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New York/Viking Press/Published 2002 | 2002 (Book Review) | Vanity (Steven Pinker Book Review)

Posted on 12/26/2002 9:18:33 AM PST by shrinkermd

P>This is an important book. It was declared among the best non-fiction books of the year by:, Borders, Globe and Mail, Evening Standard, The Independent, Los Angeles Times, New Statesman, New York Times, Publishers Weekly, The Spectator, The Telegraph and the Literary Supplement. Many professionals and others reviewed this book. Because the book is long (509 pages) and comprehensive, it is amenable to a variety of reviews --both positive and negative. The actual number of book reviews is astounding. Put Steven Pinker into your Internet search engine and you will find hours of reading material.

The importance of the book lies in the author's challenge to reigning dogma about the nature/nurture controversy. In order to do this, the author reviews a wide variety of topics including politics, gender, war, race and aggression. Because some of these topics are subject to bias, it is important to understand the author.

The book jacket describes him as a Professor at MIT and an essayist. Professor Pinker has a web site that is more informative. Besides a picture, the web site gives a brief biography. Steven Pinker is a native of Montreal. He graduated from McGill University in 1976 and received a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University in 1979. He was at Stanford for two years. He has been at MIT since 1982 where he is Professor of Psychology and a McVicar Faculty Fellow. Besides many scientific and lay articles, he has written the following books: Language Learnability and Language Development, Learnability and Cognition, The Language Instinct, How the Media Works and Words and Rules.

Professor Pinker is an open man. He gave a personal account of his life in 1999 to Ed Douglas of the Guardian (UK). Mr. Douglas describes the author as, "...looking like a rock star...curly shoulder-length mane.. .Cuban heels... a well defined jaw..." Professor Pinker's parents are Jewish. His mother eventually became a counselor and his father a lawyer. He feels he is a cultural Jew who became an atheist at age 13. He is a private, hard working man who has been married twice --once for 12 years to a psychologist and again recently to a scientific and graphics design illustrator. He has chosen not to have children.

Roger Brown of Words and Things fame was Professor Pinker's mentor at Harvard. How we acquire language was Professor Brown's area of interest: his early work in language development established his reputation. Professor Brown was a life-long homosexual with Cary Grant good looks and charisma. After the death of his partner he began drinking heavily, pursued young men and eventually suicided in 1997. Professor Brown wrote Against My Better Judgement: An Intimate Memoir: the book was published in 1996. In this book, Professor Brown catalogs the cruising behavior of his partner and his relationships with "male hustlers." The book belies "gay" as a characteristic of his homosexual lifestyle. Brown always claimed he was too old to be "gay." Professor Brown clearly became alcoholic and failed in his attempts to establish long-term relationships with young men. He also despaired as he lost his good looks. Joy B. Davis did an excellent review of Roger Brown's book. Professor Pinker did the obituary for Roger Brown.

The battle over nature/nurture is changing. Behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience all demonstrate the importance of biology as a means to understand human nature. Professor Pinker documents how these disciplines are attacking the secular religious belief that human brains are blank slates and malleable like clay. Professor Pinker devotes the majority of his book to a review of these areas; however, he also explores more general, "hot button" topics.

One of these "hot button" general topics is politics. The last section of the book has one chapter devoted to politics. I choose to begin here because understanding this chapter is a good lead in for the rest of the book. Chapter 16, entitled politics, begins with twin study data on political attitudes. Adult identical twins separated at birth have political views that correlate.62 (on -1 to +1 scale). What is inherited is not political attitudes but differences in temperament. Of course, personal and social experience determine political views as well, but the finding that innate, heritable temperament plays such a large part is astounding.

Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions saw much of the ideological struggle as being between two visions of the nature of humanity--"the constrained vision" and "the unconstrained" vision. Pinker takes Sowell's "constrained" and calls it "tragic." He takes Sowell's "unconstrained" and calls it "utopian".

In the tragic vision, human beings are seen as limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue. All social plans must recognize these limits. Human nature has not changed and cultural traditions, religion and customs evolved as a means of dealing with human limitations. Among these limitations is intrinsic selfishness: this selfishness is not psychopathy but it is a constant in our daily lives. Since human nature has not changed, we are always close to barbarism without cultural and other constraints. Finally, we cannot predict an individual's behavior; hence, we should be wary of top down government plans to change the beliefs and behavior of millions. The best we can hope for are incremental changes based on real experience, trial and error and focusing on actual results. In a word, this is typical conservative thought as espoused by such notables as Hobbes, Burke, Hamilton, Madison, Hayek, Holmes, Friedman, Berlin and Posner.

In the utopian vision, human beings are seen as having unlimited potential: any shortcomings are seen as due to faulty social conditioning. Utopians believe there is no innate human nature with the mind being a blank slate: this blank slate can be changed for the better. Human nature changes with changing social circumstances; hence, traditional institutions have no intrinsic worth. We must overcome the mistaken traditions of dead white men. We must assess traditional morals for political outcome. Since we do not know what we can do until we try, we must courageously make big changes that obviate moral outrages such as racism, sexism, homophobia and economic inequality. We must also do something about power differentials, environmental damage and war. For those who possess the utopian vision, radical political and judicial reform is mandatory. When the word "we" is used it refers to our part in a living culture that is more important than any one individual. This is typical liberal (progressive) thought as espoused by John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Fabian Socialists, Shaw, Rawls, Dworkian, Marx, Locke, Rousseau, Earl Warren and many others.

