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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Is Steven Pinker rational? Part 2

In part 1 of "Is Steven Pinker rational?" I noted that Pinker presented a false dichotomy of rational San vs. irrational Americans, which he was only able to accomplish by omitting the fact that like every human culture, the San have their share of irrational beliefs.

An even more significant omission is in this paragraph:
Yet for all the deadly effectiveness of the San’s technology, they have survived in an unforgiving desert for more than a hundred thousand years without exterminating the animals they depend on. During a drought, they think ahead to what would happen if they killed the last plant or animal of its kind, and they spare members of the threatened species. They tailor conservation plans to the vulnerabilities of plants, which cannot migrate but recover quickly when the rains return, and animals, which can survive a drought but build back numbers slowly.
Pinker neglected to mention that an important part of San "conservation plans" is to kill their own babies.

As Marvin Harris explained in his book Cannibals and Kings (1977):
Hunter-collectors under stress are much more likely to turn to infanticide and geronticide (the killing of old people)... Infanticide runs a complex gamut from outright murder to mere neglect. Infants may be strangled, drowned, bashed against a rock, or exposed to the elements.

More commonly, an infant is “killed” by neglect: the mother gives less care than is needed when it gets sick, nurses it less often, refrains from trying to find supplementary foods, or “accidentally” lets it fall from her arms. Hunter-collector women are strongly motivated to space out the age difference between their children since they must expend a considerable amount of effort merely lugging them about during the day. 

Richard Lee has calculated that over a four-year period of dependency a Bushman mother will carry her child a total of 4,900 miles on collecting expeditions and campsite moves. No Bushman woman wants to be burdened with two or three infants at a time as she travels that distance...

...Our stone age ancestors were thus perfectly capable of maintaining a stationary population, but there was a cost associated with it—the waste of infant lives. This cost lurks in the background of prehistory as an ugly blight in what might otherwise be mistaken for a Garden of Eden.

Now Steven Pinker must be aware of this and he must be aware that evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, consider infanticide, literally "a desperate decision of a rational strategist allocating scare resources."

In an interview, Pinker names Daly and Wilson as important influences:
Starting in the 1990s I broadened my research interests to the rest of human nature after reading about the replicator-centered revolution in evolutionary biology launched by George Williams, John Maynard Smith, William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and Richard Dawkins, and applied to human psychology by Donald Symons, Martin Daly, Margo Wilson, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides. Judith Rich Harris, the independent scholar who wrote the brilliant book The Nurture Assumption, kindled an interest in behavioral genetics and the development of personality. 

But how would that look, if Steven Pinker said: "the San Bushman control their population through rational infanticide"? It would be the truth, but it would hardly lend itself to book sales and the interviews might suddenly become less worshipful and less useful for Pinker's career advancement than usual.

And so Pinker presents the San Bushman as though they have solved the material problems of earthly existence through the sheer force of their rational minds, with no muss or fuss. It's not true, but it suits Steven Pinker's purposes, much like quoting people who disagreed with him, to give the impression they agreed with him, suited his purposes in writing his previous book "Enlightenment Now."

But you could say Pinker is behaving rationally. He knows from experience he won't be held accountable for his misrepresentations by the media gatekeepers, but only by working scientists like PZ Myers or R. Brian Ferguson or philosophers like Phil Torres, who have much smaller audiences and will have a negligible impact on his book sales. 

Certainly rationality is important. But equally important is ethics. Steven Pinker behaves rationally - like a rational weasel.

Sometimes doing this Pinkerite blog feels like this.