Monday, February 19, 2018

The New Yorker and The Blank Slate

In Louis Menand's 2002 New Yorker review of The Blank Slate he demonstrates how little Steven Pinker's rhetoric has changed in almost two decades:
The "intellectuals" in Pinker's book are social scientists, progressive educators, radical feminists, academic Marxists, liberal columnists, avant-garde arts types, government planners, and postmodernist relativists. 
As with the Guardian and American Renaissance reviewers, Menand also notices Pinker's double-talk: to both believe every single thing that the hereditarians claim about human nature but at the same time to disagree with their claims about blacks. 

Menand writes:
Having it both ways is an irritating feature of "The Blank Slate." Pinker can write, in refutation of the scarecrow theory of violent behavior, "The sad fact is that despite the repeated assurances that 'we know the conditions that breed violence,' we barely have a clue," and then, a few pages later, "It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers." Well, that should give us one clue.
Interesting that what jumps out at Menand is what Pinker says about African American teenagers. 

What jumps out at me in light of Pinker's support for the Criminal Justice evo-psycho bros who show up in Quillette, American Renaissance and Stefan Molyneux's Youtube channel, is that it isn't intelligence but the violence of African Americans about which Pinker is double-speaking.

Mendand then notes what I've been talking about - the tendency of evo-psychos to refuse to let the historical record inform their understanding of human behavior:
He argues, for example, that democracy, the rule of law, and women's reproductive freedom are all products of evolution. The Founding Fathers understood that the ideas of power sharing and individual rights are grounded in human nature. And he quotes, with approval, the claim of two evolutionary psychologists that the "evolutionary calculus" explains why women evolved "to exert control over their own sexuality, over the terms of their relationships, and over the choice of which men are to be the fathers of their children." Now, democracy, individual rights, and women's sexual autonomy are concepts almost nowhere to be found, even in the West, before the eighteenth century. Either human beings spent ten thousand years denying their own nature by slavishly obeying the whims of the rich and powerful, cheerfully burning heretics at the stake, and arranging their daughters' marriages (which would imply a pretty effective system of socialization), or modern liberal society is largely a social construction. Which hypothesis seems more plausible?
Which demonstrates that evo-psycho bros believe that every aspect of this present moment in time is the result of evolution. So if women are not as active in STEM careers as men right now, in 2018, it's because this particular ratio of men to women in STEM is exactly as evolution meant it to be. 

I suspect that the evo-psycho bros would have said the proportion of women in STEM in 1950 was also exactly as evolution meant it to be, if Steven Pinker had been around then. 

Because the entire point of evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, human biodiversity and all other hereditarian claims is to justify the status quo. "Biologizing equality" anthropologist Marvin Harris said.

It's a reflection of the ass-backwardness of the minds of the evo-psycho gang that they will claim the very people who defend the status quo like James Damore are the same as scientists fighting against "ancient religion" as alt-right Quillette's Jonathan Kay recently tweeted.

The evo-psychos and their alt-right allies are such drama queens. 

And then in the Menand review we meet Judith Rich Harris. One of the most influential of the evo-psycho bros of this series, Kevin M. Beaver is the Judith Rich Harris Professor of Criminology at Florida State University.

Menand writes:
...Harris claimed that "shared family environments"—that is, parents—have little or no effect on a child's personality. (Strictly speaking, she claimed that parenting does not account for the variation in differences in personality, which is what genetic science measures.)... 
...The new sciences of human nature have discovered that personality has exactly five dimensions: people are, in varying degrees, either open to experience or incurious, conscientious or undirected, extroverted or introverted, agreeable or antagonistic, and neurotic or stable. (This is known in the literature as the Five-Factor Model, or FFM. The five dimensions are referred to by the acronym ocean.) All five attributes are partly heritable, and they are what behavioral geneticists look to for a definition of personality. It seems that there is no need for finer tuning, because ocean accounts for everything. 
We see Beaver promoting the Five Factor Model in Bridging Personality and Neurobiology in the Study of Psychopathology: Interfacing the Five Factor Model of Personality with the Triarchic Neurobehavioral Trait Framework.

But Menand points out:
Science can measure anxiety. This is not just because people will report themselves, in surveys, to be more or less anxious; it is also because a genetic basis for anxiety has been identified. People with a shorter version of a stretch of the DNA that inhibits the serotonin-transporter gene on chromosome 17 are more likely to be anxious. That chronic anxiety is biological—that it is not caused solely by circumstance—is shown by the fact that medication containing a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (that is, an anti-depressant) can relieve it. (Would medication count as nurture or as nature?) 
But that's just the biology. The psychology is everything that the organism does to cope with its biology. Innately anxious people develop all kinds of strategies for overcoming, disguising, avoiding, repressing, and, sometimes, exploiting their tendency to nervousness. These strategies are acquired—people aren't born with them—and they are constructed from elements that the environment provides. The mind can work only with what it knows, and one of the things it knows is parents, who often become major players in the psychic drama of anxiety maintenance. The mere fact of having "the gene for anxiety" determines nothing, which is why some anxious people become opera buffs, some become water-skiers, and some just sit and stare out the window, brooding on the fact that their parents did not read them enough bedtime stories. These people are unlikely to be relieved by learning that cognitive science has determined that bedtime stories are overrated.
The inability of Pinker and his followers to engage with such psychological complexities as coping strategies is probably the reason why Pinker is such a gigantic Philistine, as Menand reveals.

The fact that Pinker decided to criticize postmodern art in a book about "human nature" reveals as much as anything the uselessness of evolutionary psychology. I'll get to that next.