The Standing Invitation

Posts Tagged ‘Pinker

Linguistic Legislation

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Another quick link to a video. I like Steven Pinker a lot. Usually when I tell this to my philosopher friends, they nod, smiling, and say “Ah, Pinker.” Usually when I tell my linguist friends, they roll their eyes and say “Ugh. Pinker.” Which of these grotesque caricatures best describes you? Watch his talk and decide for yourself. It’s over an hour long, but even if you do nothing else today, your life will be immeasurably enriched by an anecdote beginning at 20 minutes and 33 seconds…

Written by The S I

November 4, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Science

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Ideas Worthy of Nurture

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For human failing/strength/preference/proclivity x, which is more important, nature or nurture?

Nothing could be more of an empirical question. Science can’t explain everything, but there are some things that are absolutely slap-bang in the centre of what science can explain.* This is one of them. The methodology is well laid-out. Take a group of people who have similar a genetic makeup but different environments (like identical twins raised apart), and another group have a shared environment but different genes (like adopted children). See how much variation in x there is between groups, and compare that to the variation within the groups. Perform the necessary statistical tests, see what the outcome is.

This should be as simple, or as complicated or imperfect or conclusive or vague, as any other scientific enquiry. Nevertheless, the nature/nurture question is different. No other issue has more power to fog the process of rational investigation, because it is so intimately involved in how we apportion blame.

It is easy to blame people for things they choose. But it is much harder to blame them for what they are.

For human trait x, whichever one you’re interested in, the research will exist ­– or it won’t. It will be a well-planned experiment or something so poorly executed you’d be amazed it snuck through peer review. It’ll tell you one thing or another, or something in between, or nothing. But in a lot of cases, this won’t matter. In a world of conflicting information, complicated science and a lack of understanding of the relationship between how we were born and what we can become, a lot of people will select the evidence that suits the prejudices of the time. And sometimes great harm results.

To an extent, this is a question of who speaks loudest. The voice of a scientist with graphs and facts is too easily drowned out by a hysterical politician’s claims that people are born violent or raised gay, brought up female or psychotic from birth (or the other way around, as suits). The scientist’s problem is not just making herself heard: she must also overcome the public’s misunderstandings about what exactly we mean when we say that a gene influences behaviour.

If something is genetically determined, that does not make it inevitable. And just because a thing is natural, that doesn’t make it good. Until these two ideas are widely understood, a society built on an accurate understanding of human nature will always face hostility from people who won’t be told what they don’t want to hear.



All of this and more (and better) in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker. See also Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett for the difference between determined and inevitable.

* Don’t even get me started on homeopathy.

Written by The S I

August 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm