Reacting Emotionally to the Non-Plasticity of Mankind

Grim writes an interesting post with quotes from Marx and Heinlein. I want to add something about that, related also to my last post. If there is indeed such a thing as "general intelligence" or cognitive ability (and there is), and it is largely inherited (as it is), so that every man's possible mental accomplishments are limited on the day of his birth - well, how does it make you feel?

I used to hold "blank slate" ideas - and I can tell you that when they're applied to politics, be they leftist or no, they are extremely agitating. Marx (and, I believe, Charles Fourier before him) believed strongly in a huge well of untapped potential in the human race. Get the social arrangements right, and what we call "genius" will become "average." One Marxist thinker, who didn't emerge on a quick google, claimed that the average New Communist Man would have the mental abilities of a Darwin, a Freud, or a Marx - though he admitted there would be deviations from the average, with unimaginable geniuses waiting to emerge and transform the world. The frustrating sense that this incredible world is potentially avaialable right now, with the humans we have, and it's only being held back by social arrangements...well, how to describe it? It can't be good for the blood pressure.

Closely akin to this is the idea that John Derbyshire calls "educational romanticism" - the idea that, since anyone can do almost anything, all that's standing between your children (or your community) and Nobel Prizes in physics, seven-figure salaries, etc. is insufficient education plus discrimination -- surely that idea would fill anyone with bile. I grew up believing "blank slate" ideas and tasted some of that bile, and still get the aftertaste when I reflect on what the Greens have done to our industrial capacity...but that is a different tale.

I do not find it depressing or dismal to see this isn't so with intelligence, that blank slate ideas are nonsense, that in fact the U.S. probably does as well as any country ever in getting its best brains into higher education (this book and that book document it well) -- and that the creation of genius by an act of will must wait, not for a messianic statist, but for technology we may get within the next century. It's a comfort to know we haven't been wasting as much genius as I used to think.

What do you think and how do you feel about it?


Texan99 said...

To quote Heinlein again, if genetics didn't have anything to do with it, you could teach calculus to a horse.

Nevertheless the idea never has made me feel limited. I'm as firmly in the "unrealized potential" camp as I am in the "IQ is real camp." It's pretty clear to me that I've never come close to realizing all the potential I might have in me, so if I'm limited, it's more a self-limitation than a genetic one. If and when I ever try hard enough to bump up against my genetic limits, I'll worry then about whether I feel unfairly constrained by fate.

Grim said...

As always with these nature/nurture things, I think the answer is "Both are true to some degree."

If you feel, as I do, that consciousness is a kind of unity, the limits become a highly useful fact: they let us see aspects of the world that we would be blind to if we all had the same mental/physical structure. Thus, to the degree that we are limited, that is good. Nothing is lost if we aren't all geniuses: in fact, something would be lost if we were.

Dad29 said...

First off, there's a REASON for the term 'average' as applied to IQ. Some exceed, others don't.

But there are two kinds of 'smarts.' There's 'book smart' and 'street smart.'

The individual who has equal doses will be more materially successful than those who have a gross imbalance. (Allowing for the exceptionals: ultra-high on either scale.)

douglas said...

The vast majority of humanity isn't short on brains, they're short on elbow grease and the experience gained through applied knowledge that would help you use the brainpower you do have.

Joseph W. said...

T99 - I forget, did you ever link to the story on London cab drivers at Not Exactly Rocket Science - the ones who study for years to acquire "The Knowledge"?

Now there are some fellows pushing up against their limits! (Judging by the effects it has on their memories.)