Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Indescribable Perfection of the United States Constitution AND the Human Brain

Human beings are "venerators." We seek people, places, and things we can revere for their impeccability, even sometimes their putative perfection. Both the United States Constitution and the human brain have been lauded for their elegance of design and for the genius of their designers. We're not content with a good constitution or a good brain. No, we seek perfection and necessity. When something is perfect, it cannot be changed for the better. And venerators detest change. But, in the final analysis, both the Constitution and the human brain fall far short of perfection or necessity. The United States Constitution lacks a simple organizing principle, perhaps any organizing principle at all for that matter. Indeed, it is instead a series of ad hoc compromises resulting in a document that could be barely ratified and one which embedded slavery more deeply into American society. The delegates, for all "they have been celebrated . . . bear responsibility for having entrenched slavery deeper, for not even beginning to express disapproval of it." [David O. Stewart, The Summer of 1787: The Men who Invented the Constitution 263 (2007)] Moreover, unforeseen consequences followed from their compromised structure designed to protect slavery. With the ratification of the three-fifths rules, slave states were given an unfair advantage which they used to control the early presidency, the speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court. Indeed, John Adams' loss to Jefferson in 1800 was a direct consequence of the three-fifths rule for representation in Congress. Moreover, today, the same structure inordinately protects the wealthy to the disadvantage of everyone else. Yet we nonetheless revere the Constitution to such a great extent as to render its glaring imperfections invisible.

The human brain also has been described as being elegantly designed by an intelligent, super-smart designer. The computer in our mind eludes the talents of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. It is flawless in both form and function. How very comforting! But the human brain is much more accurately characterized as accidental. Indeed, the very features we value most arose accidentally. As David J. Linden puts it "[t]he transcendent aspects of our human experience, the things that touch our emotional and cognitive core . . . are not the latest design features of an impeccably crafted brain. Rather, at every turn, brain design has been a kludge, a workaround, a jumble, a pastiche. The things we hold highest in our human experience (love, memory, dreams, and a predisposition for religious thought . . . result from a particular agglomeration of ad hoc solutions that have been piled on through millions of years of evolutionary history. It's not that we have fundamentally human thoughts and feelings despite the kludgy design of the brain molded by the twists of evolutionary history. Rather, we have them precisely because of that history. [The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God 245-46 (2007)]. Our quest for perfection in what we do and in what we are is probably a hard-wired feature of the human brain, but so is critical thinking and reasoning. Given the world as we know it, which has greater pragmatic punch, the quest for perfection or a process of critically analyzing policies put forth by our fellow citizens in the hope of improving our brief stay here? If there is genius in American political and constitutional history, it resides in the democrat's [small "d" of course] penchant for criticism. We democrats pride ourselves of examining, testing, and refining our choice of constitutional design. Fidelity to the underlying values of our Constitution requires fidelity to criticism and improvement, not something as atavistic as the Founders' original intent or the original meaning of their words. The latter pursuits are for monarchists and theocrats. Democrats have little patience with such remnants of a rejected past. Instead, we democrats rightly ask of the Constitution, "What have you done for us lately?"


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