A collection of essays by Bill (website@ccjj.info) accompanied by feedback from his friends.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Report: "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blank Slate"

The Selfish Gene - by Richard Dawkins
The Blank Slate - by Steven Pinker

The Selfish Gene, written in the mid-70's, is a detailed essay by a biologist about evolution, particularly discussing animal behavior. Dawkins' writing comes across as very intelligent while at the same time very accessible. I have believed in evolution since I was old enough to understand it, and the analysis made felt like second nature to me, except that Dawkins, being a biologist, can discuss the matter in much more detail. Dawkins talks at length about how altruism and kindness can be evolved traits. The whole book is a delight.
But at the end of the book, I was left asking myself why Dawkins didn't make the next step and start talking about how genetic incentives influence human behavior. When I read The Blank Slate I found out the answer.

Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate, is enthusiastic about the field of Evolutionary Psychology, formerly known as Sociobiology, and he is furious about the political lynching the socio biologists received at the hands of the academic left in the '70's. In this book he talks primarily about two false dogmas that dominated academia during the 20th century: the myth of the noble savage, and the dogma that all human behavior is culturally, and not genetically, determined. Dawkins was right at the boundaries of sociobiology, and he caught some of the flak, but had he talked much about evolution and human behavior, he would have paid dearly.

To change gears a little, I never really understood why the Catholic church was so threatened by Galileo's assertion that the Earth traveled around the Sun. Pinker gives us some context. For one thing, there were some literal statements in the Bible, like Joshua ordering the sun to stand still (but that could just mean Joshua successfully stopped the Earth's rotation). But Pinker clarifies:
"According to the theory, developed in medieval times, the sphere of the moon divided the universe into an unchanging perfection in the heavens above and a corrupt degeneration in the Earth below... Surrounding the moon were spheres for the inner planets, the sun, the outer planets, and the fixed stars, each cranked by a higher angel. And surrounding them all were the heavens, home to God. Contained with the sphere of the moon, and thus a little lower than the angels, were human souls, and then, in descending order, human bodies, animals..., and then plants, minerals, the inanimate elements, nine layers of devils, and finally, at the center of the Earth, Lucifer in hell. The universe was thus arranged in a hierarchy, a great chain of being.
The Great Chain was thick with moral implications".
I wondered why the church made up all this crap when they had no idea what they were talking about. The answer is obvious -- religions have been doing that since day one. The telescope had not been invented, it did not occur to these people that their assertions could be tested and even discredited. Furthermore, the church controlled intellectual life, so they could oppress anyone who challenged their assertions, which is exactly what they wound up doing to Galileo.
The moral dimension is central here. When you're making a theme of the cosmos to sell to the masses, it is easy to fall into the temptation of making sure the story has a moral ending, a conclusion that will lead people to live moral lives. And once such a dogma is in place, anyone like Galileo who wants to challenge it is no longer just talking about the trajectories of big rocks, he's undermining the moral foundations of society and must be attacked, discredited, and oppressed by any means available.
Similarly, the political left in academia made up a bunch of dogmas about genetics and human nature out of thin air -- they did not research the matter carefully, but asserted their dogmas as a matter of political fashion, and based a whole set of moral conclusions and planned social policies upon them. Once these ideas were established, they defended them by vicious personal attacks on anyone who actually did some research into what the truth was.

Pinker is a major intellectual giant, he has read many of the great thinkers through the centuries, he takes us on a whirlwind tour of anthropology and psychology through recent centuries, and the things he comes up with are impressive:

