Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sex and Steven Pinker

I am currently enjoying a well-written and wide-ranging book, The Blank Slate (2002), by the polymathic Steven Pinker.  The term blank slate, a translation of Latin tabula rasa (which itself is used in English in the same sense) refers to the style of thesis that minimizes our innate propensities, and which appears as an ingredient in such styles of thought as Lockean associationism, Watsonian behaviorism, neuroscientific reductionism, and empiricism of all stripes.   
My own field of graduate study, linguistics, became a rich and crucial testing-ground of the behaviorist hypothesis, beginning with Noam Chomsky’s trouncing of B.F.Skinner’s Verbal Behavior.   Roughly the past half-century has been a time of tremendous ferment in linguistics, yielding fierce debate and increasingly deep investigations.   And what leavened the whole is that Chomsky himself, beneath all the new and interesting technical apparatus  which he introduced  and which at first was all that the still-clueless linguistics community could perceive (I don’t mean clueless generally -- all very smart people, just not clued-in to the actual agenda of this new way of thought) -- Chomsky himself was a man with a mission, of a philosophical rather than a technical sort.   The externals of his proposals have changed drastically over time, but the programmatic core has continued unbroken.

This is not the place to rehearse the old arguments, for the point at hand is not linguistic but rather sociopolitical.    You start with a subject as unsexy, unresonant, un-headlinegrabbing  as grammar:  picture schoolchildren parsing sentences on dusty blackboards.  Nothing to do with sex, or race, or gender (in the contemporary sense -- gender in the grammatical sense is as exciting as intransitive verbs); nothing to do with religion, or politics, or aesthetics, or football, or much of anything that people battle over.  Which means you can proceed whithersoever experiment, analysis, and logic take you, without constantly watching your back.   All the present reader needs to take away from this episode  is that, movitated simply by the then-novel idea that the positing of substantive innate structure is not forbidden in advance (that’s all we need), some extraordinarily sophisticated and revealing new research was carried out, and much was discovered about phenomena whose very existence we did not previously suspect.   Much dust was raised and some of it has settled;  it is unimportant that we assess just how the pendula presently hang in this or that aspect of the battles, all we need stress it that no-one who lived through this will sit still for an a-priori pronouncement that everything is just conditioning, or politics, or patriarchal conspiracy.

Now, Pinker’s original field was child language-learning, and he moved in the milieu where the Chomskyan legacy was strongest.   But his intellectual interests range far beyond this.  So imagine the quandary when, peeking over the parapets of the Chomskyan fortified compound, he perceives a world in which -- while we were off arguing whether something like the A-over-A principle could be innate or whether it was just an artifact of a deeper parametrized anlage -- the world at large has been mindknapped by the pod-people,  in unison chanting the orthodoxy that, while Diversity is the supreme value, nobody is actually, well, you know, any different

Pinker picks his way deftly and gingerly through this political minefield.  In the matter of gender, he alludes to differing degrees of leptokurtosis in the bell curves for certain faculties, by test-population, but refrains from drawing the obvious conclusions, mention of which got Larry Summers fired from his job as president of Harvard.   But finally he must confront the radical theses of the Postmodernists.

The fantasy of male-female interchangeability, unlike such equally far-fetched fantasies as, say, that of UFOs and anal probes, is empirically unstable, as it is likely to receive decisive refutation in daily life, for anyone who becomes a parent.   There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence on this score, from hippie/Quakerish/feminist mothers  who, try as they might, failed to keep their sons from turning into boys, and from researchers who track the apparently vast populations of identical-twins-separated-at-birth.  These tales are quite poignant and entertaining, but there is no need to repeat any of them here.  Our quarry lies elsewhere.

