I hold a particular, burning hatred of The Blank Slate, a seminal popular evolutionary psychology book. It seems to me that many people read it and, without applying any critical thinking, believe themselves to now be experts in human nature and that we’re all hardwired to be bellends so acting like a bellend is completely fine. I’ve basically stopped approving comments that cite The Blank Slate, because they’re always completely wrong.
In short, the author of The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, is a psychologist. Not an evolutionary psychologist: he did some very good work in child language acquisition and visual cognition. It is disappointing to see someone with scientific training write a book so unscientific. Rather than presenting a scientific account, The Blank Slate uses anecdotal evidence and pure speculation to make its point, and the point is that everything is how it is because it’s just human nature and so that’s how it is. The back of the book is full of breathless praise from right-wing newspapers, as it confirms their world view. However, The Blank Slate is not good science. Far from it. I will not critique the whole thing here: for those interested, here is a very comprehensive overview. For a shorter read, I wrote something about evolutionary psychology’s attitude towards gender here, and The Blank Slate is riddled with such problems.
Instead, I am going to focus on one short part of The Blank Slate which is completely wrong: Pinker’s views on anarchism.
In the media this weekend, there has been a lot of conflation of anarchy with lawlessness in commentary on the London riots. Anarchy is distinct from lawlessness: it refers to the absence of imposed political authority, while lawlessness has an implication of disorder. Pinker believes these two concepts to be one and the same:
The generalization that anarchy in the sence of a lack of government leads to anarchy in the sense of violent chaos may be banal, but it is often overlooked in today’s still-romantic climate. (The Blank Slate, p331)
Pinker argues that violence is “a near-inevitable outcome of the dynamics of self-interested social organisms” (The Blank Slate, p329), and that police are the adaptation to this aspect of human nature. Like the rest of Pinker’s book, the evidence is purely anecdotal. What is provided is a series of anecdotes which paint a picture of how we are but one line of riot cops away from a Mad Max dystopia.
At one point, Pinker explains that he used to be an anarchist, and that this changed following the Montreal police strike, where riots broke out. Of this incident, Pinker says:
This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (The Blank Slate, p331)
Empirical test? Pinker is supposed to be a fucking scientist! An anecdote is hardly an empirical test!
The evidence seems cherry-picked. At no point does Pinker discuss anywhere autonomous communities which operate perfectly well without police–take, for example, Greenham Common or any number of communes. The former example, Greenham Common may not sway Pinker, given his rather dated gender politics, but there are plenty of examples of places which have done just fine without any governance from the state.
However, fighting anecdotal evidence with more anecdotal evidence is the wrong approach–it is no better than Pinker’s own method.
Essentially, two hypotheses are proposed by Pinker in his treatment of anarchism:
1. That violence is an integral part of human nature
2. That the only way to stop it is to have a police force
The first hypothesis is not possible to test: this is a shortcoming of evolutionary psychology as a whole: one cannot empirically test whether something is “human nature” or not. We can look at proxies–for example, if violence is genetic, we can study identical twins who were raised apart, though even this methodology is flawed.
The second hypothesis would require controlling for all confounding variables, to test whether a police force is truly necessary and the only thing standing in the way of our horrifying nature. Essentially, one would need people raised in a complete vacuum with no mitigating factors such as economic deprivation or racism. This is, of course, impossible to test.
So what we are left with is a fairy story: we’re all violent, grappling thugs, and it’s only the presence of a policeman that stops us chucking a brick through the nearest window and running off with a spangly new telly.
The other side to the story is equally untestable: the very same two impossible experiments would need to be conducted to test whether we could do a lot better without state-controlled law enforcement.
Basically, there’s no science anywhere. We cannot discuss whether human nature inevitably tends towards looting any more than it inevitably tends towards cooperation. The difference is, anarchism does not tend to pretend it has science on its side: it is a political movement, an analysis of the system we have an a conclusion that we would probably do better without it.
I would feel a lot more comfortable, I think, if people stopped couching their political beliefs in pseudo-science. Rioting is a complex issue with a solution far beyond a little bit of anecdotal storytelling which concludes it’s in our genes. It must, therefore, be treated as such.
Likewise, anarchism is a complex political ideology. It cannot be handwaved away with nonsense and misconceptions.
16 thoughts on “Evolutionary psychology and anarchy”
Stavvers, of course the ‘right-wing press’ approve of ‘The Blank Slate’, it accords with their readers’ world views (such as mine). Just as the left-wing press predictably approve of ‘The Gender Delusion’ and ‘The Spirit Level’ (which was followed, I see, by ‘The Spirit Level Delusion’).
Do you dismiss Prof Louann Brizendine’s ‘The Female Brain’ with such contempt as you dismiss Prof Pinker’s book? What about his sister Susan’s insightful book, ‘The Sexual Paradox’? Or is she part of the right-wing conspiracy too?
