Category Archives: Evolution

A meaningful loss to my research bookmarks: The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

My attempted email to the Stephen Jay Gould Archive bounced, so I reproduce it here.

Hello, I noticed that the website is down. In case there are no plans to continue on with the site I wanted to say that I have found it to be a valuable resource and a wonderful gateway to a very important thinker. A lot of my thinking/writing has drawn on evolution and I’ve increasingly relied on Gould’s clarity on the subject, and I’ve been thankful to have the archive handy on the internet. Thanks for providing it as long as you have. I hope it will return. I note in the meantime that some pages are archived on web.archive.org, fortunately.

thank you,
Colin P. Barth

PS. The Wayback Machine/Internet Archive link I mentioned above: https://web.archive.org/web/20120915010723/http://www.stephenjaygould.org/

Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities

[via Open Culture on Facebook] Was amused by responses to an essay by Steven Pinker (“precious and facile as always,” as one put it) called “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” that misses its opportunity for the descriptive subtitle: “Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities” (among which he seems to include “soft,” humanized, or subjective social sciences and psychologies).

“Pinker is a a bildungsphilister and this is one of the most vulgar and foolish essays ever published in a leading magazine. A masterpiece of middlebrow kitsch, nearly all of it is wrong, and in a risible, contemptible way.”

So upon reading it, I must say I too am impressed. Pinker doesn’t just set up a straw man. He has an entire straw debate going on there. It’s remarkable because most of what is correct in it has nothing to do with any real argument that intelligent people would present. But Pinker still has a lecture! Err, that’s nice Pinker—tell us some of the neat things “science” has done (not scientists – monolithic “science”) and *do tell* how it banished superstition (yes, you’ve heard this one before). Why not put on a whole performance of “Inherit the Wind”? We’ll wait.

But then, maybe go look into some things you don’t already know, like what the term “scientism” properly means when intelligent people use it, instead of pretending it has no meaning, a move worthy of Daniel Dennett’s argumentative tactics. My favorite ignorance is found in the paragraph accusing others of being “historically illiterate” while demonstrating his own in the very next sentence.

He makes evident that his grasp of a great many diverse subjects (including those grouped under political science, arts, history, anthropology and economics) is sometimes no more sophisticated than the preliminary biases, cliches, naivete, and prejudices of the average college-level intellect obtained from an undergraduate class or (more likely) casual reading.

Such an unprepared debater has all the moral authority of a man with no pants. Those well-versed in “the humanities” will simply wonder why he blundered in, so to speak, seemingly determined to pick a daftly-collective argument.

Pinker couldn’t have supported Gould’s assertion of two spheres appropriate to humanities and science (reflecting the classic distinction between “is” and “ought”) any better if he’d argued for it, instead of against it. I don’t incidentally draw lines between subjects like academic specialists too often do, but one has to be clear about the differences between describing the way things work, and prescribing what to do about it—as well as differences in preparation, methods and mentalities each properly require.

The fact that public intellectuals no better than this have taken charge of current philosophy of mind (via cognitive science in most cases, although not exclusively—some from traditional philosophy) does inspire me to correct their many deficiencies, though. There are still tremendous opportunities to write great books about human nature, evolution, psychology, the brain and the mind that are not mostly farfetched, beside the point, silly, or parochial in outlook. And it’s the last point that may be the most important strike against these academics’ stabs at writing definitive books to unravel the enigma of Man. Whether it’s Steven Pinker or John Searle or whoever, the most important thing about human beings will always be: “the field I’ve studied” or “the focus of my background.”

Addendum:
I want to note, on the positive side, that Pinker’s stated desire for collaboration and synthesis towards the end of the piece points to a laudable project (one which I wrote about at great length in my essay Rising in Walls), though the way he has written this piece, and comports himself, makes a productive “truce” impossible. And, to parallel Dennett’s distinction between good and bad reductionism, there is good synthesis and there is bad. The examples of cross-fertilization Pinker gives are pretty bad, having for example not enough of the humility before the unknown and uncertain, or  appreciation for qualitative subtlety, that the best humanists in science or the humanities will call for. It would be wonderful for scientific techniques and rigorous epistemology to inform more of the subjective theory written about life on Earth, and vice versa. Pinker just doesn’t have a handle on what that would look like, because he is not enough of a generalist, either.

Addendum Two:
With an essay this bad, it would take more time than I have to unpack everything. Here’s a brief, eviscerating praeteritio that covers  points that I did not go through—including, that Pinker obviously ignores and doesn’t consider worthy of mention a number of aspects one would normally consider quite essential to “the humanities.” Some criticisms may be less obvious though, and perhaps it’s worth the exercise of going through them. In the above post, I took for granted that, meeting Pinker halfway, we were going to talk about the humanities as functional—focusing on purposes and purposeful thinking, which is certainly not the only way to look at things. But this is the teleology you have to expect from scientism; it doesn’t have time for a lot of meandering around and reading poetry so to speak but rather wants to talk about what poetry does for the human race. In short, I took some deficiencies for granted, and arrogance—this is Pinker, after all, the man who went up against Stephen Jay Gould on evolution, though to this day, he casually misunderstands (or misrepresents?) the basic Darwinian argument.

Reformations are needed; admitting we don’t understand ourselves is the beginning

Adapted from a comment I made in a discussion about reforming politics, philosophy, and psychology:

Our various and numerous failures constructed on the premises of understanding ourselves sufficiently will repeat until we admit the basic failure of presuming we understand ourselves (and others; humans) better than we do. This covers philosophy, politics, psychology, neuroscience, and much, much more.

