Last words on Pinker, EP, etc
I am not convinced that any of them, or the newer people on the scene like Pinker, not to mention Trivers or Wilson, has ever allowed their political views to sway their view of what is scientifically correct.
Hmmm. Then you have not read between the lines…..
Trivers? Though when I contacted him about being on the radio show or even speaking at an event he was less than nice in his terse and negative response, he seems to be a bit of a political enigma. He has that selfish-gene, Hobbesian side to him as does Pinker, and to a degree Dawkins; but in the past, he paled around with Heuy Newton (hardly a conservative!). Today, he is every bit as upset at the Bushies as most of us on these forums are.
There is certainly a fraternity of ideas between Hamilton, Trivers, Dawkins and Pinker, and perhaps EO Wilson, and this has been born, it seems, from their mutual work in sociobiology, EP, and selfish-gene theory. Wilson, in his pleas for the environment, and Triver’s disdain for the Neo-Cons (I have no idea if he still sees his political self as a socialist or communist re Newton), may then see themselves as liberals of a sort - and perhaps they are on the left side of things in America - But they seem to fail to notice what some of their work leads to. And again, I am not saying that much of Wilson’s sociobiology or Trivers selfish-gene ideas HAD TO BE come by (for them) because they BEGAN with a Hobbesian view of human nature and a competitive over cooperative view of humanity - though it is always interested to find out why different scientists chose certain studies in the first place. I do not know for sure if either of them NOW HAVE such views because I have not read enough of their political writings outside of what SEEMS political in Wilson’s On Human Nature book an in the Trivers/DS Wilson debate online. It may be that they really see their science as objective, and may not themselves be as Pinker and others SHOW the science to be…
...IF WHAT THEY HAVE PROPOSED IS CORRECT, it certainly CAN lead to a conservative and capitalistic interpretation of human nature for the rest of us. The key being, I repeat, IF their ideas are correct… Many others in their field seem not to think so. At least, not at all the version of what they argue for. Yet this is what matters. Since any findings of science which have to do with humanity directly will lead to the rest of us interpreting it in ways which will lead to political action(s), the science needs to be correct. Otherwise, like in the days of Eugenics, “bad” science can lead to bad policy. So I am not suggesting we stop doing objective science (letting the political dice fall where they may), but when we do potentially politically charged science of this severe nature, we be careful to be sure we not only are sure enough about the science to write pop-books for general audiences about it, but we take social responsibility to describe what the political implications can be in such a meant-for-the-masses book. Surely Wilson knew when writing On Human Nature that his book - being about human behavior in society - would be by definition political ... no? He seems not to have. Naive or full of bees wax?
So, perhaps even after all my posts - including this one - I may not have made myself clear that it is not “pure and objective” science I am addressing when I talk about my sociopolitical concerns, it is what subjective is sewn into the fabric of said theories which matters most for humanity. And, unlike the nuclear power discovery of Einstein and others, this science is not about technology which THEN can be used for good or bad, but Wilsons and Trivers science is about human nature itself, and if it tells us that humans are greedy, selfish, violent, severely competitive and inherently warlike.. then the powers than be can legitimize anything from capitalism and war to Lakoff’s “strick-father” model of child rearing and uber-hierarchal institutions.
So we have to ask, is Wilson and Trivers right in these aspects? Dawkins and Pinker seem to say that they are, and while Wilson and Trivers seem to be liberal in their take on many things, Dawkins and Pinker aren’t…. they are scientists who build from Trivers and Wilson and do so in overtly political ways. We see this from many essays by Dawkins, to Pinkers books re his bashing of “Imagine” and of a distorted view of the work of George Lakoff, to what we find in ‘The Blank Slate.’*
So when I find so much of these 4 guy’s work in this field to be critiqued and even debunked by evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists (another good person to read may be Daniel Goleman), then I wonder if Dawkins and Pinker are not wrong in their sociopolitical attitudes which are peppered throughout their writings… If their view on human nature, then, is wrong?
Science must keep being self-correcting for these very reasons. I can not fault Dawkins or Pinker for seeing sociopolitical consequences of their scientific viewpoint - they are after all, human - but if the meat of the science they are doing is flawed (if that which they gleam from Wilson or Trivers is flawed as so many other scientists seem to think is the case), then the consequences Dawkins and Pinker cite are not only flawed, but even dangerous as Eldredge points out in that quote of his I posted.
