The Left and Evolution

I was educated as a biologist and evolutionary theory remains an intellectual interest of mine. I spent many hours in my youth arguing with “scientific” creationists. These hours were largely spent educating the creationists on the actual theory they were criticizing, or debating the finer philosophical points of scientific methodology. I eventually gave up due to pure frustration because in the end creationists believe what they believe as a matter of faith. You can’t argue somebody out of his faith.

So this post over at Powerline pointing to a biology professor who is denouncing the Powerline guys for being idiots because one of them doesn’t believe in evolution grabbed my attention .

Creationists are exasperating because they never study evolutionary theory in any detail. Since they start with the unshakable presumption that the theory is wrong, they can never actually honestly analyze the theory and therefore can never understand it in any depth. They just skim over the theory looking for points that confuse them and then pronounce the misunderstood points as fatal flaws within the theory itself.

Frankly, most creationists’ knowledge of evolutionary theory boils down to, “them scientist fellas what says we alls comes from monkeys!”

Of course, this is a much different view of evolutionary theory than that held by the majority of secular leftists. Their superior educations and their generally more open-minded and inquisitive natures have given them a view of evolutionary theory that might be summed up as, “them scientist fellas what says we alls comes from monkeys!”

I’m not kidding.

Your average leftist is every bit as clueless about evolutionary theory as any stereotypical bible-thumping hick with an 8th-grade education. Worse, leftists hypocritically extol evolutionary theory when it advances their political agenda, but then turn on it viciously when it does not.

Superficially, leftists appear to embrace evolutionary theory to such an extent that most creationists believe that evolutionary theory is itself just a pseudoscientific construction of the Left — used to advance their political power, social authority and intellectual dominance. It is easy to see where they get that impression. For the last 150 years, the Left has used evolution to undercut the authority of religion and tradition. By attacking the fundamental cosmology of religion they have sought to drive religious authority from the public and intellectual spheres. Once religion and tradition are discredited, the only source of answers for life dilemmas is — surprise, surprise — the secular intellectual.

However, the Left’s embrace of evolutionary theory begins and ends with its utility as a materialistic explanation for the origins of humanity. In every other aspect they violently reject evolutionary theory as having any explanatory power. One need to look no further than the savaging of Harvard president Larry Summers to see this hypocrisy in action.

Leftists pilloried Summers because he transgressed against the a central tenet of the leftist faith, the blank-slate model of the origins of human behavior. The blank-slate model holds that human intellect and behavior are strictly the products of learning that occurs after birth. It is a very old idea that shows up in many different eras and cultures . Throughout history, most thinkers have viewed human behavior as resulting from some undetermined ratio of genetics to learning (nature vs. nurture). In the West we have seen a spectrum that has run from someone like Hitler, who viewed human behavior as 90% genetic and 10% learned, to the leftists who hold that human behavior is 100% learned and 0% genetic, with everybody else guessing somewhere between those extremes.

The political implications of the blank-slate model have a long and, in the 20th century, bloody history. The full implications are too large for this post, but it is important to understand that the 100% blank-slate model is not some wacko fringe idea but is instead a central tenet of mainstream leftist ideology. Leftists base their claim to be able to solve most of the problems of humanity, on the presumption that with the construction of the proper environment they can create any behavior needed to make the world a better place.

In reaction to fascism in the wake of WWII, the intellectual dominance of the blank-slate was total. Anyone who posited the most minimum influence of genetics on human behavior was denounced as a literal fascist. Even conditions like schizophrenia and autism were blamed on environmental factors like cold and distant mothers. Only in the last 20 years has the facade begun to crack, but as the Summers incident shows it is still alive and well within the mainstream Left.

The blank-slate model holds that genes (baring obvious genetic illness like Down Syndrome) have no effect on human intellect or behavior. Each healthy human is at birth mentally interchangeable with every other human. Genes may control every other facet of our physiology but not our brains. The differences we see between individuals as they grow arise solely from their psychological environment.

However, in regards to evolutionary theory, the blank-slate does present one rather major problem:

It is completely impossible to reach the state of genetic equality posited by the blank-slate via the process of natural selection.

The driving engine of natural selection is variation between individuals. This was Darwin’s critical insight. Natural selection selects between variations. No variation means no evolution. This central principle of evolutionary theory means that if human brains were as functionally identical on the genetic level as posited by the blank-slate model, then our brains could have never evolved in the first place!

If a person claims to believe that the human mind is the result of the materialistic functioning of the brain, and that the brain arose via a process of natural selection as advanced by contemporary evolutionary theory, but he also holds that individuals’ innate genetic intellectual and behavioral capacities do not vary significantly from individual to individual, then that person is either profoundly ignorant or a hypocrite. (Or perhaps both, a ignocrite?)

Most leftists have no clue about the many implications of evolutionary theory for their ideology. They only know, but in a very vague sense, that leftist authority figures have declared that smart people believe in evolution. The authority figures tell them that anybody trying to apply evolutionary theory to real world human behavior is automatically a fascist. The average leftist, secure in his educated ignorance, just trots along behind authority figures bleating about the superiority of their own particular flock of intellectual sheep.

This is just one of the many areas in which the behavior of the secular Left is indistinguishable from that of religious zealots. The only difference between scientific creationists, and the leftists who had an attack of the vapors while listening to Summers, is which intellectual authority figures they blindly follow. In terms of scientific ignorance, they are engaged in a race to the bottom.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out who I think is winning.

(update: Many commenters have expressed disbelief that the 100% blank-slate view of human cognition actually exist. Some have suggested I have erected a strawman or otherwise engage in hyperbole. I have not. I realize that the intellectual history of views on human cognition is not a subject most people are well versed in (why should they be?) but I assure you the extreme position outlined above is quite real, it is quite old and guite widespread. Here is an excerpt from Steven Pinkers The Blank-Slate that gives one a taste of the extent by which this idea has spread in Western thought)

71 thoughts on “The Left and Evolution”

  1. There are a couple of ironies here.

    The first is that religious faith, while apparently irrational, seems to offer certain survival advantages, in a Darwinian sense, for both individuals and groups. &nbsp Belief in God often provides psychological strength and motivation to persevere through life’s difficulties, to change self-destructive behavior, to care for a mate and children, or to sacrifice oneself for the common good. &nbsp Likewise, religious traditions can strengthen communities and entire nations. &nbsp So when the rationalist tries to argue evolutionary theory with a creationist, he’s actually trying to destroy a philosophical meme that exists precisely because of the evolutionary advantages it offers its host and enjoys over alternative philosophies. &nbsp A further irony is that many religious conservatives like Ronald Reagan, who’ve read Hayek, probably understand the “meta-rational” basis for religious belief while many non-religious intellectuals do not.

    A second irony, I think, is that at the current pace of human technological evolution, in a few thousand years, perhaps only a few hundred, but certainly within 5000 years, a mere blink of the eye in biological evolution time scales, humans will posses “god-like” powers. &nbsp When the full potential of the sciences of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, general & special relativity, quantum mechanics, genetic engineering, etc. are developed, there is a possibility that human beings, or whatever we evolve into, will possess the ability to create a planet in the biblical “six days” and populate it with species of our own design.

