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Richard Lewontin, Chomsky, and common sense

The brain

Richard Lewontin’s article “The Evolution of Cognition: Questions We Will Never Answer” is excellent. It counsels skepticism about humans’ ability to understand themselves and nature, in this case because of a lack of sufficient data (rather than a lack of cognitive capacity, as Chomsky and Colin McGinn argue—rightly, and obviously). All I can say is: are there actually people out there who think we’ll ever fully understand human cognition and its evolution, or the human mind itself?? The very idea is preposterous, not only in light of practical constraints but even in principle. It's even more ridiculous than the idea that someday we’ll have a complete physics of the universe, including of the Big Bang. When I was 14—or younger—I understood that the human mind is limited, and that the data we have are limited. Because, after all, it’s incredibly obvious, to any sane person who thinks about it for two minutes. Lewontin’s impatience (in a letter to the book’s editors) is justified:

I must say that the best lesson our readers can learn is to give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood. History, and evolution is a form of history, simply does not leave sufficient traces, especially when it is the forces that are at issue. Form and even behavior may leave fossil remains, but forces like natural selection do not. It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck.

And: no shit. What a commentary on our silly intellectual culture that Lewontin actually has to devote an entire article—a controversial one, incidentally—to arguing this utterly trivial point! Just think how many gaps there are in the fossil record. Think how many data we’d need to reconstruct the rise and spread of cognition. Think how inconceivably complex—and almost entirely shrouded in silence—the history of hominids is. All we can do is “tell stories” about how evolution may have proceeded, and why it may have proceeded in certain ways. Eighty percent of nature, or rather of the aspects of nature we’re interested in, will forever be a mystery to us.


[From Notes of an Underground Humanist:] In Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals (2004), Neil Smith says the following: “The part of his work for which [Chomsky] is most famous, infamous according to some, and the one for which he has been most vociferously criticized, is his argument that a substantial part of the faculty of language is genetically determined: it ‘is some kind of expression of the genes.’ [Horror of horrors!] The simplest formulation of this claim, which recalls the rationalism of Descartes, and explicitly juxtaposes this with the empiricism of Quine, is that ‘Language is innate.’ The claim is so radical [?], and so counterintuitive in the face of the existence of close on 10,000 different languages in the world, that it is necessary to summarize and evaluate the evidence.... [The evidence Chomsky cites includes] the speed and age-dependence of acquisition, convergence among grammars, analogies to vision and other modular abilities, species-specificity, the ‘over-determination’ of language acquisition in deaf or blind, or deaf-blind, children, but above all the existence of universals on the one hand and poverty-of-the-stimulus arguments on the other.”

It’s just astounding. Academics actually consider these ideas controversial, even “radical”! Why is there such aversion to the clearest common sense, and to the biological (genetic) perspective?? Why the aversion to the hypothesis of innateness?? Why the centuries-long commitment to empiricism?? Honestly, it fascinates me. And why the ridiculing of the idea that the human mind has limited cognitive capacities, that it can’t necessarily understand everything about the world, for instance the determinism vs. free will paradox and the emergence of consciousness from electrochemical processes? Every other species has limited capacities, so why not us? We’re not angels, to quote Chomsky; we’re defined, determined, organic beings, whose minds are not blank or infinite at birth. From my teenage years I’ve considered these rationalist ideas too obvious to argue for. But I guess people don’t like to believe there are limitations to their powers or freedom or ability to mold themselves and understand everything. Childish delusions, residues of infantile narcissism.


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