On Noble Savages
"The begin with, the stories of tribes out there somewhere who have never heard of violence turn out to be urban legends. Margaret Mead's descriptions of peace-loving New Guineans and sexually nonchalant Samoans were based on perfunctory research and turned out to be almost perversely wrong. As the anthropologist Derek Freeman later documented, Samoans may beat or kill their daughters if they are not virgins on the wedding night, a young man who cannot woo a virgin may rape one to extort her into eloping, and the family of a cuckolded husband may attack and kill the adulterer. The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert had been described by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as "the harmless people" in a book with that title. But as soon as anthropologists camped out long enough to accumulate data, they discovered that the !Kung San have a murder rate higher than that of American inner cities. They learned as well that the San had recently avenged a murder by sneaking into the killer's group and executing every man, woman, and child as they slept. But at least the !Kung San exist. In the early 1970's The New York Times Magazine reported the discovery of the "gentle Tasaday" of the Philippine rain forest, a people with no words for conflict, violence, or weapons. The Tasaday turned out to be local farmers dressed in leaves for a photo opportunity so that cronies of Ferdinand Marcos could set aside their "homeland" as a preserve and enjoy exclusive mineral and logging rights.
Anthropologists and historians have also been counting bodies. Many intellectuals tout the small numbers of battlefield casualties in pre-state societies as evidence that primitive warfare is largely ritualistic. They do not notice that two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million deaths in a country the size of the US."
Pinker then shows a chart of various primitive societies and the rates of male deaths caused by war, and notes that while in the US and Europe in the 20th century, including deaths in WWI and WWII, the deaths are about 2%, while deaths in the tribes listed ranged from 10-60%, with an average of about 30%. In addition, Pinker adds
"Moreover, Keeley and others have noted that native peoples are dead serious when they carry out warfare. Many of them make weapons as damaging as their technology permits, exterminate their enemies when they can get away with it, and enhance the experience by torturing captives, cutting off trophies, and feasting on enemy flesh."
Pinker mentions that Edward Wilson, the author of Sociobiology, remarked that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory, and was criticized for this when the "against-socio biologists declared that this had been 'strongly rebutted on the basis of historical and anthropological studies'" - Pinker looked up these "studies" and found "the reviews contained virtually no data about tribal warfare".
Steven Jay Gould, the great evolutionist, came out against the socio biologists, and was hostile to any attempt to analyze warfare in terms of evolutionary motives because, as he said "each case of genocide can be matched with numerous incidents of social beneficence, each murderous band can be paired with a pacific clan.". Pinker answers "once again, a ratio has been conjured out of the blue; the data reviewed in chapter 3 show that 'pacific clans' either do not exist or are considerably outnumbered by the 'murderous bands.'"

On The Blank Slate
Pinker discusses the studies that can be done and that have been done, keeping track of identical twins raised together, identical twins raised apart, siblings raised together, siblings raised apart, unrelated adopted siblings raised together, and unrelated individuals raised separately, and with these studies, one can get a very good idea of the contribution that genetics and family will make on intelligence and personality. Family environment can affect intelligence measured when a child is young, but the influence decreases. I had heard the same thing elsewhere, that the intelligence of a young child will tend toward that of its adopted family, but as it nears adulthood, its intelligence converges on that of its biological parents.
Pinker says "The three laws of behavioral genetics may be the most important discoveries in the history of psychology.... Here are the three laws:
  • The First Law: All human behavioral traits are heritable.
  • The Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
  • The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families."
Pinker goes on to tell us it is really amazing how little impact the family has on the child. He estimates the genetic contribution being 40-50%, the family contribution 0-10%, and the random, or at least so far unexplained, contribution is about 50%.
There are many, many studies that show correlations between how children are raised and how they turn out, but it turns out that most of these researchers were so certain of the dogma of The Blank Slate that they only studied children being raised by their biological parents, so all they were really observing was the genetic component!
Pinker goes on"The First Law is a pain in the neck for radical scientists, who have tried unsuccessfully to discredit it. In 1974, Leon Kamin wrote that 'there exist no data which should lead a prudent man to accept the hypothesis that IQ test scores are in any degree heritable', a conclusion he reiterated with Lewontin and Rose a decade later. Even in the 1970's the argument was tortuous, but by the 1980's it was desperate and today it is a historical curiosity. As usual, the attacks have not always come in dispassionate scholarly analyzes. Thomas Bouchard, who directed the first large-scale study of twins reared apart, is one of the pioneers of the genetics of personality. Campus activists at the University of Minnesota distributed handouts calling him a racist and linking him to 'German Fascism,' spray-painted slogans calling him a Nazi, and demanded that he be fired. The psychologist Barry Mehler accused him of 'rehabilitating' the work of Josef Mengele, the doctor who tormented twins in the Nazi death camps under the guise of research. As usual, the charges were unfair not just intellectually but personally: far from being a fascist, Bouchard was a participant in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960's, was briefly jailed for his activism, and says he would do it again today.
These attacks are transparently political and easy to discount. More pernicious is the way the First Law is commonly interpreted: 'So you're saying it's all in the genes," or, more angrily, "Genetic determinism!" I have already commented on this odd reflex in modern intellectual life: when it comes to genes, people suddenly lose their ability to distinguish between 50% and 100%, 'some' from 'all', 'affects' from 'determines'. The diagnosis for this intellectual crippling is clear: if the effects of the genes must, on theological grounds, be zero, then all nonzero values are heretical."

