Oh My Darwin!
djsaylor at SPAMprimenet.com
Tue Nov 30 20:00:48 MST 1999
Title: Oh My Darwin!
The article forwarded by Yoshie was interesting. For example the conflict
between Pinker and Stephen Jay Gould in NYRB I had no idea about. Gould has
clashed a great deal with Evolutionary Psychology out of my range of reading. I
eventually heard about these conflicts without knowing where some sources were.
The phrase that Gould uses, 'Just So Stories', I think is apt for
Evolutionary Psychology. In effect such theories need to be substantiated in
physical reality. One has every reason to speculate of course. Theories can
absurd. The mind works like that. But Pinker especially is disingenuous about
his reactionary beliefs. His most recent statements are the clearest rejection
of the principles of the left I have seen from that whole camp of evolutionary
James Schwartz, "Oh My Darwin! -- Who's the Fittest Evolutionary
Thinker of Them All?" _Lingua Franca_ Volume 9, NO. 8 November 1999,
Pinker spoke of the fiction of the unified self. "It's only an
illusion that there's a president in the Oval Office of the brain who
oversees the activity of everything," he said, in what undoubtedly struck
many as a particularly apt metaphor.
The notion that there is no unified self is fundamental to EP. If the brain
is a collection of computers, each one of which performs a highly
specialized function, then it makes sense to invoke natural selection
acting over millions of years to account for the existence of those
This view of the mind broken up into an array of independently evolved
modules is disquieting to many. As the Rutgers philosopher Jerry Fodor, the
author of a forthcoming book titled The Mind Doesn't Work That Way (MIT),
puts it, "If there is a community of computers in my head, there had also
better be somebody who is in charge, and, by God, it had better be me." If
one does not believe that human intelligence is the sum of an array of
computers, then one must postulate the existence of some more general
cognitive ability that gives us the capacity for complex thought. And this
general ability, Fodor believes, may be the result of a small but crucial
evolutionary shift that distinguished our brains from the brains of other
This series of remarks attacking the modularity of the mind confuses Jerry Fodor
with Stephen Jay Gould. Fodor is an advocate of the doctrine that the mind is
ruled. So for Fodor it would make sense to say the mind is singular. I don't
know what Stephen Jay Gould thinks about the issue directly, but as an advocate
of contingency in terms of evolution selection I would assume that he would
question Fodor's ruled thinking hypothesis. The same sort of hypothesis which
is behind and motivates Evolutionary Psychology.
I would emphasize here that Gould takes a great deal of care to understand the
content of his opponents theories. As should any serious materialist. Any of
these people are professional scientists. It is extremely difficult in my
opinion to argue on an e-mail list with Pinker. He can't be easily reduced to
some position without a huge grounding in the science that Pinker is proposing.
Pinker dances around all across the landscape, and in the whole is a
reactionary, but it is often hard to come up with refutations that would
decisively destroy Pinker. Destroying some part of his thinking means attacking
a piece, but the main opponents of Pinker and his co-horts have to show success
in terms of the brain. Whereas the whole of Pinker's and the EP's system depends
upon finding justification for conservative forces ruling the world real
opposition to this in a reactionary country is ten times as hard.
Modularity of the mind is for all practical purposes physically well
established. But as Gould would say the 'Just So Stories' explain nothing we
know about the brain being modular. The modules are basically blank slates. That
some module learns to "see" color does not mean that a rule is operating
inherited from the previous generations of what color is. I have seen some
people like Jim Blaut who feel anything to do with a module is tantamount to
saying "Evolutionary Psychology". This is not clear.
Furthermore, Focusing upon biology without regard to the synthesizing of various
fields together gives hardly any sense whatsoever of the debate and what it
means. There is a ferment going on with tremendous ranges of ideas being thrown
up about how the mind works. Within that the idea that there is no center of
consciousness is a neural network concept. The functioning of 'blank slate'
neural networks is something that Pinker himself takes the time to reject
straight away and forcefully in his book, "How The Mind Works", Norton, 1997 Stephen
Pinker. Page 112
"...The other view--which I favor--is that those neural networks alone
cannot do the job. It is the structuring of entworks into programs for
manipulating symbols that explains much of human intelligence. In particular
symbol manipulation underlies human language and the parts of reasoning that
interact with it...."
If one rejects modules of the mind then all the evidence from strokes localized
to regions of the brain would have to be demonstrated as not modular. One has
to find a general associative principle that works for the brain which there is
no evidence for. And rest assured capitalism is moving toward solving the
science in a big hurry, and they are not committed to Pinker's views which are
primarily not materialistic. As materialist we are concerned with the truth of
the workings of the mind. In the case of many on the left it is important in
terms of understanding what class does in the way of consciousness, and
constructing a social system that breaks finally with capitalism.
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