Letter from Steven Pinker

(My comments interspersed in red)


The following letter was submitted as part of the dialog in Slate, January, 2000.

Subject: Battling Bad Ideas
From: Steven Pinker
Date: Thu Jan 27 08:13:52

I'm one of the scholars who spoke to Judith Shulevitz about Kevin MacDonald's books on Judaism, and a visible defender of evolutionary psychology. Presumably I am among those who she believes has a professional duty to respond to his ideas.

Shulevitz's coverage was balanced in some respects, but unfair in others. She says that "if you're going to take the unusual step of welcoming all ideas, you can't proceed to ignore the bad ones." This is untrue, for two reasons.

The Human Behavior and Evolution Society has never "welcomed" MacDonald's ideas. Their peer-reviewed journal has never published his theories. I have published my work in a variety of mainstream psychology journals, including journals published by the American Psychological Association and by the Society for Research in Child Development—the main professional society for child developmentalists, and in evolutionarily oriented journals, including Politics and the Life Sciences, Human Ethology Bulletin, and Ethology and Sociobiology, the forerunner of the society's journal Evolution and Human Behavior. (Evolution and Human Behavior became the journal of the society in 1997.) My first book was positively reviewed in that journal. I have also published in Human Nature which is a semi-official journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. (HBES members receive a special discount on Human Nature and subscription forms for the journal are regularly included in the society's newsletter. The editor of the journal, Jane Lancaster, is a prominent member of HBES.) In my Human Nature paper (MacDonald, 1997) I discuss Jewish life history data presented originally in A People That Shall Dwell Alone. The paper appeared some three years after A People That Shall Dwell Alone.) MacDonald was elected to a volunteer administrative post in the society several years ago, before anyone knew about his views on Judaism. And if he ever presented his ideas at their annual conference, it was because HBES, like many scientific societies, does not peer-review all conference submissions. I believe that this policy is ill-advised in HBES's case, but it is not unusual. I have spoken to several current and past officers of the society, who are just as concerned about MacDonald's preposterous ideas. But it became clear that there is no principled way for the society to denounce or censor him, or to remove him from his elected post, however much its members might disagree with his views. A commitment to free speech entails episodes of acute discomfort, even agony, whether in a scientific society or in a democracy as a whole.

The suggestion that scholars "can't ignore bad ideas" is a nonstarter. In science there are a thousand bad ideas for every good one. "Doing battle" against all of them is not an option for mere mortals, and doing battle against some of them is a tacit acknowledgment that those have enough merit to exceed the onerous threshold of attention-worthiness. MacDonald's ideas, as presented in summaries that would serve as a basis for further examination, do not pass that threshold, for many reasons:

1. By stating that Jews promulgate scientific hypotheses because they are Jewish, he is engaging in ad hominem argumentation that is outside the bounds of normal scientific discourse and an obvious waste of time to engage. MacDonald has already announced that I will reject his ideas because I am Jewish, so what's the point of replying to them? This is ridiculous. In Culture of Critique I make it clear that in order to be considered as a Jew who is participating in a Jewish intellectual movement, the person must have a Jewish identification and must regard their involvement in the movement as advancing specific Jewish interests. More specifically, my procedure is as follows:

1.) Find influential movements dominated by Jews, with no implication that all or most Jews are involved in these movements and no restrictions on what the movements are. For example, I touch on Jewish neo-conservatism which is a departure in some ways from the other movements I discuss. In general, relatively few Jews were involved in most of these movements and significant numbers of Jews may have been unaware of their existence. Even Jewish leftist radicalism — surely the most widespread and influential Jewish subculture of the 20th century — may have been a minority movement within Jewish communities in the United States and other Western societies for most periods. As a result, when I criticize these movements I am not necessarily criticizing most Jews. Nevertheless, these movements were influential and they were Jewishly motivated.

(2.) Determine whether the Jewish participants in those movements identified as Jews AND thought of their involvement in the movement as advancing specific Jewish interests. Involvement may be unconscious or involve self-deception, but for the most part it was quite easy and straightforward to find evidence for these propositions. If I thought that self-deception was important (as in the case of many Jewish radicals), I provided evidence that in fact they did identify as Jews and were deeply concerned about Jewish issues despite surface appearances to the contrary. (See also Ch. 1 of CofC.)

(3.) Try to gauge the influence of these movements on non-Jewish society. Keep in mind that the influence of an intellectual or political movement dominated by Jews is independent of the percentage of the Jewish community that is involved in the movement or supports the movement.

(4.) Try to show how non-Jews responded to these movements — for example, were they a source of anti-Semitism?

