YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 8, 2015

Steven Pinker’s “reciprocal altruism”

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 9:20 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,
Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein  reading together

Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein reading together

For a short biography of my subject, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Pinker, and a summary of his book here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blank_Slate.
I have been reading large chunks of Pinker’s The Blank Slate (2002), and find it unreadable and so undocumented in its huge claims that I have resisted writing about it. But from what I have read, I can make the following assertions. [Nothing of what I say here should be taken as a criticism of neuroscience; rather I am complaining about what looks like a misappropriation of science for political purposes. “Nature” should never be conflated with forms of human organization.]

1. In his endorsement of “behavioral economics” Pinker echoes Cass Sunstein, who endorses the same vague method of doing economics, based, the reader gathers, on a scientifically revised view of human nature. Heredity, not environment and Locke’s discredited “experience” define who we really are as a species.

2. Neuroscientists have rescued us from the polarization brought on by the rightist “Tragic Vision” and the leftist “Utopian Vision.” Their key discovery: old views of “human nature” neglected the universal propensity for “reciprocity.” Out the window go “The Blank Slate,” “The Noble Savage,” and “The Ghost in the Machine” (Descartes’ mind-body dualisms). Sociobiology, bereft of “nature red in tooth and claw,” rules.

site of behavioral economics

site of behavioral economics

3. There are two kinds of feminists: “gender feminists” (bad) and “equity feminists” (good). On this “hot button” issue, the moderate Pinker swings over to “classical liberalism,” cutting out the crazies to his Right (family-centered social conservatives) and Left (the “social constructivists” who dominate Women’s Studies, and who incorrectly insist that rape is about power, not mixed up with sex). He places among the gender feminists man haters like Dworkin and Mackinnon, but also lesbians and feminist celebrities such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem who want equal outcomes, such as no more glass ceilings or equal pay, for sociobiology explains that there are innate sex differences; this reminds me of my zoology textbook in college, describing males as rational, while women are irrational. Those rejected activists are opposed to conservatives who believe that father-headed nuclear families with traditional wives and mothers will prevent social problems (treated in his chapter on “Children”) He has his good feminists (e.g., Christine Hoff Summers), who criticize the excessive gender feminists who deny female “nature.” (I am sorry to be so vague, but this is a short and confusing section in a long book; he names lots of names, but cites no studies discrediting, for instance, androgyny.)

4. Forget Freud and his gloomy prognosis of “everyday unhappiness” based on instincts for sex and aggression, and the need for instinctual renunciation for the sake of relationships. Pinker is an advocate for the “peaceful instincts.” (I.e., conflict resolution). Freud has been dumped into the same ash heap as “social constructivists”, modernists, and postmodernists who spurn objectivity, unlike Pinker & Co. Also discarded are attachment theorists, and expert advice to parents, all of which are bunk, for it is “the peer group” that socializes our children.

5. Because of inborn (or pragmatic?) “reciprocal altruism” Pinker clearly abhors income inequality, and, reading between the lines (!), he supports income redistribution, higher taxes, a war on poverty, and of course Green projects, very much like his hero, the moral philosopher Peter Singer, who, like Pinker, is in touch with real Nature. “Reciprocal altruism” as understood by New Dealers and other social democrats: “We will give you, the lower orders, welfare and other inducements not to grab your pitchforks or to cut off our heads.” Progressive sociologists called this “preventive politics,” while fretting over crises of deference. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/.)

6. There is no such thing as the “individual.” That construction is an outmoded laissez-faire and unprogressive tic. We are defined by our relationships, specifically by “interactions” with other creatures and institutions. I.e., Pinker is in agreement with the “moderate” New Deal line laid down by prior Harvard professors and socially responsible psychologists (such as Henry Murray and Gordon Allport. See https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/, https://clarespark.com/2014/06/11/karl-marx-on-individuality/, retitled “Individuality: the impossible dream?” and https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/. ) With the advent of such as Professor Pinker we have transcended vulgar empiricism, though his book does not show us where in the brain, or in the human genome, or in rational assessments of self-interest, “reciprocity” might reside. This is a problem.

Altruism is natural

Altruism is natural

It possibly de trop to point out that Locke was buttressing ordinary people and discrediting illegitimate authority with his emphasis on “experience” as a reproach to innate ideas as promulgated by Platonic Guardians. But Steven Pinker is one of the latter, and so he writes lots of popular books to keep the lower orders in their place, all the while instructing them in the latest form of politeness.



  1. “find it unreadable and … undocumented in its huge claims”

    Yeah, that’s Pinker for you.

    Comment by Charlie Martin — September 20, 2015 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  2. Hilarious photo there of Pinker and Goldstein showing off that they are at the final pages of the books they’re reading. Amazing.

    Comment by Mitch — February 20, 2015 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

  3. […] What no one, even most feminists are willing to examine is the ambivalent relations between adolescent and grown-up sons and their middle-aged mothers. For Freudian-derived attachment theory is out, having been thrown overboard by cognitive behavioral therapy. (https://clarespark.com/2015/02/08/steven-pinkers-reciprocal-altruism/) […]

    Pingback by Fifty Shades of Romantic Necrophilia | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 14, 2015 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

  4. How did you not tear the book in half?

    Comment by Saint-Pierre le Doux — February 9, 2015 @ 2:55 am | Reply

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