Pinker`s Progress

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the bestseller by MIT cognitive scientist Steven
Pinker, is one of the landmark reading pleasures of the
year. With a style that`s both magisterial and
entertaining, Pinker smacks around the dominant bad idea
of the 20th Century: that all divergences from equality
must be the fault of the social environment.

In the name of
equality and social engineering, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and
Pol Pot murdered tens of millions. And milder forms of
this madness survive in the West today. (See, for
example, my recent articles on the

truth-telling teacher
or William McGowan`s

book
Coloring the News: How Crusading for
Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism
.)

When I

interviewed
Pinker, I asked him:


Sailer:
Aren`t we all better off if people believe that we are
not constrained by our biology and so can achieve any
future we choose?


Pinker: People are surely better off with the
truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it
comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at
feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which
everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to
science, these same people say, “Give us schmaltz!” They
expect the science of human beings to be a source of
emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

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.

I`ve given Pinker a hard time over the years for this
curious sentence in the conclusion of his first big book
for a general audience, 1994`s

The Language Instinct
:

“… to a scientist
interested in how complex biological systems work,
differences between individuals are so boring!”

Clearly, this was wrong even in a technical sense.
Scientists figuring out how the brain works have made
much of their progress by comparing healthy individuals
to, say, individuals who survived tragic accidents in
which nine inch nails were driven through particular
parts of their brains.

But the quote also catches the self-defeating
ideological limitations that evolutionary psychology
imposes upon itself to avoid political persecution.
After all, we humans don`t find individual differences
boring at all. To us, they are quite possibly the
juiciest subject in the universe.

Evolutionary psychology soon ran into a

fundamental epistemological problem
: data require
contrasts. In other words, similarities and
differences. Not surprisingly, evolutionary psychology
has finished up largely focused on sex differences,
which while they are certainly close to universal, are
still very much human differences.

Pinker`s next big book, 1997`s

How the Mind Works,
was much less dogmatic. But it was still
stuck in the tradition of

Wilhelm Wundt
, the founder of “experimental
psychology,” which also focuses on similarities. Pinker
largely ignored differential psychology, founded by
Charles Darwin`s smarter half-cousin

Francis Galton
.

In The Blank Slate, though, Pinker is much
closer to synthesizing the two warring, but
complementary, traditions.

On the subject of race, Pinker has progressed
dramatically in just the last year. As recently as 2001,
he told

Skeptic magazine
-

“If our society did not divide
people by race then the question of racial differences
would be too scientifically boring for anyone to bother
with. Races are biologically superficial, and they tie
in to no real theory of how we evolved, so there is no
coherent explanation as to why races should differ
biologically.”

This assertion that hereditary groups “tie in to
no real theory of how we evolved”
would have come as
quite a surprise to Charles Darwin. After all, he
entitled his big

book
On the Origin of Species by Means of
Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favoured Races
in the Struggle for Life.

This is not a
minor quibble: without inherited racial variation, there
could be no evolutionary process. All of Pinker`s
theories of how evolution affected humanity would have
no foundation to stand upon.

Now, however, in The Blank Slate, Pinker`s
definition of race has vastly improved (p. 144):

Nowadays it is popular to say
that races do not exist but are purely social
constructions. Though that is certainly true of
bureaucratic

pigeonholes
such as “colored,” “Hispanic,”
“Asian/Pacific Islander,” and the one-drop rule for
being “black,” it is an overstatement when it comes to
human differences in general. The biological
anthropologist Vincent Sarich points out that a race is
just a

very large and partly inbred family
. Some racial
distinctions thus may have a degree of biological
reality, even though they are

not exact boundaries between fixed categories
.
Humans, having recently evolved from a single founder
population, are all related, but Europeans, having
mostly bred with other Europeans for millennia, are on
average

more closely related to other Europeans than they are to
Africans or Asians
, and vice versa. Because

oceans, deserts, and mountain ranges
have prevented
people from choosing mates at random in the past, the
large inbred families we call races are still
discernible, each with a somewhat different distribution
of gene frequencies. In theory, some of the varying
genes could affect personality or intelligence (though
any such differences would at most apply to averages,
with vast

overlap
between the group members). This is not to
say that such genetic differences are expected or that
we have evidence for them, only that they are
biologically possible.

(Ahem! The formulation “a race is just a
very large and partly inbred family”
does not, in
fact, come from my friend Vince Sarich, Berkeley
professor emeritus and one of the founders of genetic
anthropology. As far as I can confirm from Google
searches, I myself introduced it in

1998
and continually polished it up through last
summer`s summation in VDARE.COM “It`s
All Relative: Putting Race in Its Proper Perspective
.”)

The scientific study of race involves far more than
the rather worn-out topic of black-white IQ differences.
However, on this topic, Pinker now says that genetic
differences aren`t needed to account for the black-white
IQ gap. He thinks environmental differences are quite
big enough.

That`s a perfectly valid scientific hypothesis–one
that, unlike his earlier dogmatic dismissal of race, can
be tested.

So let`s test it. As Pinker says: “People are surely
better off with the truth.”


[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and


movie critic
for


The American Conservative
.
His website


www.iSteve.blogspot.com
features his daily
blog.]

November 24, 2002