I am writing this review as the US plans to attack Iraq. No greater difference exists between the utopian and tragic vision adherents than the question of war. Utopians see war as a kind of pathology of misunderstanding, shortsightedness and irrational passions. Utopians believe less saber rattling, more pacifism, disarmament, de-emphasis of patriotism and negotiation can all prevent war. Those of a tragic vision persuasion see war as a natural outcome of group selfishness and evil. They believe the solution is a strong defense to raise the cost to aggressors and to permit negotiation from strength. Tragic visionaries also encourage patriotism, bravery and the military forces of the country. These fiercely held different views of human nature do not respond to debate; hence, discussions usually result in mutual recriminations and little else.

Professor Pinker believes that the new psychological sciences involving genes and behavior vindicate "some version" of the tragic vision. He also doubts that human nature will change remarkably. He believes the principal discoveries documented in chapters before Chapter 15 are:

The primacy of family ties, nepotism and inheritance.

Human beings avoid communal sharing: the more common ethos is reciprocal trade. When reciprocity cannot be established loafing and economic collapse occurs.

Dominance, violence are human universals.

Ethnocentrism and other group-on-group hostility is not only universal but easily elicited in even complex, modern democracies.

Partial heredity of intelligence and other personality characteristics means there will always be genetically determined differences of ability. A remedy for the resultant inequalities requires a trade-off with freedom; unsaid by Pinker is this "trade-off" can be a source of conflict.

People rationalize or otherwise deceive themselves such that they believe they have wisdom, autonomy and integrity when they do not. By doing so, they deny their self-serving prejudices and self-interest in general.

Humans have an innate, inherited bias for their kin and friends. They have a susceptibility to taboo mentality and a tendency to confuse morality with conformity, rank, cleanliness and beauty.

In summary, chapter 16 is extraordinary in its scope and mastery of multiple disciplines. Professor Pinker writes beautifully, cites carefully and this chapter is no exception. Starting with Chapter 16 makes the rest of the book an easier read. The chapter alone is worth the price of the book and it is puzzling why so few reference it.

Once understood, the tragic/utopian dichotomy permits an understanding of the first five chapters of the book. For example, Professor Pinker believes the utopians have a quasi-religious conviction about how the mind works which includes three fallacies--the blank slate, the noble savage and the ghost in the machine.

The blank slate assumes we have no inherent talents or temperaments: essentially, there is no such thing as human nature. The environment via parenting, culture and society shape the mind and human nature. It is now accepted that there is innate circuitry that does the learning, creates the culture and that responds to socialization. Besides this, psychologists have determined about one half of the variation in intelligence and personality comes from differences in genetic makeup. Evolutionary psychologists have examined thousands of cultures: many of our motives and behaviors seemingly without reason today make sense when one understands the original necessity. Finally, scientists are finding many properties of the brain are genetically organized and do not require information from the senses.

The noble savage assumes that naturally there are no evil motives in people. Corrupting social institutions produce all evils and wrongs. Many intellectuals of the left believe that violence and war among hunter-gatherers is rare or a kind of ritual. Facts show the homicide rate in primitive societies to be much higher than in modern industrial states. There is good evidence that violence, psychopathy, antagonistic personality disorders are heritable. All of these findings clearly demonstrate what we do not like about human nature is not solely the responsibility of social institutions.

The ghost in the machine assumes the most important part of us is independent of our biological nature. On the left, people who hold this view believe our experiences and choices do not depend on either physiology or evolutionary history. People who hold a utopian vision of the world often want radical change that is frustrated by bourgeois democracy; hence, radicals prefer to speak of a socially determined "we" rather than an unfettered biological "I."

On the right, the ghost in the machine takes another form. Professor Pinker assumes people who believe in an immaterial soul do not believe in the biological basis of thought and feeling. He sees the opposition to evolution and beliefs in the presence of a soul, free will and responsibility for choices as being myths. He believes that brain science makes moral responsibility evaporate. To him, some Christians have a primitive "ensoulment" belief that life begins at conception. Christians with the "ensoulment" belief deny the morality of stem cell research on human embryos. Quite surprisingly and without real foundation Professor Pinker states the Christian right opposes biological research because of threats "to the irreducible locus of free choice."

Allan Sandage, one the world's leading astronomers, has declared the big bang is a miracle. In recent years researchers have calculated that the ratio between the density of the universe and the density that would halt cosmic expansion: if it wasn't within one-quadrillion of 1 percent of what it is the universe would collapsed upon itself. If gravity were only slightly stronger, stars would burn out in a year and so forth and so on. Einstein was not convinced there was or was not a God, but he did believe, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." To be an atheist requires a "leap to faith" similar to those who believe in God. In the meantime, there is a large and growing literature on the interaction between behavioral genetics and spirituality. An unfortunate void in this book is the failure to explore such matters.

Chapters 8 through 11 are the fears engendered by the new sciences of the brain and human nature. The fears are: inequality, imperfectability, determinism and nihilism.

The fear of inequality is a political concern. If the doctrine of "the blank slate" is no longer true, how can society guarantee political equality? A blank slate guarantees that equality exists. If human nature varies in an individual's abilities, it makes possible the worst sort of social Darwinism. If racial groups differ in abilities, prejudice will follow. Finally, if biological inequalities are inherited, politicians could write laws enabling eugenic sterilization and worse. Professor Pinker takes a whole chapter to refute these inequality fears.

The fear of imperfectability is subtle and deeply rooted. If human nature is biologically determined to be selfish and self-serving, how can we perfect it? There is again, the conflict between competing visions. Adam Smith pointed out the butcher, baker and brewer do their jobs to make money and get ahead. Marx, believed these same three---butcher, baker and brewer--do their work out of benevolence and a desire to advance socialistic order. "From each according to their means to each according to their needs" underpinned communist Russia. We all know what happened. Professor Pinker demonstrates how the fear of imperfectability plays into feminism, naturalism and relativism.

