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Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong 
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Post Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
It is extraordinary that even after 150 years or so, we still have not fully integrated our view of mankind with Darwin's new universe. Much still needs to be done, and Pinker has eloquently and capably taken a huge step in this direction, in "The Blank Slate". It is the third of Pinker's books I have read and in my opinion the best yet.

The three targets of his attack are "the blank slate", "the noble savage" and the "ghost in the machine". Speaking very broadly this triad of views can be thought to have been based on pre-Darwinian ideas, which seem less (if at all) valid today.

Given what I have said in this post and others, there are many writers whom I would feel very much happier about criticising than Steven Pinker, but I think there is one further step in Darwinian thinking that Pinker seems reluctant to take.

I hope Professor Pinker will forgive me if I use one of his more famous remarks to illustrate my point: he has chosen not to have children and he has argued that he has defied his genes by making this choice. He famously remarked that if his genes wanted him to have children they could "go jump in the lake". While I agree that we do have free will and we can chose not to do what our genes "want" us to do I think that the reach of our genes is probably further than even he usually thinks.

My point is that - put simply - we respond to elements in our environment in either positive or negative ways. For example: babies respond positively when they suck on a teat or the nipple; or we are attracted to members of the opposite sex (or same-sex partners depending on our sexual orientation) by a strong positive subjective or emotional response. The non-rational nature of responses like this, together with other reasons, (I won't go into greater detail here) suggest that they are hard-wired, genetically moderated, modules of the mind, of the kind he proposes in his earlier books.

Therefore I would argue that if Steven Pinker's particular genetic make up made him respond more powerfully to round faces with high foreheads, big eyes and cherub lips, and made him more inclined to go gooey at the sound of a chuckling infant, then his decision about having children might have been different. This might seem a crude argument as, of course, these are not the only reasons for having a family, but, if you think about it, every decision we ever make has to be predicated on some subjective or emotional response to something in our environment. And although I agree formative influences must have a huge role to play - for example, someone might be brought up in an environment where their infant responses are redirected towards baby animals



Fri Jul 25, 2003 12:28 pm
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
I would go one further. It will actually be "below the human horizon" that will create the future human landscape in the long run. For the past 200 years, natural selection had little say in the human gene pool. Large diversity is on display. But beginning with serious distribution of contraceptives and education to use them, a new selective pressure is bearing down on the human gene pool.

This is why I disagree with Pinker's statement on page 16, paragraph 2, "We realize that no mandarin is wise enough to be entrusted with directing the evolution of the species, and that it is wrong in any case for the government to interfere with such a personal decision as having a child."

The gene pool type A that is suseptible to usage of contraception will diminish over time. The gene pool type B that stubornly refuses the use of contraception is increasing.

Characteristics of type A: Generally intelligent and forward looking. If given opportunity, will invest in education and betterment of economic standards and accumilation of wealth that is not watered down after death by division onto limited number of offspring.

Characteristics of type B: Generally attracted to religions or philosopy that justify and/or encourage large families. Generally attracted to rapid increase of wealth to feed many mouths with the least amount of education (hard work, free enterprize, car salesman, con-artist). Wealth is watered down after being passed on to so many offspring.

Societal results: Ever increasing gap between rich and poor, educated and the non-educated, and eventual separation of the classes. There will be the super intelligent elite, and a dangerously hugh masses of poor unintelligent desparate people, ripe for a revolution.

Revolt: Destruction of civilization and invitation to barbarism.

Natural Selection will then have more than birth control to began its selective pressures.




Mon Jul 28, 2003 4:52 pm
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
Meme Wars

I think the role of natural selection in modern populations is intriguing and well worth discussing. But with the obvious caveat that it is probably entirely academic because any selective effects would have to be maintained over a very long period of time to have any effect and society is unlikely to undergo any significant change, due to Darwinian evolution, during any one lifetime.

It follows that any changes due to technological or cultural evolution are bound to have a much bigger and more unpredictable effect than Darwinian evolution: who would have anticipated the appearance of contraceptives 100 or 200 years ago. So I think it's unsafe to try and anticipate how evolution might proceed in future. However that does not prelude identifying possible selective effects post hoc - i.e. changes that may have happened during historical time.

Another difficulty (or as I see it - tantalising challenge) is what I call in my book "the wilderness of mirrors" problem: knowing whether an effect you think you see is really there. This is the idea that for most evolutionary effects one can think of there is usually a balancing effect which could mitigate, cancel or even reverse any putative effect.

Your idea has the balancing argument that people who are more religious might be more inclined to fight and die for their religion. The absolutely extraordinary and fascinating effect of the Roman Catholic religion is that if you are strongly religious and aren't very bright you will end up with lots of children, but if you are very religious and clever enough to get in a seminary you end up celibate.

