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Pinker the Thinker


Reading this and this (America’s mass incarceration of African-Americans is part of the civilizing process!  Because only in the United States are people “sick” of violent crime!  And the fact that much of it is based on non-violent drug offenses is OK because you’ll catch some violence-prone people in the net!  And there’s a breakdown of the family going on completely independent of the mass incarceration of young African-American males!)  compels me to link to this Louis Menand classic.

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  • DrDick

    And I am sure that there is no connection between the fact that 1/9th of young black men is incarcerated and far more are under the supervision of the criminal justice system and the fact that almost twice as many of them are unemployed as for the nation as a whole.

  • simple mind

    Pinker has some comrades among the Libyan rebels: Libyan blacks are being rounding up, raped and forcibly expelled. (Via Corriere della Sera). And we thought they were the (koff) good guys.

  • simple mind

    Not to mention that predominately black town of Tawargha is burned to the ground.

  • pete

    Thanks for the link to Menand’s take-down, which is indeed classic:

    Pinker can write, in refutation of the scarecrow theory of violent behavior, “The sad fact is that despite the repeated assurances that ‘we know the conditions that breed violence,’ we barely have a clue,” and then, a few pages later, “It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers.” Well, that should give us one clue.

    • DrDick

      Well, that should give us one clue.

      Except if you are a conservative, as it runs counter to the dominant conservative ideology of the inherent racial inferiority of non-whites.

      • BigHank53

        Ideologues, by definition, are starting with an enormous clue deficit. A large number of clues have to be tossed into the hole to get their heads above ground level.

  • Daragh McDowell

    The table isn’t only incredibly stupid (Gee, I’m sure there’s SOME methodological problem with directly comparing a 1200 year trading relationship with a 6 year war…)it makes the implicit assertion that the violence of an act should be evaluated purely in the terms of the percentage of the population it kills rather than raw numbers, (or indeed an almost endless assortment of other kinds of ‘violence’ other than simple murder – Stalinist and Maoist totalitarianism had a wide means of persecuting and demoralising their people’s beyond simply annihilating them.) What dreck.

  • Popeye

    Holy cow, that Menand takedown is so dead-on.

    • The last five paragraphs, especially, are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Starting with “Jesus wept”….

      • pete

        This. Also, too. Yea, verily. Forsooth. Preach it, brother. The Virginia Woolf part alone … and I truly love his close:

        It would be nice if we could justify our choices by pointing silently to our genes. But we can’t. Our genes, unfortunately, are even stupider than we are.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I particularly treasure Pinker’s idea that Woolf and Joyce were violently opposed to the concept of a universal human nature. I’m not sure getting all of your information about literature from dimly remembered Tom Wolfe screeds is a good idea.

        • herr doktor bimler

          It takes a brave man to conflate the ideas of the Modernist and Post-Modernist movements as if they are identical.

        • That’s a lovely bit of illiteracy, yes, but my fave is the appeal to Komar and Melamid as the proof of the ev-psych pudding. Jesus wept … and Komar and Melamid rolled on the floor, laughing their asses off.

          If only we had a shorthand for that.

      • herr doktor bimler

        From that ‘Blank Slate’ review:

        the “universality of basic visual tastes” has been proved, Pinker points out, by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

        I am not an art theorist, but I do know that if Komar and Melamid made up a supposed international survey of aesthetic tastes (to satirise trends in the art world), and you cite those made-up figures as if they are objective evidence, then it should impinge on your credibility.

        Pinker relies on a 1998 book called “The Nurture Assumption,” by Judith Rich Harris

        Ah, so it’s jerkwads all the way down.

        [Comment recycled from a Substantial blog]

        • Vance Maverick

          Really, they didn’t run the survey? I got a big kick out of their joke — indeed I have their book stashed somewhere — but I thought that part of the joke was that they really surveyed people to generate the specs for their art.

          • herr doktor bimler

            They claimed to have hired a survey company, but from what I remember of the questionnaire, it was so meaningless that it must have been designed that way.

  • temp

    I haven’t read the book, but I did read the section on incarceration on Google books, and I don’t think Gray’s review is accurate.

    Pinker doesn’t say that “America’s mass incarceration of African-Americans is part of the civilizing process.” He does say that increased incarceration probably reduces violent crime. Nevertheless, he ultimately rejects it as the major explanation for the recent crime decline.

    Pinker does not endorse mass incarceration of African Americans for nonviolent crimes. Mentioning that imprisoning drug offenders may have a side effect of reducing violence does not constitute endorsement. In his final paragraph about incarceration, Pinker writes that, due to tough-on-crime policies in the US, “The United States imprisons far more people than it should, with disproportionate harm falling on African American communities who have been stripped of large numbers of men.”

    • Ewa

      It’s kind of sad that this entire discussion is resting upon supposing arguments Pinker does not in fact make and positions he does not in fact hold.

      • But he is kind of a hump- seriously. Somebody, please read and report! Also, this be the internet, there be uncharitable but spiritually deserved readings here.

      • Anderson

        Uh, no. Much of this discussion is about the previous Pinker work skewered by Menand.

  • melior

    America’s mass incarceration of African-Americans is part of the civilizing process!

    No doubt Arizona Governer Jan Brewer and the CEO of Corrections Corporation of America simply wish to impress potential mates; who does not?

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  • Tybalt

    That Menand piece was pure gold.

