The Corner

Pinker v. The Humanities or Humanity?

Alan Jacobs has a great follow-up Steven Pinker beat-down to Yuval’s over at the American Scene (and his post has all the relevant links). An excerpt:

Though he never quite admits it, Pinker is perhaps today’s most passionate advocate of the idea that the sciences and humanities form two cultures and that, like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, they are predestined to eternal enmity: one of them must destroy the other. And while, as Levin and Douthat point out, Pinker does get quite bizarrely exercised about religion — anyone unfamiliar with the dramatis personae of this whole affair would come away from Pinker’s essay convinced that Leon Kass is actually the Papal nuncio posted to Washington — it’s also literature, indeed any non-scientific use of language, that tends to confuse and frighten him.

Here’s an example. Pinker is exercised by the fact that Padre Kass and some of the the other monks and nuns of the Council think that human beings possess intrinsic dignity. Au contraire, says Pinker, finger held aloft, “Dignity can be harmful.” And why is that? Because “Every sashed and be-medaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity.” There you have it: Stephen Pinker actually thinks that the dignity assumed by tyrants is the same thing that Kass et al. are writing about. What a shock Pinker will receive when, someday, he opens a dictionary and discovers that some words have more than one meaning.

Though Jacobs doesn’t mention it, this reminds me of Pinker’s (in)famous line about how music is nothing more than accidental “auditory cheesecake.” And that in turn reminded me of Andy Ferguson’s wonderful essay on Pinker from 10 years ago. An excerpt (no link):


And so on, and so on. How to explain grief, in evolutionary terms? It is ” useful only as a deterrent”: Take care of your gene-containing kids, because if something happens to them and, God forbid, their genes (which are yours, too), then you’ll feel awful. Music? Bach thought he was writing the B Minor Mass to the glory of God. “I suspect music is auditory cheesecake,” Pinker says, “an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties,” including habitat selection and auditory scene analysis. Bach was an ass.

As you read How the Mind Works, the reductionism washes over you until . . . suddenly . . . unexpectedly . . . you notice something. We are getting further and further away from the stuff of science — which is to say, from observable fact and testable theory. Different readers will notice this at different points in the book. For me, it came in Pinker’s explanation of our sense of natural beauty. Why do we human beings find particular landscapes pleasing?

Since most of human evolution took place in the African savanna, it is to be expected, from an evolutionary-psychological perspective, that human beings prefer savannas to other environments. And sure enough, says Pinker, they do. A savanna, as you recall from your National Geographic TV specials, is a sweeping grassland relieved here and there by an oasis of trees and shade. We like it because it offers views to the horizon, which allowed our ancestors to spy predators and sources of food, and because it has few impediments to movement and retreat, which allowed Grandma and Grandpa to get the hell out when danger arose.

“In experiments on human habitat preference . . . children prefer savannas, even though they have never been to one.” In doing so, suggests Pinker, “they are revealing our species’ default habitat preference.”

Why of course. Very reasonable. Until, reading along, you realize . . . but . . . this isn’t true. Pinker offers no citation for these habitat experiments, so we can’t double-check the results. But most kids I know prefer the beach, and the adults I know seem about evenly divided among the beach, the mountains, and woodland retreats. Forgive the anecdotal observation: I don’t know anybody who wants a two-week vacation in the savanna, except for a few oddballs seduced by their Banana Republic catalogues.

And since there is no link, here’s Andy’s ending which I think gets to the heart of Pinker’s view of human dignity — there ain’t no such thing!

In his Times article, Pinker did not claim to be making an argument; a forthright case for neonaticide might have raised eyebrows even at the Times Magazine. He comes to us as a scientist, lending his expertise to illuminate a confused question of social policy. But his reasoning closely follows Tooley’s brief. Both the philosopher and the scientist appeal to the ethnographic record, evolutionary theory, current cultural practices, and a highly technical definition of personhood. And both of them lead us to the same place.

If newborns are to have a right to life, Pinker says, they must possess ” morally significant traits that we humans happen to possess.” Among these are “a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals”; “an ability to reflect on ourselves”; “to form and savor plans for the future,” and so on. Thought-episodes, in Tooley’s jargon.

“And here’s the rub,” Pinker continues, “our immature neonates don’t possess these traits any more than mice do.” Unlike Tooley, Pinker doesn’t have the nerve to complete this syllogism, at least not in a family magazine. Persons have certain traits. Neonates don’t possess these traits. Therefore, neonates are not persons And therefore . . .

Here is Pinker’s pickle: Even he seems reluctant in public to follow the logic of evolutionary psychology to its ordained conclusion. Recall Robert Wright’s words about the new science: “Once truly grasped . . . it can entirely alter one’s perception of social reality.” And so it does. For the moment Pinker wants merely to normalize neonaticide — to make us see it not as a moral horror but as a genetically encoded evolutionary adaptation, as unavoidable as depth perception or opposable thumbs.

Needless to say, his view ignores a large swath of human experience. Or is it needless to say, these days? The best short treatment of infanticide was written by the Harvard historian William L. Langer, who got to the heart of the matter “The willful destruction of newborn babes,” he wrote in ” Infanticide: A Historical Survey,” “has been viewed with abhorrence by Christians from the beginning of their era.” And the Christians, Langer noted, were following the Jews, whose Rabbinical Law saw infanticide as straightforward murder. Their logic was quite different from that of the evolutionary psychologist, of course, but just as inexorable. Human beings were persons from the start, endowed with a soul, created by God, and infinitely precious. And this is the common understanding that Steven Pinker – – and indeed the new science that he represents with such skill and good cheer — means to undo.


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