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November 13, 2004

Berlinski, sophistry, Right & Left

Damn you Michael Blowhard! I noticed several weeks ago that Steve mentioned in passing that Commentary had published a piece by David Berlinski taking a swipe at evolutionary psychology. A few years ago The Weekly Standard published a peice by one Andrew Ferguson also dismissing evolutionary psychology in terms that would do Steven Rose & Richard Lewontin proud. I won't get into the details of what the motivations of secular conservatives attacking evolutionary psychology are, but one thing I knew is that I should not read the snide sophist David Berlinski's work because I knew what an insincere jackass he was. Back in 1996 I had the displeasure of watching a panel discussion where Berlinski made Michael Behe seem like a very earnest and straighfoward man. Berlinski's posture and manner seemed to communicate, "With my sneer do I falsify Darwinism!"

If you read the Commentary piece you have to ingest Berlinksi's excessively baroque and gratuitously allusive style.1 Berlinksi holds up evolutionary science to the high standard of deterministic physical science. Let's ignore the reality that deterministic physical science might not be as deterministic at the most reducible level as Berlinski would have you believe. He states that:


a well-posed differential equation achieves a coordination among continuous quantities that is determined for every last crack and crevice in the manifold of time. And is this the standard I am urging on evolutionary psychology? Yes, absolutely.

Nothing but the best.


Since such general solutions are difficult to come by in microevolutionary mathematical works you know at this point that Berlinski can begin his work of demolition with aplomb and gusto. Evolutionary psychology is a sloppy discipline because human minds are sloppy, riddled with contingency and complexity. Berlinski makes it clear that the human mind is a marvelous piece of work, but presumes that its manifold variations and interdependencies can be modelled in a theoretically elegant and transparent fashion within two decades of the initiation of the project of evolutionary psychology by Toobey & Cosmides. He criticizes evolutionary psychology by implication for its low ad hoc standards, but attempts of show how ludicrous it is by examples as follows:

If male standards of beauty are rooted in the late Paleolithic era, men worldwide should now be looking for stout muscular women with broad backs, sturdy legs, a high threshold to pain, and a welcome eagerness to resume foraging directly after parturition.

And so Berlinski disproves the explanatory power of evolutionary psychology, for obviously males do not prefer such lumbering Helgas. And yet he does not address issues of correlated response, for environmental fitness is not the summa bonum (a pretentious use of Latin yes, but befitting a critique of such ostentatious drivel), one might consider how such features might impact reproductive fitness. That is, perhaps such robust features result in a decline in capacity for viable gestation, making environmental fitness irrelevant (for example, in rats there is an optimum size for a mother to minimize infant mortality, even if larger and more robust rats were more likely to survive predation, that is irrelevant if they can not carry offspring to term). This is certainly part of the point of the work that Berlinski critiques, that fitness might seem obvious but an analysis of its proximate features can smoke out nuances that armchair theorizing (a criticism levelled at evolutionary psychology) can not easily conceive of (see The Handicap Principle). Berlinksi does not truly engage the body of research, rather, he caricatures and dismisses it, and liberally peppers his prose with literary and historical allusions that convey a verisimilitude of scholarly due diligence (since Berlinksi is a skeptic about evolution in general, his opposition to evolutionary psychology is something that exists a priori, so the editors of Commentary knew what they were getting into).

I could go on and on (he gives one the impression that Kimura's molecular neutralism is the last word on the validity of natural selection on phenotypes), but let me end by noting that Berlinksi notes with hearty approval of the recent critiques by Richard Lewontin of population genetical models. Lewontin has some issues with mathematical modelling and fitness optimization, but that is irrelevant to the reality that it is clear that Berlinski shows his cards of intellectual bad faith by citing one who freely admits an ideological axe to grind.

This leads me to conclude with a peculiar tangent: my criticisms of intellectual activities on the Left is often driven by the convinction that the tools and idea artifacts generated from this quarter quickly become drafted into the arsenal of those who would assault modernity and progress from the Right (though in the following I restrict my examples to the Western Right, I think in the long-term the non-Western Right, that is, traditionalist non-Western cultures, might be more of a problem). I have seen this in recent years on issues like pornography, where in public forums right-wing anti-porn activists use verbiage drawn from feminists and couch their objections in the language of female dignity and violence (I do not doubt right-wing anti-porn activists detest violence against women and wish to restore female dignity as they conceive of it, but I would assert that their central concerns ingroup have more to do with broad general moralistic principles, while outgroup they use terminology that is more remiscient of consequentialist minutiae). I have seen it among racial separatists, some of whom now argue for a multicultural amity enforced by geographic division because peoples who could exist as organically separate entities should, in symmetry with some of the ideas proposed by Left ethnic minority activists. This is not to deny that the Right can produce intellectual constructs that are persuasive, but those from the Left have a look & feel that can transcend differences of core values and perhaps shift the opinion of those in the middle who are disinclined toward the Right's moralistic or traditionalist motivations. In their book The Future of Religion sociologists William Bainbridge and Rod Stark offer the following observation, though the vast majority of Americans are theists, behaviorally in terms of their lifestyle and buying habits they cluster into two groups. Moderate and liberal religionists often behave in a fashion similar to explicit religious secularists, while conservative religionists tend to espouse and practice different folkways. The take home message is that though the religious as a whole rhetorically cluster together against atheists and agnostics, conservatives might have a hard time persuading moderate and liberal religious people on issues of lifestyle using their core religious principles because moderates and liberals do not apply them in such a fashion. By analogy many moderates and liberals might be as uncomfortable with human cloning as conservative religious people, but they have no strong articulate theological objections and are not persuaded by appeals from right-wing sectarian quarters. On the other hand, arguments by more secular thinkers like Leon Kass, and consequentialist/utilitarian considerations such as adult stem stells can shift their viewpoint.

And so the danger that comes from thinkers like David Berlinski, for the author of A Tour of Calculus has more credibility with the general public than an individual who authors obscure fundamental Biblical commentaries. Berlinski uses a style that appeals to the intellectual mainstream, and he has no hesitation in drafting the ideas of selectively concurrent thinkers in his negative case against evolution.2 In a more broad sense, while some on the Post Modern Left take glee in the battles they win against promoters of "Eurocentric linear thinking," they might consider that they are eviscerating the bedrock of the Enlightenment tradition which has succorred and nourished them in their quest for intellectual illumination. Their victories would be for naught if far more dogmatic worldviews came to the fore to replace the post-Enlightenment Western intellectual tradition. (for the record, I think the Western intellectual tradition will beat all comers in the next few decades, but we can not assume that this is an inevitable force of history, we must make it so by our actions)

Addendum: If read Berlinksi' whole piece, tell me, am I the only one who smells Pyrrohnian Skepticism worthy of the Post Modern Left despite his praise of physics? For example, I smell some of the same attitude in this old post over at Crooked Timber.

1 - Such literary narcissism is only worthy of a weblogger, not someone who publishes in one of the elite intellectual journals of public policy in the United States.

2 - Kimura & Lewontin do not for example share Berlinski's skepticism of the fact of biological evolution. I suspect that Kimura would be as irritated with Berlinski for enlisting neutralism in the way he has as S.J. Gould was whenever Creationists would point to punctuated equilibria as a falsification of evolution.

Posted by razib at 11:34 AM