The fear of determinism is not a fear of biological determinism, but, rather, a fear that determinism eliminates free will. In the traditional view of "the ghost in the machine" our bodies are inhabited by a self (some would equate self with soul) that chooses and acts. We, then, because of this choosing and acting have free will. The basic fear of is that by understanding human nature we gradually reduce the scope of personal responsibility. Sort of an insanity defense for the sane. Professor Pinker is not convincing about eliminating the sense of self or personal responsibility: in other places in the book, he admits as much. He does hold a detailed and interesting account of punishment and criminality.

The fear of nihilism is that strictly biological explanations of the mind will eliminate meaning and purpose in our lives. Professor Pinker's conviction is that religion is changing into a sophisticated deism that is compatible with biological explanations of the mind. He frankly states the goal of this chapter is defensive in that he denies the materialistic explanation of the mind as inherently immoral. I am not sure the Professor has not created a "straw man:" few would argue against a biological basis of the mind.

Professor Pinker categorizes chapters 12-15 as "know thyself." These chapters are the meat of the book in respect to behavior genetics and evolutionary psychology. They are well written and carefully cited. He makes a case for all the assertions previously alluded to as "principal discoveries" summarized above.

Professor Pinker categorizes Chapters 16-20 as "hot buttons." I have already summarized Chapter 16, on politics. The chapter on violence documents that people are biologically prepared for violence but the expression waxes and wanes according to environmental and unknown conditions. Violence and war occur because of man's nature. The basic problem of aggression, violence and war is we compete, are indifferent to others needs and to seek glory or recognition. Culture and faith may ameliorate these tendencies but never eliminate them.

Professor Pinker in Chapter 18 discusses gender. He distinguishes two forms of feminism. Traditional, equity feminism demands equality under the law and in the workplace. Few debate or deny equity feminism. Gender feminism holds that men enslave women and believes male and female differences are culturally or socially determined. This chapter documents most of the key literature documenting the biological and psychological differences between men and women. It also references in subtle ways evolutionary psychological principals regarding gender differences as well as a discussion of rape.

Chapter 19, Children, is an important chapter in the book. Professor Pinker claims, "the nature/nurture debate is over." Of course, it is not completely over, but we now have three proven behavioral genetic laws that have profound ramifications for both science and society. These three laws are:

The First Law: Behavioral traits are heritable.

The Second Law: Parenting effects are less than genetic effects.

The Third Law: Genes or families do not explain much of complex behavior.

I must say this is disquieting for me. I spent forty years practicing psychiatry of which a significant part was counseling. I also raised three children. Notwithstanding these biases, it is hard to argue with Professor Pinker's data and reasoning.

The first law states behavioral traits are heritable: heritability is the proportion of variance in a trait that correlates with genetic differences. At least one-half of the variation in intelligence and temperament is heritable. That is these qualities correlate or are an indirect product of the genes. The I.Q. correlation with genes increases with age so that by adulthood it is .82 (on a scale of -1 to +1). We become more like mom and dad as we grow older. The temperaments we are talking about can be subsumed under the acronym OCEAN --Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion/Introversion, Antagonism/Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Through twin studies it is apparent the following are also heritable: nicotine dependence, alcoholism, and hours of TV watched and even likelihood of divorcing. The problem we all have as long as the heritability of a trait is not zero, we have no way of knowing how much, if any, the trait has been influenced by the environment. All of these conclusions assume no gross neglect, abuse or other catastrophic parenting or other experiences such as childhood rape or incest.

You must understand behavioral genetic methods from three perspectives to make sense of the data. First, twin and other studies can help explain what makes people different but not what they have in common. Further, to say that the heritablility of intelligence is .50 implies half the variation among people is inherited not half of intelligence in a specific individual. Second, behavioral genetic methods measure variation within a given group such as upper-middle class white people and not between lower class and upper class people. Third, behavioral genetic methods only show that traits correlate with genes and do not imply causation.

The second law specifies parenting effects are less than genetic effects. Most people by now assume that genes are important but believe the remaining differences are the responsibility of parenting. There are two kinds of environment --shared and non-shared or unique. Shared environment is what we and our siblings experience in our homes of origin, neighborhood and so forth. The non-shared or unique environment is everything else including differences of parenting between siblings, birth order, injuries, sicknesses and other events that do not happen to one's siblings. The shared environment effect on intelligence and personality traits (OCEAN) is 10% at best and most likely zero. This is particularly true when you measure past the childhood years and into adulthood. As we shall see in the next paragraph the unique environment correlation with intelligence and personality may be as high as .50.

The Third Law: Genes or families do not explain much of complex behavior follows directly from the first and second laws. With genes proving 50% of the variance, shared environment 0-10% then the unique environment must provide the remaining 40% of the variance. One way of remembering this is that identical twins are 50% similar whether they grow up together or apart. In respect to the unique environment, it appears that types of parenting do not correlate with how children turn out. Indeed, it appears how the parents interact with a child is dependent upon the child's genetic make-up. Perhaps the main unique or non-shared environment is peer relationships and interactions. Children model themselves on their peers rather than their family. Their language is much more similar to their peers (including accent) than their parents. While important, peer groups cannot be everything, since identical twins raised together share genes, parents and peer groups but their personality correlation is only .50. Much yet needs to be learned.

