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.