Some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that clever people might have more children because they are better able to communicate and find partners. They think this might be part of the reason why humans are so much more intelligent than they need to be merely to outwit predators and prey. If there is a correlation between intelligence and "charm" then this effect might be continuing. (Strictly speaking this is sexual selection - not natural selection.)

Whether or not this is true, I don't find the arguments (of Steven Rose and Steve Jones for example) that evolution has effectively stopped for humans to be very persuasive.




Fri Aug 01, 2003 3:48 am
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
PeterDF:

The process of Evolution can be very rapid when there is a dramatic change in the environment. Example: Elephants with tusks are being eliminated. Fifty years ago, an extremely low population of elephants were born with no tusks. After the last fifty years of decimation, there is now something like 10 to 25% of elephants born with no tusks. This is extremely dramatic. At this rate, within a human life span, all that will be left are elephants with no tusks, since the ones that do have them are often killed before they have the chance to parent offspring. The Black Plague and aids will have the same effect on man, but will take considerably longer.

On intelligence: When there was selective pressure, intelligence meant the difference between life and death for survival. Yes, sexual selection was there, but it was the random acts of choice of females. Those females predisposed to not choose intelligence were reduced from the gene pool due to unsuccessful offspring.

Today, that is not the case. Civilization pretty much guarantees all will survive. Less intelligent people compensate by having more children as their chance for survival is less, but in today's world those rules don't apply. On the reverse side, intelligent people are having no children or very few. So we now have the opposite selective pressure on humanity.

Monty Vonn
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Sun Aug 03, 2003 2:07 pm
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
Monty

Sorry for the delay in responding I've been away for a few days.

Quote:
The process of Evolution can be very rapid when there is a dramatic change in the environment.


Agreed! A similar effect was noted in Britain when the size of Red Deer antlers seemed to be getting shorter as a result of the best stags being shot to be hung on the walls of stately homes. But evolution happens very slowly in large populations, and I still think if changes were to take place in massive populations like the human one. the selective effects would have large and be sustained over a long period.

Quote:
sexual selection was there, but it was the random acts of choice of females.


It would be wrong to underestimate the role of sexual selection: just think about the absurdity of the peacock's tail. When I first heard that scientists were proposing that the (absurd?) level of human intelligence might be due to sexual selection I was skeptical at first, but when you think that we are way, way more intelligent than any prey/predator species it suggests that competition within our species might be more important.

Quote:
intelligent people are having no children or very few. So we now have the opposite selective pressure on humanity.


Agreed! I think there must be a selective effect but for this to make any significant difference I would want to be sure that it wasn't just a cultural change - like the length of women's skirts - and that it wasn't likely to be influenced by other changes such as improvements in reproductive medicine which might make couples able to have children later in life.
There is also the balancing force of the "charm" effect - we are still in the wilderness of mirrors.




Sat Aug 09, 2003 5:20 am
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
Your two types simply do not encompass the range of humanity on the issue of procreation. Here in southern NM, there are many, many poor people (the majority being hispanic and Catholic) who, though educated at best through highschool, have chosen to limit the number of their offspring. Many -- and I have talked about this with them -- have done so for very simple economic reasons: they work for wages at or just above the minimum wage and do not have expectations of making substantial wage gains. I know several single moms who work two jobs just to be able to pay the rent and buy food for their child (with abuela watching over the child while mom's at work). We are slipping into barbarity by allowing so many of our population continue living at a subsistence level. I also know several people here who are well-educated and make very good incomes -- who have chosen (I think foolishly) to have 4 or more children, not always for religious reasons. One mother of 4 told me she just goes "ga-ga" at the sight of an infant.

You are right in suggesting an ever increasing gap in incomes (or, more accurately, wealth) in this society. There are many reasons for that, and they are not because of excessive procreation: the wealthy in a capatalistic society inevitably begin to concentrate their wealth by their influence on legislation (the recent tax cuts, especially the estate -- "death" -- taxes immediately spring to mind). And in the current case in the US, this benefits some that we might agree are not especially bright but who have inherited wealth or social standing (Richard Mellon Scaife, George W. Bush).

I doubt that the underclass in this country could ever mount a revolution, since their situation is so desperate (low wages, no health insurance, little hope). People who have little hope (as Crane Brinton noted in his book of long ago, The Anatomy of Revolution)are not likely to foment revolution. Of course, there are some exceptions to this notion (e.g.,the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mex.). If there comes a revolution, it just might be against those who fancy themselves intelligent but aren't by those who think themselves ignorant and stupid but aren't. I don't know what any of this might have to do with evolution.