It would appear that parents do not change or cause the personalities of their children; therefore, one does not shape children like putty. What seems to be the variable that counts is for parents to recognize children as partners in human relationships: at birth minor partners but when older major partners. It is analogous to how married people get along. Few successfully married people claim they changed the intelligence or personality of their spouse, but they would claim they established a close and workable relationship (friendship).

The last chapter in the "hot button" section is labeled "The Arts." Professor Pinker debunks modernist, postmodernist and deconstructioniist approaches on the basis of biology. This seems to make good sense. Unfortunately, I am not knowledgeable about art and cannot comment on the value of this chapter.

The author neglected some "hot button" issues. Religion, spirituality and genes is one. Previously, I indicated this was a void. Professor Pinker probably does not have colleagues who are ardent, practicing Christians. If he did, he would not believe Pro-lifers take that position because of "ensoulment" of blastocytes. People who are opposed to abortion believe life starts at conception because there are no good arguments to the contrary. Further, I am skeptical most Christians would deny that what we experience as "mind " and "free choice" have physiological bases.

The author clearly states that religion is still important to the masses but not to the public intellectuals. He has written at least one essay questioning religious belief. It may be that only the uneducated and the stupid believe, but more likely, as the emerging literature suggests, there is a biological basis to spirituality. Sometimes, even atheists express spiritual needs by adhering to a secular faith such as Marxism. There seems to be a general pattern of spirituality across time and cultures.

A second neglected "hot button" issue is social class. Professor Pinker gives several reasons to consider it, but then one reason not to --"anything to do with genes is treated like plutonium." Nothing troubles the utopians more than the findings of Rowe and others that genes play a part in determining social class. Apparently, Professor Pinker treated social class and genes like plutonium.

A third neglected "hot button" issue is homosexuality. Professor Pinker claims gay men have "gay brains"-- a smaller third interstitial nucleus in the anterior hypothalamus. Professor Pinker also states, "the sexual orientation of most gay men cannot be reversed by experience." In spite of this assertion, there is a National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. Many fundamental church groups claim successes in converting homosexuals to heterosexuals. It is hard to practice psychiatry without realizing that a considerable number of people drop in and out of the Gay lifestyle. Further, there seem to be wide differences in "Gays" in respect to their sexual behavior and feminine identification.

In 1973 Robert Spitzer, M.D. was instrumental in removing homosexuality from the diagnostic manual. Early in 2001, he claimed that highly motivated homosexuals could convert themselves to heterosexuals. There are only a few twin studies. If one identical twin is Gay there is a 50% chance for the other twin to be Gay. For fraternal twins the correlation is .20 and for related siblings it is .10. These studies and the alleged brain differences have had their critics. Presently, the safest bet is that there are sufficient compelling studies to indicate becoming gay or lesbian begins before birth. Genetic or biological processes in the womb result in gayness or lesbianism; however this is not an all or none phenomenon and the environment must play some part.

Gay and lesbian advocates insist their orientation is biologically determined before birth. Seemingly, they fear if this is not the accepted wisdom, there would be a basis for discrimination or coercion from religious and mental health groups. Gays and lesbians also are convinced their orientation is immutable. If orientation is not immutable then there is either choice or environmental factors that partially or completely determine orientation. If this is true, then there is either a sin or a disorder. Finally, the political battle to make homosexuals a "protected class" seems to rise or fall on the presence or absence of a genetic determinism. The price for these two views --absolute biological determination and immutability--is the politicization of science.

One can only hope that Professor Pinker and his colleagues will remedy the dearth of solid information on these issues. In the meantime, gays and lesbians are advocating a strict biological determinism by political means. Not only is this not in anyone's long term interest, but it stifles science and truth in a most lamentable way.

The fourth, and last, neglected "hot button" issue is race. Professor Pinker believes that t the black-white difference in IQ is not genetically determined. He points out immigrants initially have low average IQs that increase with time. He points out that regional areas of the US have had a similar change in IQs. Finally, he quotes Thomas Sowell as his authoritative reference. Dr. Sowell, a conservative economist, bases his opinions that race IQ differences are not genetically determined on: anecdotal experiences that Black girls are smarter than Black Boys; the immigrant experience; historical descriptions of conquerors of conquered people as being stupid; and, the Flynn effect where IQs seem to increase with time. Current opinion is that The Flynn Effect results from better nutrition: the effect is primarily on the left-hand side of the Bell Curve.

According to Professor J.P. Rushton, "...Pinker then blinks and stumbles when it comes to race...he is silent about the 15 IQ point difference between African-Americans and Europeans and the 30 IQ point difference between unmixed Africans and Europeans...these findings have been corroborated by over 100 years of research..." After the publication of the Bell Curve in 1994, Herrnstein and Murray were bitterly attacked. Over 60 experts in intelligence and related fields affirmed the above findings about race in a Wall Street Journal Editorial dated 13 December 1994. Finally, Professor Jensen who was hounded for years for his views recently published a book with Frank Miele called Intelligence, Race and Genetics which also affirms these findings. Professor Jensen, previously of Harvard, retired from the University of California, Berkley, and is recognized as the expert in the field of IQ and race. Lest one believe the propaganda that Professor Jensen is a right-wing racist it is important to remember he is of liberal sentiments and has urged exogamy as a solution for the racial disparity in IQ.

The racial differences in IQ are real. The only question is whether they are heritable. Even per capita gross domestic product correlates with a country's average I.Q. The present question before the US Supreme Court is whether affirmative action is constitutional. Siblings vary in intelligence by an average factor of 14, and this would suggest these racial differences are moot. Unfortunately, the differences are at the edges.

