[Notable New Media]
by Kenneth W. Krause.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most contemporary scientists, according to Harvard University experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker, have abandoned both the nineteenth-century belief in biology as destiny and the twentieth-century doctrine that the human mind begins as a “blank slate.” In his new anthology, Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles (Oxford 2015), Pinker first reminds us of the now-defunct blank slate’s political and moral appeal: “If nothing in the mind is innate,” he chides, “then differences among races, sexes, and classes can never be innate, making the blank slate the ultimate safeguard against racism, sexism, and class prejudice.”
Even so, certain angry ideologues, for example, continue to wallow in blank slate dogma. Gender differences in STEM professions, for example, are often attributed entirely to prejudice and hidden barriers. The mere possibility that women, on average, are less interested than men in people-free pursuits remains oddly “unspeakable,” says Pinker (but see a recent exception here). The point, he clarifies, is not that we know for certain that evolution and genetics are relevant to explaining so-called “underrepresentation” in high-end science and math, but that “the mere possibility is often treated as an unmentionable taboo, rather than as a testable hypothesis.”
A similar exception to the general rule centers around parenting and the behavior of children. It may be true that parents who spank raise more violent children, and that more conversant parents produce children with better language skills. But why does “virtually everyone” conclude from such facts that the parent’s behavior causes that of the child? “The possibility that the correlations may rise from shared genes is usually not even mentioned, let alone tested,” says Pinker.
Equally untenable for the author is the now-popular academic doctrine he dubs “holistic interactionism” (HI). Carrying a “veneer of moderation [and] conceptual sophistication,” says Pinker, HI is based on a few “unexceptional points,” including the facts that nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive and that genes cannot cause behavior directly. But we should confront this doctrine with heightened scrutiny, according to Pinker, because “no matter how complex the interaction is, it can be understood only by identifying the components and how they interact.” HI “can stand in the way of such an understanding,” he warns, “by dismissing any attempt to disentangle heredity and environment as uncouth.”
HI mistakenly assumes, for example, that hereditary cannot constrain behavior because genes depend critically on the environment. “To begin with,” says Pinker, “it is simply not true that any gene can have any effect in some environment, with the implication that we can always design an environment to produce whatever outcome we value.” And even if some extreme “gene-reversing” environment can be imagined, it simply doesn’t follow that “the ordinary range of environments will [even] modulate that trait, [or that] the environment can explain the nature of the trait.” The mere existence of environmental mitigations, in other words, does not render the effects of genes inconsequential. To the contrary, Pinker insists, “genes specify what kinds of environmental manipulations will have what kinds of effects and with what costs.”
Although the postmodernists and social constructionists who tend to dominate humanities departments in American Universities especially, continue to tout HI as a supposedly nuanced means of comprehending the nature-nurture debate, it is in truth little more than a pseudo-intellectual “dodge,” Pinker concludes: a convenient means to “evade fundamental scientific problems because of their moral, emotional, and political baggage.”
Among intellectually honest, truly curious, and consistently rational thinkers (a diminutive demographic indeed), Pinker’s reputation is and has long stood as something perhaps just short of heroic, in no small part due to his defense of politically incorrect but nonetheless scientifically viable hypotheses. What a shame it is that only academics of similar status (and tenure) can safely rise and demand the freedom required to mount such defenses. And what a tragedy that so few in such privileged company actually do.