  2. Interestingly, biological/evolutionary concepts were regarded as quite acceptable among (non marxist?) socialists before WW2, at least in Britain (e.g. Wells, Shaw).
    The embrace of “environment only” dogmatism looks like having three causes:

    1) Increasing influence of marxists/communists who tended to see this as according with “historical materialism” and the capacity of the Party to reshape society. As with Lysenkoism.

    2) Biological theories tainted by association after Nazi’s. Also led to reconsideration of pre-war eugenics movements, which deserved it.

    3) As large social programmes were put in place, the interest groups they produced were always likely to favour environmental over genetic factors as providing justification for more and better programmes. Plus greater ease of such schemes modifying people in line with desired ends.

  3. An interesting and very sophisticated analysis. Thanks!

    I don’t think a complete ‘blank slate’ is possible, either from an evolutionary or a creationist/intelligent-design perspective. By analogy: a computer may be a programmable device that can do virtually anything…run spreadsheets, play games, guide missiles..but it has a fixed nature, as defined by its instruction set. Similarly, the human brain/mind must have a fixed nature to some extent; otherwise there would be no way to write anything on the “blank slate.” The debate can be only about at what *level* that fixed nature exists.

    It is interesting that leftists who are presumably blank-slate believers (such as the Marxist rulers of the Soviet Union) attempt to “program” people at a low level, using pain and fear. Clearly, they believe that aversion to pain and death and wired-in, however blank they think the rest of the slate may be.

  4. A non-scientific response that goes to the tone you note: Whenever I heard Gould speak, with sarcasm and loathing, of those who didn’t agree with him and, in general, of the religious, I didn’t want to be on his side.

  5. That’s rather representative, I think: claiming that Gould spoke of the religious with sarcasm and loathing is quite equivalent to claiming that the left is infested with “blank slaters”, a term invented by a few hacks to describe an opposition view that doesn’t really exist.

    I’ve heard Gould speak, and I’ve read all of his published books. If anything, Gould bent over backwards to express respect for the religious, often even when I thought they didn’t deserve it. Saying that Gould acted that way to the religious is convincing evidence that you haven’t actually read or listened to him, just as the silly blank-slate strawman is a dead giveaway that someone doesn’t really understand the argument.

  6. In defense of religion, it should be noted that a significant portion of the people who believe that God created Heaven and Earth also believe that it’s possible that God used evolution as his mechanism for creation and are sitting out most of the evolution wars lately. They’re called Catholics (among others) and this has been addressed since at least Humani generis and most recently by Pope John Paul II in a 1996 speech. Those evolutionists who battle against “the Bible thumpers” without making any provision at all for handling Catholic and other faiths with similar interpretations are doing science and the truth a disservice.

    In the Catholic tradition, we’re at a point similar to that of Galileo’s time. The priests are maintaining a nuanced position that whatever side comes out, it does not challenge the faith, whose task is to save souls, not settle scientific controversy.

    Evolution is not proven so the Church won’t back it because it’s a side issue just as it wouldn’t endorse heliocentrism until it was proven (Galileo’s demand that the Church do so was at the heart of his conviction at trial). The Church does watch with interest and encourages us to all explore God’s Creation and marvel at His work.

    Those minority faiths who fixate on evolution are spoiling for a fight and are generally a noisy but small part of Christianity. Unfortunately, too many scientists seem to not realize that.

  7. Shannon has a point about the intolerance of some of the people who see themselves as defending evolutionary theory from the yahoos. However, I agree with PZ Myers that the use of the term “blank slate” here is so broad and vague as to be a straw man. Indeed there appear to be straw men on both sides of the argument. I prefer Myers’s and TM Lutas’s responses because they deal with the issue at a level of detail where it starts to become meaningful. The arguments from generalities tend to be worthless.

  8. John F,

    “Interestingly, biological/evolutionary concepts were regarded as quite acceptable among (non marxist?) socialists before WW2, at least in Britain (e.g. Wells, Shaw).”

    Well yes and no. Shaw believed in evolution but hated Darwinism. He had a more mystical view of the process especially in his later days. H.G. Wells likewise portrays a basically non-darwinian view of evolution in his works. This not real surprising because true Darwinism was out of scientific favor at the time.

    The blank-slate actually far pre-dates 19th century Leftism and indeed shows up in many different cultures. The pattern is that people who wish to advance a new philosophy or religion as a global solution to a societies problems rapidly converge on the blank-slate because it allows them to rationalize that they can produce any needed behavior at will. For example, most evangelical christians violently reject the idea that genetics has any impact on our ability to make moral choices.

    The modern blank-slate arose from the Leftist habit of starting at a conclusion they want and reasoning backwards to produce a chain or reasoning that leads to the pre-determined conclusion.

  9. The fundamental problem with “Creationism” is the argument that the universe, our world, life on our planet and all that jazz is so complex that only God could have done it.

    But, then, who created God? God, by definition, must be even more complex then the universe, the world, life and all that jazz.

    So why posit something really complex as the creator of something less complex (but still too
    complex to have occurred by happenstance)? Especially since God (being uncreated} exists only through happenstance.

    If I were a creationist, I would suggest that Earth, being far, far away from the center of the Galaxy, is obviously a place where God tries out his newest creations before introducing them to the center of the Galaxy. Obviously the dinosaurs failed and God wiped them out and replaced them with us guys. This means we should find out what the dinosaurs did wrong or else we’ll be wiped out too.

  10. Here’s a partial transcript of what Summers said:

    “There may also be elements, by the way, of differing, there is some, particularly in some attributes, that bear on engineering, there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization. I just returned from Israel, where we had the opportunity to visit a kibbutz, and to spend some time talking about the history of the kibbutz movement, and it is really very striking to hear how the movement started with an absolute commitment, of a kind one doesn’t encounter in other places, that everybody was going to do the same jobs. Sometimes the women were going to fix the tractors, and the men were going to work in the nurseries, sometimes the men were going to fix the tractors and the women were going to work in the nurseries, and just under the pressure of what everyone wanted, in a hundred different kibbutzes, each one of which evolved, it all moved in the same direction. So, I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something. And I think it’s just something that you probably have to recognize.”

    When Summers claims that women may be under-represented in engineering, he holds up the idea it may be for biological reasons. Johns Hopkins released a study several years back showing that, as groups, men and women seem to have different levels of ability to engage in 3-D spatial thinking. Men are better able to create 3-D models in their minds, rotate the models, modify the models, etc. They also do better at abstract mathematical thinking, and are better able to correlate mathematical functions to their real-world, physical analogues.

    In general, women have superior communication and social skills. They’re far better at multitasking than men and have more stamina (though men produce higher levels of short term energy). And of course they’re also better looking, smell better and are better dancers, but I guess that’s a sexist thing for me to be saying. Too bad. It’s true.

    This is not say individuals do not deviate from the norm. Which is fine. That’s what freedom allows us to express. Isn’t that what we want? The freedom to pursue things that interest and satisfy us?

    Some people are angry that biology makes men and women different. It clashes with their ideology, which posits that in an ideal universe men and women are exactly the same and interchangeable.
    But this begs the question, Is a women more or less free is she’s forced into a career in which she has no interest?

