Saturday, January 14, 2006

Under the Sun

Steven Pinker's most dangerous idea is that "Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments." It's not the sort of thing I'd have much to say about--when I want to learn about population genetics, I consult a population geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, for instance, who would give me plenty of reasons to doubt that what Pinker says approximates anything I should pay attention to. But Pinker did make one interesting comment, and the fact that I believe he's a sexist, a racist and willfully ignorant of certain facts of evolutionary science shouldn't blind me to the possibility that he may have stumbled over an interesting idea. Pinker writes:

In March, developmental biologist Armand Leroi published an op-ed in the New York Times rebutting the conventional wisdom that race does not exist. (The conventional wisdom is coming to be known as Lewontin's Fallacy: that because most genes may be found in all human groups, the groups don't differ at all. But patterns of correlation among genes do differ between groups, and different clusters of correlated genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common sense.)

Where to begin? I'm most interested in the contrast Pinker sets up between "conventional wisdom" and "common sense," but I must observe in passing that Leroi's op-ed and Pinker's abridged version of it represents a sterling example of the error in reasoning known as the straw man fallacy. Critical responses to Leroi can be found in this collection of essays put together by the Social Science Research Council.

Anyway, what's this business about going against conventional wisdom in favor of common sense? Is that particularly scientific, or even reasonable? Common sense tells us that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Conventional wisdom among astronomers, at least since Copernicus, is that the earth orbits the sun while rotating on its axis once every twenty-four hours or so (a period astronomers call "mean solar time"--go figure). The common sense view of sunrises and sunsets is not invalidated by conventional astronomical wisdom, although with advances in technology, we see that it in some regards common sense, like conventional wisdom, is open to revision. The common sense view is rooted in the experiential world, encompassing certain facts of perception like the way we inhabit perspectives, the way we pattern our everyday activities in accordance with environmental, cultural and physiological regularities, and also some hard physical realities like being relatively puny bipeds dwelling on the surface of a planet that stretches farther than the eye can see. Astronauts, of course, can see the whole planet at once. The famous photo by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders gave us the word "Earthrise" even though from where Anders was sitting, it wasn't a rise at all:

The curious thing about the images is the difference in the way the two men perceived what they were seeing. Frank Borman related the "Earthrise" to a moonrise on Earth, with the lunar surface horizontal and the Earth rising above it.

But William Anders framed his photographs from the perspective of being in orbit about the lunar equator. So his horizon was the plane in which he was travelling. This meant he framed it so the edge of the Moon was vertical, with planet Earth a little to the left but with its North and South poles aligned the same way as the North and South poles of the Moon.

Anders' photo is routinely presented as if it were an "Earthrise," and NASA has continued to make use of the word to this day. Would things be different if Anders had been able to pull rank? In any event, the point I'm taking from this is that common sense is common sensical relative to experience. Human communities could conceivably develop offworld with little direct experiential basis for understanding the notion of sunrises or sunsets, or a radically altered common sense view on the apparition of huge blobs of radioactive matter. Common sense is generally a good guide to experience, and as long as it leads us where we want to go, there's no special reason to question it. However, when our experience, our discoveries or our creative projects lead us beyond where common sense can guide us, it's no longer really common sense. It just doesn't apply.

Regarding the idea of race, then, conventional wisdom tells me that it's not a useful scientific concept. It doesn't describe observable human genetic variation with adequate precision, and it typically introduces more problems than it solves. As to a common sense view, I'm actually rather certain that many of us don't share a common view. The viewpoint common to Pinker and Leroi is one I could adopt, concievably, but I don't see it leading anywhere I'd want to go. It makes no sense to me.

The antithesis to "convential wisdom," I've decided, is not common sense at all, but "invidious stupidity." Whatever problem you're having with conventional wisdom, invidious stupidity is not likely to solve it. That's just common sense.

posted by Fido the Yak at 8:15 AM.


Anonymous mark said...

thoughtful, interesting post

January 19, 2006 6:25 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...


I work for a public radio show in Boston, USA, and I stumbled across your blog post concerning's Question of the Year. I found your comments insightful and I think our listeners/readers would be very interested to read it and follow the links you provide to other discussions about the essays.

