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Pinker Part 2

December 2nd, 2002

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first piece of my draft review of Pinker. Here’s another section

In fact, the most interesting parts of Pinker’s book do not relate to human nature at all, but to his restatement of a pessimistic view of the human condition. In the process of this restatement, Pinker abandons his evolutionary psychology model without realising that he is doing so.
Take, for instance, his observation, following an approving citation of Hobbes, that ‘violence is not a primitive, irrational urge, nor is it a “pathology”, except in the metaphorical sense of a condition that everyone would like to eliminate. Instead, it is a near-inevitable outcome of the dynamics of self-interested, rational social organisms’. (p 329) This is backed up by the work of political scientists who claim that war has generally benefited the aggressors.
Pinker may well be right, but his argument is totally inconsistent with the claim that violence is the product of genetic predispositions acquired by our distant ancestors, that is, of primitive, irrational urges. If the Hobbesian view is right, then violence will arise as a rational response to this environment in the absence of any predisposition to violence or even in the presence of an instinctive aversion to violence.
In particular, the emphasis of evolutionary psychologists on the specifically male predisposition to violence seems to imply that an increase in the political power of women should result in the adoption of more pacific policies. As has been observed on many occasions, the political careers of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher give little support to this view.

I’ve seen this kind of confusion before. Rational egoist models like homo economicus, ‘selfish gene’ models like evolutionary psychology, and ‘realist’ models of international relations (in which nation-states are viewed as unitary actors) use similar styles of argument and therefore appeal to the same sort of person, but they radically inconsistent with each other, because they each posit a single level at which everything can be explained, different in each case.

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