    No woman should be denied entry into a profession in which she has ability and interest. But they should not be pressured into positions or professions to fulfill artificial quotas created by ideology and wishful thinking.

  11. Jonathan G ewirtz,

    “use of the term “blank slate” here is so broad and vague as to be a straw man.”

    Man I wish. Unfortunately, the extreme view of the blank-slate where genetics contributes functionally zero input into cognition and behavior is the rule not exception for the intellectual Left. Steven Pinkers study of the matter (linked to in the parent) is an exhaustive examination of the phenomenon.

    Consider that the hysterical reaction that Summers drew came after he merely suggested that genetic differences between the sexes might play some very small role in female representation at the upper most levels of the maths and sciences. That seems to be a fairly tame claim for anybody who believed that human intellectual capability was say 95% environment and %5 genetic. But Summers critics its 100% environment or nothing.

    The blank-slate model defines many of the Left’s positions. Take abortion. If you believe in the blank-state it is easy not to think of a fetus as possible human. How could it be. A human only comes into being when it interacts with its environment. No environment, no human.

    Getting the Left to adopt a less fanciful and ideologically driven model of human nature will be one the great intellectual task of the 21st century.

  12. I agree with PZ Myers and Jonathan G ewirtz here. I don’t think any serious leftist would defend the caricature that Shannon desrcibed. Of course there are total idiots in the left or right or center or whereever. There’s no denying that. But serious folks aren’t like this.

    The claim that people on this blog have made over an over — that a scientist who made a sarcastic remark after Lawrence Summer’s speech, “had an attack of the vapors while listening to Summers” is so odd to me. So much anger at this one woman. Shannon’s statement that if you dissagree with Summers is on scientific grounds you are engaged in “scientific ignorance” and “are engaged in a race to the bottom” also frustrates me. I mean, how can you hold Summers up to any kind of high scientific standard? Let’s face it, Lawrence Summers was talking way outside his area of expertise, and the scientific evidence that convinced him was: “I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something. And I think it’s just something that you probably have to recognize.” Come on now.

  13. The argument about 3-D spatial thinking comes up a lot..but there are vast realms of science and technology in which spatial thinking, 3-D or otherwise, just isn’t that important. For computer scientists and electrical engineers, for example, spatial thinking would seem to be of distinctly secondary importance, as it would for most aspects of pure mathematics.

    And if women on average are so bad at 3-D spatial thinking, why are there so many female air traffic controllers? I haven’t seen any numbers but it seems like at least 25% of this profession is female. Possibly it’s because ATC is also very multitasking-intensive and women are said to be generally good at that…but no matter how good you are at multitasking you still need to be at a threshold level of 3-D visualization, and a pretty high one I would imagine.

  14. The “nature vs. nuture” dichotomy is a bit silly. As my genetics professor in college put it, that is sort of like asking “What percentage of a cake is due to the flour and what percentage is due to the over?” There is no sensible answer. Yes, it is possible to ask what fraction of the VARIATION in a trait is due to genetic variation and what fraction is due to environmental variation. But that says nothing about any PARTICULAR individual. While women may in general be worse at 3D spatial reasoning than men, that says NOTHING about whether a particular woman is better or worse than a particular man at spatial reasoning. The lack of distinction between properties of POPULUATIONS and properties of INDIVIDUALS is what bothers me.

  15. Yes, the ecological fallacy! I totally agree Tim.

    And I’d like to add that even if it were 100% known for certain that a population of men is superior at rotating 3D objects in their minds when compared to a population of women, that observation alone does not speak to the cause of this difference. It could be due to biology or socialization or enviroment or space aliens.

  16. The Blank Slate has plenty of examples of broad-brush thinking. Pinker was welcomed because much of what he does is note the emperor’s lack of clothes.

    Summers was not making a scientific argument, he was positing a question. Your criticism ignores the role he had in the discussion and the nature of positing ideas – ones that seem to make you uncomforable but which should be part of the debate.

    Summers is not an unusual case – it is merely a high profile one. And, yes, I think it does show what is wrong with arguments in academic circles.

    If you do not consider a reaction of “having the vapors” to such discussion risible – especially when used to blackmail Summers into a series of increasingly ridiculous apologies – then you must be either more optimistic or less realistic about the nature of academic discourse than I am. Might I remark that your use of the phrase “made a sarcastic remark” is not as precise as it should be. The remarks she made were about vomiting and becoming faint. This is not sarcasm. Sarcasm, irritating and inflammatory as it may be, arises from the use of words and a response that is, at least to some degree, of the head. This was a response of the gut. Such responses should not be a part of academic discourse. A country with speech codes might note that to ensure a real marketplace of ideas it is such arguments that should be, well, not banned but marginalized. Such marginalization is the point of many of our remarks about these statements.

    If you think that Shannon exaggerated the stance of left-leaning academics, then you haven’t noticed the response of many disciplines to such discussions. For instance, we have a friend who has repeatedly tried to set up a panel at MLA in lit crit heavily dependent upon evolutionary theory. He has published several books on it in respectable university presses; he is mentioned by Pinker in The Blank Slate as the major critic in that area. When my husband invited him to speak at our local university, the audience consisted of less than a dozen people. That friend has yet to have a panel “okayed” by MLA (remember there are between 6 to 7 hundred panels) over the last dozen years.

    When my husband and a friend offered to team teach a course viewing literature based on these premises, the course was rejected. Both have published widely in their own specialties and done work from this particular perspective that has found homes in major periodicals. (Of course, one such article was in limbo for a while and it was clear that the editor felt he was going out on a limb a bit–although his judgement was somewhat vindicated when the article was reprinted in an anthology.)

  17. Seconding TM Lutas’s comment. Following St. Thomas Aquinas and others, Catholics know that revealed truth and scientific truth are both true, and that truth is seamless, and that new scientific knowledge can be and is to be reconciled with revealed truth. The Pope discussed this and related topics in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. There are people who insist on the literal truth of the six day creation story in Genesis. Catholics do not and don’t need to.

  18. While I am a ‘believer’ in modern evolutionary theory, I have always found ironic the ‘Darwin Amphibians’ invariably found on Volvos that mock the Christian fish symbol (which itself makes no comment on evolutionary theory). The Volvo drivers can’t figure out that the fish symbol represents a very successful cultural survival mechanism (compare birth-rates of owners of ‘Darwin Amphibian’ stickers to ‘Christian Fish’ stickers).

  19. First of all, what’s sad about the whole Powerline vs. Phryngula argument was that whatever Hindrockets feelings and thoughts about evolution, they had no bearing on his political views. And because Hindrocket felt that evolution was wrong, why would this suddenly mean that any other argument he made, even if it was an entirely different subject, was ipso facto wrong as well? That’s ridiculous.

    Shannon has done an excellent job of highlighting the fact that as usual, the extremists from both sides are simply wrong. There is no scientific basis for creationism because it isn’t science. But there is a scientific basis for genetic predisposition, and it is science. Women develop muscles differently than men. This is a genetic difference. And it is falsifiable.

    I completely agree with Shannon that there is a bias in most leftist academic establishments pushing “100% environment or else”. How else do you describe the reaction to Summers comments?

