Monday, December 1, 1997

Q&A Steven Pinker: Down To Darwin


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.
   Steven Pinker, "How the Mind Works"

HB: There's been a lot of focus on Darwinism lately. As if neither Freud nor Marx are going to make the cut into the 21st century and it's down to Darwin. Are we left with two basic models for understanding humanity's place on earth, one being revealed religion, the other, Darwinism?

SP: With evolutionary biology providing the link between social and psychological phenomena and the physical world.

HB: What do you mean by evolutionary psychology?

SP: Evolutionary psychology is the integration of psychology into biology. It's the attempt to make sense of human thought and feeling in terms of kinds of problems our ancestors faced as hunters and gatherers, the idea being that current mental structures -- neural structures, ultimately -- are the product of natural selection for a lifestyle that our hunting and gathering ancestors lived. Evolutionary psychology asks why human psychology is the way it is as opposed to the seven other ways we can imagine it being.

HB: The other element you bring into "How the Mind Works" is the computational model of the mind.

SP: The merging of evolutionary biology and modern cognitive psychology, which should be attributed to Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, gives you a number of advantages. You don't have to think of relatively crude traits like an aggression drive or territorial imperative. You could say that what evolved were not crude instincts but sophisticated algorithms, including algorithms to assess your current situation and guide behavior accordingly. All of the human behavior that used to be considered beyond the scope of evolutionary thinking -- we're too smart to be lumped with monkeys, cows and bees -- can be included by saying, yes, the mind evolved, but the mind is packed with sophisticated software.

It also allows you to deconstruct the old biology/culture nature/nurture dichotomies. If natural selection equipped us with learning tools, the debate evaporates. Positing a lot of innate structure doesn't mean that you have to subtract the amount of learning that goes on in human beings. In a sense, the more innate learning mechanisms there are, the more subtle and sophisticated the learning is.

HB: Don't you think one aspect of Darwinmania is a kind of parlor game evolutionism? In other words, hmmm, I'm not so great at remembering names, but I'm pretty good at faces, and that's probably because, well, maybe there just weren't any names back there in the savanna, when Homo was learning to become Erectus.

I'm talking about do-it-yourself adaptionism.

SP: Yes, and it sets my teeth on edge! Obviously, I think there is a huge difference between this parlor adaptionism and the real thing. One of the arguments for evolutionary psychology is that by bringing it into the open and scrutinizing it, high standards for quality can be applied. With it virtually taboo in science up until now, scientists themselves treat it as a parlor game, advancing their own lame adaptionism stories, figuring that one is as good as another. Strict quality control can be, and must be, applied.

HB: Now that Darwinism seems to be the whole ball game, the rifts among Darwinists open up. For example, Stephen Jay Gould took on Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others in the New York Review of Books [6/12/97 and 6/26/97], calling them Darwinian "fundamentalists at heart."

As I understand Gould, he would increase the amount of autonomy allotted to culture and history, whereas evolutionary psychology keeps culture on a short leash to evolution and adaptionist behavior. There are places in "How the Mind Works" where you seem to take the short leash approach. For example, when discussing the adaptive value of emotions, you challenge the Romantics, writing, "The passions are no vestige of an animal past, no wellspring of creativity, no enemy of the intellect." But the Romantics were adopting a certain cultural stance about the individual and emotion. You drop the cultural and historical context, and treat the Romantics as if they were a school of mistaken scientists.

SP: I'm focusing on the nugget of intuitive science behind the Romantic movement, which, interestingly, feeds back into the sciences. Most scientific theories of the emotions, I think, boil back down to the one implicit in Romanticism. So you get Freud's id and superego, the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. The Romantic theory keeps reappearing in scientific guise mostly because the scientists themselves don't see Romanticism as a historical movement and have no other way of thinking about the emotions.

HB: Let me come at it another way. When you're establishing differences between men and women with regard to sexuality you say, "there is virtually no female market for pornography." But that's just not true anymore.

SP: It's largely true. Go into a magazine store and count the number of magazines aimed at female customers versus those aimed at male customers. Check the Combat Zone, the web sites.

HB: But the point is Web sites, Internet news groups and phone chat lines include women. That's something new in the culture and I feel you won't allow it because it strays too far from some fundament of adaptionism.

SP: I disagree with you on the facts. It comes down to one of us actually going out and measuring what has been going on.

The difference between men and women is minimized in intellectual circles where there is a certain chic interest in pornography among women, especially women who call themselves feminists, partly as a reaction to the Dworkin-Mckinnon version of feminism. But if you look to the grass roots, if you go into convenience stores in 50 randomly selected sites in the United States, and look at the magazine rack, go the to Combat Zone in any major city and count the number of peep shows aimed at men and women . . .

HB: But the successful new sex shop in Boston is not in the Combat Zone. It's called Grand Opening and run by women.

SP: When you get to the realm of cultural fads, superimposed on our basic sexuality, there are the usual fashion cycles. Hem lines go up, hem lines go down. The tail fins come, the tail fins go. And so taste for genre fiction or what's considered hip or avant-garde is going to be independent of basic emotions. Is it a pervasive change, a lasting change or an avant-garde phenomenon among a certain segment of the cultural elite?

