September 14, 2010

Tabula rasa?

John Locke, an influential British philosopher of the 17th century, believed that all knowledge comes from experience and that the human mind was a "tabula rasa" or blank slate.

Every so often, I've been blogging about the possible connections between human evolution and social life, an area often fraught with controversy and misconceptions. For years, I was biased towards the view that social conditioning and environmental factors were the decisive force shaping what is frequently called human nature.

Plus, when I was young, I was attracted to the philosophy of existentialism, which in some forms emphasized human freedom to choose. As Jean Paul Sartre put it, we were (supposedly) "condemned to be free." I still have a soft spot for those views and don't think they are entirely wrong, but the tide of science has been pulling the other way.

I'd like to give a shout out to two books, one big and one little, that deal with this subject in interesting ways. The big one is Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature and the little on is Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation.

Pinker takes aim at three cherished myths: the idea that humans are silly putty totally moulded by social influences; the idea of the "ghost in the machine," i.e. that the mind is somehow independent of the brain; and the idea of the Noble Savage, which idealizes people in an imaginary "state of nature."

Singer argues that while we do carry evolutionary baggage that makes a peaceful egalitarian utopia a bit problematic, this doesn't mean we can't successfully work for a more just and fair society.

More on that to come.

DYING TO WORK. Jim Hightower takes aim at death on the job.

TAX THIS. House minority leader John Boehner made headlines this weekend when he said he might accept letting Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy expire as a compromise if cuts for the middle class were preserved, something no one else in his party seems prepared to do. A recent Gallup poll found strong support for ending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

HERE'S SOMETHING ELSE for the coal industry to deny. A new study of the health effects of coal-fired power plants found West Virginia to be the hardest hit state in the country, as the WV News Service reports. Here's another article on the topic and here's a link to the full report.

IDENTIFIABLE VICTIM BIAS. A study of jury verdicts found that penalties for damages go down when the number of victims go up. It seems that people are more likely to impose severe penalties when the injured party is someone concrete rather than a bunch of unknown people. This reminds me of a characteristically evil remark attributed to Stalin that when one person dies it's a tragedy but when a million die it's a statistic.


1 comment:

Hollowdweller said...

RE: Coal Fired Plants

Several people I've talked to over the years who were nurses commented on what they observed as a seemingly large amount of kids/people with spina bifida in the area near John Anus power plant.