Other Dogmas
Pinker really despises the political movement called "Post modernism", which is a very politically correct belief system. His first chapter discussing this belief system is titled "In Touch with Reality". He says
"With some important exceptions, stereotypes are in fact not inaccurate when assessed against objective benchmarks such as census figures or the reports of the stereotyped people themselves. People who believe that African Americans are more likely to be on welfare than whites, that Jews have higher average income than WASPs, that business students are more conservative than students in the arts, that women are more likely than men to want to lose weight, and that men are more likely than women to swat a fly with their bare hands, are not being irrational or bigoted. Those beliefs are correct. People's stereotypes are generally consistent with the statistics, and in many cases their bias is to underestimate the real differences between sexes or ethnic groups."
Regarding the passion that the politically correct have for arbitrarily changing the vocabulary we're allowed to use (without the general population being given a chance to vote on the matter), he comments on how "Even the word minority -- the most neutral label conceivable, referring only to relative numbers -- was banned in 2001 by the San Diego City Council (and nearly banned by the Boston City Council) because it was deemed disparaging to nonwhites. 'No matter how you slice it, minority means less than,' said a semantically challenged official at Boston College, where the preferred term is AHANA (an acronym for African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American)."

There is a whole chapter about politics that is fascinating. Identical twins separated at birth have a tendency to have similar political views.
Pinker describes two fundamental views of human beings, the "Tragic Vision" and the "Utopian vision". In the tragic vision, people are seen not as bad, but as inherently selfish, and also quite corruptible. In the Utopian Vision, humans are a blank slate that society can mold into any form necessary. Given either of these two assumptions, a whole set of political positions follows, and the chapter sheds plenty of light on many issues.

There is so much great stuff in this book I can hardly cover it all, but it is basically a summary of how academic progress in anthropology, psychology, and even the fine arts in the 20th century was stifled by the political left.

The priests of different religious sects ... dread the advancement of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl upon the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.
Thomas Jefferson, quoted by
Richard Dawkins

The aftermath of the Galileo episode is still with us, and the consequence is that many clergy have learned that it's not their place to tell scientists what is true and what is not. The debacle with the Post Modernists is still going on, but I predict that in the end they, too, will learn that political ideologues also have no legitimate role in deciding which scientific statements are valid and which are not.


  1. "On Aggression" by Conrad Lorenz corroborates/explains a lot of this. I didn't acctually read "Selfish Gene" but as soon as I read the phrase I realized that those two words explained and confirmed much of what I had learned about life.

  2. PS: Just to clarify: "life" in my previous comment means ALL of life, from bacteria to H. sapiens.

  3. I think the phrase "the selfish gene" is about the fact that the gene uses the lifeform to replicate itself -- the lifeform is the means, the gene is the end.