I can’t imagine what evidence would make a feminist believe in gender-pattern brains. Maybe if one were pink and the other blue? It’s as if a cornerstone of feminism would disappear if we accepted even the possibility of gender-pattern brains, so they must be denied at all costs. But those denials are looking increasingly like the denials of Flat Earthers presented with photos of the earth taken from the moon.
Have a nice day.
Most of Brizendine is laughably bad, with a huge chunk of anecdotal evidence and citing things that are just plain wrong from self-help books written by life coaches. It’s also heavily reliant on animal studies and studies which do not compare genders. It’s not good science. I haven’t yet read Susan pinker, but if her standard of evidence is anything like her brother’s, it’s probably shit.
As for the Spirit Level, that’s also not a very good book and the quality of some of the evidence is appalling (though the Spirit Level Delusion is far worse statistically speaking).
This is a problem with books: books are not subject to peer review. Anyone can write a book and pretend that it’s evidence. The difference in quality of research in The Spirit Level, and the peer-reviewed papers conducted by the same authors are stark: the effect does still stand, though not as universally as the book posits.
So yeah. Popular science books are almost always shit. Delusions of Gender is a real outlier there–well-researched, and the references all say what they are supposed to say, presenting a reasoned critique.
Any old idiot can write a book, though.
WRT violence being “human nature,” a couple of things.
What, precisely, do you mean by “human nature”? Are you talking about the behaviour of people in aggregate or individually? Because there are different tests and different levels of predictability there. Indeed, it’s a *lot* easier to predict how a group will respond to certain stimuli than it is to predict how a person will respond to it.
And, also, the overwhelming majority of societies trend towards authoritarian systems and internal/external violence. The existence of one or two low-populated communitarian systems populated by self-selecting pacifists within a multi-billion-member global system with a hard on for tribalist conflicts, if anything, points to the difficulty of establishing such social systems and making them stick.
Given what seems to be the case, that the social structures generally erected by groups of homo sapiens tend to be authoritarian and violent, is this not a certain amount of evidence that “human nature,” whatever it is, is prone to erecting these kinds of systems?
This is not to suggest that people who read “groups of people have a tendency to do X” and get from it “this gives me carte blanche to do X” are not, as it happens, massive fucking jeb ends. It’s just to say that behaviour on aggregate is different from behaviour on an individual basis.
Also, I think you’re confusing falsifiability with the existence of a counterfactual. A description of “human nature” must surely describe humans as is, mustn’t it?
When I talk of “human nature”, I am talking like Pinker–certain hardwired structures and behaviours. As may be apparent, I disagree with the level of hardwiring Pinker posits.
I find it highly unlikely that we are hardwired to live this way.
P.S. I bloody love you for that comment below. 🙂
I haven’t read “The Blank Slate” and so my sole Pinker reference is “How the Mind Works”. Having said that, I’m not going to go all out and defend Pinker’s opinions on everything.
I think it’s reasonable to say that there are some things which are – which have to be – hardwired (language acquisition as the obvious one) and some things which are not (such as a love of Mid C20th French art).
There are some things that are in the middle. The evidence suggests that the brain is a modular system of interconnected frameworks. There’s plasticity within the broad structure, but that structure is set fairly rigidly, not least because a completely plastic cognitive architecture that required rebuilding from scratch each time would take far too long to train up to communicate with other individuals.
So saying “things are hardwired” is… mostly wrong. But also saying “things are not hardwired” is oversimplistic.
When you say you find it unlikely that we’re hardwired to live this way, what is it that you are suggesting is the alternative? What part of “this way” do you think is amenable to change?
I’m not saying that you’re right or wrong in any particular, but I do find the notion that human beings can produce naturally equitable and non-hierarchical societies if left to their own devices to be somewhat counter-intuitive.
Goodness, it’s amazing how people will jump out of the woodwork, isn’t it?
Mike. The problem is not with “gender pattern brains”, whatever the righteous fuck one of those is supposed to be. It’s with the extrapolation of weak theories into strong ones by numpties.
For example, the idea that there is some sexual difference between the brains of typical cisgendered males and females seems fairly uncontroversial. After all, the brain is biological and there are other biological differences between those kinds of organisms.
Where the problems arise is when people say that typical cisgendered males and females are the only two kinds of brain that are “normal”, for example, and neglect the massive continuum of variation in an attempt to fit everything into gendered boxes marked “male” and “female”.
Then, what tends to happen is that people take supportable weak conclusions like “over a population, XX individuals displayed a slight statistical aptitude in traits A,B,C and XY individuals displayed more aptitude at traits D,E,F” and Chinese Whisper them into GIRLS SUCK AT DRIVING AND MATHS AND LIKE BABIES AND PINK AND BOYS LIKE FIGHTING AND RAPING SO I SHOULD GET TO RAPE A GIRL WHO WEARS PINK BECAUSE OF LIONS AND SHIT.
