Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Spelke in the New Yorker

There's a great article about Elizabeth Spelke and her work ("The Baby Lab") in this week's New Yorker. Unfortunately it isn't available at the online New Yorker site, so go buy a copy of the September 4 2006 Education Issue.

I first heard of Spelke through her debate with Steven Pinker. I had no idea she was such a big deal in the world of psychology and even Pinker knows it - at least he did five years ago:
Spelke's ideas have been enormously influential among academics. "Nowadays every psychology student is taught that James and Piaget were wrong, "the cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in Time five years ago. "From their earliest months, in fact, children interpret the world as a real and predictable place... This new understanding is largely the legacy of Harvard psychologist Elixabeth Spelk." Karen Wynn, an infant-cognition researcher at Yale, told me, "Spelke has done more to shape our understanding of how the human mind initially grasps the world than anyone else." In 2000, when the Association for Psychological Science gave her its William James Fellow Award, the citation noted that Spelke had "developed techniques of studying infants' beliefs that are far more probative than might have been imagined only a short time ago," and that her work had begun "to answer the perennial philosophical questions about the origins of human knowledge about space, objects, motion, unity, persistence, identity, and number."

Although I knew about Spelke-Pinker debate I didn't know this:
Spelke had been one of Summers's fiercest critics, calling his remarks "wrong, point for point." And she lambasted him for ignoring a more obvious explanation for the disparity of achievement: "the impediments to women's progress posed by long-standing patters of prejudice, unwelcoming environments, and unequal resources."

This observation, by the article's author Margaret Talbot, is certainly accurate, but I'd say an understatement:
The field of evolutionary psychology is prone to a cheerful - sometimes gleeful - fatalism about sex differences. (Older men ditching their aging wives for nubile misstresses? Men are genetically programmed to spread their DNA! Women more inclined toward gardening than particle physics? Blame it on our hunter-gatherer ancestors!)

Later in the article, the author gets in this excellent gibe at Pinker:
Men across cultures (Pinker) noted, constituted the more risk-taking and competitive sex - though why risk-taking and competitiveness were more adaptive attributes for, say, aspiring mathemeticians than for aspiring sociologists wasn't exactly clear.

Then Talbot gives this amusing description of the Spelke-Pinker debate:
After Pinker and Spelke had given their talks, they sat at a table onstage, and listened to each other with interrupting. But when Pinker spoke, Spelke wore one of those smiles which suggest a certain effort - and when she spoke she used her large hands to make sweeping gestures, as if she were dismissing one silly notion after another. When Pinker started talking about how "the most subjective fields in academia - the social sciences, the humanities, the helping professions" had the greatest representation of women because the jibed with "what gave women satisfaction in life," Spelke looked as though she'd had enough. "I think it's a really interesting possibility that the forces that were active in our evolutionary past have led men and women to evolved somewhate differing concerns," she began. "But to jump from that possibility to the present, and draw conclusions about what people's motives will be for pursuing one or another career is way too big a stretch." The career choices people pursue now, she concluded acidly, were "radically different from anything that anybody faced back in the Pleistocene."

Pinker was suggesting that, because of both sexual selection and parental-investment issues, women are selected to be more nurturing and men more competitive. Suppose that this were true, Spelke said, in the final words of the debate. What sort of motivation made a better scientist? Was it "competitive motives like those J. D. Watson described in 'The Double Helix' to get the structure of DNA before Lunus Pauling did?* Or nurturant motives of the kind that Doug Melton" - the Harvard developmental biologist = "described recently to explain why he's going into stem-cell research: to find a cure for juvenile diabetes, which his children suffer from? I think it's anything but clear how motives from our past translate into modern contexts. We would need to do the experiment, getting rid of discrimination and social pressures, in order to find out."

But while Spelke's reputation will hopefully be enhanced by this article, it also gives Steven Pinker a way to dismiss Spelke. For although Pinker will give respectful interviews to the racists and hard-core right-wingers at Gene Expression, he dismissed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's critiques this way: "The criticisms of Stephen Jay Gould have been extensively addressed in my writings and others, and I believe they stem more from his political ideology than from the empirical literature."

