Friday, December 9, 2016

The Sins of Steven Pinker: Or, Let’s Get on with It

Over at Crooked Timber John Holbo has recently initiated a discussion with "evolutionary psychology" in the title:  Hazards of Evolutionary Psychology, Royalty Edition. The title is ironic, as is the short post. It has, however, erupted into something of a battle royal about evolutionary psychology. Though I don't know what Holbo had in mind, I'm guessing he wasn't looking for what he in fact got. As these things go, Steven Pinker got dragged into the fray as scapegoat for the sins of evolutionary psychology. So I'm moving this old post up to the top of the queue. It's about the battle that ensued at Crooked Timber in the wake of Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature. The post was made by Chris Bertram, who observes,
It presents me with a problem. In order to evaluate its claims properly, I’d actually have to read the book, but everything tells me that doing so would be an immense waste of valuable time, so I probably won’t. I can, however, comment snippily on the material that surfaces in interviews and reviews … so here goes.
And there beginneth the lesson.

* * * * *

Steven Pinker has finally published the book he has been working on for the last several years, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. Having only read one or two reviews and snippets here and there, I have little overall sense of its reception. I’ve not read it myself, though I’ve read shorter pieces here and there where Pinker lays out at least preliminary versions of the argument, and I’m not likely to read it any time soon. But I’m sympathetic to his project, having produced my own version (see papers at this site) of what some of his vociferous detractors call the Whig version of history, that it’s progress over the long haul.

It’s those detractors who interest me, at least the small group who commented on Pinker’s work in a recent discussion at Crooked Timber. That discussion produced over 350 comments in addition to the original post; the word total tops 50,000. What’s particularly interesting about these critics is that most have NOT read the book, and some of those are quite proud of that.

How does a group generate 50K words of critique about a book that almost no one has read?

Perhaps more to the point, why? What is so threatening about Pinker’s work? And it's Pinker himself that HAS to be the source of the trouble, isn’t it? because most of these critics haven’t even read the book. In that situation the only reasonable way to dismiss the book is to dismiss the man who wrote it, no?
Caveat: Since this kind of discussion has a flavor of “who are you to say that and why are you saying it” I should point out that I’ve read a good bit of Pinker's work, including some of his technical cognitive science. I disagree with him on some substantial issues, but I DO regard him as a substantial thinker. The notion that pops up here and there in the discussion (sometimes explicit, sometimes veiled) that Pinker is an incompetent lightweight is nonsense.
Pinker’s Three+ Sins

Pinker proposes a large-scale shape to history, that violence has been declining over the long term. That’s sin the first. There shalt be no master narratives in the post-modern era. We are done with masters.

Sin the second is that the West looks pretty good in Pinker’s account. It’s the bringer of light, the Enlightenment, and it’s this Enlightenment that’s propelling the last phase of his master narrative. Thou shalt not exalt the West above any other nations, for it is the bringer of evil, domination, pestilence, and capitalism.

Pinker’s third sin is his method. This, of course, extends beyond this book to Pinker himself. In the first place he uses quantitative evidence. Thou shalt not count, for counting is evil; it is the tool of money changers, musicians, and baseball fanatics. Moreover he makes claims about human nature. Thou shalt not crucify human freedom on a cross of innate capacity. Finally, he seeks objectivity. Thou shalt not seek objectivity, for it is the work of a malevolent deity being manipulated by Goldman Sachs, Grover Norquist, and Tammy Faye Baker.

This, of course, is caricature, but then much of the Crooked Timber discussion was caricature as well.


1. What’s wrong with proposing a large-scale historical narrative, even a partial one such as Pinker proposes—for a history of violence and proposals about why it has declined is only a partial proposal, no? Yes, 19th century European thinkers proposed such narratives, putting the West at the head of the pack, and attributing the West’s leadership to innate superiority over other races. Cancel that. Pinker’s not playing that game, he really isn’t.

Again, what’s wrong with proposing large scale historical narratives? Is history really just one damn thing after another, just one hegemon clobbering another hegemon while the peasants duck and cover?

