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
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 Developmentthe
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.
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?
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
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
(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
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
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 defectorsboth
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
Evolution, Psychology, and a Conflict Theory of Culture.
Evolutionary Psychology, 7(2). 208233.
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
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
However, I have
compared a number of group strategies in the
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
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
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences MIT
Department of Psychology
Long Beach, CA 90840-0901
Phone: (562) 985-8183
Fax: (562) 985-8004