You see, Gould was a leftist. Only right-wingers can hold opinions that don't pollute their empirical arguments, apparently according to Steven Pinker.

And Spelke is also left of the gang at Gene Expression. Spelke is
A committed liberal who talks indignantly about race and gender discrimination

Maybe the best part of the article though is this:
It was a civil occasion, certainly, but (the Spelke-Pinker debate) was lively enough that the Harvard Crimson couldn't quite resist calling the exchange a "showdown of the sexes."

I think Steven Pinker does deserve the fate of going down in history as a scientific Bobby Riggs.

* And of course Watson was helped immensely by the work of British researcher Rosalind Franklin who died of cancer at 37 before she could receive a Nobel Prize for her work.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Steven Pinker at Gene Expression

Normally I think of Evolutionary Psychology as having two main strains. The "liberal" strain that sees only female academic/social underachievement as due primarly to genetic causes, and the "conservative" strain that sees both female AND non-white academic/social underachievement as primarily due to genetics.

I had assumed that Steven Pinker was in the liberal camp, since, as the blatantly racist American Renaissance web site notes in its mostly positive review of Pinker's Blank Slate:
Prof. Pinker is firm and clear about the “inherent” or “innate” characteristics and behavior of human beings—human nature—that exist before anyone has a chance to scribble on the blank slate. Not only aggression and sexual differences but also intelligence he acknowledges to be in large part genetically grounded, but on the Big Taboo—race—he is vague and even contradictory.

He endorses the environmentalist theories of the origins of civilization of Jared Diamond and Thomas Sowell as opposed to racial ones, and tells us that “My own view … is that in the case of the most discussed racial difference—the black-white IQ gap in the United States—the current evidence does not call for a genetic explanation.” Yet, six pages later, he tells us that “… there is now ample evidence that intelligence is a stable property of an individual, that it can be linked to features of the brain (including overall size, amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes, speed of neural conduction, and metabolism of cerebral glucose), that it is partly heritable among individuals, and that it predicts some of the variations in life outcomes such as income and social status.” Combined with the different scores of blacks and whites on IQ tests, of course, this implies that the “most discussed racial difference” has a significantly genetic and not an environmentalist explanation.

Prof. Pinker also tries to evade the implications of racial differences by emphasizing the universal meaning of human nature.

“Discarding the Blank Slate has thrown far more light on the psychological unity of humankind than on any differences,” and, further:

“People are qualitatively the same but may differ quantitatively. The quantitative differences are small in biological terms, and they are found to a far greater extent among the individual members of an ethnic group or race than between ethnic groups or races. These are reassuring findings. Any racist ideology that holds that the members of an ethnic group are all alike, or that one ethnic group differs fundamentally from another, is based on false assumptions about our biology.”

So imagine my surprise when Pinker turns up in the less blatant but nevertheless thoroughly racist Gene Expression

The beginning of the interview dwelled on the things that Pinker has in common with the Gene Expression crowd - with Pinker characterizing his political opponents in the standard Evolutionary Psychology way:
"Thanks to tenure, the people who can't tolerate biological insight into human affairs are still around in the universities."

I started to wonder when/how they would bring up the race issue. I had the answer when I got to question 8:

(8) I want to go back to "empirical hypotheses ... too dangerous to study." This was the topic of the Edge Annual Question. Your own offering was the possibility that the kind of research that we have just discussed may uncover a genetic and evolutionary basis for population differences in mental abilities, personality, and other psychological traits. What are your projections for the trajectory of this idea? Will it be put to the decisive test sooner rather than later? If the hereditarian view is vindicated to any extent, what disruptions and realignments of the intellectual and political landscape do you foresee?

