[Marxism] Re: Information on Stephen Pinker

Paul Gallagher pgallagher4 at nyc.rr.com
Fri Mar 11 09:27:04 MST 2005


So I'm looking for critical literature -- if only because Pinker's 
>perspective dovetails with
>that being so popularly advanced by Jared Daimond --as both are proponents 
>of a new
>offensive against such 'utopian' doctrines as Marxism. As E/O/Wilson was 
>pleased to
>observe in regard Marxism: "Great theory. Wrong species."
>
>Dave Riley

H. Allen Orr wrote a review in the Feb. 27, 2003 New York Review of Books.
The New York Review site is here:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=16074

Orr's review can be read for free here:
http://www.let.uu.nl/~nltaal/tmm/extra/blankslate_NYRB.htm

I also noticed John Dupre's review of Pinker's book in the American Scientist.

* Making Hay with Straw Men * Magazine article by John Dupre;
American Scientist, Vol. 91, January-February 2003

Making hay with straw men

by John Dupre

The Blank Slate:The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Steven Pinker.
xviii + 509 pp. Viking, 2002. $27.95.

The nature/nurture controversy is perennially frustrating. Both
parties to the debate, or at any rate their more clearheaded
representatives, are completely committed to the view that humans
develop as a consequence of countless interactions between their
biological endowment and their environment. Yet each side portrays
the other as benightedly monistic--as either thoroughgoing biological
determinists or, in the phrase Steven Pinker adopts for the title
of the present work, devotees of the blank slate.So we have two
competing dichotomies--the reasonable interactionist versus the
biological determinist, and the reasonable interactionist versus
the blank slate.Dividing by the common term, we have the battle of
the straw men. Of course, to present the debate in either of these
ways is to determine its outcome, and the aim of Pinker's book is
to convince us that reason lies with the enemies of the blank
slate.For those readers like myself who start with the conviction
that biological determinism is more of a threat to reason than is
the blank slate,there is not much in this book that is likely to
change minds.

Undoubtedly, there is a tendency to understate the role of biological
factors in the development of the human mind. The classical
behaviorists were perhaps most culpable in this regard, although
there may also be such a tendency in the outer reaches of contemporary
postmodernism. Pinker identifies two ideas that aid and abet this
rejection of human nature: Descartes's ghost in the machine and
Rousseau's noble savage. The former has certainly led some thinkers
to see the mind as almost entirely unconstrained by its physical
manifestation, and the myth of the noble savage has no doubt
convinced some that only culture or society can possibly explain
human nastiness.

However, Pinker's strategy of presenting himself as one of a
beleaguered minority, confronting a hegemony of blankslates, ghosts
in machines and noble savages, reduces these old warhorses to a
trinity of straw men. In reality, although these traditions should
certainly be rejected, they no longer inform the best thought of
the schools Pinker inveighs against. As I have noted, what is
needed, and quite widely perceived to be needed, is an attempt to
address the interaction among biological, environmental and cultural
factors in the development of human minds. The trouble with this
prescription is just that an honest acceptance of the complexity
of interacting factors in human psychology leads one largely to
confessions of ignorance about human nature and human possibility.
And, to be only mildly cynical, such confessions are no way to
write best-selling books. Sadly, then, having dispatched his straw
men, Pinker slides smoothiy toward the simplistic position he staked
out in How the Mind Works.

That book offers an egregious example of the development of the
argument that if we decide that a given behavior would have been
good for our ancestors in the Stone Age, then we must conclude that
we almost certainly have evolved a tendency to produce it. I, and
others, have said a good deal elsewhere about the inadequacy of
this line of thought, and I shall not rehearse the arguments.
Suffice it to say that Pinker continues here his pursuit of this
unpromising project.

For example, Pinker quotes a remark by fellow evolutionary
psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson that "Any creature that
is recognizably on track toward complete reproductive failure must
somehow expend effort, often at risk of death, to try to improve
its present life trajectory." Pinker infers that "Impoverished
young men on this track are therefore likely to risk life and limb
to improve their chances in the sweepstakes for status, wealth,
and mates." Daly and Wilson's remark is highly problematic: Clearly
there is no necessity--natural, logical or moral-- involved, although
certainly there may be an evolutionary tendency for organisms to
evolve conditional strategies of the kind indicated. So to infer
from their remark that a particular species (ours) has in fact
evolved such a strategy, and that therefore reproductively unsuccessful
young men are likely to exhibit such a strategy, is utterly
ungrounded. All young men without reproductive success? Only
impoverished ones? Homosexuals? Of course it is a well-known
demographic fact that young men are more disposed to violence than
are other segments of the population. But sweeping statements of
evolutionary generality were not needed to discover this fact, nor
do they do much to illuminate it.

More bizarre are Pinker's speculations about "folk" understandings
across the intellectual map (folk physics, folk biology, folk
psychology, folk economics and so on), which he thinks reflect
innate mental structures. Even the poor old ghost in the machine
turns out to be a central feature of innate psychology, a view that
I should have thought difficult to reconcile with the complex status
of this picture in the history of ideas. (Did Aristotle lack the
relevant module, for instance, whereas Plato had more standard
mental equipment?) And this is not harmlessly barmy. For example,
Pinker attributes opposition to genetically modified foods to innate
and intuitive essentialism. This provides an excuse-- of which
Pinker avails himself-- for dismissing without any analysis, or
enumeration even, the criticisms that have been made of these
technologies.