PS: As noted before, Dawkins essay, Atheists for Jesus?, shows perfectly just where he is coming from.
PSS: As for Trivers friendship with Newton.. it is of course possible for folks to hold political opinions which differ from what they believe science tells them about human nature; but here is something to consider. Trivers seems to fancy himself a revolutionary in science. Newton was one in other ways. Trivers hates the Bushies for many reasons not so dissimilar to why Pat Buchanan might hate the Bushies - the Neo-cons, after all, are not Libertarians or Conservatives, but radical revolutionaries of the Right (while as a Communist, Newton was such of the Left.) Also, re Newton and communism/socialism ... we all know that the ideas about human nature in state-communism or socialism are often not very different from the authoritarianism of fascism and neo-conservativism ... only Left in stead of Right. A truly Left politic would not be communism or socialism as we have seen for the most part in the last 100 years or so. It would be interesting to find out on what Trivers and Newton actually agreed upon (besides equal rights for blacks).
*A few readers comments on Pinker’s Blank Slate:
“I have been an avid reader of Steven Pinker’s books but found this one nonscientific, political garbage. Instead of concentrating on the science, he seems to dedicate his efforts to bashing scientists who don’t share his (and his friends) opinions.”
“A thorough exposition of all the problems with this book is beyond the scope of this review. Pinker cherry picks those pieces of evidence that might seem to support his views and ignores the vast amount of that which contradicts it. His distortion of the current state of anthropological knowledge is particularly severe. And of course, he tops it all off with the obligatory strawman attacks on Richard Lewontin and company. The sheer intellectual arrogance of this man is amazing.”
“I don’t agree with the idea of the Blank Slate, which the book is set up to dispute, but neither do I find anything to hold on to in the idea of a human nature. I think both ideas are sprung from a wish to manipulate (more or less) with nature and human beings. They are called “explanations” but are in fact ways of belittling and alienating people. Shakespeare is much more true to “human nature” when he lets Hamlet hold out the flute to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (as a symbol of himself or mankind) asking them to play on it. They can’t of course. Noone can. But Pinker and other “scientists” think they can.
It is very strange, in fact unbelievable, that evolution or whatever created us, has mainstream American politics as a goal. But that is what Pinker arrives at when he puts his own words in the mouth of evolution (who never talked to anyone, by the way). In his view of gender, male behavior, childrearing, art etc he sounds like a crossbreed of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. And it seems he is not even aware of how utterly American his thoughts are! He sees a lot of traits and ideas that thrive only in the US as part of human nature! To put it bluntly: I have never come across a more imperialistic book than this.”
Here is one comment which I found very interesting. This chap sees Pinker as coming from the Darwinian Right. This is interesting. It assumes there IS a Darwinian Right (or Left, for that matter). What he calls Darwinian Right, he equally means as Rightist Evolutionary Psychology. This seems to make more sense. Darwin is Darwin. Darwinism is Darwinism. Whatever it tells us can be interpreted badly (as in Social Darwinism) or correctly as in the main work of most evolutionary biologists. But EP CAN be talked about the way this guy does because it is not really a science. I see EP as various hypotheses on human behavior trying to take evolution into account - while perhaps walking the sociobiology tight rope. So, folks from EO Wilson, Pinker and Trivers can call their work (partly) EP just as DS Wilson, Gould and others can. Scott Atran, by the way, thinks EP is mostly useless. It may BE useless BECAUSE it means different things to different people… Not what a science should be about.
This guys puts it this way:
“Evolutionary psychology like politics has its Right and Left. Both society and human nature raise the question: what is established and natural—and what can and cannot be changed?
In politics, the Right privileges the status quo and the well worn while denying that society can radically reorganize for the better.
The Left celebrates our potential to advance, sees the past as oppressor, and liberation in what has yet to be.
Human nature has a similar conflict. The Darwinian Right sees human nature as already created when natural selection made our species. That evolutionary inheritance defines us - we cannot reorganize what is already laid down in the “status quo” of our genes.
For the Darwinian Left, our genes are ingredients which get “cooked” by culture - tomorrow that transformation will be different—and with it human nature.