"population differences" is the term of choice at Gene Expression for "the intellectual superiority of whites" and Pinker got that. He answers carefully, while including the obligatory "politically correct" slur:
I suspect that we'll see more studies of this kind, unless they are beaten back by politically correct opposition (as seems to be happening to Bruce Lahn's work on possible recent selection on genes governing brain size). Whether group differences will be found is an empirical question that will differ according to the trait and group comparison. If innate differences are found and acknowledged (two big if's), the effects would include questioning the assumption that all groupwide social differences (e.g., in crime, poverty, and health) are caused by discrimination or a rigged economic system. It would be an enormous challenge to the unspoken consensus of mainstream left-of-center politics during the past fifty years--though also an enormous danger to societal fairness if the claimed difference turns out to be a false alarm. And true or false, a claim of racial differences would also embolden racist kooks and unsavory political movements. (Of course, if the research decisively shows no group differences, that would take the wind out of their sails, a positive development.) Either way, it's dangerous territory, and the moral issues in exploring it are complex.

It's striking how full of conservative jargon and liberal bashing Pinker's comments often are, yet he claimed in an email to me that Stephen Jay Gould's ideas about evolutionary psychology are dismissable due to Gould's politics:
The criticisms of Stephen Jay Gould have been extensively addressed in my writings and others, and I believe they stem more from his political ideology than from the empirical literature.

The implication is that Pinker is above politics and all about pure science. Of course the motley crew at Gene Expression makes the same claim, although "feminist" is a dirty word throughout the site, and they never miss a chance to tout studies that they believe prove that non-whites are genetically less intelligent or more violent than whites.

I think the connection between the far right and the Evolutionary Psychologists needs to be monitored carefully. They have too much too offer each other - "scientific" respectablity for the right and lots of funding for the EvPsych project of, as Marvin Harris called it "biologizing inequality."

UPDATE: It seems that Pinker and blatant racist Steve Sailer are good pals, and even back in 2002 Sailer is pleased that Pinker is making progress on the racism front:
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.

Adapting Minds hits a nerve

A few months ago I blogged about Adapting Minds by David Buller. I see that the book has hit a nerve with the Evolutionary Psychologists.
Cultivating a persona of fairness and impartiality, David Buller has written a critique of theory and results from evolutionary psychology. To those unfamiliar with the primary literature, some of his claims may seem plausible. That has not, however, been the reaction of those who know this literature intimately.

Over the next few months, we will be developing on this website a collective response to Buller. It will be collective because we think each scientist should respond to the research that he or she knows best. We will try to provide links to primary sources, so that interested readers can see for themselves what the literature says.

I will be tracking the EvPsych response to Buller's book, which is one of the most damaging to the Evolutionary Psychology cause that I have yet seen. I will also try to find a response from Buller - or contact him myself and get ask him about his reaction.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Marvin Harris often pointed out the usefulness of "mystification" for ruling hierarchies in keeping the common people in line. While religion is the most likely candidate for mystification, Harris did not spare Marxism either:
Ruling groups throughout history and prehistory have always promoted the mystification of social life as their first line of defense against actual or potential enemies. In the contemporary political context, idealism and eclecticism serve to obscure the very existence of ruling classes, thus shifting the blame for poverty, exploitation, and environmental degradation from the exploiters to the exploited. Cultural materialism opposes cultural idealism and eclecticism because these strategies, through their distorted and ineffectual analyses, prevent people from understanding the causes of war, poverty and exploitation. Cultural materialism opposes dialectical materialism for the very same reasons. As a political ideology, Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism attempts to advance the struggle against exploitation by promoting a scientifically unjustifiable sense of certainty about the future. But the same sense of certainty gives additional opportunities for the perpetuation of exploitation by the new ruling classes, providing these new classes with an elaborate ideology for justifying the self-serving obfuscation of the exploitative aspects of the state systems they control. Disparagement of positivist epistemologies can lead to the dialectical inevitability of even the most misguided analysis. Cultural materialism holds that the elimination of exploitation will never be achieved in a society which subverts the empirical and operational integrity of social science for reasons of political expediency. Because without the maintenance of an empiricist and operational critique, we shall never know if what some call democracy is a new form of freedom or a new form of slavery.

I added that quote to the entry for cultural materialism at Wikipedia