It is rare to find a physician, lawyer, scientist or engineer with an IQ less than 110. About 25% of European Whites score at 110 or better. Because the average Black IQ is 85, only 5% of Blacks have an IQ of 110 or better. Mathematically, both absolutely and proportionately, whites will have more individuals at 110 and above than Blacks. Seemingly, the US Supreme Court can ignore these mathematical certainties and the colleges and universities can dumb down their curricula; however, it is going to be hard for everyone to face the White resentment when the truth is widely known.

The whole problem is further complicated by the finding that the Jews have an average IQ of one-half to one standard deviation higher that White Europeans. Overall, a best guess is Ashenazi Jews have an average IQ of 115. This means that over 60% will score over 110--almost three times that of European Whites. More importantly measuring for "giftedness" only 3% of European Whites will score above 130: Ashenazi and other Jews will have perhaps up to five times that number scoring 130 and above. The policy ramifications here are that one can expect more doctors, lawyers, scientists and the gifted among the Jews and especially Russian Jews. It also means in a meritocracy Christians need to focus on the Second Deadly Sin --Envy!

Henry Hazlitt began Economics in One Lesson with a statement that said economics is difficult because economists respond to the pleadings of special interests; hence, everything they write takes into account their political dogma. Similarly, psychology is difficult because often psychologists respond to the political requirements of academia. Anyone who has not read Tenured Radicals by Roger Kimball should. There is no question many fear the outrageous actions of radical professors and students. It stymies open discussion and prematurely closes areas of inquiry.

Professor Pinker has begun a long journey to free the humanities from politically correct, blank slate beliefs. His book is iconoclastic without being a political screed. For the most part, he addresses all the "hot button" issues. Those he does not seem to be the ones at the present time tenured radicals will not brook no matter what. This book like the Bell Curve is bound to have long-term consequences. They are both "stealth books" that change advocates and adversaries alike for the better whether they choose to or not. Besides that, Professor Pinker surely is, as others have said, a polymath.

Buy this book. It is beautifully written, marvelously cited and exciting to read. E. O. Wilson, a zoologist, once said, "we are born not as a blank tablet but an exposed negative waiting to be filled in and developed by experience." Get with it! The "blank slate" and the "noble savage" are receding into history.

1 Douglas, Ed (1999).Steven Pinker: The Mind Reader.Guardian, 6 November 1999.

2 Davis, Joy (1999). Against My Better Judgement: An Intimate Memoir by Roger Brown. Gay Today, 199re.html

3 Page 283 of the book

4 Sowell, T. (1987). A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. New York: Quill

4 Page 133 in the book.

5This whole paragraph is from Easterbrook, G. The New Convergence. Wired, 12 December 2002.

6 Avise,J.(1998).The Genetic Gods: Evolution and Belief In Human Affairs. Boston: Harvard Press

7 Hunt, M. 2002 The Biological Roots of Religion. Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol 19 Number 3. 19 3.html.

8 Page 2 of the book.

9 Pinker, S. Whence Religious Belief? Skeptical Inquirer, July-August 1999.

10 Pate 149 of book.

11 Rowe, D.(1994). The Limits of Family Influence.New York: Guillford.

12 Levay, S. (1993). The Sexual Brain. Cambride, Mass: MIT Press.

13 Kluger, J. Can Gays Switch Sides.Time, 21 May 2001.

14 Mubarak, D. Why Are We Gay. The Advocated. 17 July 2001.

15 Sowell, T.Race and IQ I, II, III. Jewish World Review. 01,02,03 October 2002.

16 Rushton, J.P.Sweeping Away Culture-Only Orthodoxy Almost. Amazon Book Reviews. 29 November 2002. Professor Rushton has also written Race, Revolution and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (edition 3).

17 Herrnsteinsein RJ and Murray C.(1994) The Bell Curve.New York, Simon and Schuster.

18 Staff. Mainstream Science on Intelligence.Wall Street Journal. 13 December 1994.

19 Mentor and Prodigy. The Smart Fraction Theory of IQ and the Wealth of Nations. La Griffe du Lion, Volume 4 Number 1 March 2002

19 Mentor and Prodigy. The Smart Fraction Theory of IQ and the Wealth of Nations. La Griffe du Lion, Volume 4 Number 1 March 2002

See the Bell Curve, Page 272-276 for a preliminary discussion of this.

Herrnsteinsein RJ and Murray C.(1994) The Bell Curve.New York, Simon and Schuster.

Staff. Mainstream Science on Intelligence.Wall Street Journal. 13 December 1994.

Mentor and Prodigy. The Smart Fraction Theory of IQ and the Wealth of Nations. La Griffe du Lion, Volume 4 Number 1 March 2002

See the Bell Curve, Page 272-276 for a preliminary discussion of this.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Philosophy; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: blank; nature; nurture; pinker; slate; steven
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I am an old man without enough to do. Lately, I have taken an interest in "social class" as an important consideration in individual and group dynamics. In order to maintain some semblance of memory, I do these revierws both for myself and my children.

I was going to post several others, but I referred to Pinker's Chapter on politics. Previously, I poste Magnet's The Dream and the Nightmare about the "underclass."

Unfortunately, none of the end-notes came through. I can only say I am sorry.

1 posted on 12/26/2002 9:18:33 AM PST by shrinkermd
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To: shrinkermd is amenable to a variety of reviews --both positive and negative.

Let me know when you find a similar book that has no negative reviews. Your post sounds like a plot for a FOX-TV sitcom. I don't like FOX-TV sitcoms.

Is Roger Brown related to Norman O. Brown who wrote Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History?

