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.

  4. I think I qualify as a materialist, though one who knows about mass/energy conversion. Evolutionary progress may look less impressive if you measure it in hedonic terms. However it depends quite a bit on where you put the hedonic zero. I would advocate for a low zero point - a position I refer to as "the ecstacy of existence". In which case, population growth is seen as being quite positive. However hedonic metrics seem like a dubious way of measuring progress to me. I usually prefer thermodynamic metrics, the measurement of which is simpler.

    1. More generally, I would say that the study of the human mind and what constitutes true happiness is sorely lacking in our culture. As someone who has spent over a decade studying and practicing Buddhist principles and techniques, it is astonishing to me that this sort of thing did not long ago become an area of study comparable to all the other areas we are so good at - physics, biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy - frankly, virtually any academic discipline. Western psychology has thus far failed to make much of a dent on the problem of human misery even when all is well externally. Primarily, this is because it lacks the tools to do so, and it lacks the tools because it does not have the size, complexity or depth of scientific understanding that these other disciplines do - or Buddhism does. But Buddhism, because it is only a proto-science, lacks the rigour and, most importantly, the tools to translate its philosophy to the masses - meditation is a grossly inefficient way to progress.

      One could speculate on numerous reasons as to why the science of mind never developed. I think it is because subjective experience was not perceived as being worthy of study for the first 450-odd years after the Scientific Revolution began - we became very good at so many things that had to do with 'knowing', and forgot about the 'knower'. This attitude helped us to blow several opportunities to develop tools to drastically increase the effectiveness of psychology, Buddhism and other means of developing genuine happiness, most recently when we completely abandoned psychedelic research in the 1960s and even made psychedelic drugs illegal, which is surreal. A few scare stories and several irresponsible researchers combined with the anxiety over the Counterculture in the 1960s to shut down the richest vein of study in the area of the mind we had ever tapped, and research is only beginning to recover now.

      I may sound like I'm rambling, but I just can't believe we know so little about the true causes of happiness and have so few and/or such outdated tools to cultivate it. Where are our universities with four-year degree programs on happiness, teaching students how to develop calm, balanced, focussed minds and to be kinder and more empathetic towards themselves and others? Nowhere. And we wonder why the suicide rate has not budged in the United States, the richest country on earth, in 70 years. Or why opiate and benzo abuse has reached crisis proportions. Why we lose it at someone who is a little slower than us on the road. I could go on pretty much endlessly.

      Things are slowly changing. Sam Harris' book 'Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion' was a bestseller. Yuval Harari devotes an entire chapter of his book 'Sapiens' to the study of happiness, and warns how we are in danger of becoming techno-gods who don't know who we are or what we want. It just should have happened a long time ago.

    2. Generally agree that the scientific study of happiness is not very well developed. Maybe things like the World Happiness Report - will encourage country-level competition to improve citizen happiness - or maybe not.

      The 1960s psychedelic clampdown was indeed a massive scientific disaster for psychology - as well as for many individual users.

      Buddhism is interesting. However, I am concerned that it was used historically as a means of keeping poor populations happy and stemming what would otherwise have been revolutions. Religions often get bent into tools for manipulation of the masses, and Buddhism does not seem to have escaped this fate.

    3. And I just wanted to add, I hope I don't come across as combative - I just rarely find people who are genuinely interested in engaging at this level with me regarding this subject matter.

      And I appreciate your recognition that the clampdown on psychedelics was a massive disaster for psychology. IMO it was by far the single worst mistake medicine has ever made. I liken it to astronomy magically being handed the Hubble telescope in completed form in 1800, and then putting it in storage for 200 years.

      To roughly paraphrase one scientist, "I can't think of any other area of scientific research that was stopped because it was deemed 'too dangerous'. Maybe germ and chemical warfare. But I doubt even that research was stopped."

    4. Telescopes look outwards. It is true that they are cosmic and awesome, but I think for psychedelics you really want an inward-looking metaphor - more like a microscope.

  5. Yes, Buddhism became politicized just like every other religion - although much less so than the monotheistic religions. Did it truly suppress what would otherwise have been revolutions? In most cases, I don't think so - at least, not without mixing in many other factors, including more powerful ones, in historically Buddhist societies.

    Regardless, if you separate the wheat from the chaff, Buddhism has a lot of truly profound things to say about reality and the mind. And there were various Buddhist sects historically that were not overly concerned with politics - or a god, or an afterlife.

    Modern Western Buddhism is largely agnostic. It is now combining with psychology, neuroscience and technology to form a powerful synergy which I believe could eventually profoundly affect human happiness.

    I worry that atheists are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater by applying blanket statements to vast and complex wisdom traditions and therefore feeling able to safely dismiss them. After 15 years in Buddhism, I have found the truth is far more complicated - and fascinating.

    1. I like Buddhism. I guess my other main criticism of it is that it competes to some extent with yoga for mindshare, and yoga more comprehensively addresses the whole body, which seems to be an overall positive to me.

      Many atheists irrationally dismiss wisdom traditions and along with traditional medicine. Not all atheists, though: a counter example is Sam Harris, who you already mentioned.