Steven Pinker

So I’ve been skirmishing with Pinker’s ‘Language Instinct’, but I wouldn’t mind putting off reading it in earnest until I find some good criticism of him. The problem I’ve run into is that there doesn’t seem to be all that much; most things I’ve come across are defensive and dumb.

I really love science: I mostly took science in high school, I read Scientific American and as much popularish science as I can handle; but, honestly speaking, the majority of my life is consecrated to the humanities. My lack of good criticism of Pinker speaks to a larger problem of mine.

As far as I can tell from science I read, sociobiology and language innateness have carried the day and most people have moved on to other problems. But Humanities people still speak as though sociobiology was still being debated, and can barely get out Steven Pinker’s name for disgust.

There are two possibilities I can think of where Humanities-folk would be in the right. Either the course of mainstream science has been perverted, or the science which has trickled down to me has been vilely misrepresented by popularization and the media. Much as I’d like to, I have a hard time entertaining either scenario.

The problem, then, would seem to be with Humanities people. In my experience, most scientific critiques from the Humanities fuck up the science pretty bad, e.g. completely misunderstanding the way female choice works in sexual selection. Silly scientific analogies are one thing; bad science criticism harms public discourse, and makes it easier for bad leaders to game the system and install underqualified appointees. This is a serious problem.

There are doubtless criticisms to be made, but it’s crucial that they be made with the firmest possible background in the science.

I’m hoping that Hilary Putnam will prove less obnoxious than the petty feuilletonists I’ve encountered thus far (specific Putnam recommendations most welcome!).


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