Rather surprisingly, Pinker ties views on nature and nurture directly
to politics and explicitly connects his own innatist ideas to
conservatism. I say this connection is surprising because, in common
with many crusading evolutionary psychologists, Pinker chides his
opponents for their failure to grasp the naturalistic fallacy.
Historically, the naturalistic fallacy is the attempt to derive
normative conclusions from statements of fact. A number of evolutionary
psychologists, including Pinker, have come to use the expression
to refer to the idea that whatever happens in nature is good. The
problem is that whereas it is extremely doubtful whether in its
original sense the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy at all, in
its vulgarized sense it is certainly a fallacy, but not one many
serious thinkers have been tempted to commit. At any rate, in its
proper sense Pinker certainly does commit it, since he seems quite
willing to present his conservatism as a natural consequence of a
proper appreciation of human natur e.

It would, I think, be an entirely salutary development if evolutionary
psychologists were to acknowledge that views about human nature
are likely to have ethical and political consequences. (Views about
the biological basis of violence or rape, for instance, do have
consequences for how we should think about these phenomena normatively,
although certainly they are very unlikely to show that violence
and rape are good.) It is to be hoped that such an acknowledgment
would lead those who made it to recognize an onus of responsibility
in promoting wholly speculative ideas apparently carrying the
authority of science about such sensitive topics.

At this point in the book I was increasingly struck by resonances
with the intellectual conservatism of science warriors such as Paul
Gross and Norman Levitt. Pinker's standard lists of blank-slaters
(exponents of social constructionism, science studies, cultural
studies, poststructuralism and the like) are eerily reminiscent of
the singling out of enemies of science by Gross and Levitt and
others. It would be a task beyond the present review to explore
the connections, but the appeal to right-of-center middlebrow
scientism is certainly similar and surely suggestive of a broader
cultural tendency.

Perhaps the low point of the book comes near the end, with Pinker's
reflections on modernist art. The problem with modernism, Pinker
opines, is that we have evolved innate tastes for nice tunes and
pretty pictures, and that modernism, not to mention postmodernism,
fails to provide us with these things that we naturally crave.
Here, I think, Pinker descends into self-parody. The notion that
a century of the history of art will be much illuminated by
reflections on the kinds of landscape that were found reassuring
by cavemen does not, I think, merit detailed criticism. It is ironic
that Pinker uses the biological inadequacy of modernism to account
for falling university enrollments in the humanities. In the United
Kingdom, English is by some way the most sought-after undergraduate
subject, and universities are struggling to keep their science
departments open in the face of disastrous declines in student
interest. But that, I suppose, is merely a cultural difference.

Although no one will be surprised to hear at this point that I was
irritated by this book, it is, of course, not without merits. Pinker
has read widely and writes engagingly. He is at times entertaining,
and on some topics he has interesting things to say. I enjoyed his
presentation of the case that children are not much affected by
their parents, for instance, although it puts rather more weight
on personality testing than I would happily allow. Still, the thesis
that children are interested in imitating their peers rather than
their parents is plausible enough, if owing little or nothing to
evolutionary psychology.

But overall the book is a paradigm of why this kind of popular
science should have a bad name. Depressingly, and in contrast to
the nuanced interactionism that provides the only way forward in
this area, Pinker is a master of the simplistic dichotomy. Politics
divides between the Utopian (bad) and the Tragic (good). We meet
gender feminists (bad) and equity feminists (good). And underlying
it all, we see biological determinists squaring off one more time
against the blank-slaters. Perhaps even worse, extending the general
thesis of the book far beyond those issues to which it has any
relevance, Pinker passes up no opportunity to pontificate on whatever
contentious and controversial issues come within his line of sight.

To end as I began, with the underlying philosophical issue, there
is a real advantage to the positions that Pinker decries as blank
slatetheories. Once we accept, as we all should, interactionism
between the biological and the environmental (especially the
cultural), there is little hope that we will be able to characterize
human nature in any fine detail. The ideal, perhaps, would be to
describe the "norm of reaction" for human nature--to characterize
human behavioral tendencies as a function of all the possible
environments in which humans can develop. This is still, surely,
an impossible task. It does point to something possible, however--namely,
that we might explore the effects of changes in the sociocultural
environment on the development of human nature. Of course, we should
be mindful of our ignorance and even more mindful of the disastrous
consequences of some earlier attempts to manipulate human nature.
However, with such sensitivity, with appropriate imperatives of
decency and respect toward the people whose lives one may be
affecting, and with the sophisticated understanding of human nature
that derives eclectically from history, literature, philosophy,
science and experience rather than the crude reductionism of Pinker's
"Darwinism," there is still the possibility that we may build better
societies. Pinker's scientistic conservatism provides no reasons
for abandoning such ambitions.

John Dupre is professor of philosophy of science in thc Department
of Sociology and director of the Exeter Centre for Genomics in
Society at the University of Exeter in England. His most recent
hooks are Humans and Other Animals and Human Nature and the Limits
of Science, both of which were published by Oxford University Press
in 2002.






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