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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Methinks it is like a weasel ~ Steven Pinker equivocates again

Yesterday Steven Pinker tweeted a link to another unctuous blog post from Jerry Coyne groveling before the Master.

It was no surprise to read Coyne suggesting that anybody who criticizes the work of Pinker is a "Pecksniff."
So you can look forward to that (as usual, the Pecksniffs will come out in force to criticize it, no matter what he says). Steve said he’ll start writing it in about a year, and I suspect it won’t be long after that until it’s finished (he wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature in only a year and a half).
The term "Pecksniff" indicates that Coyne believes Pinker's critics are guilty of hypocritically and unctuously affecting benevolence or high moral principles.

Pecksniff is a Dickens character. If I had to choose a Dickens character to compare to Coyne, I'd have to say Uriah Heep: his name has become synonymous with sycophancy.

Pinker on the other hand reminds me of a Shakespeare character, Polonius.

But I was surprised by Coyne when he wrote this:
 We talked about determinism, free will, the evolution of music (Steve thinks that there is not an adaptive evolutionary basis for music and musicality, even though music is universal in all cultures),
This struck me as odd because in his immortal review of The Blank Slate, Louis Menand wrote:
...To say that music is the product of a gene for "art-making," naturally selected to impress potential mates - which is one of the things Pinker believes..."
But when I reviewed the chapter on art in The Blank Slate to find the source, I found Pinker saying the opposite:
"...The psychological roots of (artistic) activities have become a topic of recent research and debate. Some researchers, such as the scholar Ellen Dissanayake, believe that art is an evolutionary adaptation like the emotion of fear or the ability to see in depth. Others, such as myself, believe that art (other than narrative) is a by-product of three other adaptations: the hunger for status, the aesthetic pleasure of experiencing adaptive objects and environments, and the ability to design artifacts to achieve desired ends...
However Menand can be forgiven for missing that since later in the chapter dedicated to his anti-20th century art jeremiad, Pinker seems to forget he just said art is a by-product of a "hunger for status" providing yet another example of Pinker's signature trait, equivocation.

A trait Menand himself noted:
Having it both ways is an irritating feature of "The Blank Slate." 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. 
Pinker's entire point about 20th century modernism and post-modernism is that they deny human nature - which means evolutionary adaptation, which is the basis of hereditarian beliefs.

Pages after he says he does not believe art appreciation is an evolutionary adaptation, Pinker writes:
Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reasons for their decline and fall become all too obvious. The movements are based on a false theory of human psychology, the Blank Slate. They fail to apply their most vaunted ability - stripping away pretense - to themselves... 
...Young children prefer calendar landscapes to pictures of deserts and forests, and babies as young as three months old gaze longer at a pretty face than at a plain one. Babies prefer consonant musical intervals over dissonant ones...
I assume that is what prompted Menand to write the funniest line in his review:
To say that music is the product of a gene for "art-making," naturally selected to impress potential mates—which is one of the things Pinker believes—is to say absolutely nothing about what makes any particular piece of music significant to human beings. No doubt Wagner wished to impress potential mates; who does not? It is a long way from there to "Parsifal."
So Pinker wants to have it both ways - claim art is not an evolutionary adaptation itself but rather a by-product of something that truly is - hunger for status - while at the same time claim that modern art is unpopular because it denies evolutionary adaptation.
The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling and insulting art. The other is pretentious and unintelligible scholarship. And they're surprised that people are staying away in droves?
But modern art does not deny what Pinker clearly states is actually an evolutionary adaptation trait, hunger for status. If you are truly elite, a high-status individual, by definition you don't care what the droves want. The French even have an expression for it: epater les bourgeoisie, used to describe the attitude of artists from Pinker's beloved pre-20th century:
...a French phrase that became a rallying cry for the French Decadent poets of the late 19th century including Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud.[1] It means "to shock the bourgeoisie".[2]
The continuing popularity of Baudelaire and Rimbaud demonstrates that what was once considered ugly, baffling and insulting may one day be enjoyed, even by the bourgeoisie.

And I don't know if only elites are buying the work of Cindy Sherman, one of the human-nature denying scoundrels mentioned in The Blank Slate, but her work is now often sold for millions of dollars.

Phil Torres, attacked by Pinker and Coyne for daring to make a valid critique of Pinker's work - which I assume makes him a Pecksniff to Coyne - wrote:
...they refuse — they will always refuse, it’s what overconfident white men do — to admit making mistakes when they’re obviously wrong.
But thanks to Pinker's predilection for taking both sides of an issue (AKA weak and strong pinkerism), it's hard to tell exactly when he's making a mistake. He seems to constantly hedge his bets. And when he wants to say something nasty about his critics, people like Coyne and Michael Shermer are apparently happy to do it for him.

As a result, the intellectual failures (and the petty and vindictive nature) of Steven Pinker go unrecognized by many.

But every now and then a member of the elite will point it out.

God bless you, sir! 
My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently. 
Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel? 
By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed. 
Methinks it is like a weasel. 
It is backed like a weasel. 
Or like a whale? 
Very like a whale. 
Then I will come to my mother by and by. They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.  
I will say so. 
By and by is easily said.