  20. Hi Ginny,

    In my reading of the transcript he did pose the innate abilities issue as his working hypothesis, not as a discussion question. Lawrence Summers said: “So my sense is that the unfortunate truth-I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true-is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.” He’s the president of Harvard, our nation’s most respected research university, speaking publicly about something that will have policy implications. I hold his to a higher standard for truth than just a convo among faculy members or an article a prof writes for the local paper.

    No, is not science. Yes, this does make me uncomfortable. (Furthermore: Yes, those Darwin fish are annoying and disresepectful. Yes, I have said [and I’ve seen many others say] jokingly and informally for laughs that something I disagree with made me want to barf. Yes, I think it’s a bummer when conservative are mistreated in academic environments. Yes, I love free speech. No, I do not like eugenics.)

  21. Are we talking about a true “blank slate” theory, or are we talking about the belief that the genetic components of intelligence are not linked to race, gender, etc?

  22. So, Chel, your point is that positing that discrimination is not the major factor (while still acknowledging that it is a factor) but rather innate abilities, choices, and value systems (in part derived from our differing biology) are important is an irresponsible position? I just don’t see that. I may not be a scientist but I’m not sure I need to be. My feeling is that looking at the things we can change (respecting the work of people who come to the workplace after their children have entered school, allowing for movement in and out of the workforce, etc.) and the things that are true (whatever we might find out about innate ability) are both more fruitful ways to approach such a problem. I do not think the most useful approach is to posit as the greatest problem the one that is only solved by “engineering human souls” as Svorecky would put it.

    I don’t quite see your point in the section you quoted. That of course is the core of Summers’ position and not one that we have argued.

  23. Hi Ginny,

    Yes, that basically is my position! I’m like you — I think it’s productive to focus on things that we know matter a lot and that can be changed. Also, since you mentioned discrimination I’d just like to add that the social environemnt is so big, all encompassing, and changeable. Discrimination is only one of the more obvious social factors in the social environment that assign people to different bins.

    Eliminating barriers in the social environment doesn’t mean “engineering human souls” to me. Here’s just a little example of something positive that can do that. I used to be part of a volunteer program that would take over a public school sixth grade science class once a week. We did really hands-on, engaging, educational, totally fun experiments, stuff that the kids wouldn’t have gotten in their cash strapped public school. One of the reasons why we targeted sixth grades was that this is time when many girls become disengaged with science. It’s the age when kids decide they hate science or they’re bad at it and not necessarily for good reason.

  24. Evolution is a work in progress. Of course there are weaknesses that can be criticized. That is one of the strengths of scientific theories. They are falsifiable and thus present us with opportunities for more learning.

    Innate gender differences in neural development is another potentially falsifiable concept. But you are correct that many politically oriented people are selective in their championing of scientific approaches to truth.

    Politics is power, and gender politics is bigtime power at this time. Do not rock the boat, Larry. You will pay a price.

  25. chel,

    ” I don’t think any serious leftist would defend the caricature that Shannon desrcibed.”

    You are absolutely wrong. I did not caricature or exaggerate in the least. If you have never studied the matter in any detail you will be absolutely stunned at the degree to which Leftist denied any influence of genetics on the human mind.

    Stephen Pinkers, The Blank-Slate is a phenomenal and exhaustive study of the history of the idea of the Blank-Slate. Pinker is one of the worlds premier cognitive scientist and he documents that the 100% blank slate is not a wacko fringe idea but is instead a core element of Leftism in the 20th century (he spends time on the use of the blank-slate by religions as well.)

    ” So much anger at this one woman”

    Because women have striven so hard to fight stereotypes that they are inherently emotional and incapable of rational and then this academician, in an academic setting has such a powerful EMOTIONAL reaction to having her dogma mildly challenge that IIRC, she felt like “throwing up and passing out.”

    Yes, I am angry at her if her widely reported comments actually reflected her true point of view. Its straight back to the 1890’s.

    ” Shannon’s statement that if you dissagree with Summers is on scientific grounds you are engaged in “scientific ignorance” and “are engaged in a race to the bottom” also frustrates me.”

    I said nothing of the kind. My argument has nothing to due with whether Summers is correct or not or the degree to which he might be correct. Rather, I point out that Summers mere broaching of the idea that genetics might play a small, limited role in the social differences we see between men and women trigger a firestorm. This hysterical overreaction to Summers minor comments could only logically spring from a belief in 100% genetic determinism.

    To repeat myself, if a person doesn’t’ believe in the 100% blank-slate then Summers said nothing controversial. The fact that Summers’ mild statements caused a controversy, that they were actually newsworthy, is direct evidence that the 100% blank-slate is still alive and well within Leftist academia if no where else.

  26. Whoops,

    The line:

    This hysterical overreaction to Summers minor comments could only logically spring from a belief in 100% genetic determinism.”

    should of course read:

    This hysterical overreaction to Summers minor comments could only logically spring from a belief in 100% environmental determinism.”

  27. Funny, I was one of th kids in Sunday school who argued for evolution against the teacher. I always loved to read archaeology books and studied the fossils.

    I took Advanced Genetics in college near the end of my Animal Science studies. An eye opener that was. I began to get a little sceptical of the claims of evolution. I am a lot more sceptical now. Evolution does a fine job of showing how animals can evolve into different, but similar animals. Cats and dogs having distant ancestors in common, for example.

    But it does no job at all of clearing up the mysteries of how the many interconnected parts of living systems can have evolved, either through some sort of punctuated equilibrium, or through slow gradual change. I saw in Scientific American some years ago an effort to explain in evolutionary terms how the eye might have developed. The author, a biologist who studied molluscs, seemed to be arguing in a distinctly lamarkian way. It was sad to see that the best defense of evolution SA could field was so weak. He was obvioulsy preaching to the house, knowing that no one would challenge him on the pages of SA. I have read Gould, and some of the other names, and find them distinctly unconvincing. Avoiding circular logic would ae a good start.

  28. One correction (my husband is now home and noting things I of course miss): It is Skvorecky (Joseph). Sorry about that.

    To return to earlier points. Of course, I, too, say that such a statement or attitude or style makes me want to barf. I do not, however, give that as my argument when asked (and I think she pursued the interview) by the Boston Globe. My reaction to people I disagree with, as this may indicate, is not to slam my computer shut and walk out. You are not being honest with your own argument – as I think you realize yourself. You expect Summers to present a scientific argument (even though much more than his personal anecedotal experience supports his position) at a meeting designed to discuss ideas but you cut someone slack who walks out of such a meeting and complains to the press.

    Next, the point of my anecdotes (especially the one on the MLA) is not that conservatives are not always given an even playing field. They aren’t. The point is that any ideas that in some way challenge the academy’s point of view that man is malleable and society is at fault are not going to be given a fair hearing. This is probably a combination of turf building, political bias, inertia and lack of imagination. I would also suggest that the academy is not fond of perspectives that emphasize autonomy and individual responsibility.

    Your responses appear to be muted reflections of someone who discounts the influence of evolution and is less ready to see biology as a motivator than society. This is certainly–as we see in this discussion–a popular and sometimes useful approach. But it means you do not see the point of some of the arguments here that arise from a different perspective. I do suspect, however, that your own experience might tell you that biology is important. For instance, why do you think it is at 6th grade that girls become less interested in science? What else is happening to sixth grade girls? (By the way, you never dealt with the fact that the NYTimes article–I believe it was you who suggested it in an earlier thread–mentioned that consistently across the world women didn’t like to do math – even in the one country where they were better than men.)