One comment on Pinker's book that's not related to the above: he writes well, makes quite good arguments, is clearly well-read on a wide range of topics (not having children makes that a lot likelier), and puts the lie to the canard that evolutionary psychology and the rejection of the blank slate are reactionary and illiberal. His chapter on Politics, though, is a bit breezy and facile. I was hoping for an exploration more into the genetic/neurological evidence supporting his central thesis.




Sat Aug 09, 2003 11:12 pm
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
rielmajr

Thanks for reminding us that there are real and hugely important issues that humankind need to deal with outside of our little world of intellectual theorising.

I agree that there might be localised pockets where selective effects might be reversed.

There seems to be a paucity of books about human evolution which could guide our understanding of what is really happening. This might be because it is such a wilderness of mirrors - scientists either cop out and deny it altogether (like Rose and Jones) or maintain a skeptical distance (I suspect Pinker and Dawkins are probably in this group).

One exception is Christopher Wills who wrote a book called "Children of Prometheus". He makes a very good case that there have been localised changes in the morphology of some people since we came out of Africa. (ie the barrel chests and large lungs of people who live at high altitudes) and distribution of disease resistance (sickle cell anaemia etc). His view was that mankind was getting more intelligent. The real problem with his book was that he started with a hypothesis (man is getting more intelligent) and looked for evidence to support it instead of looking at the evidence and developing a hypothesis from the evidence. He certainly failed to convince me that we are getting more intelligent.

We humans seem obsessed with intelligence. I think it is probably just too close to call to determine whether there have been changes to this aspect of our nature although I think that the "charm" effect has a solid ring to it.

There are other aspects our behaviour such as in group/out group behaviour which I think might be visible to natural selection, and I have made the case in my book that I think that there might indeed be changes in gene frequency, because people who are more inclined to see them selves as nationalistic might be more inclined to die during times of war.




Mon Aug 11, 2003 3:34 am
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
I have a hard time believing that much physical evolution is occurring for human beings. In fact, the modern world -- with its global interconnectedness and concomitant mixing and mingling among all peoples -- militates against it.

To begin with, we are such a small species, as Pinker notes. I have been aware for some time that our kind were reduced dramatically some 100,000 years ago, giving precious little time for divergence. The aborigines of Australia were separated from the rest of humankind for some 40-60 thousand years, but when others came to Australia there was no problem in procreating.

I think you are completely correct about our obsession with intelligence. But it is our natural weapon, and I think we're programmed to focus on it. In one of Pinker's other books, How the Mind Works, he noted that human beings had effectively taken possession of the cognitive niche, which has made it impossible for other animals to develop -- evolve -- defenses against us: evolution is just too slow to cope with our big brains and our invention of culture. But what amazes me that, given how little the species varies genetically, we place great importance on differences (pathological individuation, I guess) and like to crow about our IQ being higher than someone elses, when the real significance of the distinction really makes no difference.

Thanks for tolerating this babbling.




Mon Aug 11, 2003 11:28 pm
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
Quote:
Thanks for tolerating this babbling.

It isn't babbling - you are bringing up points we can discuss.
Quote:
I have a hard time believing that much physical evolution is occurring for human beings. In fact, the modern world -- with its global interconnectedness and concomitant mixing and mingling among all peoples -- militates against it.

If there are any innate behavioural attributes shared by all humans (there obviously are) and if the presence of those attributes cause some people to disproportionately fail to pass on their genes to the next generation, then selection is taking place. If this is maintained over a sufficient period of time, gene frequencies will change - and evolution will have happened.

I think that our species would have been well adapted to living on the Pleistocene savanna. Some of those adaptations might not be appropriate to us in the modern world, so I think evolution will almost certainly be happening the trick is identifying real selective effects in the wilderness of mirrors.
Quote:
our kind were reduced dramatically some 100,000 years ago,

You are right that this would have limited the genetic variability initially, but cheetahs also have a very homogeneous genetic make up and no one would suggest that they could not evolve on that basis.

The fact that our species display different skin colours, and other racial differences shows that adaptive change has happened in human populations in the past, although I accept that global interchange of genes might well lead to mixing-out
of these particular traits.

Edited by: PeterDF at: 8/13/03 3:36 pm



Wed Aug 13, 2003 2:30 pm
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Post Sexual Selection
I Agree that sexual selection is powerful and in fact my statement agrees with you. I was merely showing the mechanism of sexual selection.

