Wednesday, October 19, 2011

two sides of the same Coyne

I've been a fan of evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne ever since his superb take-down of the Thornhill-Palmer exercise in standard evolutionary psychology just-so-ology "A Natural History of Rape."

Coyne's article Of Vice and Men (the link opens up a PDF document) was an impressive piece and you know it's objectively good because it really pissed off the ev-psychs at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Mecca of evolutionary psychology. (The EP Vatican is the London School of Economics.)

But I'm ambivalent about his blog Why Evolution is True because he so often refers admiringly to the Five Horses Asses of Atheism, Pinker, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett.

I've blogged about what jerkwads they are before. I personally find them, one and all, an embarrassment to atheism.

Coyne claims that these "Horsemen" have eloquence in common. Perhaps, but each one is an asshole in his own special way.

Richard Dawkins is an anti-Muslim bigot, proven sexist, prominent booster of evolutionary psychology, and all-around nasty little man.

Christopher Hitchens supported the Iraq War and is a proven misogynist.

Sam Harris is also an anti-Muslim bigot and is perhaps best known for his defense of torture.

Daniel Dennett is also a booster of evolutionary psychology and a promoter of strict adaptationism, called a Darwinian Fundamentalist by Stephen Jay Gould. I know the least about Dennett, personality and politics-wise.

Stephen Pinker huge promoter of evolutionary psychology to the point of shading into the racist tendencies of sociobiology. And also a huge sexist. His idea of a "feminist" is Camille "women can't be geniuses" Paglia. Also a pal of gigantic douchebag and Wall Street booster Lawrence Summers.

Coyne himself, while showing evidence of anti-Muslim bigotry, is, as established by his Vice and Men paper, quite skeptical of the most outrageous claims of the evolutionary psychologists - and doesn't appear to be a sexist, although he's pretty traditionalist in his attitudes at times. But from everything I know about these six men, Coyne is far superior to the others. Why he insists on being a consistent booster for those assholes is beyond me.

And speaking of Pinker, The New Yorker did to his The Blank Slate, what Coyne did to the Thornhill-Palmer work - completely eviscerated it. It's such a joy to read - if you haven't go read it now: Doing What Comes Naturally.

Pinker is constantly inventing straw-man liberals and academics he can accuse of all kinds of awfulness, so it's always satisfying when the actual liberals at The New Yorker get a hold of his books and tell you how poorly-reasoned and all-around weaselly they are.

So I loved the New Yorker review of Pinker's latest book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". Unfortunately unlike the Blank Slate review this one is not available to read for free online. You'll either have to track down a copy of the New Yorker from a couple of weeks ago or subscribe and get access to the archives - I recommend the latter.

Anyway, here are some highlights from the review:
The homicide rate in New Orleans last year was forty-nine per hundred thousand, roughly what Amsterdam's was six hundred years ago. St. Louis's and Detroit's murder rates in 2010 were about forty per hundred thousand, around the rate of London in the fourteenth century... Do these cities lag behind in "the civilizing process" because they're poor or educationally disadvantaged? No, Pinker argues; the key factor is that they have large African-American populations. Low-income blacks in the U.S. are "effectively stateless," living in a sort of Hobbesian dystopia beyond the reach of law enforcement..."

...As Pinker's views on African-Americans and Southerners probably indicate, there is much in "The Better Angels of Our Nature" that is confounding. Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema - a steady rise in the percentage of Britons who identify themselves as vegetarians, for instance - are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over. Pinker is virtually silent about Europe's bloody colonial adventures. (There's not even an entry for "colonialism" in the book's enormous index.) This is a pretty serious omission, both because of the scale of the slaughter and because of the way it troubles the distinction between savage and civilized. What does it reveal about the impulse control of the Spanish that, even as they were learning how to dispose of their body fluids more discreetly, they were systematically butchering the natives on two continents? Or about the humanitarianism of the British that, as they were turning away from such practices as drawing and quartering, they were shipping slaves across the Atlantic?...

Leaving out European colonialism is a typical Pinker trick - ignore any evidence that disputes your main point. And this section demonstrates Pinker's fishy math:
According to his own calculations, the Second World War was, proportionally speaking, the ninth-deadliest conflict of all time - in absolute terms, it was far and away the deadliest - yet the war lasted just six years. The Arab slave trade, which ranks as No. 3 on Pinker's hit list, was an atrocity that took more than a millenium to unfold. The Mongol conquests, coming in at No. 2, spanned nearly a century.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that we accept that the Second World War was only the ninth-bloodiest conflict in the history of our species, and the First World War the sixteenth. Isn't this still a problem? The heart of Pinker's argument is that trends and historical forces associated with modernity have steadily diminished violence. Though he hesitates to label the Second World War an out-and-out fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn't really count. Accidents happen, and the Nazi's rise to power was one of them. A series of unfortunate events ensued, but it's important not to rush to judgement...
But that's all standard Pinker. Why anybody is impressed by the work of Steven Pinker is another vast mystery.