Friday, August 16, 2013

A reading on your mind

The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter -- be it on sexuality, language, food preferences, or morality -- consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words. Marcus' analogy leads to the best definition of innateness I have ever seen: Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises....'Built-in' does not mean unmalleable; it means 'organized in advance of experience' 

- Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by  Politics and Religion, paraphrasing and then directly quoting Gary Marcus.  Though Haidt is not Marxist,  I couldn't help but think of this line:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. 

Marx' context was completely different (for starters, he was referring to society's self-justifications and not individuals), but  both communicate an essential truth...there are limits to how far we can reinvent ourselves. Even as babies, we are carried by the inertia of our genes' intent, and as adults, by the customs and culture of the society and times in which we live.


  1. But doesn't this take away free will? If who we are is predetermined by society and genetics, what is the point of it all?

    I don't think I agree with the author's theory; or, more accurately, I am uncomfortable with the author's theory. Genetics can be overcome (to an extent), and society only has ultimate influence over the weak minded.

    I am the final architect of my Identity.

  2. Haidt isn't as genetically predispositioned as some: his view is that from the start we're slightly aimed in one direction or another. That skew can change based on our life experiences, or it can be strengthened. The author's point in the book altogether is that our history as a species has given us certain measures of morality, distinct and differing moral axes,, and that some people are more disposed to some axes or another. It seems to make sense, but I don't think it explains people like you and myself whose political convictions change through the years. But maybe our core thoughts don't change, they just get reinterpreted through another story. That's another of his points: the stories we tell about our lives can reinforce our natural bias, or counter it. So there's a lot of room for us to be the masters of our mind.


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