2 posted on 12/26/2002 9:45:24 AM PST by Consort
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To: shrinkermd
Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions saw much of the ideological struggle as being between two visions of the nature of humanity--"the constrained vision" and "the unconstrained" vision. Pinker takes Sowell's "constrained" and calls it "tragic." He takes Sowell's "unconstrained" and calls it "utopian".

FYI, Sowell, himself, called this vision "tragic" in his earlier book, Vision of the Annointed. Both that book and The Quest for Cosmic Justice lead to the veiws he expresses in A Conflict of Visions. Heck, just read all of Sowell's books. Even if you don't agree with everything he says, they provide excellent food for thought.

3 posted on 12/26/2002 9:47:38 AM PST by Question_Assumptions
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To: shrinkermd
I'm in the middle of the book right now. Pinker has modified some of his earlier stances, it appears, particularly where infanticide is concerned. In the past he has written in The New York Times that infanticide is justifiable under certain conditions, a somewhat Singeresque position, but in The Blank Slate, although he never outright states a personal position, infanticide is discussed in a clearly negative tone. He also tends to disparage Singer's "speciesism" folderol.

Pinker has a few good words to say about Rawls's "veil of ignorance," which a big disappointment, and he avoids speaking boldly on a number of hot button issues, but, overall, the book, like its predecessor How the Mind Works, is a worthwhile contribution to the cognitive sciences, the evolutionary sciences, and contemporary philosophy generally.

4 posted on 12/26/2002 10:08:46 AM PST by beckett
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To: shrinkermd
Also, to be fair to Sowell's anecdotal evidence that IQ is not determined by race, he also sites as examples the test scores of pre-1960s black Harlem school children (who, he says, often ranked #2 in New York City on test scores) and the observation that performance on IQ tests relates to how seriously a person takes the test and how familiar they are with the kind of thinking (often abstract) required by the test. If people don't take thinking and test-taking seriously or are not familiar with the sort of abstract thinking required by an IQ test, it does seem likely that they will underperform any genetic potential on IQ tests. Indeed, Sowell's book Race and Culture talks about the importance of the value that a culture places on thinking and learning on IQ and success. It is not surprising, for example, that Jews do well on IQ tests because they have historically valued learning and abstract thinking. And bear in mind that "culture" is a good proxy for the idea of peers and that other 40% that isn't genetic, even according to this book. Indeed, my own personal experience with the contrast between Carribean blacks and American blacks suggests that culture plays a very large role, indeed, in expressed intelligence and success.
5 posted on 12/26/2002 11:18:24 AM PST by Question_Assumptions
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To: beckett
"Pinker has a few good words to say about Rawls's "veil of ignorance," which a big disappointment, and he avoids speaking boldly on a number of hot button issues, but, overall, the book, like its predecessor How the Mind Works, is a worthwhile contribution to the cognitive sciences, the evolutionary sciences, and contemporary philosophy generally"

I saw that too. I can't rembember what I said about Rawls, but one of my kids queried me when he died and I wrote the below:

John Rawls died at age 82 in November of 2002. Many noted his passing with an outpouring of praise and remembrance. Professor Rawls retired as Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Harvard University. It took him 20 years to write his first book, A Theory of Justice. The book, published in 1971, was an instant success and sold over 200,000 copies. Since its publication, over 5000 books or articles reference this one book. Professor Rawls published other books including Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of the Peoples (1999), Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2000) and, finally, his Collected Papers (2001edited by Samuel Freedman). Shortly before his death, Barbara Herman edited and published his Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Many believe Professor Rawls was the preeminent philosopher of his generation. President Clinton gave him the prestigious Medal of Freedom.

Rawls wrote for experienced philosophers and other intellectuals. Fortunately, his theories have been so popular that many have documented his positions in clear and concise English. Before Rawls began writing, utilitarianism was the reigning discipline when it came to social justice. Utilitarianism is an ethical principle that states an action is right if it maximizes happiness for not only the person but also everyone affected by this act. An alternative, but not altogether correct definition of utilitarianism is the "greatest good for the greatest number." The problem for utilitarianism is that it did not take into account the needs and interests of minorities. Rawls also believed the liberty of individuals was of secondary importance compared to the interest of the majority.

What Rawls did was to take utilitarianism and Kant's categorical imperative to arrive at a unique definition of justice. Kant's categorical imperative is, "Act so as to use humanity, whether in your own person or in others, always as an end, and never as a means. Not treating people as means is a crucial feature of Rawl's theories.

Rawls's theory has two facets. First, each individual has a right to the most extensive liberty compatible with the same liberty for others. Second, social and economic inequalities are just only to the extent they serve to promote the wellbeing of the least advantaged.

How and why could people accept these as just and necessary? Rawls proposes a "veil of ignorance" such that each person must select rules to live by without knowing their future income, intelligence and sex. Rawls called this the "original position." These theories protect the least fortunate. In the "original position" the public can reason things out only by avoiding religion or philosophy. Since things are now reasoned without individual passion and interests, the conclusions are above reproach and debate: they are now a given.

The outcome of Rawls's theories is exactly what the liberal Democratic Party believes --re-distribution of power and wealth with a strong belief in individual liberties. Rawls in his later writings also permits religious beliefs to continue even if they are contrary to the decisions made in the original position. He is also less inclined to redistribute wealth between nations than he in his own country.

From my conservative point of view, Rawls convinced the elites that it is simple and unquestionable justice to take from the majority and give to the minority. Indeed, we now judge society on these premises and there is no debate possible as to their necessity. Further, inequality is relative rather than absolute. For example, if a person enjoys a good standard of living but he sees others with Mercedes Benzes and Swiss watches, then he is still poor and victimized. This simply states the poor will always be with us and transferring wealth and power is an unending chore.

