Pinker & the Blank Slate debate

This is interesting enough, I thought I’d move it to the front page.
Below are a couple of comments posted to the Pinker criticism I posted some weeks ago.

I am going to post more of Gould’s whole article, just so that we are fully aware of the larger context of the piece.

Luke asks about the misquote, and I do still think Pinker seriously mischaracterizes the debate to score easy points, but I also should report that Pinker may be guilty only of misattributing: The “rigidly” may be missing from the original Natural History piece (Gould, S.J. Biological potential vs biological determinism. Natural History 85) Gould wrote (NOT what Pinker cites), but we’ll find out about that later–once I find a copy.

I think Pinker actually just cribbed this quote from Alcock’s long dissection of Gould’s Natural History essays (here). But Alcock is hardly a neutral source on the matter of Gould, so I’ll have to see it with my own eyes first.

The Wilson passage cited by TangoMan was actually published after (1978) both versions (if there are two) of Gould’s passage would have been (1976, 1977), so there might be some ex post
facto toning down there.

Now, thing is, the question of whether or not Gould was addressing Wilson or a strawman was exactly what the passage as a whole is getting at:

Replying to a critic of his article in the New York Times Magazine (October 12, 1975), E.O. Wilson wrote: “There is no doubt that the patterns of human social\ behavior, including altruistic behavior, are under genetic control, in the sense that they represent a restricted subset of possible patterns that are very different from the patterns of termites, chimpanzees and other animal species.” If this is all that Wilson means by genetic control, then we can scarcely disagree. Surely we do not do all the things that other animals do, and just as surely, the range of our potential behavior is circumscribe by our biology. We would lead very different social lives if we photosynthesized (no agriculture, gathering, or hunting — the major determinants of our social evolution) … . But Wilson [‘s work] makes much stronger claims … . It is, primarily, an extended speculation on the existence of genes for specific and variable traits in human behavior — including spite, aggression, xenophobia, conformity, homosexuality, and the characteristic behavioral differences between men and women in Western society. Of course, Wilson does not deny the role of nongenetic learning in human behavior; he even states at one point that “genes have given away most of their sovereignty.” But, he quickly adds, genes “maintain a certain amount of influence in at least the behavioral qualities that underlie variations between cultures.” And the next paragraph calls for a “discipline of anthropological genetics.”

Biological determinism is the primary theme in Wilson’s discussion of human behavior … Wilson’s primary aim, as I read him, is to suggest that Darwinian theory might reformulate the human sciences just as it previously transformed so many other biological disciplines. But Darwinian processes can not operate without genes to select. Unless the “interesting” properties of human behavior are under specific genetic control, sociology need fear no invasion of its turf. By interesting, I refer to the subjects sociologists and anthropologists fight about most often — aggression, social stratification, and differences in behavior between men and women. If genes only specify that we are large enough to live in a world of gravitational forces, need to rest our bodies by sleeping, and do not photosynthesize, then the realm of genetic determinism will be relatively uninspiring… A colleague recently insisted that the classic story of Eskimos on ice floes provides adequate proof for the existence of specific altruistic genes maintained by kin selection. Apparently, among some Eskimo peoples, social units are arranged as family groups. If food resources dwindle and the family must move to survive, aged grandparents willingly remain behind (to die) rather than endanger the survival of their entire family by slowing an arduous and dangerous migration. Family groups with no altruist genes have succumbed to natural selection as migrations hindered by the old and sick lead to the death of entire families. Grandparents with altruist genes increase their own fitness by their sacrifice, for they enhance the survival of close relatives sharing their genes. The explanation by my colleague is plausible, to be sure, but scarcely conclusive since an eminently simple, nongenetic explanation also exists: there are no altruist genes at all, in fact, no important genetic differences among Eskimo families whatsoever. The sacrifice of grandparents is an adaptive, but nongenetic, cultural trait. Families with no tradition for sacrifice do not survive for many generations. In other families, sacrifice is celebrated in song and story; aged grandparents who stay behind become the greatest heroes of the clan. Children are socialized from their earliest memories to the glory and honor of such sacrifice.