Well towards the end of his lengthy book, after  (so the author must hope) the more feeble-minded and hot-tempered readers have dropped out, Pinker devotes an entire chapter to the subject of sex, under its (post)modern label of “Gender”.   (“Race and Ethnicity”, as it is now known, does not likewise receive its own chapter, for obvious reasons.   The man is bold, but he is not a fool.)
He begins, as diplomatically he must, with various genuflections towards feminists, trotting out the names of a great many women writers and scientists,  and reminding us that in his own field of child language acquisition (though of course he has long since broadened beyond that)  women researchers are in the majority, all by way of prior propitiation.  But finally, on page 362, he cannot contain himself:

I believe that the rape-is-not-about-sex doctrine will go down in history as an example of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.  [Note:  He has borrowed this polemical phrase, not coined it.]  It is preposterous on the face of it, does not deserve its sanctity, is contradicted by a mass of evidence …

-- then suddenly draws back (already anticipating the wrath of the maenads) and retreats into P.C. piety, completes the paragraph with a bit of bushwah:

… and is getting in the way of the only morally relevant goal surrounding rape, the effort to stamp it out.

Does he really maintain that the heightened demonization of male sexuality and male aggression by gender-feminists  has led to laxer enforcement of the existing laws?   Of course not;  but he felt it politic to say so.

For someone schooled in Darwinian and game-theoretic analyses of behavior, it is child’s-play to address this issue:

Let’s also apply common sense to the doctrine that men rape to further the interests of their gender.  A rapist always risks injury at the hands of the woman defending herself.  In a traditional society, he risks torture, mutilation, and death at the hands of her relatives.  In a modern society, he risks a long prison term.  Are rapists really assuing these risks as an altruistic sacrifice to benefit the billions of strangers that make up the male gender?


By coincidence, I picked up Pinker’s chapter after reading an article in that week’s New Yorker,  concerning a celebrated rape-and-murder case.  A real legal cliff-hanger, never definitely resolved:  but what struck me was the actual crime itself.  Whoever dunnit, after raping the woman, he killed her -- killed her kids for good measure.

Now -- for analytic purposes, let us abstract away from the moral horror of the thing, and put it under the natural-selective microscope.  We begin with a cross-species -- nay, let us modernistically say, cross-cultural comparison. Mrs. Mantis, as is well-known, instead of a post-coital cigarette (which might stunt the fetuses, and which in any case is supremely evil  in and of itself) chows down instead on the head of her erstwhile Lothario.   Biologically, this makes abundant sense:  a wholesome meal when most needed (after all, she is now eating for hundreds) plus insuring that her swain will not now go tramping off (men !) knocking-up other Miss Mantises whose progeny would compete with her own.  The whole thing is so utterly logical that the wonder is it isn’t more widespread, among populations that follow Evolutionary Strategy Two (“male abandons, female nurtures”),  which we touched on here:  baby-daddies take heed.

So now consider our rapist/murderer.   He is a sort of Wrong-Way Corrigan of the struggle for survival of the fittest.  Whether or not rape is (as gender-feminists would have it) purely about dominance and not about sex, this particular crime  is glaringly inconsistent with Darwinian sex.   Killing the woman you just impregnated is -- well, we wouldn’t dream of being judgmental about such things, whatever turns you on and all that, but -- it is quite simply and unambiguously anti-selective.    What makes such a time-bomb tick, I do not know;  something indeed is amiss, somewhere in the human sexual mechanism  -- something broken, possibly by a Fall.  Here C.S.Lewis is a better diagnostician than is Darwin.


[Update Nov 2011:]  I just re-read the unusually tart and trenchant review of Pinker’s How the Mind Works  by Ahouse and Berwick, which appeared in The Boston Review a few years ago,  and happened upon this passage:

It is hollow bluster to talk about the selective advantage of sex in humans  if the traits we are discussing   evolved and became established long before the human lineage branched.

Ahouse and Berwick, like David Berlinski, are eloquent skeptics, not only of ultra-Darwinism (Gould’s “adaptationism”), but of aspects of more mainstream Darwinism as well.  And this, from a non-moron perspective (which is, of course, a minority view among Darwin-haters).

But in the next issue, Pinker blazes back in reply … It’s all quite exciting.  Much better than Indiana Jones.


[Update Dec 2011] Some cognitive aspects of Pinker’s waging the good fight on the battlefield of sex, here.

[Update June 2013]  Rather off at an angle, but hey -- Pinker, sex ...

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