    Shannon: You might be interested in Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism. His final chapter critiques Gould’s approach – one that is inspired by the contradictory arguments you discuss so well. (This is criticism from an obsessive evolutionist.) He summarizes John Alcock, who:

    persuasively argues that one animating motive in Gould’s campaign against adaptation is his commitment to
    Marxist ideogy. From a Marxist perspective, to affirm adaptive design is to acknowledge that the existing structures of social and political power is constrained in some way by the nature of things, and to acknowledte that much is to come too close, the Marxist feels, to justifying the existing social order. Marxist utopianism requires that human beings not be constrained by evolved motives: ‘human nature’ is to consist in little more than a capacity for culture that entails infinite flexibility, It is certainly the case that from the very beginning Gould’s ideological career has been punctuated repeatedly by attacks on human sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and it seems more than probable that this social and political animus has helped to shape his formulations of general evolutionary theory, even when that theory directly concerns only insects, snails, pandas, flamingoes, horses, dinosaurs, and Cambrian phyla, not human beings. (241)

    Carroll also credits P. R. Gross’s “The Apotheosis of Stephen Jay Gould” in The New Criterion, 21 (2, 77-80).

  29. Shannon wrote:

    The fact that Summers’ mild statements caused a controversy, that they were actually newsworthy, is direct evidence that the 100% blank-slate is still alive and well within Leftist academia if no where else.

    A simpler explanation might be that Summers threatens the power of the academic Left, and that leftist profs took advantage of a juicy opportunity to demonize him and maybe bring him down. The quoted woman’s ostensibly emotional reaction just might be an effective tactic in academic warfare conducted via the press.

  30. As I wrote over on New Covenant a couple days ago about PZ Myers, his arguments are rather unfortunately framed — reading half a dozen of his most recent entries shows he’s far more interested in flamewars and insults than he should be. That doesn’t tend to lead to good discussion with the people he’s arguing with. No matter how ill-informed they might be (and, having read a few comments, some of them *are* ill-informed), the name-calling that goes on there is not conducive to learning. That’s too bad, because he probably has quite a few things to contribute to the discussion…

    This is a larger pattern I’ve observed with what my wife has termed “secular fundamentalists” (in this case, she was referring specifically to the Larry Summers kerfuffle.) Some religious people get up in arms whenever you challenge their little bubble of beliefs. They get hostile, they attack, they flame, they seek comfort from “experts”… and the same happens with people whose “religion” is atheism, or blank-slate-ism, or whatever else it might be. Secular fundamentalists are just as irrational as religious fundamentalists.

    The unfortunate thing — as pointed out in Shannon’s excellent post above — is that the average person on either side of the evolution debate is totally clueless. Yet people hold dearly to all sorts of positions from young-earth creationism to gap theories to the neo-Darwinian synthesis. 99% of the apologists for any particular position aren’t really equipped to understand it, let alone really debate it, yet they do. Why? They believe their position, not based on its own merits, but based on other beliefs they wish to support or challenge. They’re not actually interested in understanding evolution, just in supporting or opposing it for religious reasons.

    Ask your average Biblical apologist what they think of James’ treatment of faith and works, vs. Paul’s treatment of faith and works. Note the reaction — they cite an article. If you challenge the article and present alternate interpretations, note their inability to answer on their own. Chances are, they’ve never even read the passages in question, and they often don’t even understand your question. Now, ask your average evolutionary apologist what they think of sympatric speciation, and observe the same process. They cite an article, though they’ve never studied the question on their own and likely can’t even evaluate whether or not the article is trustworthy. They probably don’t even fully understand the question, but they know how use google. You might occasionally run into somebody (on either side) who can actually answer the question sensibly because they have solid understanding of the underlying principles, but most of the time the apologists really are just clueless fundamentalists. And, of course, those who blindly believe women and men differ only after birth fall into this same category, for the most part.

    Christian fundamentalists and Secular fundamentalists are both still fundamentalists, they just happen to follow different authorities.

  31. Hi Ginny,

    You stated to me, “You expect Summers to present a scientific argument (even though much more than his personal anecedotal experience supports his position) at a meeting designed to discuss ideas but you cut someone slack who walks out of such a meeting and complains to the press.”

    Yes, this is certainly correct. I’m in no way defending quote from disgusted MIT professor. But it just doesn’t bother me. It was a handful of words, maybe taken out of context, from a basically anonymous person. Lawrence Summers on the other hand, he’s the president of Harvard, a very important and public figure in academic policy that people take cues from. I hold him to a much, much higher standard.

    You also asked, “For instance, why do you think it is at 6th grade that girls become less interested in science? What else is happening to sixth grade girls?”

    There’s so much that’s happening around this time. Some reasons seem to me to be that peers relationships become more important and it’s not cool among girls to be into science, girls at this age are looking more broadly for role models and not seeing many women scientist role models, and girls are subtly and subconsciously steered away from science by teachers and parents as they are given more course options in middle school. There are also biologic causes that are very real such as 12 year old girls can be very distracted by when the have their 1st crushes. All the more reason to make science fun for everyone!

    You also mentioned: “I believe it was you who suggested it in an earlier thread–mentioned that consistently across the world women didn’t like to do math.”

    If this is true it still does not address why it is true. According to friends, as an individual, I have an innate talent for organizing things. But I absolutely HATE organizing things.

  32. As Shannon implies, the issue would not have been “juicy” if Summers’ antagonists didn’t begin with a rough and perhaps unconscious belief in the blank slate. Nor is it an accident that Pinker has argued in his favor.

  33. Hi Shannon,

    Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate what you said. Thanks for the insight.

    You mentioned: “This hysterical overreaction to Summers minor comments could only logically spring from a belief in 100% environmental determinism.” Well, speaking as one person who very strongly disagreed with Summers, I can tell you that at least in my case it didn’t come from a belief in 100% environmental determinism. Actually I think innate ability has a lot to do with who ends up as a science professor. I just don’t think that innate science ability is distributed in the world’s population women in a meaningfully different way than it is in the world’s population of men. There’s no evidence that I’ve seen to solidly back Summer’s thesis up.

  34. Chel & others…here’s something else that may be steering girls away from careers in science & technology: For at least the last decade, the self-defined “progressives” have been pretty openly hostile to science, engineering, and even reason itself. The way it often comes across is that scientific endeavour is “anti-nature” and that may well carry a subtext of “anti-woman.”

    In 1950, if a woman wanted to become an engineer she would be told it was “unfeminine.” I wonder if today we’re seeing a modernized version of that same pressure.

  35. Off topic, but a response to Chel:
    Sure, it’s good to make science interesting. I would think it would be more important to make it stimulating and challenging, but interesting may well be a word used for similar approaches.

    Sure as you climb the levels of academia you see fewer women in the sciences and math; however, at 6th grade most girls will be being taught by female math and science teachers. Indeed, I’m not sure when it evens out and when more men are in these positions. I can say, however, that at our level (the junior college level) far more women than men teach math and the science department appears to be about 50/50. Sure that may not be a model for the ambitious–nor are these people doing much research themselves.
    But women are standing in the front of those classrooms if it makes any difference.

