The Clare Spark Blog

February 8, 2015

Steven Pinker’s “reciprocal altruism”

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Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein  reading together

Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein reading together

For a short biography of my subject, see, and a summary of his book here:
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” defines 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

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,, retitled “Individuality: the impossible dream?” and ) 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.


January 3, 2015

Cass Sunstein: Nudnik-in-chief

Execmed007014Before you read this blog you might want to consult these sources: (“libertarian paternalism”)

Harvard Magazine’s first issue of 2015 features an eight page profile of Cass Sunstein, author, Harvard Law professor, and former Obama administration official. Sunstein, who has made enemies on both Right and Left, served as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012. Lauded as “The Legal Olympian,” Sunstein remains a major player in propagandizing for the New Deal and the welfare state it spawned.

Indeed, the author of the piece, the liberal lawyer and journalist Lincoln Caplan, takes care to quote from FDR’s [populist] “Second Bill of Rights” (equated by Sunstein with The Declaration of Independence): “…rights to ‘a useful and remunerative job”; for “every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies”; to “a decent home”; to “adequate medical care”; to “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment”; and to “a good education.” “For unless there is security here at home, there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

Caplan assumes that Sunstein quoted from the “Second Bill of Rights” because “no one really opposes government intervention” (quoting Sunstein’s italicized sentence) but the date of Roosevelt’s fireside chat, 1944, suggests that FDR was aware that wartime spending, not New Deal largesse in the spirit of Keynes, was responsible for increased employment during the war years, and that many Americans predicted another Depression when the war was over.

But Harvard’s purpose in featuring the profile of the controversial Sunstein, seems to me to be an affirmation of typical Harvard strategies. Note that the cover photo of Sunstein shows some of his library: many books on social psychology are present. This cover article probably is intended to continue the irrationalist social theories of the Harvard social relations department; one that has been described frequently on this website as proto-fascist. A kinder term would be the continued rule of Ivy League philosopher-kings. For are they not all Olympians in their fields, now annexing the new fields of neuroscience and “choice architecture,” the better to control the masses, strategically placing food choices so that apples will be freely chosen, and not Fritos? Behind this lengthy puff piece that attempts to convince ordinary people that the biggest possible government is desirable in this best of all possible worlds, is the notion, clearly stated in the Jungian pschoanalyst Henry A. Murray’s notes to Melville’s novel White-Jacket, is that the masses are not trained to rule. Indeed, in Carl Jung’s opinion, Hitler was a guttersnipe, the man of the mob who had too much power in the modern world. Here is what Jung had to say about Hitler at the end of World War 2: mass politics had produced the modern wasteland.

[Jung:] “As I said before, the upheaval of mass instincts corresponds to a compensatory move of the unconscious. Such a move became possible because the conscious state of the people had become estranged from the natural laws of human existence. Because of industrialization, large parts of the population became uprooted, and they were herded together in large centres. And because of this new form of existence–with its mass psychology and its social dependence upon the fluctuations of markets and wages, an individual was created who was unstable, insecure, and suggestible…Germany…is by no means the only nation threatened by this dangerous germ. The influence of mass psychology has spread far and wide. It was the individual’s feeling of weakness, and indeed of non-existence, which was compensated by the upheaval of hitherto unknown desires for power…Nothing but materialism was preached by the highest intellectual authority….Hitler…was the most prodigious personification of all human inferiorities. He was a highly incapable, unadapted, irresponsible, psychopathic individual, full of empty childish fantasies, but cursed with the keen intuition of a rat or guttersnipe. He represented the shadow, the inferior part of everybody’s personality, in an overwhelming degree, and this is another reason why they fell for him.” C.G. Jung,”Individual and Mass Psychology,” Essays on Contemporary Events (London: Kegan Paul, 1946): xiii-xv. Originally broadcast on the BBC, Nov. 3, 1946.

And just to make sure that we get the point, the Caplan essay concludes with this adjuration derived from Cass Sunstein: “He argued that the justices of the Supreme Court should resolve questions before them as narrowly as possible, to encourage elected officials to deliberate on decisive issues and test their answers before the voters….It would energize American democracy by making it more deliberative.” Caplan goes on to defend the [living Constitution], now the preferred opponent to “tradition’s constitution.”

And so Harvard Magazine continues to leave the reader in the same old double bind: advocating for both freedom and welfare, ever the “moderate men.” We may not know what is good for us, left to our own flawed devices, but cleverly manipulated environments, arranged by nudniks, will nudge us in the correct direction, choosing apples, not Fritos.

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