Pinker’s Agenda

Steven Pinker has a curious op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. The ostensible subject of the column is what evolutionary psychology and cognitive science can contribute to educating children. But the article is mostly an oblique polemic against neuroscience, on the one hand, and the humanities in general, on the other….

Pinker does not really say in much detail what evolutionary psychology and cognitive science can contribute to educational methods. He calls for evaluating various classroom practices with “the paraphernalia of social science, such as data collection and control groups”; there is no acknowledgement, of course, of how shoddy such research methods often turn out to be in practice, thanks to their dubious assumptions, their failure to take complexity and multiple factors into account, and their overall naivete about human nature and culture. (I’ve posted about this subject previously).

Instead, Pinker criticizes neuroscience, the one branch of research into the mind that really does observe rigorous scientific method. “As exciting as neuroscience is,” he writes, “I suspect it will provide little enlightenment about education.” This is because “the changes at the level of brain cells are similar in all complex organisms — including mice, which don’t learn to read, write or add.”

It is strange that Pinker, whose main line of argument is that complex human behavior and mental activity are genetically programmed in detail in human beings, in much the same way that they supposedly are in other mammals (thus ignoring the possibility that mental flexibility could itself be a chief feature of our genetic heritage), finds scientific research that takes such similarities into account useless. The likely reason is a defensive one–for evolutionary psychology and cognitive science have been utterly unable to specify or explain any mental or behavioral activity whatsoever on the neurophysiological level: these theories are abstractions, which treat actual phsyical processes as a sort of “black box.” Beyond this, it is notable that recent neuroscientific research, which has at least begun to so specify such processes, has found the rationalist assumptions of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to be utterly inadequate–as witness recent books by Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux.

Pinker’s other target, besides neuroscience, seems to be the humanities in general. He writes: “The obvious solution is instruction at all levels in relatively new fields like economics, evolutionary biology and statistics. Yet most curriculums are set in stone, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language or the classics. But there are only 24 hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is a decision not to teach another….The question is…not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important to know the classics than elementary economics.”

Of course Pinker could suggest that I am being self-serving and defensive myself here, since I earn my living by teaching college students about such “classics” as films by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, and novels by Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs. But though I agree that it is important to know about “elementary economics,” it is also important to know how constrained and arbitrary the presuppositions of “elementary economics” are–for instance, the basic assumption of the economists that we are atomistic entities who have well-calibrated hierarchies of preferences, and that we act at all times so as to rationally maximize or optimize our attainment of these preferences. Such a view of “human nature” leaves no room for passion, for whims and inconsistency, for emotional variability–in short, for any of the things that make life interesting and/or meaningful.

Now, nobody will get this latter sort of insight into the complexities and irrationalities of individuals and cultures, without some exposure to the humanities (history, literature, philosophy, etc), and to non-quantitative social sciences (like cultural anthropology). The humanities and qualitative social sciences refute the cognitivists’ reductively instrumental view of human nature–just as neuroscience does. I hate to start sounding like Theodor Adorno, but what Pinker is really calling for is the extinguishing of all critical thought whatsoever.