Thus, reformations are needed to incorporate optimized knowledge of “human nature” (universals), and important human variations, from any quarter. So, not only complacency within fields of study is an issue, although it certainly is in many of the blasé treatments of fundamental assumptions, but isolated specialization of fields of study, as I argued in the essay Rising in Walls. For instance, even those involved in some of the best of politics, economics, or history retain the most simplistic knowledge and appreciation of what some of the best of psychology, mythology, evolutionary theory or cultural anthropology can tell them about people—and really see no particular relevance in exploring them.

Both problems come together, for example, in the sorts of neo-evolutionary fields Stephen Jay Gould used to criticize, in which it’s just assumed that complex systems like culture and mind are thoroughly analogous to computers or algorithms or Darwinian inheritance (or whatever the model may be) without nearly enough justification. When 1) nobody’s interested in what different approaches and perspectives can correct, and 2) they affirm their own theoretical models too readily, you get reductionism instead of elegance in your descriptions of humanity.

My focus has shifted considerably to projects explicitly re-examining and re-constructing fundamental assumptions about human beings through a cross-pollinated synthesis, because I can’t see that attempts to work around and with Man (as we must) can have any hope of success if serious errors in conceptualizing humanity are preserved.

In terms of those of us trying to change things, we’re all doing everything the hard way without a more robust synthesis to utilize and to promote, to replace lopsided ones with a wad of selective detail supplemented by a lot of hand-waving and folk notions (probably a more than fair description of what people or a person will typically “look like,” through our own eyes).

R.A. Wilson was one example of a thinker who made an attempt at a cross-pollinated model to slice through some of the nonsense clinging to our ideas about ourselves, but I didn’t consider it adequately informed or theoretically sound—particularly when it deviated from the overall spirit of naturalism inspired by his knowledge of ethology to become too speculative and teleological. There were many problems with it, as well as several advantages (which can be said of all the more interesting personality theories and typologies, and models of the mind I have studied for the past 17 years). He himself expected his models to be obsoleted, so… I think perhaps he would be pleased with what I’ve been working on.

In short, at whatever level of sophistication and complexity, we need a better set of stories to tell ourselves about ourselves—not only less selective, but less superficial, more refined and more intensely questioned, and better informed by descriptions, analogies and metaphors from across promising frontiers of knowledge.

Writing Great Philosophy for the Sake of the Future

Some of the most important written works neither profit a thinker, nor advance an academic or public career. At first, they offer only themselves. (Or, perhaps, some extraordinary adventures and experiences necessary to write them—yet the total labor required to see them through often dims this value for the author.)

Yet the expectation that compositions should soon yield profits, status, fame or advancement keeps many thinkers and writers away from achieving greater work.

This is one reason why academia is very nearly the death of philosophy, and the market for writing, little better. Most who somehow emerge from modern “education systems” and have philosophy to offer—ideas cultivated through study and appreciation of the sciences (the fields of human knowledge) and expressed as a creation of art—are obliged to bury their ideas in entertainment in order to sell their work and support themselves. This is valuable, but second-hand.

While philosophical works should not quite follow “art for art’s sake,” they must be undertaken without promise of rewards save important work of great meaning. Though it is no guarantee, great philosophy first requires appropriate ambition, and dedication of oneself.

And we all require more great philosophy. Without great works to develop new ideas for the future, there will be no future different from the consequences of the ideas inherited from the past.

There are too many old and misplaced ideas we are living with. If they were ever right, they are no longer right, for us, now. We are still counting on Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, and so many others to write our future—implicitly. Even Darwin has yet to sink in. We are still building upon ancient notions like foundations we almost never notice. Many of the newest sources are centuries old; many of those we call “modern” thinkers are unoriginal recyclers, copycats, and poor synthesists of the grab bag. Yet people who repeat echoes of Rousseau, Paine, and poor readings of Jesus wonder why they cannot change things. Utopian faiths, demanding abstractions, and political revolutions come up empty because they have been tried before without understanding, only to be repeated now as though new.

We wonder why we’re stuck in a present that still looks like the past—degraded, plus technology that—we like to hope—has something to say, because we don’t. No, we’ll only have a different future when enough of us commit to thinking and writing for one.

Learn from cats.

When I see an unwell, undernourished 20-plus year old cat display more moxie than most humans I know, it’s a powerful reminder of how far away people have withdrawn from their better instincts.

Cats struggle to survive when life gets hard—stray cats, even more than pets. People think from time to time that it might be easier if they weren’t alive, when they’re depressed or feel sorry for themselves. People learn to feel anxious or guilty about being here, and even pick up that humans ought to apologize for being alive on Earth. Cats consume. People do too, but they have learned to question that, feel uneasy, or detest it.

Cats go after what they want. People are reluctant to go after what they want, and they’re afraid to get it. Cats focus on what they’re doing at the moment. People distract themselves from being present. Cats revel in pleasurable sensations and devote serious time to them. People feel guilty about feeling pleasure, and deny themselves, or feel like they need permission or an excuse. Cats love affection when they want it. People reject affection when they want it.

It seems that cats have feline nature on their side implicitly, but people won’t accept their own human nature.

Other animals besides Man aren’t uncertain about whether it’s good to be vigorous or direct. You have to wonder about an animal that wastes its years before getting sick or old doubting or diffusing its vital energies instead of accepting them before they’re gone.