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.