have a nature at all. The blank slate is the universal human endowment, which waits passively to be written on by experience and environment. It has no nature; or to put it another way, nothing in its nature determines the upshot when experience does its work. It is the clay waiting for the sculptor to form it, and the sculptor can make anything at all of it. It is this model of the mind, and its political and practical implications, that are Pinker’s target.
We might feel some disquiet about Pinker’s polemic when we remember that Locke himself held no such view and intended no such view by his famous analogy. He is perfectly happy with the idea that the nature of the slate or paper may determine what can be written on it. As a good Christian, Locke believed that an All-Wise Maker has granted us a very definite constitution, enabling us to know what we need to know and not much more. We can know what matters to us and know how to do what is good for us. But Locke also believes in our fallen nature, and he is constantly harping on “the narrow measure of our capacities” and the ways in which we are not fitted for various kinds of understanding, whereas better endowed creatures, such as angels, might be. Locke, in other words, thought that basic powers and limitations of our human nature determined the scope and the limits of our understanding. You cannot think that, if you also deny that we have a human nature at all.
Locke wanted only to deny innate ideas and innate knowledge, not innate powers or tendencies, nor innate limitations, nor innate cognitive and emotional capacities. This may sound like a mere historical quibble, but it arouses a powerful doubt about Pinker’s diagnosis of modernity.