Before you stake out a tent, why not check the ground underneath you, kid?
McDuff, I find the term ‘kid’ offensive and patronising, and wouldn’t dream of using a similar term in a discussion forum.
You appear to be criticising me for assertions such as ‘Girls suck at driving’ which I’m not making, which seems a fairly infantile way to attack an argument. And I’m not saying there are ‘only two kind of brains’ which are ‘normal’ – of course there’s a continuum. From Margaret Thatcher (male-pattern) to David Cameron (female pattern) for example.
But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the differences in typical cisgendered males and females – which you find uncontroversial – will result in outcomes. Those include the female male gender outcomes we see in all human societies over the course of recorded history (other than the happy female-dominated tribes tracked down by feminist anthroipologists in the remote Amazon, obviously…)
I think we have established that you’re in the “fuck you” pile right about now. But, no, carry on, let’s see what you’ve got.
This sentence doesn’t actually mean anything, you know that, right? “Things will result in stuff!” Yeah, OK, nice one Oppenheimer.
Is =/= ought. Aggregate =/= individual. Some biological differences =/= all differences are down to biology. Have a nice day!
OK, you win. The earth is flat.
‘The so-called conservative, uncomfortably disdainful of controversy, seldom has the energy to fight his battles, while the radical, so often a member of the minority, exerts disproportionate influence because of his dedication to his cause.’
William F Buckley Jr 1925-2008 ‘God and Man at Yale’ (1951)
I guess the sentiment applies equally well to radicals who are feminists or manginas?
Oooh, I think someone gave you a ‘thumbs up’ and me a ‘thimbs down’. A victory for people power, eh? Power to the people.
Oh, but we can. For evidence we have the world. If the only thing stopping people from looting were the existence of the police, then we would need virtually one police officer for every citizen, and 24 hour surveillance. This isn’t the case, by a long way. Conclusion: most people are not violent.
This won’t convince those who claim that human nature is intrinsically violent and evil. The reason is that it serves their interests to think that human nature is intrinsically violent and evil. So at the end of the day, we won’t be able to convince them, no matter how many experiments we carried out.
McDuff, thanks for this post, which stopped me cancelling my link to this discussion. Your line ‘For evidence we have the world’ reminded me of a quotation:
‘The notion that every problem can be studied as such with an open and empty mind, without preconception, without knowing what has already been learned about it, must condemn men to a certain childishness.’
Walter Lippmann 1889-1974 (an address in 1940)
Also two insightful quotations by Thomas Sowell (1930- ), an African-American economist and social commentator, if you want them.
Sorry, confused there… my last post should have been addressed to ‘Mary Tracy’ not ‘McDuff’…
Anyone who’s going to declare Margaret Thatcher as a “male pattern brain” clearly understands so little about gender or cognitive neuroscience as to be not worth having any kind of conversation on the subjects with.
If you think that means I think the Earth is flat, you’re welcome to that opinion. You keep believing that David Cameron is “female pattern” and this explains somethingorother, and I’ll keep shaking my head sadly and wondering if it’s possible to explain anything to you without using hand puppets.
Counterfactual: violence presented as socially approved or necessary, i.e. wars, capital punishment, tends to get much more approval, even from (or possibly especially from) those who strongly disapprove of anti-social violence. Cases such as a husband killing a cheating wife, while less fashionable these days, certainly have their advocates – and again, the more authoritarian-inclined are more likely to approve of violent reprisals against those whose crimes veer against accepted social boundaries.
So the conclusion I draw is that we’re very socially aware creatures. We don’t loot because we know our neighbours. We go to war because we don’t know our enemies.
Now that obviously brings up many more questions than it purports to answer. If human socialisation is a phenotypical behaviour then that doesn’t mean it’s all genotypical (which is what people mean, or think they mean, when they talk about evolutionary psychology). But it also doesn’t mean that it’s not “hard wired” to a greater or lesser degree.
Personally, I think it’s not really instructive to talk about behaviours as being hard wired or otherwise, because that implies that certain behaviours are things we have no choice over and others are things we have infinite levels of freedom to pick and choose. It’s much more sensible to say that there are greater and lesser levels of strength of tendency, influenced by genetics and environment and varying between individuals and societies. It’s not to say “we are naturally like THIS or THAT.” It’s more to say “if you put a group of X individuals in a group and expose them to pressures Y and Z, you’re likely to see a social dynamic emerging that looks something like A, A.2 or A.3, and not likely to see B or C.”
Unfortunately, the nuances of such things are lost amidst the politics of people who’d rather say “we can all live peacefully if we just get rid of the state” or “girls like pink”.