Nature and Nurture.

I have long been a fan of Steven Pinker’s books.

I have read many of them, beginning probably with his books on speech as he is a linguist first. This was probably the first as I was intrigued by his theories about irregular verbs and how children learn language.

He points out, for example, how normal construction in archaic forms such as “Wend, went and wended” have become “Go, went, gone.”
The child makes an error he or she may not understand that “Goed” is not a used form for past tense, whereas “Wend” is an archaic form whose past tense has been substituted. The child is using language rules but they don’t account for irregular verbs. He continues with this thought in The Language Instinct, which came later. Here he makes explicit that this is how the mind works. One review on Amazon makes the point:

For the educated layperson, this book is the most fascinating and engaging introduction to linguistics I have come across. I know some college students who had received xeroxed handouts of one chapter from this book, and these were students who were just bored of reading handouts week after week… but after reading just a few paragraphs from The Language Instinct, they were hooked, fascinated, and really wanted to read the whole book (and did). I wish I had come across such a book years ago…

Now, this is interesting but Pinker has gotten into politics inadvertently by emphasizing the role of genetics in language and behavior. I read The Blank Slate when it came out ten years ago and loved it.

Interestingly enough, it refutes, very effectively in my opinion, an earlier book by Stephen Jay Gould who is a hero to the cultural left. Guold actually became famous as an advocate (not the originator) of the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium in evolution.

Punctuated equilibrium (also called punctuated equilibria) is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and rapid (on a geologic time scale) events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another.

This became an argument in evolutionary biology. The argument has little interest for most observers, including me. However, he championed another theory that has most immediate effects on social theory. Gould published another book, “The Mismeasure of Man” that became very important to the political left.

According to Gould, the methods (The IQ test and “Intelligence”) harbor “two deep fallacies.” The first is the fallacy of “reification”, which is “our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities” such as the intelligence quotient (IQ) and the general intelligence factor (g factor), which have been the cornerstones of much research into human intelligence. The second fallacy is “ranking”, which is the “propensity for ordering complex variation as a gradual ascending scale.”

No mention of the role of IQ tests in attempting to deal with discrimination against poor children in the 19th century that IQ was intended to correct. The same applies to the SAT.

This was meat and drink to the “Social Justice Warriors” who had the unfortunate evidence of IQ in their assault on merit and achievement as social goods. Gould even added a later edition of his book to attack “The Bell Curve,” that book hysterically attacked by the left in the mid-1990s.

The revised and expanded, second edition of the Mismeasure of Man (1996) analyzes and challenges the methodological accuracy of The Bell Curve (1994), by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which re-presented the arguments of what Gould terms biological determinism, which he defines as “the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.”

This was anathema to the left. Then Pinker wrote “The Blank Slate” which my daughter, who had recently graduated from college, refused to read telling me that I must read Gould’s book first. I had read it and had it in my library but she still refused to read Pinker’s book.

His argument is that much behavior is genetic, and not produced by conditioning, the ardent hope of the communists in the USSR. I don’t know Pinker’s politics and have never seen a political book or even statement by him.

The editor’s blurb on Amazon was not likely to soothe the left.

With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of human nature based on science and common sense. A few reader comments are amusing. Here is a one star reviewers comment.

Hated this book, it was boring to the ultimate throw away, my class felt the same way. I can’t get rid of it but I don’t throw away books, it is not alright, if someone wants to read it and form their own opinion I will be happy to send it to you.

One can only imagine the subject of that class. The reviewer is from Cambridge MA. Perhaps that is enough. Another reviewer is more enthusiastic.

And, why is Pinker interested in arguing against the above three theories? Mostly because
of the fallacies he thinks they lead us into. For example:

– The idea that men and women are basically the same, and that they will develop into
individuals with the same abilities and wants if we could only raise and educate them in
the same way and if cultural influences did not twist them into different kinds of

– The idea that all races are basically the same, have the same levels of intelligence,
the same average levels of abilities, the same inclination to be good or bad,
non-violent or violent, moral or immoral, etc.

Pinker and “The blank slate” is all about busting myths. He wants to expose the
comfortable (or in some cases, the agenda driven) stories we tell about ourselves. He
believes that these myths do harm; that they inform and contort governmental and public
policy for the worse; that they distort the ways in which we raise and educate our
children; that they cause us to have unreasonable expectations and to interact with others
in misguided ways.

I can’t find my own review as there are 239 of them.

Why is this important ? New events are pushing this into view.

One, the Social Justice movement is getting very aggressive. One of the objectives is the new city and the demise of the suburb. It is not polite to refer to the left’s ideal new city as “The Ideal Communist City” but it may be appropriate.

As is sometimes asserted by urbanists today, the new socialist cities were about more than mere economic growth; they were widely posed as a means to develop a new kind of society, one that could make possible the spread of Homo sovieticus (the Soviet man). As one German historian writes, the socialist city was to be a place “free of historical burdens, where a new human being was to come into existence, the city and the factory were to be a laboratory of a future society, culture, and way of life”.

Hence the enthusiasm for rapid transit, the demise of the automobile and high rise apartment living, even if that may expose residents to a few uncomfortable moments.

However, the new Socialist realism is creating difficulties for some on the cultural left.

Frightened by the growing weakness of their flagship theories, progressives on campus have begun to lash out. One of the biggest controversies was in 2005, when then-President of Harvard University, Larry Summers, was faced with a motion of no confidence after suggesting that innate differences between the genders should be a line of inquiry when analysing the gender pay gap. The motion passed, and it left serious scars in the academic community.

“Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse?” asked Steven Pinker shortly after the controversy. “That’s the difference between a university and a madrasa.”

There have been no comparable controversies since then, but a stream of outrage continues to follow the work of Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen, Robert Plomin, Nicholas Wade and anyone else who investigates the idea of innate differences between persons and groups. It doesn’t matter how much they stress their commitment to liberalism and egalitarianism (which they do, frequently), nothing can calm their opponents.

The UVA rape hoax controversy has come along since.


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2 Responses to “Nature and Nurture.”

  1. doombuggy says:

    Quite astonishing that the Left can push the trope of no biological differences between people when no one really believes that. We spend huge amounts of energy noticing the differences between men and women; between the races; and differences between individuals.

    The ultimate in political power is forcing someone to believe a lie.

  2. Charlotte says:

    Steven Pinker in Tuesday’s Boston Globe

    Thanks to your recommendation, I’m reading How the mind works.