Recent discussion in some comments brought up the nature/nurture question and Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate.
There is one part in the book which I remembered distinctly as a muddled-seeming swat at feminism. But, at the time when I read the book (2002) I didn’t really care very much because I interpreted Pinker as taking sides in a theoretical point between feminists. So, I blew past his argument but its existence stuck in my memory; I was mostly paying attention to see if he offered a good defense of evolutionary psychology.
I thought, as an exercise, perhaps we could collectively take a look at a few specific pages from Pinker – the ones I remembered – and see what’s there. Since I know FtB’s own H.J. Hornbeck is also interested in this topic, I’ve hinted broadly that he might also wish to take a look at these specific pages, since I value his thoughts greatly. Update: H.J. got hung up on the first sentence [reprobate spreadsheet]. He did a much more detailed reading.
We’re going to focus here on Pinker’s characterization of feminism, found beginning on page 341 and ending on 343.[of the 2002 edition] I will include those pages below, so that you can review them. (don’t read the pictures, there’s actual text, those are just there for decoration)
Feminism is often derided because of the arguments of its lunatic fringe – for example, that all intercourse is rape, that all women should be lesbians, or that only 10 percent of the population should be allowed to be male.Feminists reply that proponents of women’s rights do not speak with one voice, and that feminist thought comprises many positions, which have to be evaluatedindependently.That is completely legitimate, but it cuts both ways. To criticize a particularfeminist proposal is not to attack feminism in general. Anyone familiar with academia knows that it breeds ideological cults that are prone to dogma and resistant to criticism. Many women believe that this has now happened to feminism. In her book Who Stole Feminism? the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers draws a useful distinction between two schools of thought.Equity feminism opposes sex discrimination and other forms of unfairness to women. It is part of the classical liberal and humanistic tradition that grew out of the Enlightenment, and it guided the first wave of feminism and launched the second wave.Gender feminism holds that women continue to be enslaved by a pervasive system of male dominance, the gender system, in which bi-sexual infants are transformed into male and female gender personalities, the one destined to command, the other to obey.It is opposed to the classical liberal tradition and allied instead with Marxism, postmodernism, social constructionism, and radical science. It has became the credo of some women’s studies programs, feminist organizations, and spokespeople for the women’s movement. Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from themotives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.In embracing these doctrines, the genderists are handcuffing feminism to railroad tracks on which a train is bearing down. As we shall see, neuroscience, gene tics, psychology, and ethnography are documenting sex differences that almost certainly originate in human biology. And evolutionary psychology is documenting a web of motives other than group – against – group dominance (such as love, sex, family, and beauty) that entangle us in many conflicts and confluences of interest with members of the same sex and of the opposite sex.Gender feminists want either to derail the train or to have other women join them in martyrdom, but the other women are not cooperating. Despite their visibility, gender feminists do not speak for all feminists, let alone for all women.To begin with, research on the biological basis of sex differences has been led by women. Because it is so often said that this research is a plot to keep women down, I will have to name names. Researchers on the biology of sex differences include the neuroscientists Raquel Gur,Melissa Hines, Doreen Kimura, Jerre Levy, Martha McClintock, Sally Shaywitz, and Sandra Witelson and the psychologists Camill a Benbow, Linda Gottfredson, Diane Halpern, Judith Kleinfeld, and Diane McGuinness. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, sometimes stereotyped as a “sexist discipline,” is perhaps the most bi-gendered academic field I am familiar with. Its major figures include Laura Betzig, Elizabeth Cashdan, Leda Cosmides, Helena Cronin, Mildred Dickeman, Helen Fisher, Patricia Gowaty, Kristen Hawkes, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Magdalena Hurtado, Bobbie Low, Linda Mealey, Felicia Pratto, Marnie Rice, Catherine Salmon, Joan Silk, Meredith Small, Barbara Smuts, Nancy Wilmsen Thornhill, and Margo Wilson. It is not just gender feminism’s collision with science that repels many feminists. Like other inbred ideologies, it has produced strange excrescences, like the offshoot known as difference feminism. Carol Gilligan has become a gender-feminist icon because of her claim that men and women guide their moral reasoning by different principles: men think about rights and justice; women have feelings of compassion, nurturing, and peaceful accommodation.If true, it would disqualify women from becoming constitutional lawyers, Supreme Court justices, and moral philosophers, who make their living by reasoning about rights and justice. But it is not true. Many studies have tested Gilligan’s hypothesis and found that men and women differ little or not at all in their moral reasoning.So difference feminism offers women the worst of both worlds: invidious claims without scientific support. Similarly, the gender-feminist classic called Women’s Ways of Knowing