Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Steven Pinker at Gene Expression

Normally I think of Evolutionary Psychology as having two main strains. The "liberal" strain that sees only female academic/social underachievement as due primarly to genetic causes, and the "conservative" strain that sees both female AND non-white academic/social underachievement as primarily due to genetics.

I had assumed that Steven Pinker was in the liberal camp, since, as the blatantly racist American Renaissance web site notes in its mostly positive review of Pinker's Blank Slate:
Prof. Pinker is firm and clear about the “inherent” or “innate” characteristics and behavior of human beings—human nature—that exist before anyone has a chance to scribble on the blank slate. Not only aggression and sexual differences but also intelligence he acknowledges to be in large part genetically grounded, but on the Big Taboo—race—he is vague and even contradictory.

He endorses the environmentalist theories of the origins of civilization of Jared Diamond and Thomas Sowell as opposed to racial ones, and tells us that “My own view … is that in the case of the most discussed racial difference—the black-white IQ gap in the United States—the current evidence does not call for a genetic explanation.” Yet, six pages later, he tells us that “… there is now ample evidence that intelligence is a stable property of an individual, that it can be linked to features of the brain (including overall size, amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes, speed of neural conduction, and metabolism of cerebral glucose), that it is partly heritable among individuals, and that it predicts some of the variations in life outcomes such as income and social status.” Combined with the different scores of blacks and whites on IQ tests, of course, this implies that the “most discussed racial difference” has a significantly genetic and not an environmentalist explanation.

Prof. Pinker also tries to evade the implications of racial differences by emphasizing the universal meaning of human nature.

“Discarding the Blank Slate has thrown far more light on the psychological unity of humankind than on any differences,” and, further:

“People are qualitatively the same but may differ quantitatively. The quantitative differences are small in biological terms, and they are found to a far greater extent among the individual members of an ethnic group or race than between ethnic groups or races. These are reassuring findings. Any racist ideology that holds that the members of an ethnic group are all alike, or that one ethnic group differs fundamentally from another, is based on false assumptions about our biology.”

So imagine my surprise when Pinker turns up in the less blatant but nevertheless thoroughly racist Gene Expression

UPDATE - that link redirects to Khan's current science blog via Discover Magazine now. But I found it again at the Wayback Machine. Enjoy.

If Khan has it removed from the Wayback Machine, I have a downloaded copy - just ask for it.

The beginning of the interview dwelt on the things that Pinker has in common with the Gene Expression crowd - with Pinker characterizing his political opponents in the standard Evolutionary Psychology way:
"Thanks to tenure, the people who can't tolerate biological insight into human affairs are still around in the universities."

I started to wonder when/how they would bring up the race issue. I had the answer when I got to question 8:

(8) I want to go back to "empirical hypotheses ... too dangerous to study." This was the topic of the Edge Annual Question. Your own offering was the possibility that the kind of research that we have just discussed may uncover a genetic and evolutionary basis for population differences in mental abilities, personality, and other psychological traits. What are your projections for the trajectory of this idea? Will it be put to the decisive test sooner rather than later? If the hereditarian view is vindicated to any extent, what disruptions and realignments of the intellectual and political landscape do you foresee?

"population differences" is the term of choice at Gene Expression for "the intellectual superiority of whites" and Pinker got that. He answers carefully, while including the obligatory "politically correct" slur:
I suspect that we'll see more studies of this kind, unless they are beaten back by politically correct opposition (as seems to be happening to Bruce Lahn's work on possible recent selection on genes governing brain size). Whether group differences will be found is an empirical question that will differ according to the trait and group comparison. If innate differences are found and acknowledged (two big if's), the effects would include questioning the assumption that all groupwide social differences (e.g., in crime, poverty, and health) are caused by discrimination or a rigged economic system. It would be an enormous challenge to the unspoken consensus of mainstream left-of-center politics during the past fifty years--though also an enormous danger to societal fairness if the claimed difference turns out to be a false alarm. And true or false, a claim of racial differences would also embolden racist kooks and unsavory political movements. (Of course, if the research decisively shows no group differences, that would take the wind out of their sails, a positive development.) Either way, it's dangerous territory, and the moral issues in exploring it are complex.

It's striking how full of conservative jargon and liberal bashing Pinker's comments often are, yet he claimed in an email to me that Stephen Jay Gould's ideas about evolutionary psychology are dismissable due to Gould's politics:
The criticisms of Stephen Jay Gould have been extensively addressed in my writings and others, and I believe they stem more from his political ideology than from the empirical literature.

The implication is that Pinker is above politics and all about pure science. Of course the motley crew at Gene Expression makes the same claim, although "feminist" is a dirty word throughout the site, and they never miss a chance to tout studies that they believe prove that non-whites are genetically less intelligent or more violent than whites.

I think the connection between the far right and the Evolutionary Psychologists needs to be monitored carefully. They have too much to offer each other - "scientific" respectablity for the right and lots of funding for the EvPsych project of, as Marvin Harris called it "biologizing inequality."

UPDATE: It seems that Pinker and blatant racist Steve Sailer are good pals, and even back in 2002 Sailer is pleased that Pinker is making progress on the racism front:
Reading The Blank Slate is particularly enjoyable to me because Pinker and I are so much on the same wavelength. We even have similar expansive concepts of evidence, relying not just on refereed journals but also on Tom Wolfe, Dave Barry, and the great Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.

Further, Pinker is an enthusiastic subscriber to my iSteve mailing list. And arguments that I've made over the years pop up throughout The Blank Slate.

For example, according to Pinker, his section on IQ on pp. 149-150 embellishes upon various of my articles. My VDARE series on how to help the left half of the bell curve was apparently a particularly fruitful source. Here's an excerpt from The Blank Slate with links to my supporting articles:

“I find it truly surreal to read academics denying the existence of intelligence. Academics are obsessed with intelligence. They discuss it endlessly in considering student admissions, in hiring faculty and staff, and especially in their gossip about one another. Nor can citizens or policymakers ignore the concept, regardless of their politics. People who say that IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to executing a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child's IQ by five points, or the Presidential qualifications of George W. Bush.”

Several readers have complained that while The Blank Slate is excellent on sex and individual differences, it wimps out on racial differences. My response: "Thank God." Pinker is not only a major scientist, while I'm merely a journalist, but he's also much more articulate. If he had written a book about race, there would be nothing for me to say.

Further, it's important to realize how far Pinker has come over the years. He started out completely under the spell of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, the founders of evolutionary psychology, which has succeeded on politically-correct campuses by stripping from Edward O. Wilson's discipline of sociobiology its emphasis on explaining human differences.