Friday, May 17, 2019

Stephen Jay Gould v The Bell Curve

The IDW really does not like Stephen Jay Gould. This was first brought to my attention (before the term IDW was in use) when I contacted Steven Pinker during the Larry Summers controversy to ask if he had influenced Summers. Pinker owned that he had and at some point in our email exchange he admitted to an admiration for Marvin Harris and a negative attitude towards Stephen Jay Gould, based on Pinker's claim that Gould's opinion on evolutionary psychology wasn't valid because Gould held leftwing political beliefs.

The hypocrisy of this position is clear when you consider that Pinker has supported the race science careers of Steve Sailer and Razib Khan for over a decade, including the periods when Khan was a right-wing political operative. And Sailer's entire career has been in the service of far-right racist publications.

In the image on the right, an Eric Weinstein tweet about Gould, we see Weinstein also suggesting Gould's science was motivated by politics.

Quillette of course published an article saying the same thing, by Russell T. Warne, a fan of The Bell Curve.

Bret Weinstein doesn't like Gould's theory on spandrels either but doesn't claim it has to do with politics (at least in this tweet.)

According to the Wiki on Gould's spandrels paper:
Steven Pinker criticized Gould and Lewontin for reusing an argument by George C. Williams in favor of the importance of nonadaptive features without attributing it to him. Gould responded that Pinker's accusation was "serious, and false", writing, "I love Williams’s book and cite it frequently—but not in our spandrels paper because neither he, nor I, nor anyone else in our century invented the idea. The concept has always been part of evolutionary theory."
Gould and Pinker publicly clashed in 1997 when Gould wrote a review of a book by evolutionary psychology proponent Helena Cronin (who published a policy paper with Oliver Curry in 2000, advocating the UK adopt a gender-based employment scheme) "The Ant and the Peacock." Gould's review was called "Confusion over Evolution." Gould wrote:
But the ultimate failure of Cronin's adaptationism, as a general evolutionary model, appears most clearly when we consider the paleontological record. Darwin's vision may prevail in the here and now of immediate adaptive struggles. But if we cannot extend the small changes thereby produced into the grandeur of geological time to yield the full tree of life, then Darwin's domain is a limited corner of evolutionary explanation. New documentation on the rapidity and intensity of mass extinction (including the event that wiped out dinosaurs) has provided the strongest argument for rejecting Darwinian extrapolation. Darwin clearly understood the threat, and he struggled against the implications of mass extinction in the Origin of Species by trying to deny both their extent and rapidity. He endeavored to spread them out in time and diminish their effects. He attempted to render them as an intensification of ordinary competition (inspired, perhaps, by an increase in rates of change for conventional processes like mountain-building and change in sea level). But if mass extinctions are true breaks in continuity, if the slow building of adaptation in normal times does not extend into predicted success across mass extinction boundaries, then extrapolationism fails and adaptationism succumbs.
In irate letter to the New York Review of Books Pinker responded:
 Gould claims his targets invoke selection to explain everything. They don’t. Everyone agrees that aspects of the living world without adaptive complexity—numbers of species, nonfunctional features, trends in the fossil record—often need different kinds of explanations, from genetic drift to wayward asteroids. So yes, we all should be, and are, pluralists.
To which Gould responded:
Pinker then follows his false opening charge with a three-part argument overturned by its own illogic and verbal inconsistency. The first third denies that evolutionary psychologists rely exclusively on adaptation. The second third (as I shall document below) shows how Pinker’s restrictive focus upon adaptationist thinking leads him to misunderstand the concept of spandrels. The closing third then extols the power and range of adaptationist explanation, but gives the game away by equating this limited mode with “evolutionary reasoning” in general. 
But the first and third parts contradict each other. Which claim does Pinker want to make: that pluralism reigns in evolutionary psychology (and I characterized the field unfairly), or that adaptationism reigns as a synonym for “evolutionary reasoning” (and my warnings are sterile)? He can’t have them both. (My true position, of course, holds that adaptationism rules wrongly and too restrictively.)
Pinker writing two parts of an argument that contradict each other is standard Pinker, as he likes to have things both ways.

I suspect Pinker was not a fan of Gould even before this clash. Gould wrote a review of The Bell Curve in 1994, "Curveball" and made serious charges against the book, including:
Like so many conservative ideologues who rail against the largely bogus ogre of suffocating political correctness, Herrnstein and Murray claim that they only want a hearing for unpopular views so that truth will out. And here, for once, I agree entirely. As a card–carrying First Amendment (near) absolutist, I applaud the publication of unpopular views that some people consider dangerous. I am delighted that The Bell Curve was written–so that its errors could be exposed, for Herrnstein and Murray are right to point out the difference between public and private agendas on race, and we must struggle to make an impact on the private agendas as well. But The Bell Curve is scarcely an academic treatise in social theory and population genetics. It is a manifesto of conservative ideology; the book's inadequate and biased treatment of data display its primary purpose—advocacy. The text evokes the dreary and scary drumbeat of claims associated with conservative think tanks: reduction or elimination of welfare, ending or sharply curtailing affirmative action in schools and workplaces, cutting back Head Start and other forms of preschool education, trimming programs for the slowest learners and applying those funds to the gifted. (I would love to see more attention paid to talented students, but not at this cruel price.)
Plus ├ža change... - has there ever been a time in human memory when rightwingers weren't complaining about "political correctness?"

We will come back to other sections of Gould's review later on in this ongoing series on The Bell Curve.

Until then, let us ask: if Stephen Jay Gould was still alive, would he be a shoe model?