claims that the sexes differ in their style s of reasoning. Men value excellence and mastery in intellectual matters and skeptically evaluate arguments in terms of logic and evidence; women are spiritual, relational, inclusive, and credulous.With sisters like these, who needs male chauvinists? Gender feminism’s disdain for analytical rigor and classical liberal principles has recently been excoriated by equity feminists, among them Jean Bethke Elshtain, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Wendy Kaminer, Noretta Koertge, Donna Laframboise, Mary Lefkowitz, Wendy McElroy, Camille Paglia, Daphne Patai, Virginia Postrel, Alice Rossi, Sally Satel, Christina Hoff Sommers, Nadine Strossen, Joan Kennedy Taylor, and Cathy Young.Well before them, prominent women writers demurred from gender-feminist ideology, including Joan Didion, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Cynthia Ozick, and Susan Sontag. And ominously for the movement, a younger generation has rejected the gender feminists‘ claims that love, beauty, flirtation, erotica, art, and heterosexuality are pernicious social constructs. The title of the book The New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order captures the revolt of such writers as Rene Denfeld, Karen Lehrman, Katie Roiphe, and Rebecca Walker, and of the movements called Third Wave, Riot Grrrl Movement, Pro-Sex Feminism, Lipstick Lesbians, Girl Power, and Feminists for Free Expression.The difference between gender feminism and equity feminism accounts for the oft-reported paradox that most women do not consider themselves feminists (about 70 percent in 1997, up from about 60 percent a decade before), yet they agree with every major feminist position.The explanation is simple: the word “feminist” is often associated with gender feminism, but the positions in the polls are those of equity feminism. Faced with these signs of slipping support, gender feminists have tried to stipulate that only they can be considered the true advocates of women’s rights. For example, in 1992 Gloria Steinem said of Paglia, “Her calling herself a feminist is sort of like a Nazi saying they’re not anti-Semitic.” And they have invented a lexicon of epithets for what in any other area would be called disagreement: “backlash,” “not getting it,” “silencing women,” “intellectual harassment.”All this is an essential background to the discussions to come. To say that women and men do not have interchangeable minds, that people have desires other than power, and that motives belong to individual people and not just to entire genders is not to attack feminism or to compromise the interests of women, despite the misconception that gender feminism speaks in their name. All the arguments in the remainder of this chapter have been advanced most forcefully by women.Why are people so afraid of the idea that the minds of men and women are not identical in every respect? Would we really be better off if everyone were like Pat, the androgynous nerd from Saturday Night Live? The fear, of course, is that different implies unequal – that if the sexes differed in any way, then men would have to be better, or more dominant, or have all the fun.Nothing could be farther from biological thinking. Trivers alluded to a “symmetry in human relationships,” which embraced a “genetic equality of the sexes.” From a gene’s point of view, being in the body of a male and being in the body of a female are equally good strategies, at least on average (circumstances can nudge the advantage somewhat in either direction). Natural selection thus tends toward an equal investment in the two sexes: equal numbers, an equal complexity of bodies and brains, and equally effective designs for survival. Is it better to be the size of a male baboon and have six-inch canine teeth or to be the size of a female baboon and not have them? Merely to ask the question is to reveal its pointlessness. A biologist would say that it’s better to have the male adaptations to deal with male problems and the female adaptations to deal with female problems.So men are not from Mars, nor are women from Venus. Men and women are from Africa, the cradle of our evolution, where they evolved together as a single species. Men and women have all the same genes except for a handful on the Y chromosome, and their brains are so similar that it takes an eagle-eyed neuroanatomist to find the small differences between them. Their average levels of general intelligence are the same, according to the best psychometric estimates, and they use language and think about the physical and living world in the same general way. They feel the same basic emotions, and both enjoy sex, seek intelligent and kind marriage partners, get jealous, make sacrifices for their children, compete for status and mates, and sometimes commit aggression in pursuit of their interests.But of course the minds of men and women are not identical, and recent reviews of sex differences have converged on some reliable differences. Sometimes the differences are large, with only slight overlap in the bell curves. Men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners, as we see in the almost all-male consumer base for prostitution and visual pornography. Men are far more likely to compete violently, sometimes lethally, with one another over stakes great and small (as in the recent case of a surgeon and an anesthesiologist who came to blows in the operating room while a patient lay on the table waiting to have her gall bladder removed). Among children, boys spend far more time practicing for violent conflict in the form of what psychologists genteelly call “rough-and-tumble pay” The ability to manipulate three-dimensional objects and space in the mind also shows a large difference in favor of men.