Why imagine that specific genes for aggression, dominance, or spite have any importance when we know that the brain’s enormous flexibility permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological — and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish. Thus, my criticism of Wilson does not invoke a nonbiological “environmentalism”; it merely pits the concept of biological potentiality — a brain capable of the full range of human behaviors and rigidly predisposed toward none — against the idea of biological determinism — specific genes for specific behavioral traits.

But why is this academic issue so delicate and explosive? There is no hard evidence for either position, and what difference does it make, for example, whether we conform because conformer genes have been selected or because our general genetic makeup permits conformity as one strategy among many? The protracted and intense debate surrounding biological determinism has arisen as a function of its social and political message: … biological determinism has always been used to defend existing social arrangements as biologically inevitable … . We are both similar to and different from other animals. In different cultural contexts, emphasis upon one side or the other of this fundamental truth plays a useful social role. In Darwin’s day, an assertion of our similarity broke through centuries of harmful superstition. Now we may need to emphasize our difference as flexible animals with a vast range of potential behavior. Our biological nature does not stand in the way of social reform. We are, as Simone de Beauvoir said, “the being whose essence lies in having no essence.”

Now, beleive it or not, I don’t really have too much of an axe to grind on all of this: I think the history of this debate is fascinating, but I also think that the demonization of Wilson (mostly by folks other than Gould) has been succeeded by the demonization of Gould (mostly by folks other than Wilson). And I don’t think the proper response to one distortion is an equal and opposite distortion. I think at some point we really ought to start trying our hardest to look at the sociobiology debate dispassionately (or at least quit with the selective quotation trick).

So what are the points of disagreement here? I think the scientific disagreements are subtle, and I think the disagreements about public presentation and consequences complicate matters quite a bit, but that they (the presentation and consequence issues) can’t be put to one side because this issue started (with the mostly lauditory initial press coverage of Sociobiology itself) as a public issue rather than as an academic one.

Anyhow, here are the comments, and I’d welcome more:

3 Comments

Luke said…

Not to be obtuse, but why is this a misquote? Indeed, in context it seems even more fully comitted to a blank slate position vis a vis Wilson’s more genetically determined one. I don’t get it.

Thu May 18, 11:50:08 PM EDT

Oran P. Kelley said…

You’d really have to explain your interpretation of Gould’s passage.

It’s a misquote because Pinker excerpts a word–rigidly–without indicating it in any way. And that word tends to change the meaning of the passage significantly.

Anyhow, how exactly does “a brain capable of the full range of human behaviors and rigidly predisposed toward none” constitute “Blank Slate” thought?

Fri May 19, 11:23:55 AM EDT

TangoMan said…

Pinker wrote: Stephen Jay Gould wrote that the “brain [is] capable of a full range of behaviors and predisposed to none.”

Gould wrote: a brain capable of the full range of human behaviors and rigidly predisposed toward none–against his idea of biological determinism–specific genes for specific behavioral traits.

E.O. Wilson wrote: I also believe that it will soon be within our ability to locate and characterize specific genes that alter the more complex forms of social behavior. Obviously, the alleles discovered will not prescribe different dialects or modes of dress. They are more likely to work measurable changes through their effects on learning modes and timing, cognitive and neuromuscular ability, and the personality traits most sensitive to hormonal mediation.

So, what would you have Pinker do about Gould’s framing his argument against a strawman position Gould attributes to Wilson? Wilson isn’t advancing the position that there is a gene for being a smart alec, or another gene for liking women with blond hair. Gould modified Wilson’s position by choosing to use the word rigidly. Pinker simply set the record straight by realigning Gould’s statement to the position that Wilson actually holds.

Fri May 19, 11:11:47 PM EDT

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