Pinker on Race

August 2, 2007
Steven Pinker has apparently assumed the Stephen Jay Gould Chair for Politically Correct Popularization of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. Gould, of course, had a long and distinguished career devoted to disinformation in the areas of IQ research and other leftist causes — so much so that I devoted a large section of a chapter to him in Culture of Critique. I suspect that the folks at Harvard understand the power that their position as an elite academic institution exerts in the mainstream media and that Pinker's appointment was tacitly understood to be a safe bet that he would carry on the Gouldian tradition and not stray too far off the reservation, at least on the key issues of race and ethnicity.

I should note that I am not entirely disinterested in discussing Pinker. He has attacked my work on Judaism from an evolutionary perspective without reading it. However, it's interesting that he now seems comfortable with the possibility that Ashkenazi Jews on average have a higher IQ, and he seems to agree that it's quite possibly because of the same sorts of selective pressures that I discuss in A People That Shall Dwell Alone. Indeed, on the one hand, he is quite proud of Jewish intelligence and accomplishment, but on the other he is a bit worried about its consequences: Is it good for the Jews if non-Jews know it?

In any case, there is no question that Steven Pinker is the popular voice of evolutionary biology in the elite media. His latest effort, Strangled by Roots: The Genealogy Craze in America (The New Republic Online, July 30) has some good points, notably the statement that "blood relatives are likely to share genes. To the extent that minds are shaped by genomes, relatives are likely to be of like minds. Close relatives, whether raised together or apart, have been found to be correlated in intelligence, personality, tastes, and vices." Such statements of the importance of behavior genetics to understanding IQ and other important human traits are certainly none too common in the media. Gould would certainly not be happy with this.

However, Pinker pledges allegiance to some of the central theories and data in evolutionary biology while nevertheless vitiating their importance for understanding the world we live in.
Pinker's central claim is as follows:

The same arithmetic that makes an individual's pedigree collapse onto itself also makes everyone's pedigree collapse into everyone else's. We are all related — not just in the obvious sense that we are all descended from the same population of the first humans, but also because everyone's ancestors mated with everyone else's at many points since that dawn of humanity.

This claim fails to acknowledge that people's pedigrees don't collapse into everyone else's for the simple reason that populations did not interbreed for thousands of years. This led to distinct races and to distinct ethnic groups within races. (See, e.g., V. Sarich & F. Miele, Race: The Reality of Human Differences.) Particularly egregious is that there is no appreciation of the work of Frank Salter (On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethnicity, and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration). Salter shows that when world populations are sampled, genetic variance between groups is about .125—equivalent to the kinship between grandparent and grandchild. Think of it this way: A grandfather has about .125 more genetic overlap with his grandchild than with a person taken at random from his ethnic group; similarly, I have about .125 more genetic overlap with a person taken at random from within my ethnic group compared to a randomly chosen person from outside my ethnic group. And there is a gradient of genetic similarity among ethnic groups: Swedes are more closely related to Poles than they are to sub-Saharan Africans.

The result is that humans have an enormous genetic interest in their ethnic groups. Just as with genealogical kinship where people with larger families have a higher inclusive fitness, this genetic interest becomes enormous because it is tied to the actual number of ethnic group members which, in the modern world, can total in the millions, or, I suppose billions, in the case of the Chinese.

Pinker creates an imaginary world in which family ties are "biologically tenuous" because of the exponential decay of relatedness as one goes back in time. But for a European, say, going back for a very long time still means finding ancestors that were also from the European gene pool. And it's a very different gene pool than the Chinese or Africans find when they look into their past. And, as Salter's work implies, individual Europeans have a very large genetic interest in furthering the numbers and influence of their groups, just as other peoples do. This implies that ethnic and racial interests are real, not illusory.

Secondly, Pinker gives an air of expertise when he discusses the psychological mechanisms underlying kinship but he only includes socialization mechanisms (growing up in the same household and seeing siblings cared for by mother). Notably missing is any mention of J. Philippe Rushton's Genetic Similarity Theory. This theory attempts to account not specifically for perceptions of kinship, but rather for the general human tendency to assort with genetically similar others.
The implication is that when there is a choice to be made whether in marriage, friendship, or other type of alliance, all things being equal, we are more likely to choose similar others as a way of enhancing the benefits of relationships and lessening the risks. Obviously, being of the same race is a very important basis of similarity. In a recent paper, I describe what I call implicit white communities: communities, such as NASCAR and country music fandom in the United States, where the vast majority of participants are white but not necessarily self-consciously so. That is, white people choose to be among people who are white like themselves, but they don’t necessarily think of their choice as resulting from a conscious desire to be part of a white community.

Pinker portrays appeals to wider kinship ties beyond the immediate family as little more than demagoguery, made possible by a variety of tricks, such as using the language of kinship (e.g., brotherhood, motherland). But the reality of racial and ethnic differences and the fact that we are drawn to people like ourselves means that appeals to kinship often have a firm basis in self-interest and psychological reality. Not for nothing the question "Is it good for the Jews?"

Finally, Pinker correctly calls attention to the problem that extended families present to modernization. As he notes, Iraq is a classic example of a society based on kinship ties cemented by first cousin marriage. Without using the terms, Pinker is pointing to the classic divide between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures. But what he doesn't point out is that the differences between these cultures may well be biological, reflecting natural selection in different environments. European individualism has its roots in a northern hunting ecology, while the collectivism of much of the rest of the world is rooted in prolonged evolution in environments that support group conflict.

Individualism is linked to a suite of traits that together form the basis of Western modernization: the nuclear family, bilateral kinship patterns, monogamy, moral universalism, civil societies based on trust and reputation rather than kinship connections, relative lack of ethnocentrism and group orientation, and science. Collectivist cultures typical of the Middle East, China, India, and African cultures have the opposite suite of traits. Like Iraq, they are are based on extended kinship and tribal relationships.
If we have learned anything by the disaster in Iraq, it is that it is not easy to change these patterns. It's ironic that, as Pinker notes, journalist and blogger extraordinaire Steve Sailer pointed out the collectivism of Iraqi society and its implications for social disintegration in post-invasion Iraq around the same time that neocon Bernard Lewis, the most widely respected academic expert on the Middle East and Arab culture,
was crowing about the democratic potential of Arab societies.
At a time when Western peoples and culture are under massive assault via the mass immigration of peoples with very different family and cultural patterns, Pinker's assurances that resistance ultimately has no basis in science will certainly not help the cause of defense. But I rather doubt that he would be troubled by this. And it certainly will play well at Harvard.