    Also, the MIT teacher’s reaction is a response that comes from seeing onesself and others in groups (in this case in genders). My male professors in the bad old days were supportive in the liberal arts. Both they and we were concerned with the life of the mind and gender melted away in the midst of good and bad interpretations of literature. A gendered approach simplifies and I believe insults both the teachers and the way my daughters and I – and most women interested in academic discipolines – seek mentors and experience challenges.

  36. chel,

    Remember that all Summers did was say that we should “consider” whether genetics plays some role. He didn’t try to lay down the law on the matter. His crime was just violating orthodoxy by just asking the question. That to mind mind is the telling point. The Leftist academics couldn’t stomach anybody even daring to start a debate on the matter.

    Although it is not central to my main point I would point out that there is a large body of work that examines the difference in brain structure and function based on sex. Such differences may or may not impact any particular skill set like math but the existence of such demonstrable differences does create at least a prima facia case for examining the role that genes play.

    In the end. the Summers case isn’t about whose right or wrong (and to what degree) about genes and human cognition but rather what subjects are taboo to discuss and which aren’t.

  37. Obviously men and women think differently–their brains image differently on scans, the neuroanatomy is different. We also know that brain receptors are distributed differently in men and women, so besides the physical infrastructure being designed differently, the functioning substrate of neural activity is different.

    Yes indeed, there is a difference in distribution of mental skills in men and women. Only someone with occluded eyes and ears would think differently. But that is the antii-science bias of the post-modern left. What is important is feelings and opinions propped up by proper political thought.

  38. I think we should be careful about concluding that physical brain difference = difference in ways of thinking. A PC and a Mac are different at the CPU level, and quite different at the operating system level, but running the same Excel spreadsheet on both of them should yield the same results.

    Understanding of any complex sysem usually requires it to be thought of as a hierarchy of levels.

  39. david foster,

    You make a good point with the analogy with the PC and Macs both running Excel but as a geek I would point out that Excel on the mac runs in a kind of emulation layer that mimics running on a PC so that the same code can be used for both. The treachery of analogies I suppose.

    However, it is quite possible to get the same computational results using vastly different hardware and software. In the end it is the abstract logic of the software to determined its output so your general point definitely holds.

    The real problem in studying the brain is that by analogy with computers, the software alters the hardware. For example, people who learn to speak Japanese as children develop visibly different structures in their language centers than speakers of other languages. If one looked at a population of Japanese brains only one could easily conclude that the structures were genetic in origin. However, people of Japanese descent who do not speak Japanese do not have the structures but people of non-japanese decent raised from childhood speaking Japanese do. The structures arise as the brain shapes itself to the “software” of the Japanese language. They are purely environmental in origin.

    Like I said, the real debate in Summer’s case isn’t whether we are talking about a complex subject but whether or not certain parts of the subject are taboo even for academicians. The subject of genes and cognition can only be considered taboo for proponents of the 100% of the blank slate.

  40. Clearly, the academic reaction to Summers is an irrational and hysterical one, and I think it raises serious questions about why we as a society are spending so much money supporting institutions such as these.

    The point I am trying to get at is that perhaps the brain is in some sense a Turing machine, in that the ‘hardware’ is sufficiently general-purpose that its specific physical structure becomes less constraining.

  41. The point I am trying to get at is that perhaps the brain is in some sense a Turing machine, in that the ‘hardware’ is sufficiently general-purpose that its specific physical structure becomes less constraining

    Only a non-neuroscientist would make a statement like that. Perhaps one might make a further point and say that even though a chimp’s brain is structurally different than a human brain, perhaps it is sufficiently general-purpose that its specific physical structure is not constraining. Or perhaps a rat’s brain. Or a chameleon’s brain. Maybe even a worm’s brain. All Turing machines.

    In the case of brains, structure means something. Something very significant. One of the reasons why AI researchers of the 1950s and 1960s were so far off in their predictions, is this profound confusion about what it is in neural structures that allows them to think–and create computers/AI, and counter productive post-modern anti-science theories, and so forth.

  42. I’m familiar with the critique of AI by Dreyfus and others. I don’t think it changes my point.

    Suppose brain “A” and “B” are very different at the level of visible structure. Would you conclude that there are *necessarily* differences between the thought processes of people “A” and “B” based on these structural differences? Might they not do the same things (or highly similar things) but in different ways?

  43. It would be great to have machines that could think! Imagine the comfort that would provide to the widowed and other lonely people.
    You people might look at the difference in DNA, not just difference in brain anatomy. An entire chromosome is different between males and females. That’s a large percent difference. Bigger than the difference between apes and men.

  44. David Foster:

    No, they aren’t *necessarily* different in capacity. It’s possible they can perform the same functions at the same speed and with the same accuracy through different methods.

    But it seems foolish to assert that they *must* have the same abilities, as the blank-slate-people do. It’s even more foolish to make it taboo to suggest there might be differences in capacity.

    Given two brains (A and B) with two different structures, which of these seems to be a sensible position to hold?
    1) brains A and B are able to do everything exactly the same, and if you challenge that you’re a heretic
    2) brains A and B may or may not be able to do everything the same, and since some research suggests they can’t, we should take that seriously. Maybe they can do everything the same, but we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that they can’t.

  45. Just to be absolutely clear..I’m in no way defending the academic witch-hunters and enforcers of political correctnesss…it seems that most everybody here understands the importance of science, scholarship, and open debate. I am just trying to add a bit of texture to the “blank slate” discussion.

  46. David Foster,

    Your position has merit and I can provide a concrete example. The language centers of males and females are in different anatomical positions in the brain yet we generally don’t think of one gender or the other having superior language skills. Most males have their language centers on the Left side of their brain whereas most females have language centers on both sides of their brain. Males are much more likely to suffer aphasia after a left-hemisphere stroke than are women because women have the center on the right-side to fall back on.

    So different physiology doesn’t automatically mean different function but when we do see a difference in function, as in males being better at visualization and we see a difference in the relevant physiology, hemispherical separation of some visual modules in males, it is legitimate to ask what degree the physiological difference contribute to the difference in skill.

    Humans are a sexually dimorphic species and all sexually dimorphic species exhibit differences in behavior based on sex. Therefore, anytime we examine the differences between behavior between human males and females we know, or should know, that we will have to check for a possible genetic component.

    That has not been the attitude advanced by the Leftist proponents of the blank slate.

  47. …Sounds like a classic case of “I believe micro-evolution, but macro-evolution doesn’t wash” argument. A solid question, you might find the following interesting-
    29 Evidences for Macroevolution: Intermediate and Transitional Forms as well as the Punctuated Equilibria FAQ…

    Thanks Tman, that is exactly what I was refering to. There is plenty of evidence for these kinds of gradual change. What I would like to see, however, is a strong explanation of one of the ‘closed loop’ phenomenon. Such as the jellyfish sting, with its pump, harpoon, poison, all necessary, each part a very fine and delicate device, all usless without the others. There is simply no way I can imagine such a closed system being created by random mutation and selection. It is all or nothing, in one swoop.