Obviously, it's not enough to simply be a Jew, and in Chapter 2 of The Culture of Critique, I list a number of Jews who have contributed to evolutionary/genetic perspectives on human behavior. There is no evidence that they were involved in a Jewish intellectual movement as I have defined this. However, no evolutionist should be shocked at the possibility that scientists pursue their ethnic interests via their research. Indeed, this should be the default assumption. But it must be proved, not assumed.

2. MacDonald's main axioms - group selection of behavioral adaptations, and behaviorally relevant genetic cohesiveness of ethnic groups -- are opposed by powerful bodies of data and theory, which Tooby, Cosmides, and many other evolutionary psychologists have written about in detail. Of course any assumption can be questioned, but there are no signs that MacDonald has taken on the burden of proof of showing that the majority view is wrong. On the contrary, there is a very respectable body of theory and data on cultural group selection. My views are congruent with those of David S. Wilson, the cultural selection models of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, and the empirical work of Christopher Boehm. The problem with all of the models which purport to show that group selection could not have occurred in human evolution is that they fail to consider the ability of humans to monitor group members and punish cheaters and defectors—both very important processes in Jewish history. This gap in their theorizing also occurs because they fail to appreciate the power and capabilities of human intelligence. Humans are indeed unique in the animal kingdom, and theory must accommodate their uniqueness. Evolutionary psychologists have erected the image of a mythical human brain composed of modules designed to solve specific problems. It just didn't happen that way. Here are two recent papers that provide a non-modular account of psychology and a group selection:

MacDonald, K. (2008). Effortful Control, Explicit Processing and the Regulation of Human Evolved Predispositions. Psychological Review, 115(4), 1012–1031.  

MacDonald, K. (2009). Evolution, Psychology, and a Conflict Theory of Culture. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(2). 208–233. 

3. MacDonald's various theses, even if worthy of scientifically debate individually, collectively add up to a consistently invidious portrayal of Jews, couched in value-laden, disparaging language. It is impossible to avoid the impression that this is not an ordinary scientific hypothesis. I would appreciate seeing examples of this. I have tried to avoid such language.

4. The argument, as presented in the summaries, fail two basic tests of scientific credibility: a control group (in this case, other minority ethnic groups), and a comparison with alternative hypotheses (such as Thomas Sowell's convincing analysis of "middlemen minorities" such as the Jews, presented in his magisterial study of migration, race, conquest, and culture). The concept of a control group does not apply to group evolutionary strategies because they are open-ended and therefore able to creatively meet environmental demands. (See comments on  the power and capabilities of human intelligence above.) My work differs from the standard creed of evolutionary psychology because I take into account well-documented group differences in intelligence (Ashkenazi Jews are a high-IQ group) and personality (Jews are high in group cohesiveness), and I discuss how these traits influence economic performance and interact with unique events in history. However, I have compared a number of group strategies in the Diaspora Peoples preface to the paperback edition of A People That Shall Dwell Alone. For example, I contrast the relatively aggressive behavior of Jews in America with the relatively passive behavior of the Overseas Chinese. Such differences are doubtless a complex result of preexisting psychological traits interacting with the environmental context. The importance of the environmental context is illustrated by the differing reactions to Jews by, for example, Europeans and Muslim society. This issue is discussed in Separation and Its Discontents.

Of course I have not plowed through MacDonald's trilogy and therefore run the complementary risks of being unfair to his arguments [I completely agree], and of not refuting them resoundingly enough to distance them from my own views on evolutionary psychology. [Thanks!!] But in the marketplace of ideas, a proposal has to have enough initial credibility, and enough signs of adherence to the ground rules of scientific debate, to earn the precious currency of the attention of one's peers. Again, the default assumption is that individuals are pursuing their ethnic interest. Research in the ethnic motivations of people is perfectly respectable. No one would be surprised if Mexican activists advocated the interests of Mexicans in immigration and affirmative action. Nor would we be surprised if Jewish activists promoted the interests of Israel. We shouldn't be surprised if Jewish social scientists were motivated by their ethnic interests. It's an empirical question that can be investigated like any other question in the social sciences, and I think I was able to confirm the hypothesis that Jewish social scientists have been motivated by their ethnic interests by originating and dominating some very influential intellectual and political movements.

Obviously, I do not think that Pinker has come close to showing my theory and data do not meet normal standards of scientific research.

Steven Pinker
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences MIT


Kevin MacDonald

Department of Psychology
CSU-Long Beach
Long Beach, CA 90840-0901
Phone: (562) 985-8183
Fax: (562) 985-8004
Email:E-mail me!