Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blank Slaters

CIP wrote:
Thanks to the attacks of various blank slaters, led perhaps by the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, IQ studies became so disreputable that they were mostly left to cranks and racists.
Now, I think CIP got the idea that Stephen Jay Gould was a blank slater by reading Steven Pinker.  Regardless, I pick up Gould's most concentrated attack on IQology, The Mismeasure of Man, where in the conclusion of the book he writes: {emphasis added}
"If people are so similar genetically, and if previous claims for a direct biological mapping of human affairs have recorded cultural prejudice and not nature, then does biology come up empty as a guide in our search to know ourselves?  Are we after all, at birth, the tabula rasa, or blank slate,  imagined by some eighteenth-century empiricist philosophers?  As an evolutionary biologist, I cannot adopt such a nihilistic position without denying the fundamental insight of my profession.  The evolutionary unity of humans with all other organisms is the cardinal message of Darwin's revolution for nature's most arrogant species."
So clearly, if Pinker thinks that Gould was a blank slater, it means Gould's denial of blank slaterism was a false one, the ideas he elaborated on make him a blank slater.

Following this statement, Gould makes the points, among other things:
Human sociobiologists "have made a fundamental mistake in categories.  They are seeking the genetic basis of human behavior at the wrong level.  They are searching among the specific products of generating rules...while the rules themselves are the genetic deep structures of human behavior."
The clearest he explains what he means by generating rules is as follows:
Human uniqueness lies in the flexibility of what our brain can do.  What is intelligence, if not the ability to face problems in an unprogramed (or, as we often say, creative) manner?  If intelligence sets us apart among organisms, then I think it probable that natural selection acted to maximize the flexibility of our behavior.  What would be more adaptive for a learning and thinking animal: genes selected for aggression, spite and xenophobia; or selection for learning rules that can generate aggression in appropriate circumstances and peacefulness in others?
 He also writes:
         "...we must be wary of granting too much power to natural selection by viewing all basic capacities of our brain as direct adaptations. I do not doubt that natural selection acted in building our oversized brains....But these assumptions do not lead to the notion....that all major capacities of the brain must arise as direct products of natural selection.  Our brains are enormously complex computers.  If I install a much simpler computer to keep accounts in a factory, it can also perform many other, more complex tasks unrelated to its appointed role.   These additional capacities are ineluctable consequences of structural design, not direct adaptations.   Our vastly more complex organic computers were also built for reasons, but possess an almost terrifying range of additional capacities -- including, I suspect, most of what makes us human. .....

....We need not view Bach as a happy spinoff from the value of music in cementing tribal cohesion, or Shakespeare as a fortunate consequence of the role of myth and epic narrative in maintaining hunting bands.  Most of the behavioral "traits" that sociobiologists try to explain may never have been subject to direct natural selection--and may therefore exhibit a flexibility that features crucial to survival can never display.   Should these complex consequences of structural design even be called "traits"?  Is this tendency to atomize a behavioral repertory into a set of "things" not another example of the same fallacy of reification that has plagued studies of intelligence throughout our century?"
Some blank slater this:  Our behavior ultimately arises from the ineluctable consequences of the structural properties of our brain, that was shaped but not fully constrained by natural selection.  But the flexibility of our brain makes cultural evolution very much more responsible for the differences in behaviors of human groups than darwinian evolution.  Humans were not adapted by natural selection  to have certain propensities, like aggression; rather humans are embody rules that allow for aggression or peacefulness based on circumstances.

Where is the blank slate in all of this?  One must ask, why did Pinker term Gould a blank slatist? The possibilities are:

1. Gould repudiates himself elsewhere.
2. Pinker misunderstands Gould.
3. Pinker understands Gould, but has an ideological axe to grind.

My suspicion is (3.), but it remains a suspicion only, until I put some effort into it.  I don't trust intermediaries any more.