One more observation then we can start to look at what Pinker’s saying: there are substantial differences between the text (which I pulled and reformatted from a PDF of a more recent E-book edition) and the 2002 version. It shows some effort that I interpret as an attempt to shore up his argument, or tone it down, in various spots. For example, in the 2002 edition he writes:
It is not just gender feminism’s collision with science that repels many feminists. Like other inbred ideologies, it has produced strange excrescences, the the offshoot known as difference feminism.
It seems to me that there is a great deal of well-poisoning and strawmanning going on, here. Also, some appeals to dubious authority Christina Hoff Summers and Camille Paglia being two that I would be cautious about labelling at all.
We must also note that Pinker is using Christina Hoff Summers’ labels “gender feminism” and “equity feminism” which are, I would say, well-poisoning right there. The form of feminism that Pinker seems to be describing as “gender feminism” appears to me to be an outright caricature of an amalgam of extreme feminist/separatist views. It seems to me that often, when men write about feminism, they fall for the trap of caricaturing an extreme feminist viewpoint as – basically – Andrea Dworkin. But, they don’t want to come out and say they are using Andrea Dworkin as a strawman caricature of radical feminism. Why not? Because, if they do, it’s pretty easy to dismiss the whole argument by pointing out that Dworkin (though she made some very interesting points, I must say) was hardly mainstream.
It seems to me that Pinker is doing a sneakier version of a form of anti-feminist maneuver that consists of saying “well, there are some really extreme feminists, and, uh, cultural marxism, political correctness, and therefore these people are anti-science.” That maneuver also depends on Pinker’s fallback that, you know, speech is being suppressed by radical thinkers who are yelling at people about things:
It has became the credo of some women’s studies programs, feminist organizations, and spokespeople for the women’s movement.
Basically, what Pinker is doing here is like saying that Alex Jones is a great example of the republican base. Anyone saying that would be dishonest – Jones is a great example of the lunatic fringe of the republican base but when Pinker is obliquely referring to Dworkin he’s saying, in effect, that the person jamming open one end of the Overton Window defines the window.
What’s most bizzare about this, to me, is that Pinker’s trying to pretend to be all sciency but instead he just charges in and starts waving his hands and supporting his hand-waving with assertions supported by dubious authority. I think that, somewhere in his mind, he is trying to say something profound about feminism, but he has failed to understand even the most basic problems of labelling: that people lose track of your argument because they start using your labels – and labels aren’t an argument.
Men and women have all the same genes except for a handful on the Y chromosome, and their brains are so similar that it takes an eagle-eyed neuroanatomist to find the small differences between them. Their average levels of general intelligence are the same, according to the best psychometric estimates, and they use language and think about the physical and living world in the same general way.
Did he just throw Evolutionary Psychology under the bus, so he could take a halfhearted poke at feminism?
Now, I remember why this piece of Pinker made me go “huh?” and keep reading: I’m not sure what he is trying to accomplish with this bit other than to poke at a caricature strawman of feminism, and show that he understands damn little about feminism. Feminism is not some great post-modern cultural marxist WTF that comes in with a book of rules for proper thought and torments everyone who doesn’t think right. It’s a very big, broad, belief system that is fractally complex and which absolutely does not caricature easily; I remember asking a friend of mine, a professor who teaches gender studies at a notable university in Massachusetts, about Dworkin – because the things she said sure seemed a bit radical to me – and I got what I thought was a fairly good answer: it’s complicated, like all belief systems, even a single individual who is part of an overall movement can hold views that are all over the place, in terms of that movement. I’ll also say that that friend thinks Camille Paglia is an attention-seeking contrarian who is attempting to be a glittering pseudo-intellect but hasn’t got the chops for it. That’s about my assessment, too.
Pinker seems to be pointing at this radical fringe, as defined by Christina Hoff Summers who is also a dubious character who is more or less a radical fringer, in her own right. That’s not how to define the landscape of a field of thought.
What do you think?