    Anyway, the point of my comment was that contrary to the original post, not all sceptics are ignorant, bible-thumping tooth-picking rednecks.

  48. Picking up on TM Lutas’ comment in support of religion: “Religion” is just one of many manifestations of our species’ engrained gregariousness, or “tendency to group.” As such, it is an adaptation that lends surviveablity to our species, and thus is not itself open to criticism in my view.

    Other competing manifestations are family, tribe, corps, hanse, nation, club, or political party. All derive from our biological need to “belong.” To analogize, the human animal shares much in common with the water molecule. We tend to aggregate ourselves in inter-linked matrices in which all members co-orient according to a shared polarity.

    I ‘d argue this parallelism is not an accidental.

    Accordingly, at the abstract boundary of any human-based matrix, as in a drop of water, a stable surface tension forms, that, absent an emulsifier, is resistant to the entry of any “immiscible”, call it impermissible, idea. There is an energetic stabilty in the ordered matrix that resents any dislocation or mal-orientation within its boundary.

    So put, any discussion that attempts to correlate or distinguish these social groupings without acknowledging their shared biological genesis tends to decay into rote factional cant.


  49. Mitch, the word “fractals” works. It captures the spiraling, infinite wonder of it all. It conjures up Alex Grey’s illuminating painting, “Transfiguration”, or this mandala.

    I prefer the word “holographs” instead, though “In each unit, the whole.”

  50. Shannon,

    You say that “most evangelical Christians violently reject the idea that genetics has any impact on our ability to make moral choices.” Frankly, I find this puzzling. Most of the Evangelicals I know are of a strong Calvinist bent. The ‘T’ in the famous Calvinist TULIP acronym stands for ‘Total Depravity,’ i.e. the doctrine that humans, by nature, are incapable of choosing to act rightly, at least consistently. That strikes me as about as strong a nature over nurture view as there is. Now, Evangelicals (and all other orthodox Christians) believe that, with the assistance of Grace, humans can and do overcome their natural tendency to sin. Grace, however, is an “influence” on behavior – over and above both nature and nurture – that no science can quantify or evaluate.

    My (wild) guess about what you may have been talking about in the above quote is that Evangelicals are among the strongest critics of the proposition that sexual orientation, especially a homosexual orientation, is rooted primarily or exclusively in a person’s genetic make up. Now, there is much confusion on this subject. Even if an orientation to a certain type of behavior is rooted primarily or exclusively in a person’s genetic make up, it does not follow that acting on that orientation is ipso facto morally legitimate. For example, some believe that an orientation to alcoholism is rooted primarily or exclusively in a person’s genetic make up. Even if this is true, it hardly follows that alcoholism is a morally legitimate “alternative lifestyle.” Similarly, even if a homosexual orientation is rooted primarily or exclusively in a person’s genetic make up, it does not follow that the person’s acting on that orientation is morally legitimate.

    Evangelicals (and all other orthodox Christians) maintain that all humans have a natural capacity for chastity, but it is only when that natural capacity is “enhanced” by Grace that humans can live a consistently chaste life. Thus, while those with a homosexual orientation are tempted toward sins against chastity that don’t tempt those with a heterosexual orientation (who, BTW, have plenty of temptations of their own to deal with), those with either a homosexual or heterosexual orientation, with the assistance of Grace, can live chaste lives.

    A question that divides Christians of all stripes is whether those with a homosexual orientation can change it into a heterosexual one. Some Christians say that, with the assistance of Grace, they can. Others maintain, with Saint Thomas Aquinas, that Grace builds upon nature. Thus, all that anyone (including God) can expect from a person with a homosexual orientation is that he or she does not act upon it, i.e. that he or she remains sexually continent. Of course, there are scientists (e.g. Masters and Johnson) who maintain that sexual orientation is much more pliable than it is politically correct to believe. If so, then, with the assistance of Grace, perhaps a homosexual orientation can be changed into a heterosexual one. (BTW, the Left’s insistence on a genetic origin for sexual orientation seems to be the one – totally inconsistent – exception to its otherwise through going “blank slateism.”)

    In any event, I don’t think it is at all accurate to say “most evangelical Christians violently reject the idea that genetics has any impact on our ability to make moral choices.” Making another (wild) guess, I will end with my opinion that, while Pinker’s discussion of the present state of the academic disciplines is quite reliable, one should not take to the bank what he has to say about religion.

  51. Steve:

    Groupings as a whole do function as survival mechanisms… but that does not mean all groupings are equal, or have an equal grasp of reality.


    It’s a common tactic among Calvinists to claim that “most evangelicals” have a strong bent that way. But it’s simply not true. Most evangelicals would not take offense to more than a couple parts of a couple points of TULIP, but this does not make them Calvinist-leaning. Rather, it demonstrates the fact that we don’t always mean the same thing or draw the same conclusions from the same sentences. (Similarly, Muslims and Christians often say the same things about God, but they often mean very different things.) I happen to be pretty heavily Calvinist-leaning, but I know I’m rare among evangelicals.

    Still, your point that most evangelicals accept genetic influences of behavior is a good one. The debate is not over whether genetic factors are involved, but whether (in cases like homosexuality) resisting genetic tendencies is possible, reasonable, and moral.

    FYI, it’s pretty well established that at least some homosexuals can change their orientation (see: Exodus International.) Nobody claims it’s easy or fast, but recovery rates aren’t too different from alcoholism. I know one ex-gay who changed back around 1980.

    You’re also right that homosexuality is a strange exception to blank-slateism.

  52. LotharBot,

    I defer to your superior knowledge about Evangelicals on the issue of their Calvinism and thank you for your endorsement of my main point.

  53. Lotharbot,
    “Groupings as a whole do function as survival mechanisms… but that does not mean all groupings are equal, or have an equal grasp of reality.”

    Correct statement.

    A pluralistic analysis would encourage a diversity of intercompeting groupings and associations, all vying for the designation of “Real.” In a non-coercive, liberal society the intercompetition will decide best.

    Humans have evolved fantastically intricate grouping mechanisms. Some archaic and chemical, like pheromones. Others are more recent and abstract., like language. In a pluralistic, liberal society, the groupings that these mechanism allow would be innumerable, take infinite forms, and be dynamic and intercooperable.

    One of Homo sapiens sapiens‘ more archaic group-organizers, dogmatic, monotheistic religion may be forced to evolve in the face of the new democratizing forces unleashed by the Information Age.


  54. Certainly, modern “churchianity” as well as modern “stuck in the 12th century Islam” will be forced to adapt or die. But be careful not to fall into the mistake many people do — of assuming that religion (especially Christianity) will only survive by becoming more like Unitarian Universalism (that is, more open and tolerant and “fluffy”).

    Fluffy feel-good religions certainly have a strong attraction and high fitness. It’s my own belief that Christianity according to the actual Biblical model, stripped of all the social junk that’s been stacked on top of it, will also remain quite strong. Churchianity might fail, and those who see church as a social club and a support network may fall away into Unitarian-like groupings, but those who’ve encountered God in what I would term a truly Christian experience are not likely to fall away.

