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June 16th, 2023

Racial Hierarchies Are Real And Well Of Course We’re The Top One

A casual stroll through the internet tubes this afternoon, brings me to a decades old argument between Steven Pinker and Stephen J. Gould. First, from Pharyngula

One accidental occurrence is meaningless and forgivable, but when you keep hanging out with the same group of racists for over 20 years, and when you are repeatedly informed that these are bad guys, the correlation becomes rather more substantial. 

Then, following the links, comes this from Box of Rocks

Even though Gould passed away in 2003, Pinker still fights his ghost on the regular, probably because burns like that leave you scarred for life. He urges the members of his field to write compellingly so that they can hold their own in the realm of public opinion, citing a need to rebut Gould’s clear, well reasoned arguments against their endless and transparent attempts at reviving race science.

It is working. Sociobiology and eugenics is once again being repackaged for the public as part of the TESCREAL ideologies, pressed into service to rationalize why those with power and resources are morally justified in doing everything they can to retain it. This rebrand is made possible by those like Pinker, Wilson, Dawkins, and Dennett, who have carried the gospel of biological determinism out of the NYRB and into the public sphere for the last 30 years…

You can find the argument here and yes it is totally engaging. Gould was amazing…

If we define poetic justice as defeat by one’s own favored devices—Robespierre before the guillotine or Midas in golden starvation—then we might be intrigued to find Steven Pinker, a linguist by training, upended by his own use of words.

Ages ago I read Pinker’s The Blank Slate with interest. I was a young man barely out of my teens when I’d come to accept the notion, by way of Robert Audrey’s African Genesis (Yeah, I know…), that to understand ourselves we needed to understand those ancient animal horizons from which we, as he wrote, made our quick little march. Pinker’s book seemed to be a useful exploration of that idea. But I am also a post WWII baby boomer child, and I also had a pretty good understanding of how the fascists prior to world war two had employed a deeply false understanding of Darwinism as justification for totalitarianism, their wars of conquest, and the Holocaust. Pinker lost me part way through the book with an approving mention of Thomas Sowell, but I gamely plugged on. 

There are books on science, politics, and ideas that I will return to and read passages from over and over again, some that I profoundly disagree with but which I think are important to engage with anyway. The Blank Slate isn’t one of them. When I closed that book I never opened it again, probably because the ideas in it that I felt drawn to were expressed much better elsewhere, and there seemed a lot of posing and fluff everywhere else. I never read any of his stuff again, initially and simply because he just didn’t strike me as all that interesting a thinker. I also suspected he was more right wing than he let on (Sowell? Really??). It was much later that I saw the drift toward Charles Murray land.

What Gould was saying there in those arguments about traits evolving from things that might not always benefit the organism strikes logical man of science me as obvious, and emotional intuitive artist me as beautiful. Think of the evolutionary process as occasionally being Bob Ross seeing a small mistake on the canvas and saying “we’ll just make that a happy little tree.” What the artist knows is that the work is an exploration, and that beauty can present suddenly and unexpectedly from the most commonplace of things…things that you would never have noticed until that one small detail that changed, ever so slightly, changed everything. You put down some lines…maybe you make a mistake…maybe you draw it a little differently than you intended. You go to erase it but you look at it again and suddenly you see a direction you can take that is better than what you were thinking before.

This is the face of Stephan Borgrajewicz, who like me was born in Poland. In plate 175 it is seen by the Polish artist, Feliks Topolski. We are aware that these pictures do not fix the face as explore it; that the artist is tracing the detail almost as if by touch; and that each line that is added strengthens the picture but never makes it final. We accept that as the method of the artist.

-Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man – Chapter 11, Knowledge or Certainty.

Art, like science, is a personal exploration of nature. Every line we put down is tentative. Does it add to the work or subtract from it? And the work is never finished, never final. You take it as far as you can and then you stop. This is the likeness between science and art that Bronowski illuminated for me. And as it turns out, you can see it everywhere in nature too. Evolution explores, it deals in possibilities, it is chaotic but not random; there the laws of physics behind what it does. Sometimes it is a gift to the organism, sometimes it is a dead end, and sometimes it is a dead end that, should the environment around the organism change, suddenly becomes a gift. Probably the evolutionary scientist would say that nature does whatever it damn well pleases. And the thing is, there is no plan. Only the physics of it.

“Pinker has spent his life defending those who would rank humans from best to worst…” and it strikes me as something akin to the never ending search for the great watchmaker. Surely evolution must have a purpose, and surely that purpose must be the slow steady perfection of the rational brain. And just look at us…we are the men of the mind…the great intellects of our age…surely we are the purpose evolution was aspiring to! But there is no purpose. There is only what the physics allows, and what time could make of what it had to work with on our little blue marble. That’s beautiful. It is sublime. Yes, the rational brain works for us, and very well. But it could have appeared anywhere, or nowhere. As Penn Juliette once put it, we hit the cosmic jackpot. But those that would make of our little walk from the African plains a purpose, and from that a hierarchy of race, are no different from the feverish pulpit thumpers, babbling about the saved and the unsaved (I was taught to never, Never assume you were saved), and never really wanting to know what God, let alone nature, hath wrought.


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