Can Education Account for Evolutionary Change?

  • Steven Pinker on education, and how it might prioritize overcoming base intuitions that don’t apply in the modern world;
  • The naturalistic fallacy and DeSantis’ and Fetterman’s objections to lab-grown meat.

This month I’m working my way through the last ‘big’ Steven Pinker book I’ve never read all the way through — The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, published in 2002. It concerns the existence of an evolutionarily-derived human nature, as opposed to the naive idea, long-held, that the mind is ‘blank’ upon birth and only shaped by experience and education. Just this afternoon I read Chapter 13, “Out of Our Depths,” which deals with the perils of the “intuitive” thinking built into that human nature, which formed to prioritize survival in an environment humans haven’t lived in for millennia. This passage, on pp 235-6, echoes the appeals to education I’ve noted in a couple recent posts. (As well as the distinction between the intuitive and the thoughtful, both in morality and in decision-making, that runs through several recent books.)

The obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education. And this offers priorities for educational policy: to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important fro grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. The perilous fallacies we have seen in this chapter, for example, would given high priority to economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics in any high school or college curriculum. Unfortunately, most cirricula have barely changed since medieval times, and are barely changeable, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics. But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.

I’m struck by the notion that curricula have barely changed since medieval times. It goes to the question, What are universities for?, which I saw somewhere today as the headline for an article I haven’t saved, and of course can’t find now. But mostly to a recurring theme on this blog, and in my upcoming essay, that the human intuitions built into human nature through evolutionary adaptation to our ancestral environment are insufficient to understand and deal with the modern world (let alone the conceptual spaces of science and science fiction). This is why people (especially conservatives, it seems to me) are fooled by intuitive notions of economics (e.g. the government should be run like a household) and statistics (being more afraid of flying in planes than driving in cars).

So: the notion that education should try to dissuade intuitive thinking in favor of rational thinking. Great idea — I think I’ll update, or replace, the post I did two and half years ago in which I proposed A Universal Education. Which otherwise I stand by.


This aligns with a theme of Pinker’s book: the appeal to the “naturalistic fallacy,” that whatever is natural must be good. And “unnatural,” bad.

First, this item from a couple days ago.

Paul Krugman, NY Times, 6 May 2024: Meat, Freedom and Ron DeSantis [gift link]

This concerns the possibility of growing meat in a lab (long a science fiction notion) and avoiding the slaughter of actual animals.

And if some people choose to consume lab-grown meat, why not? It’s a free country, right?

Not if the likes of Ron DeSantis have their way. Recently DeSantis, back to work as governor of Florida after the spectacular failure of his presidential campaign, signed a bill banning the production or sale of lab-grown meat in his state. Similar legislation is under consideration in several states.

On one level, this could be seen as a trivial story — a crackdown on an industry that doesn’t even exist yet. But the new Florida law is a perfect illustration of how crony capitalism, culture war, conspiracy theorizing and rejection of science have been merged — ground together, you might say — in a way that largely defines American conservatism today.

Krugman goes on about the notion of limited government, how the likes of Texas ranchers are behind the bill, and the hypocrisy of Republicans who claim they believe in a free market.


Then today we have this.

Vox, Kenny Torrella, 8 May 2024: John Fetterman has beef with no-kill meat, subtitled “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned cell-cultivated or ‘lab-grown’ meat. Why did Democratic Senator John Fetterman lend his support?”

Fetterman’s opposition may also be explained by the “naturalistic fallacy”: the notion that anything “natural” — real animals slaughtered for food — is good, while anything new and “artificial,” like cell-cultivated meat, is bad.

That was evident in a follow-up to his post in support of DeSantis’s ban, where he shared a picture of a bioreactor used to make cell-cultivated meat with a caption that read “btw, this is the thing that makes lab meat.”

Commenters pointed out that most meat goes through processing machines like these. Fetterman’s objection — an example of “a little knowledge” i.e. a superficial understanding of a complex matter — doesn’t take into account these:

Any critique of novel food technology must also include an honest reckoning with what it seeks to replace: in this case, conventional meat production, a highly industrialized system that depends on a slew of horrific practices, including:

This list just skims the surface. Factory farming also commits widespread environmental pollution and subjects its workers to dangerous conditions on the farm and in slaughterhouses, where people lose fingers and limbs and some reportedly wear diapers because bathroom breaks are so limited.

Personally? I still eat meat. I’m not a vegetarian. For reasons partly cultural, and personal. I don’t think my partner would ever agree to any kind of vegan diet, or even meat-substitute diet. (We have tried the “impossible burgers” and similar products at home, and they’re OK.) But if “lab-grown” meat becomes possible, I’ll certainly try it out.

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