More seriously, the world is in turmoil. Henry Luce’s 1950s dream of an American Century is in shambles, and Western domination is looking pretty shaky. If there is some overall order in history, perhaps an understanding of it will help us negotiate the next three or four generations. If, as Pinker argues, violence is on a long-term decline, shouldn’t we know that, and attempt to understand it? Is it wrong for him to investigate the matter? Does it make sense to dismiss his work without examining it?

2. As for the West, the so-called Western nations DID pretty much dominate the world in the 19th and 20th centuries and that domination certainly hasn’t disappeared in the 21st, though it’s badly fraying. Wishing this wasn’t so isn’t going to alter the past.

Concerning Pinker’s discussion of the role the Enlightenment played in the sprint to the present, I have two quick suggestions. One is to truncate his narrative at the end of the 17th century and see how it looks to that point. Does the evidence hold?And that’s all I care about at this point, the evidence, not whatever explanations he may have on offer to explain the drop up to that point. If so, then the Enlightenment gets no credit for that.

But let’s continue on and add the 18th and 19th centuries and check again. Does the evidence still hold? Finally, the 20th century, which occasioned much of the Crooked Timber discussion because of large scale catastrophic wars.

My other suggestion comes from Ross Douthat who, in a blog post, suggests that Pinker has unfairly neglected the role of religion in his narrative. I think his suggestion is a good one. And, yes, Douthat knows about the Inquisition and so do I, yadda yadda.
. . . this is a doorstop of a book about the progress of non-violence and humanitarianism in Western civilization whose index contains no references to Francis of Assisi, Bartolome De Las Casas, or William Wilberforce, and whose author betrays not even the slightest interest in the various sympathetic and provocative accounts of religion’s role in the development of the modern West and modern world. Pinker has written a Whig’s interpretation of history, and he is never more Whiggish than in his assumption that we owe almost everything to the Enlightenment, and all that came before was a long medieval dark.
3. Finally, Pinker’s methods, which extend beyond this book to his other work and well beyond that. First, I’ll acknowledge that Pinker is a bit of a scold; his censoriousness is responsible for much of the animus on display at Crooked Timber.

This mutual animosity is a mess, just a mess.

On the one hand, there IS a deep strain of anti-science, anti-quantitative thinking that runs in the humanities going back at least to the Romantics. It’s by no means universal, but it’s strong, and became more so in the post-structuralist, deconstructive, post-modern era. While Pinker’s stock humanist is a straw man, Pinker didn’t cut and gather the straw himself. He found it ready and waiting.

On the other hand, the post-moderns have run out of ideas.  That’s certainly true in literary studies, and I suspect it’s true across the board. They may not know it yet, but their historical moment is over.

Their work will leave a permanent legacy. We have a deeper understanding of cultural difference, both with respect to different moments in the past and with respect to different peoples living in this 21st century. This understanding can certainly be accommodated to human behavioral and neurobiology without disappearing in rigid essentialism.

We also know that science IS a construct. But, as Bruno Latour emphasizes, there is a difference between well constructed concepts and poorly constructed ones. The various methods of the sciences—and they ARE various, the sciences and the methods of each—tend, on the whole, toward well constructed ideas. We can certainly acknowledge that scientific ideas, like other ideas, are constructs without that acknowledgment undermining claims of objectivity.

Objectivity is not won simply through good intentions and hard work. It requires specific methods, many of them. Science studies has contributed to our understanding of these methods in one way (here I’m again thinking of Latour), while the cognitive sciences have made somewhat different contributions. Science studies has looked at what happens in the laboratory and how ideas are negotiated in the polis while cognitive scientists have examined how concepts are built and organized into systems.

Perhaps we now know enough to restore faith in human work and judgment. Maybe we even know enough to begin rethinking history. Maybe.

I don’t see that we’ve got any choice but to get on with it. I’m betting that Pinker’s given us a good start on part of the story.

ADDENDUM: Pinker's created a FAQ about his book and the response to it.

1 comment:

  1. it seems like you can call most of these guys by first name


    the Stevenator