    Recall that some of the strongest groups form out of shared experience (siblings are a great example of this.) Groups that accept basically anybody as they are tend to grow very large, but groups based on strong common experiences tend to be very cohesive and robust even if they remain quite small. Churchianity tries to have it both ways and fails, and it should crumble soon, but Christianity based on genuine experience isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

  55. One of the ironies of the Blank Slate Model story is that one of the great opponents of this was the linguist Noam Chomsky. His nativist theory of language was one of the biggest attacks on behaiourism in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Curiously, one of his biggest opponents, B.F. Skinner, also recognised the idiocy of the blank slate model – because it was clearly genetics which was behind the “emission” of behaviour which Skinner’s operant conditioning was used to shape.

  56. This is a very thoughtful posting and comment thread. I do think the “blank slate” aspect is drawing too much attention, however, and I’m also a bit surprised that so little has been said of the huge irony that Leftists refuse to incorporate the adaptation to environmental factors into their understanding of social behavior or public policy. For example, the mere suggestion that welfare recipients may become trapped in despair as the result of perverse incentives created by the (well meaning) government is beyond the pale. Remember how Republicans got savaged for daring to bring this up? In contrast, Hayek’s writings on how free markets work is full of evolutionary insights. He rescued the liberal capitalist intellectual tradition by bringing it out the the 18th-19th Century scientific paradigm based on Newtonian mechanics. Just as Darwin himself was superseded in some ways by those who benefited from subsequent scientific and intellectual advances, Adam Smith has been superseded and refined, thereby keeping his ideas alive. The same cannot be said for the followers of Karl Marx, however. Unless they learn to adapt to reality (not utopia), they will keep marching toward doom, dragging down as many unwitting victims with them as they can.

  57. Steve,

    “Most of the Evangelicals I know are of a strong Calvinist bent”

    I think that Calvinist are a small and rapidly shrinking faction within contemporary evangelicalism. Within the context of larger Christianity they are definitely a minority. The largest Christian sect in the world is of course Roman Catholicism and it is definitely anti-calvinistic and on record as rejecting the notion that genes play a role in moral decision making. Almost all of the contemporary fast growing evangelical sects like Pentecostals, Churches of Christ, Assemblies of God etc are distinctly anti-calvinist.

    The central tenet of modern evangelicalism is that one must, “choose to accept Christ as one’s personal savior.” That is an explicitly anti-calvinistic statement.

    Even viewed historically, I don’t think that Calvinism translated into support for genetic determinism even though logically it should. People adopt the blank-slate model when they propose to solve problems by altering human behavior. As the claims for the power of the solution grow so do the claims about the degree of “blankness” of the human mind. (i.e. a desire for “marketshare” for the idea drives the adoption of the blank-slate instead of the blank-slate model driving the idea) It doesn’t really matter whether the proposed solution is religious or secular in nature.

    Christianity and related religions have always been at war with the idea of inherited morality because it undermined the conceptual ability of using the spread and perfection of Christian faith to solve real world problems. People wouldn’t “buy” Christianity if it promulgated a world view where people going to be right bastards no matter what they believed. Trying to reconcile the Feudal class structure or racism with Christianity’s claim to alter behavior consumed vast amounts of theological effort with poor results.

    Pinker actually doesn’t spend a lot of time on the subject but I think it is pretty clear that most Christians sects whether historical or contemporary, even Calvinistic ones largely rejected the idea of genetic determinism as it relates to moral choice.

  58. Shannon:

    Christianity is one of the few religions that states outright that people are inherently messed up and flawed (which is very anti-blank-slate and very pro-inherited-behavior). Christianity necessarily requires that people have inborn behaviors. You can’t be born sinful if you’re born with a blank slate, after all. What you’re missing is the way it’s followed up: with the idea that people’s inborn habits can be broken or overcome through external intervention (via a spiritual process).

    There isn’t a clash there — Christianity holds that people *will* still act like “right bastards” no matter what they believe (James once argues about this, saying “even the demons believe” — clearly demonstrating that belief itself is not worth anything.) Only those who are transformed (by spiritual, not mental, processes) will change their behavior.

    I suppose if we were discussing pure determinism — that is, the far end of the spectrum from blank-slate-ism — you’d have a point. Christianity has tended to be at war with the idea that there is no choice at all in life (though I think this comes out of improperly formed ideas of determinism and choice.) But it’s not at all at war with the idea that there are some things which are inherited, rather than chosen.

  59. I agree, entirely, Lotharbot. BTW, Shannon, it was I, not Steve, who said most of the Evangelicals I know are Calvinist. (A statement I stand by, but I defer to Lotharbot’s greater knowledge of the Evangelical world at large.) Shannon, you paint with a broad and, frankly, uninformed brush. For example, where is the Catholic Church on record that there is no role for genes in moral decision making? As Lotharbot points out, if you are talking about total genetic determism, then you are right, but that is to conceive of the “role” genes play in a very extreme way. If, however, we take the “influence” genes have on behavior to be less that complete determinism (leaving room for genuinely free choice), then the Catholic Church has no problem whatsoever with a “role” for genes, or anything else, in moral decision making. If one takes the total genetic determinism position, then one out Calvins the Calvinists and goes to the opposite, but equally absurd, extreme as the pure blank slaters. Do you really want to maintain that any attempt to solve problems by altering human behavior is not only doomed to fail but down right stupid? I certainly hope not, but, frankly, that’s what came across from your comment.

    A recent article that, I think, relates generally to the topic(s) of this string is “On the Origins of the Mind” by David Berlinski in the November, 2004 issue of COMMENTARY.

  60. Andrew,
    “Unless they [Marxists] learn to adapt to reality (not utopia), they will keep marching toward doom, dragging down as many unwitting victims with them as they can.”


    From Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2004): 2.(a) Utopia, any idealized place, state or situation of perfection. (b) any visionary scheme or system for an ideally perfect society. Utopia, like any “blank-slate” secular or theistic theory, rests on a human mental construct, that when deaf to any counsel from contrary empirical evidence, becomes an ideal discorporated from physical reality.

    Have most religionists ever cogitated, say, prokaryotic cellular evolution, or that of mitochondrial DNA? Is Greenpeace’s mindset (and that of other Anti-American Leftists) impermeable to the fact of Capitalism’s success at lifting living standards worldwide? The new Information Age, I wager, won’t let them dodge the questions for much longer.

    Shannon, My entire academic career (I’m an overpaid gardener, now) I’ve had to defend Western Science against both the Secular Left and the Religious Right. That’s why your post and Ginny’s quote from Fromm were so stimulating to me. I was the only employee in an organic farm in Coastal CA to defend the science of GM (having majored in Biochemistry I knew a thing or two about the subject), and I shudder still at the anti-intellectuallism of the “Scopes Trial.”

    To Lotharbot, and Scotus, my own view of any religion is, as long as their groups devolve to local branches, remain dynamic, and offer some tangible service to their communities, they will continue to be integral to our societies. The Pope ain’t goin’ away anytime soon.

    But, warning: an ancient Chinese proverb says, “When Rhetoric does not match Reality, Revolution occurs.”


  61. This was a great discussion. Too bad I got here late! Nobody mentioned the power of peer pressure in left-wing circles as a factor inforcing orthodoxy in the group — something which, like religion, and like sexual dimorphism, probably has a biological basis and function. When you dissent from “right think” you lose all your friends, and once into middle age that is a biggie.

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