Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Getting it exactly wrong

I've been reading The Blank Slate by MIT neuropsychologist Steven Pinker where he discusses what modern advances in neural anatomy, evolution, and genetics have to say about human nature. Long time readers of this site know that I've been trying to figure out why people find economics so counterintuitive, and I have a much better sense of that now that I know something about how evolutionary pressures have shaped how the mind processes information. The thing that I like most about the book is that it only needs a few, basic insights that explain a lot of behavior and are pretty widely applicable. (I also did some biochemistry in a former life so I appreciate the chemical functions underlying life processes).

This piece in the Guardian discusses how language frees people from their genetic drivers allowing us to "forge our own futures." This is exactly wrong, since 1) people's ability to learn language is genetic and 2) language is distinct from thought. Chomsky, a big believer in man's ability to improve human nature, showed that the brain is born with the ability to learn and process language, although the particular language a child ends up learning is determined by the environment. Moreover, language is distinct from thought based on how people sense lies, get outraged at hypocrisy, and deal with ambiguous sentences like "Young Children Appeal to Catholic Priest". So our ability to speak languages is as genetic as the color of our eyes, and while language gives us more ways to mediate conflict, the world has zero sum games which, ultimately, you need to fight to win. More on this later.


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