Female selection is a random mutation just like any other characteristic. The environment selects which of the random female choices that enhance the survival of the female genes. Hence an appearance that females are selecting better fitness of their genes through male manipulation such as peacock feathers that display the fitness of the male; the male MUST be fit to survive such an outrageous display, therefore has good genes to pass on to female. Females who chose the small pathetic male with little to display decrease the probability of her offspring's genes' survival. Hence, her genetic method of choosing over time is selected out.

Monty Vonn




Fri Aug 15, 2003 5:08 am
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Post Re: Sexual Selection
Monty

Agreed! Sorry if I misunderstood.

Coincidentally I was in a little bookshop in Kendal today and I bought a book about this very subject: "The Mating Mind" By Geoffrey Miller. According to the blurb on the jacket it is about how sexual selection might have influenced the development of the human mind. I'll let you know what I think.




Fri Aug 15, 2003 3:22 pm
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
Sean

I hadn't realised there was anyone else in the forum from this neck of the woods:D . We are in Barrow where are you?

Yes I will be up at 3.00 am for the Pinker chat it is in my diary and I'm going to arrange that I don't have anything important on the next morning.

I don't agree that evolutionary pressure is lacking in modern populations. Think about someone who is very unusual in appearance - do you think such a person would have an equal chance of finding a partner and passing on their genes?

Selective pressure might not lead to adaptive change he pressure might act to maintain the status quo. (Stabilising selection)




Sun Aug 24, 2003 8:17 am
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
Peter, is your book in print? ISBN?


Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system. It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived. E.O.Wilson




Sun Aug 24, 2003 9:49 am
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
Jeremy

No! I haven't submitted it to an agent yet. I've had no feedback from the scientific community yet on the issues I have approached them about. There is also some reworking I want to do.

I wouldn't mind emailing it to you in return for comments though.

BTW thanks for the suggestion about "The Runaway Brain". It sounds as if I should definately read this. It has gone to the top of my list.




Sun Aug 24, 2003 11:41 am
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Post Re: Why Steven Pinker is right - and where he is wrong
Sure, I'd love to take a look. Jeremy1952@charter.net


Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system. It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived. E.O.Wilson




Sun Aug 24, 2003 9:03 pm
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Le GuinThe Genius of the Beast by Howard BloomAlice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Empire of Illusion by Chris HedgesThe Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner The Extended Phenotype by Richard DawkinsSmoke and Mirrors by Neil GaimanThe Selfish Gene by Richard DawkinsWhen Good Thinking Goes Bad by Todd C. RinioloHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. DanielewskiAmerican Gods: A Novel by Neil GaimanPrimates and Philosophers by Frans de WaalThe Enormous Room by E.E. CummingsThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher HitchensThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama Paradise Lost by John Milton Bad Money by Kevin PhillipsThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson BurnettGodless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan BarkerThe Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienThe Limits of Power by Andrew BacevichLolita by Vladimir NabokovOrlando by Virginia Woolf On Being Certain by Robert A. Burton50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy P. HarrisonWalden: Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David ThoreauExile and the Kingdom by Albert CamusOur Inner Ape by Frans de WaalYour Inner Fish by Neil ShubinNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThe Age of American Unreason by Susan JacobyTen Theories of Human Nature by Leslie Stevenson & David HabermanHeart of Darkness by Joseph ConradThe Stuff of Thought by Stephen PinkerA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HosseiniThe Lucifer Effect by Philip ZimbardoResponsibility and Judgment by Hannah ArendtInterventions by Noam ChomskyGodless in America by George A. RickerReligious Expression and the American Constitution by Franklyn S. HaimanDeep Economy by Phil McKibbenThe God Delusion by Richard DawkinsThe Third Chimpanzee by Jared DiamondThe Woman in the Dunes by Abe KoboEvolution vs. Creationism by Eugenie C. ScottThe Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanI, Claudius by Robert GravesBreaking The Spell by Daniel C. DennettA Peace to End All Peace by David FromkinThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerThe End of Faith by Sam HarrisEnder's Game by Orson Scott CardThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonValue and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik J. WielenbergThe March by E. L DoctorowThe Ethical Brain by Michael GazzanigaFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan JacobyCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared DiamondThe Battle for God by Karen ArmstrongThe Future of Life by Edward O. WilsonWhat is Good? by A. C. GraylingCivilization and Its Enemies by Lee HarrisPale Blue Dot by Carl SaganHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael ShermerLooking for Spinoza by Antonio DamasioLies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al FrankenThe Red Queen by Matt RidleyThe Blank Slate by Stephen PinkerUnweaving the Rainbow by Richard DawkinsAtheism: A Reader edited by S.T. JoshiGlobal Brain by Howard BloomThe Lucifer Principle by Howard BloomGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Demon-Haunted World by Carl SaganBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownFuture Shock by Alvin Toffler

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