Tak­ing de bate

Jamaica Gleaner - - @ISSUE -

With­out know­ing that the word ‘lit­er­ary’ had noth­ing to do with emp­ty­ing dust­bins (my pun­ish­ment in ele­men­tary school for mak­ing ill-timed jokes), I joined the Lit­er­ary and De­bat­ing So­ci­ety and even­tu­ally be­came the cap­tain of the school’s de­bat­ing team. My spe­cial­ity, and why I re­mem­bered the Latin term for a prac­tice that started in Greece, was reductio ad ab­sur­dum. Es­sen­tially, it means ‘reduction to ab­sur­dity’ gen­er­ally by at­tempt­ing to turn a rea­son­able ar­gu­ment into an ab­surd one by tak­ing the ar­gu­ment to the most hi­lar­i­ous ex­tremes. Its use is com­mon in de­bates, phi­los­o­phy, and in for­mal math­e­mat­ics (where it is re­ferred to as proof by con­tra­dic­tion).


Take, for in­stance, the topic, com­mon in school de­bates, that in­tel­li­gence is de­ter­mined by genes and not the en­vi­ron­ment. So you have the ‘pos­i­tive’ side. Your op­po­nents hit you with, “You are say­ing that in­tel­li­gence is de­ter­mined by genes? If that were so, then some­one raised with­out hu­man con­tact or knowl­edge could still be a ge­nius. A baby reared by wolves could be brighter than Ein­stein? Does that have to do with rel­a­tiv­ity or his rel­a­tives?”

When your turn comes, you have your open­ing for, “If in­tel­li­gence is to­tally and com­pletely de­ter­mined by the en­vi­ron­ment, then ev­ery­one can be a ge­nius re­gard­less of any kind of in­her­ent men­tal dis­abil­ity. Even peo­ple who at­tend the same school as my hon­ourable op­po­nents.”

This is a touchy area, but you can find a way to deal with it, as Thomas Hux­ley did in the 1860 Ox­ford Evo­lu­tion De­bate, which took place shortly af­ter Charles Dar­win pub­lished ‘On the Ori­gin of Species’. Some se­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual heavy­weights were around, but it came down to Thomas Hux­ley and Bishop Sa­muel Wil­ber­force.

Ac­cord­ing to BRANCH (Bri­tain, Rep­re­sen­ta­tion and Nine­teenth Cen­tury His­tory), Hux­ley was Dar­win’s friend and chief sci­en­tific de­fender. Wil­ber­force, known as ‘Soapy Sam’ for his smooth­ness and rhetor­i­cal slip­per­i­ness in de­bate, of­fered a lengthy de­nun­ci­a­tion of Dar­win’s the­ory, ridi­cul­ing it and declar­ing it to be at odds with Scrip­ture.

As he closed his re­marks, Wil­ber­force turned to Hux­ley and sneer­ingly asked him if it was through his grand­fa­ther or grand­mother that he claimed de­scent from apes. The au­di­ence cheered. Hux­ley turned to the man seated next to him and whis­pered, “The Lord hath de­liv­ered him into mine hands.” Ris­ing to his feet, Hux­ley re­sponded that he would rather have an ape for an an­ces­tor than a bishop who dis­torted the truth.

I would have started the hered­ity ver­sus en­vi­ron­ment de­bate by first defin­ing my terms. My ap­proach would have been, “Where I come from, if a child re­sem­bles the father, it is hered­ity, and if the child re­sem­bles the neigh­bour, that is en­vi­ron­ment.”


Of course, the holy Ir­ish­men who ran the school would not have al­lowed that. But they would have liked three ex­am­ples that are of­ten quoted. One is a ques­tion about how many boxes of cook­ies some Girl Scouts sold in an hour. The ar­gu­ment against was, “There is no way those Girl Scouts could have sold all those cases of cook­ies in one hour. If they did, they would have made $500 in one hour, which, based on an eight-hour day, is over a mil­lion dol­lars a year. That is more than most lawyers, doc­tors, and suc­cess­ful busi­ness peo­ple make!”

Then there is, “Don’t for­get God’s com­mand­ment, ‘thou shall not kill’. By us­ing mouth­wash, you are killing

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