We are Radio Open Source, a public radio show that uses the internet to bring depth and clarity and new voices to a discussion of world affairs. We'll be hosting a show tonight that will feature Steven Pinker as well as a few other contributors. If you post a comment on our discussion thread, it may be used on-air (7 PM Eastern on a few stations and podcast). We hope you'll get involved in our discussion!

Thank you, again, for adding to this conversation.


January 23, 2006 11:25 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hi, Henry. I used to listen to Christopher Lydon every day when I was living back East--so thanks for the link to the show. I'll be listening in, and moseying around your blog. If tonight's show is about Pinker's claims, hopefully you will be inviting competent experts in the field of human genetics to explain the conventional wisdom.

January 24, 2006 8:02 AM  
Blogger Dan Jones said...

I've posted a response to these comments on Pinker and race at

January 30, 2006 2:15 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hello, Dan. I posted a comment to your site, in which I included some links to the American Anthropological Association's and the American Assoication of Physical Anthropologists' statements on "race."

The point that interests me about Pinker's statement, and that prompted me to post "Under the Sun," is not the debate about how best to characterize human genetic diversity. My concern really is the suggestion that somebody's claim a to a common sense view of race should in any fashion serve as a rebutal to conventional wisdom among scientists. This is not to say that the consensus opinion of scientists is beyond critique, or that there aren't important disagreements in the area of human population genetics. I have already indicated that I believe the conventional wisdom is open to revision. My argument is that appeals to common sense are not appropriate in this context.

There is a question of expertise here, and if you were to argue that Pinker's expertise cannot be judged on the basis of this one statement or any excerpt from it, I would cede that point. And the question of whether Pinker routinely speaks authoritatively outside his area of expertise I would agree to set aside for the time being. There remains a curious argument about common sense and conventional wisdom which Leroi has put forward and Pinker has chosen to cite.

The argument about the strawman fallacy is key. Are we talking about "conventional wisdom," "Lewontin's opinion," or, in your words, the opinions of "Lewontin and company"? I cite the AAA and AAPA as additional authorities, if any were needed. On the matter of "race," the opinion ascribed to "Lewontin and company" rather represent the consensus view of scientists. If you think that the dominance of this view represents a case of ideological hoodwinkery rather than the product of decades of scientific study, I feel that the onus is on you to make the case. So I think I have done what I need to show that the "conventional wisdom" really is the "conventional wisdom," and that's all that I need to do to talk about the things that interest me.

Finally, when I wrote "I believe he's a sexist, a racist and willfully ignorant of certain facts of evolutionary science" (in a dependent clause, no less) I deliberately used the phrase "I believe" because I didn't particularly feel like carefully substantiating what in fact are my beliefs. We could examine my beliefs about Pinker, if you would like, but I think it's fair to say upfront that I recognize no professional or bloggerly obligation to be nice to Pinker, and my sensibilities about words like "racist" are decidedly not British.

February 02, 2006 11:36 PM  
Anonymous Lars said...

The validity of the concept of race is typically obscured by semantics, but for anyone interested in what biology has to say, the criteria used to conceptualize and distinguish subspecies (races or breeds) within the animal kingdom unambiguously classify the human species into a minimum of five races.

February 09, 2006 4:58 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Lars, as I understand it, J Philippe Rushton, founder of the Charles Darwin Research Institute (and head of the Pioneer Fund), is not a biologist, but a professor emiritus of psychology. Hmm. Perhaps that explains his interest in craniometry.

I'm not seeing evolutionary biologists falling over themselves in a rush to be published by the Charles Darwin Research Institute Press. Hmm.

C. Loring Brace, whose works are published in journals reviewed by peers in the field of physical anthropology, makes the argument that the charge of "political correctness" applies not to those who deny the biological validity of the race concept, but to those who advocate for clinging on to it in spite of overwhelming evidence that it's pretty useless and misleading. Neener neener.

It's clear to me that the advocates of Race are showing a stronger commitment to racism than they are to free inquiry. That, I think, suggests a very interesting problem for science.

You know, a lot of scientists just won't deal with the likes of Rushton because the ridiculousness is so obvious, they don't feel a need to address it. Been there, done that. Brace is one exception, and I have no reason not to take him at his word when he says he wants to educate the public about science.

February 13, 2006 5:12 PM  

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