The Darwinian Right has been looking for a manifesto, and that is what you get with ‘Blank Slate.’ I give this book five stars for quality as a manifesto and spin—but its science merits nil - for Blank Slate distorts science where it does not fit the Right’s storyline.
Space prevents listing all but one contortion—its evasion of the implications of neural plasticity. The visual cortex has evolved for over 100 million years for sight yet in those born blind it processes touch and hearing. Likewise sight processing can be experimentally induced in the somatosensory and auditory cortices. The existence of such ectopic - wrong placed - cognitions refutes the Darwinian Right—since these specialized cognitions exist in spite of lacking prior evolution. Why require evolution for our higher cognitions when neural plasticity can deliver them without its aid?
Pinker engages in spin by explaining away ad hoc the inconvenient reality of neural plasticity. He makes (page 85) the weak claim that such ectopic cognitions are “doing pretty much the same thing” across senses. He can give away that ground. But Pinker’s right-wing Darwinism needs evolution for the “modules” of higher cognition—if the same “doing pretty much the same thing” applies to syntax and semantics then the Darwinian Right is intellectually dead. It is dead.
The fatal sentence in the book occurs on page 93: “the plasticity discovered in primary sensory cortex [has been seen] as a metaphor for what happens elsewhere in the brain ... it is not a very good metaphor.”. Pinker brazenly lies here - he has to—to save his theory. It is however no metaphor—as the honest part of Pinker knows full well—higher cognitions can be ectopic (I pointed this out to him in an exchange, Pinker’s reply to which grew into chapter 5: The Slate’s Last Stand).
Brain tumors, for example, rarely cause higher cognitive problems since the functions of higher cortex areas they slowly destroy move onto neurons elsewhere. The recovery from brain injury and brain disorders likewise depends upon such flexibility. But most importantly, functional imaging now shows that syntax and semantics activate the visual cortex of the blind. This discovery of language-in-the-visual cortex pulls the ground away from Pinker and the Darwinian Right. Pinker has to lie.
If language cognitions can take up residence in the visual cortex, then evolution did not pack our brain with evolved higher cognition modules, full stop. Pinker, the Darwinian Right-winger is also guilty of ‘criminal’ irresponsibility. Dr. Anton Wernig fought the established idea that the broken spine could not learn to rewire itself through neural plasticity to let paralytics walk. That established idea stopped a generation relearning to walk - but its claim about spinal fixity was wrong: given intensive exercise, spinal neurons can pick up new walking skills. Pinker’s lie will makes it harder for researchers to get funding for innovative therapies to aid the brain injured if that exploits what according to him is mere “metaphor”.
This bestseller thus could condemn you to avoidable cognitive impairment in old age since key therapies (thanks to the Darwinian Right) will now go unexplored. That is a crime against us all.
So what is the alternative to Pinker—the Darwinian Left? The brain as palimpsest. Evolution might write, but culture can scrape and wash that writing off like an ancient scribe and write human nature anew. Evolution as the provider to the brain of a set of programming language procedures out of which culture can program complex, novel and exciting cognitions. The brain as rewireable with new symbol based cognitions that reuse earlier evolved ape ones.
Evolution as the provider of a neural “combustion engine” upon which culture is fitted like a varied chassis (car, light-aircraft, boat, machine tool, electrical power generator) that gets powered into widely different human natures - the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, the Neolithic farmer, the Monk, the Aztec, the Mandarin, Bach, the mathematician, the bureaucrat, the Manhattan intellectual ... Culture not as something dumb but smart picking out evolved traits so we get extended in new ways.
Think here of architecture - evolution made us biped, thus architecture designs stairs - if we had the bodies of chimps, buildings would have climbing frames instead. Culture similarly fits itself around and extends the potentials of our evolved brains.
Human evolution that as Carl Sagan in Dragons of Eden observed shifted the propagation of information from genes to cultural transmission: “We have made a kind of bargain with nature: our children will be difficult to raise, but their capacity for new learning will greatly enhance the chances of survival of the human species”
Human evolution as evolution that divorced human nature from genes by selecting genes to aid the mind to get shaped extragenetically by culture.
The author, by the way, is: John Skoyles (Up From Dragons : The Evolution of Human Intelligence)