Nemonemini on Tue, 5 Nov 2002 17:02:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Review Note on Pinker's The Blank Slate

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, st! arting 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 point?
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 think! s 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 ev! olution 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