    I loved how much it made me laugh (especially the reference to a single dish with all of everyone’s favorite flavours in it) but also, I loved how it too Pinker to task for arguing both sides as if it were all there proving his point. The new book on violence is illustrative – it’s immensely frustrating being told by the same guy at almost the same time that human beings have an immutable nature that determines our behaviour, and look just how successful we are at changing people’s behaviour!


  • BradP

    The direction Gray seems to be going is worrisome and seemingly self-defeating. Does it lead to scientific management of society or does it lead to a fatalistic acceptance of societal shittiness?

    Looking for clarification on some of Gray’s thoughts:

    The idea that humans can shape their lives by the use of reason is an inheritance from rationalist philosophy that does not fit easily with what we know of the evolution of our mammalian brain. The end result of scientific inquiry may well be that irrational beliefs are humanly indispensable.

    Can someone link to me to an article or provide an explanation as to what about the evolution of our brain does not fit with the idea that humans can shape their lives by the use of reason?

    Can someone provide an alternative?

    The irony is compounded when we recall that Pinker achieved notoriety through his attempt to reinstate the idea that the human mind is fixed and limited. His bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), an assault on the idea that human behaviour is indefinitely malleable, was controversial for several reasons—not least for its attack on the belief that pre-agricultural cultures were inherently peaceable. The book provoked a storm of criticism from liberal humanists who sensed—rightly—that this emphasis on the constancy of human nature limited the scope of future human advance. Pinker seems to have come to share this anxiety, and the present volume is the result. The decline of violence posited in The Better Angels of Our Nature is a progressive transformation of precisely the kind his earlier book seemed to preclude. But the contradiction in which Pinker is stuck is not his alone. It afflicts anyone who tries to combine rigorous Darwinism with a belief in moral progress. Darwinism is unlikely to be the last word on evolution and, rather than identifying universal laws of natural selection, it may only apply in our corner of the universe. But if Darwin’s theory is even approximately right, there can be no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour.

    I read The Blank Slate, and I see no irony or conflict here. I understood Pinker’s argument in that book to be that there is plasticity to the human mind and human behavior, but it occurs within a system with some hard-wired rules. It is not contradictory to say that literacy, information technology, and trade in advanced societies have enlarged their members circles of empathy to where peace is more common.

    We are currently have intense society-wide debates over the civil-liberties of muslims and minority drug users. Is that sort of cultural inclusivity common throughout history?

    But if Darwin’s theory is even approximately right, there can be no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour.

    Economic development is inherently linked to a growing division of labor. Greater division of labor and specialization generates greater trade, communication, and shared consciousness. Economic development can feasibly generate a growth in certain factors that could spread what seems to be natural human empathy, and therefore peace.

    The vast growth of the American penal state, reaching a size not achieved in any other country, does not immediately present itself as an advance in civilisation. A large part of the rise in the prison population has to do with America’s repressive policies on drugs, which Pinker endorses when he observes: “A regime that trawls for drug users or other petty delinquents will net a certain number of violent people as a by-catch, further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets.” While it may be counter-productive in regard to its stated goal of controlling drugs use, it seems America’s prohibitionist regime offers a useful means of banging up troublesome people. The possibility that mass incarceration of young males may be in some way linked with family breakdown is not considered. Highly uneven access to education, disappearing low-skill jobs, cuts in welfare and greatly increased economic inequality are also disregarded, even though these factors go a long way in explaining why there are so many poor blacks and so few affluent whites in prison in America today.

    I have to wonder if Gray made it to the next page where Pinker talks about how electoral politics leads to a ratcheting of the incarceration rate upwards and beyond its optimal level, concluding that “The result is that the United States imprisons far more people than it should, with disproportionate harm falling on African-American communities that have been stripped of large numbers of men.”

    • dave

      Are we talking about the ‘philosopher’ John Gray here? Because he’s a self-consciously obscurantist reactionary dickwad, you know.

      • BradP

        John N. Gray wrote this piece about Pinker’s book for the Prospect.

        The guy writing the Crooked Timber post that Scott links too thought it a waste of time to actually read Pinker’s book, but a good use of time to basically sum up and reprint John Gray’s scathing critique.

        • Hogan

          He comments farther down:

          “Well yes, Gray is a troll, but rather that than the nauseating sight of Pinker providing the intellectually pretentious fraction of the ruling class with a cosy colour-supplement image of itself.”

          • BradP

            What a wonderful standard for choosing who is correct in an intellectual dispute.

    • Bill Murray

      But if Darwin’s theory is even approximately right, there can be no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour.

      That’s why we are still hunter-gatherers

      • BradP

        That is a silly non-sequitur. Behavioral phenotypes can be conditional on environmental factors.

        • BradP

          Gray’s statement is a non-sequitor, that is.

  • herr doktor bimler

    But if Darwin’s theory is even approximately right, there can be no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour.

    It’s nice to know that even if Pinker stopped writing we would still have Gray to amuse us and astonish us with gems of unparalleled stupidity such as this.

  • herr doktor bimler

    Darwinism is unlikely to be the last word on evolution and, rather than identifying universal laws of natural selection, it may only apply in our corner of the universe.

    That’s pretty egregiously stupid, too. I understand “Darwinism” to mean something like “Evolution is what happens to any form of life that uses an imperfect system of inheritance to create copies of itself with small (inheritable) variations affecting their own ability to propagate, within an environment of scarcity”. Does Gray think there are other possibilities? Some new observation that will supplant this?

    Perhaps he is using “Darwinism” in some special sense.

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