Sunday, 5 April 2015

Steven Pinker's closing straw man attack

Steven Pinker concluded his 2012 article attacking cultural evolution with the following "straw man" attack:

No one could be more sympathetic to the application of evolutionary biology to human affairs than I am, and I have made use of many of its tools. But group selection and memetics have been unhelpful, and even evolutionary psychology in its totality can take us only so far. That is because human cultural change is driven by ideas. In the case of language, they are the lexical and grammatical analyses by which listeners make sense of the speech of others; in the case of violence, they are ideologies by which people justify their collective actions, such as religions, Marxism, nationalism, utilitarianism, enlightenment humanism, romantic militarism, and many others. If you reduce these ideas to simple tokens that are spread by contagion or multiply at different rates, and don't considering how their content affects the beliefs and desires of human protagonists, you will end up with a seriously incomplete understanding of cultural change.

It is true that if you reduce ideas to simple tokens that are spread by contagion or multiply at different rates, and don't consider how their content affects their human hosts, you will end up with a seriously incomplete understanding of cultural change. The problem is that nobody ever advocated developing a complete understanding of cultural change by doing that in the first place. This is just a ridiculous straw man concocted by Steven Pinker. He doesn't bother supporting it by any references - because he has none.

Imagine someone saying that if you reduce parasites to genes that multiply at different rates and don't consider how they affect their hosts, you will end up with a seriously incomplete understanding of disease. That would be pretty ridiculous. Nobody ever advocated attempting to understand disease in this way in the first place. This is not a criticism of genes or genetics, it's a misunderstanding of what these concepts mean and how they are applied.

Yes, there are people using "bean-counting" techniques on genes and memes - in population genetics and population memetics. But these folk are not fooled into thinking that frequencies are everything. Frequency analysis is just a tool.

Steven Pinker's closing criticism is a straw man attack. If that's what he thinks memetics is about, it reflects poorly on his understanding of the subject. This puts him in a poor position to offer criticisms - though he doesn't seem to realise this.


  1. I follow Pinker's work and have become increasingly annoyed by his continual use of strawman attacks. His book "The Blank Slate" The Modern Denial of Human Nature" even has one in the title! I am not aware of anyone outside of a few fringe academics that actually believes humans are blank slates at birth. In his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined", he takes down the misconception that tribal societies were Rousseaun utopias that were in general more peaceful than our own. Once again, I am unaware of anyone...outside of a few fringe academics...who actually believes this. He mischaracterizes Rousseau himself, who didn't actually believe in back-to-nature utopias either but used them as a literary device.

    In his new book, "Enlightenment Now", we get more glimpses into Pinker's own psyche and motivations than perhaps he intended. He seems quite upset that despite all the evidence for human material progress, it does not seem to have affected our levels of happiness all that much. But a better question might be WHY this is the case. Pinker doesn't seem all that interested in why, aside from a brief speculation, because that would force him to ask questions about the human mind that might challenge his own carefully constructed ideas about human nature and reality that are rather dogmatic.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I can't speak for Steven, but your "why?" question seems fairly obvious from an evolutionary perspective. It's the hedonic treadmill. Evolution doesn't care much how well off you are, what matters most is how well you are doing compared to your peers - i.e. evolutionary fitnesses are (mostly) relative.

  3. Yes. It is obvious, but amazingly, even though Pinker directly addresses why it is so hard to get humans to think more positively about the future, he spends little time on the hedonic treadmill phenomenon. Or, much more importantly to my mind, how to get off it. I think Pinker has an axe to grind here. He seems to be somewhat unnerved by the avalanche of research coming out about the plasticity of the human brain, which is far greater than we previously thought, and Pinker seems to have long ago found his comfort zone in the idea that human nature can only be altered so much and doesn't want to think about other possibilities. That same research into neuroplasticity also occasionally suggests the potential of non-material theories of consciousness. Pinker is a fierce materialist and regards any such theoreties as pseudo-scientific trash.

    You may be a materialist as well, and I have no objection to that, I am merely explaining what I think is going on in Pinker's head and why he acts the way he does.