The liberal Democratic Party (Non-Marxist Socialists) believes in egalitarianism regardless of individual responsibility and effort. Further, by setting egalitarianism as the sovereign value they eliminate other values that are crucial for a successful society. To them, their beliefs are just, based on reason and eternal truths. If their egalitarian policies are challenged or refuted, liberals sometimes resort to angry, vituperative outbursts rather than factual debates. Recently, for example, Garrison Keillor made a fierce, demeaning ad hominem attach on Senator-elect Coleman. His emotional response makes good sense if you assume he believes his views, like those of Rawls, are above question and not debatable.

I note there was a long thread on Raws on FR. A number of much smarter people than I who had taken his class claimed he was a conservative! This may be. I had great difficulty even reading part of his first book. I never tried after that. I think you have to be very smart and able to wade through a kind of writing that makes legal writing look easy.

I think Pinker bought into the Rawlsian mystery. I was disappointed. I believe, contrary to what he says, that Pinker is of a liberal persuasion albeit not altogether a utopian. IMHO the Rawls test is the litmus test for liberals.

6 posted on 12/26/2002 12:40:31 PM PST by shrinkermd
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To: shrinkermd
I participated in the thread on Rawls you mention, and, like you, I was similarly dismayed at the attempt by one of his former students to paint him as being friendly in some respects to conservative thought. That poster had a penchant for avoiding clear demonstrative sentences, a knack she may have picked up from "professional academic philosophers" like Rawls.

In brief, I consider Rawls's "veil of ignorance" a sham, an impossible, guilt-tripping sham that cannot be constructed in real minds. It only works as an abstract instrument in the hands of Blank Slaters, which is why I was so disappointed to see Prof. Pinker grovel before a PC altar by referring to it favorably.

Your kids must've been very happy to get so learned an essay about Rawls. If the analyses in it are any indication, you are more than capable of digesting Rawls's cabalistic mental peregrinations. The only question is, why would you want to? ;-)

7 posted on 12/26/2002 2:37:23 PM PST by beckett
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To: beckett
Like most self-described liberals, Rawls was a hypocrit and a fraud. Here's why.

Behind your "veil of ignorance" you have to choose between two societies. In one, you will be a free man. In the other, you have a 40% chance of being immediately put to death.

So, if Rawls actually believed his own crap, why was he a lifelong supporter of abortion?

8 posted on 12/26/2002 5:40:27 PM PST by John Locke
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To: John Locke
Great point about abortion and the "veil of ignorance." I hadn't thought of that one before.
9 posted on 12/26/2002 7:50:28 PM PST by beckett
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To: shrinkermd
Nice thread.
10 posted on 12/27/2002 7:03:15 AM PST by KC Burke
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To: shrinkermd
11 posted on 12/27/2002 7:04:30 AM PST by dennisw
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To: Cornelius; betty boop; x
12 posted on 12/27/2002 7:04:46 AM PST by KC Burke
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To: shrinkermd
My instant take on him is his lifestyle reflects (has reflected) the utopian vision while now at least he's an advocate of the tragic vision. I'm in the tragic vision column but with a leavening of utopianism. Nature versus nature comes down to a 50/50 draw for me. We have the failed social experiments of communism, Islam and nazism in front of us. But I still believe that in "benevolent dictator" type institutes children can be positively molded. They would need to be away from their parents for part of the year.
13 posted on 12/27/2002 7:19:57 AM PST by dennisw
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To: KC Burke; shrinkermd
Thanks for the bump, KC. Very interesting post!

May we take another look at Chapter 16? The thought struck me, reading this part, that 95 percent of the people who review Pinker's works would hardly want to put politics "up-front." They would prefer to do what Pinker seems to have preferred to do: Bury it in Chapter 16.

And yet the present reviewer, apparently sensitive to the problem of inadequate basis for the fulminations at Chapter 16, gives Pinker a pass.

I hope to revisit this topic soon. But I need to recover from the holiday season first. :^)

Happy New Year, each and every one!

14 posted on 12/27/2002 8:01:55 PM PST by betty boop
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To: shrinkermd
Thanks so much for the time and effort that you expended to put this post together. It's not very often that a sociology/psychology book worth its salt is written. Mumbo-jumbo is normally the order of the day.

God bless and keep. JL
15 posted on 12/27/2002 8:22:06 PM PST by lodwick
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To: KC Burke; shrinkermd
Thanks for this, but it's way too much to read at once.

Pinker turns up in today's NY Times look at overrated and underrated ideas. To me, at any rate, he doesn't make a good showing. Overrated: the "slippery slope." Underrated: "amoral pragmatism". Pinker's argument against "slippery slope" rhetoric -- "When we lowered the voting age to 18, we didn't slip down a slope and give 5-year-olds the vote, too" -- doesn't seem convincing or much of an improvement over what he criticizes.

Every generation has some conflict between older moral codes and new, radical, more amoral ideas. This is where some of us walked in. In previous generations, Marxism was the "new" idea. Or pragmatism or logical positivism or psychoanalysis. Also at various times in recent decades, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Existentialism, Deconstruction, Marcuse, the Frankfurt School. Today Darwin, sociobiology, and genetic engineering are the "new" scientific shortcuts to understanding, human improvement, and liberation.

That may be true, but I can't help being skeptical, but I will try to read more of your article in my spare time. It certainly looks worth reading. I commend your efforts.

