Saturday, March 12, 2016

Steven Pinker versus Noam Chomsky on Human Nature

I pointed out in the last post why Chomsky’s views are different from those of the Postmodernist left and its modern offshoot the regressive left on many points.

Now for some criticism. Here Steven Pinker makes interesting criticisms of Chomsky’s politics and his views of human nature. For Pinker, we need the leviathan state, and anarchism is an absurd utopian fantasy – and he is right. Also, badly missing here is the reality that religions cause terrible conflicts between human beings and cultural beliefs people hold can be vehemently opposed.

A related point here is Chomsky’s view of the human language system. In standard neo-Darwinian theory not everything biological and innate is a direct adaptation, but evolution can be caused by multiple processes:
(1) direct adaptation;

(2) exaptation (some prior adaptation then “re-designed” to solve a different adaptive problem);

(3) as a by-product (or spandrel);

(4) sexual selection, or

(5) genetic drift.
Chomsky has suggested that the human language faculty is (3), while Pinker and others argue it is (1) (see Pinker and Bloom 1990). So, despite appearances, the debate here has nothing to with denying the general truth of Darwinian evolution at all, but merely about what specific evolutionary or biological processes were at work. But it seems here too Pinker is right, and Chomsky is wrong. There is a fine discussion of this issue in Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (London), pp. 384–400.

Dennett, D. C. 1996. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Penguin Books, London.

Pinker, Steven and Paul Bloom, 1990. “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 707–784.

1 comment:

  1. LK, I hope you consider this relevant given your mention of religion causing conflict between our species, and citations of Pinker and Dennett. If not, my advance apologies for being irrelevant, and name dropping the man for the third time on your blog; I hope it does not draw your ire!

    If you have an interest in reading up on current academic work on the role religious/sacred values have on human conflict, I would strongly recommend you check out Scott Atran's work on the topic. His 2013 piece with Jeremy Ginges, "Religious And Sacred Imperatives In Human Conflict", would be a good area to start. Both Dennett and Pinker have praised Atran's work in this area, and Pinker cites Atran's research favorably in The Better Angels Of Our Nature on page 356-357.