16 posted on 12/28/2002 7:42:26 AM PST by x
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To: x
Pinker's argument against "slippery slope" rhetoric -- "When we lowered the voting age to 18, we didn't slip down a slope and give 5-year-olds the vote, too" -- doesn't seem convincing or much of an improvement over what he criticizes.

Pinker is just TOO disingenuous.... IMHO FWIW.

IMHO, Pinker leaves himself no basis whatever by which to criticize anything. Indeed, Pinker's entire point seems to be that, once we understand man as the machine he putatively is (according to Pinker's grotesquely reductionist view), then questions about the "ghost in the machine" (does he ever source this quip to Julian Huxley, its author?) become moot. Irrelevant.

Of course, he knows as well as you or I do that whatever moral vision man has ever expressed down the ages, he never entrusted its communication to the language of a "machine" as his mouthpiece -- unless he needed an insanity defense....

So, what do you suppose this guy is really up to?

17 posted on 12/29/2002 5:53:16 PM PST by betty boop
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To: betty boop
It sounds like Pinker is right about some things and wrong about others, conventional about some things and scandalous about others. New scientific developments, whether it's Newton or Darwin or Galileo or Mendel or Mendeleev, call forth propagandists to make great claims for recent discoveries. French Enlightenment philosophes did that for Newton. T.H. Huxley did it for Darwin. As did Herbert Spencer. And, in another way, H.G. Wells. And Darwin did some of the propagandizing himself.

Pinker may be one of these scientific propagandists who make great claims for the latest research of science and its applicability to life. Iconoclasm, overconfidence, arrogance and prickliness, are common traits of this sort of person. When a new idea or scientific finding comes along it's seen as the big answer to everything. After the dust clears, we may find out that Pinker was right about some things and wildly wrong about others.

18 posted on 12/30/2002 6:57:52 PM PST by x
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To: x; Lev
After the dust clears, we may find out that Pinker was right about some things and wildly wrong about others.

Perhaps we will, x. It's certainly possible that Pinker is right about some things. I think you already know that I think he is "wildly wrong" about others. Dumping the psyche -- Huxley's "ghost in the machine" -- is the preeminent example. For Pinker, there is only the machine: The "ghost" has been "evicted," by simple fiat. What Hegel "did" to God, Pinker does to man....

But this seems so silly. Pinker simply refuses to acknowledge that he's "got" a "ghost", so to speak, stipulating its nonexistence as the "pre-analytical notion" upon which to erect his system. Yet absent his "ghost," there would be no possible motive for his work. And lacking that, its mere existence would be inexplicable: Machines do not "do science."

The point seems to me so basic; perhaps that is the reason it is so easy to overlook. Yet perhaps this is not a mere methodological mistake; perhaps Pinker really is a willful denizen of Second Reality. In which case, we can be informed by his discoveries to the extent that his argument remains rational -- that is, to the extent that there is overlap between his Second Reality and First Reality, and only to that extent. Otherwise, the guy is floating in a dream world that is hitched to Nothing.

As Eric Voegelin points out, the imaginators and projecters of Second Realities can adduce important information about facts, and often perform brilliant intellectual feats of analysis. But we must be aware that, for them, facts and the thought process itself are subordinated to the requirements of their imaginative constructions. Truth will have to take a back seat if there is a conflict of reality with the construction.

Thanks for writing, x. Happy New Year!

19 posted on 12/31/2002 7:00:23 AM PST by betty boop
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To: x; Lev
New scientific developments, whether it's Newton or Darwin or Galileo or Mendel or Mendeleev, call forth propagandists to make great claims for recent discoveries. French Enlightenment philosophes did that for Newton. T.H. Huxley did it for Darwin.

Yes, x, the evolution of the main idea seems to involve a certain amount of "hucksterism" in this day and age.

Speaking of T.H. Huxley, recently I found this gem, which corroborates your observation:

“The [Protestant] Reformation was the scraping of a little rust off the chains which still bind the mind…. Darwinism is the New Reformation.”

Huxley penned these lines about the turn of the 20th century.

At the turn of the 19th century, Hegel – apparently in a fit of some kind of “religious” ecstasy – penned these lines in regard to the French Revolution of 1789:

“As long as the sun stands in heaven and the planets revolve around it, has it not happened that man stood on his head, that is on his thought, and built reality in conformity to it. Anaxagorus had been the first to say that Nous governs the world; but only now has man gained the insight that thought should govern spiritual reality. This was a splendid surprise; all thinking beings shared in celebrating the epoch. The age was ruled by a sublime emotion, the world trembled as the enthusiasm of the spirit pervaded it, as if only now the divine had been truly reconciled to the world.”

I don’t even want to get into problems of meaning here, WRT these two statements. (Though I might want to revisit this problem later on if there’s a reason to do that.)

All I want to know is two things. (1) Is there anybody out there in Freeperland who can detect one single FACT in either of these statements? It seems to me we are not dealing in the world of objective fact here, but in a more subjective world governed by personal taste, predilection, and preference. In short, the universe of rhetoric.

The other thing I want to know is: (2) Do people generally, these days, consider such “nit-picking” as to facts as raised in (1) unimportant or irrelevant to their actual lives? Is rhetoric finally annointed king of reality?

As far as I can tell, neither of the above reports deals with factual reality at all. And yet these two thinkers preeminently have managed to constitute a “style of thinking” that has moved humanity, arguably against its own best interests, for nigh-on two centuries by now. JMHO FWIW.

Please share your thoughts on this question, x…if you have the time and interest.

Happy 2003, x!!!

20 posted on 12/31/2002 10:32:25 PM PST by betty boop
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