HB: You use a similar tone in regard to contemporary art, which you fault for failing to function in the traditional way. You write that, "artists make their careers by finding ways . . . to flout the current wisdom about what art is." But couldn't we also say there a deep confusion about art that means it's perfectly legitimate for artists to probe and experiment?

SP: I agree. However, the goal in my discussion was to look at the psychology of aesthetics. I wanted to distance myself from self-conscious examinations of art; they are the wrong place to start if you interested in the psychology of aesthetics. I agree, art is no longer about beauty; if you're interested in beauty, you shouldn't look at modern art. It's a misleading source of data. The rest of the world still puts up pretty paintings in their living rooms.

HB: It's certainly fair to focus on the psychology of aesthetics. But is it also necessary to dismiss contemporary art as aberrant and elitist?

SP: It certainly is elitist. Look, I'm choosing a topic, and I want to understand it. How do I make sure I don't get misled and confused? There is a part of the brain I'm trying to understand -- just like stereovision or the emotion of disgust. How do I make sure that I can characterize it?

 If you look at all possible genres, the ones people find beautiful are a tiny subset. Look at all the ways of making a sound wave form, and look at the things that people find pleasing. There's certainly variation across culture but we wind up with a tiny, constrained subset of all possible sounds. The question is, why that subset?

HB: Even if it's true -- and I don't know that it is, though maybe you do -- that infants and toddlers around the world respond in the same way to certain patterns or colors or sounds; even if that's so, it's almost irrelevant to what the culture will create out of those basic elements, what the culture will value as art. To go from what might be innate in a toddler to what an adult will appreciate doesn't seem a simple step.

SP: What we appreciate as art is no doubt complicated because its raison d'etre is to be complicated. Its point is challenge us.

HB: Why not say that's as important, as legitimate a function of art, as aesthetic satisfaction? And that it's something contemporary art does very well.

SP: When I go to museums, I go to see exactly those kinds of things.

HB: But your writing is dismissive of them.

SP: It's dismissive in two ways. If you are trying to understand the psychology of aesthetics, you can get misled by confusing your own current interests -- you being a scholar, scientist, commentator, etc. -- with it. And if you put a value judgment on challenging, sophisticated, avant-garde art, it's part of your self-esteem, part of the self you present to others.

HB: It's disturbing that you reduce interest in sophisticated art to issues of status and self-esteem.

SP: The puzzle I've addressed myself to is why do I put pictures of flowers on my wall, and why does 99 % of humanity enjoy visual decorations, either representational or geometric? It's a significant part of our psychology.

The point of the aesthetics discussion wasn't to say that the arts are a bad thing but to try to get an understanding. You can't understand something if you exalt it to much.

HB: This gets us back to S.J. Gould and his discussion of spandrels.

SP: Spandrels. OK, you want to put a dome on four arches. In-between the arches you have tapering spaces. Those are called spandrels.

HB: Spandrels, then, are by-products. Gould says if there's one piece of evolution that's full of spandrels, it's the human mind. For example, he says reading and writing are spandrels thrown off by our big brain well after it achieved its current size.

SP: Gould is interested in human behavior. I'm more interested in thought and emotion. Behavior is just too complicated. If we're talking about weaving, bowling, and going to the movies, sure those are all spandrels. The last chapter of "How the Mind Works" is on the arts, religion and philosophy -- all spandrels. However, a spandrel is a by-product. In order for there to be a by-product, there have to be products. You can't understand the spandrels unless you understand the arches and the dome.

Surely what's advantageous about our intelligence is the ability to outsmart animals and trap them, and to prepare foods out of toxic plants, and so on.

HB: This is the "cognitive arms race" you refer to when you write, "As far as brain power goes, there's no end to keeping up with the Joneses."

SP: Yes, the evolutionary arms race. Our brain size is a by-product of the fact that complicated software needs a lot of hardware.

HB: I'm struck by the lack of real contradiction between you and Gould. Once you have this big brain, it can develop spandrels with their own independent role to play in culture, history, being human.

SP: Absolutely.

HB: So it's a question of emphasis.

SP: It is emphasis. It's also that Gould completely mischaracterizes his targets. He's invented a fantasy world of people that don't exist.

HB: He's invented a Daniel Dennett? Don't you think Dennett looks at evolution as an algorithmic process?

SP: Yes.

HB: Powered entirely by natural selection?

SP: I think this is really a figment of Gould's imagination, a bogeyman for him to attack. First of all, the notion of spandrels doesn't come from Gould but from George Williams in "Adaptation and Natural Selection," which is really the foundation of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and a masterpiece. The first words of that book are, "Adaptation is an onerous concept which should not be invoked casually." Williams says there are criteria for calling something an adaptation, namely, that it shows signs of complex engineering design, and that the outcome of the engineering would be propagation of copies of genes over evolutionary history.

Williams got the issues right. Gould, without attribution, took the spandrel argument and forgot the other half it -- how you tell a spandrel from an adaptation. He concocts characters who are supposedly unaware of by-products, and positions himself in this fictitious debate as on the side of pluralism against the fundamentalists. Except the fundamentalists don't really exist.

HB: Don't you also criticize Gould for depicting cultural evolution as a Lamarckian process?

SP: Yes.

HB: Why? Gould means that culture and language allow us to do what natural selection doesn't, namely pass on acquired characteristics to succeeding generations.

SP: That's correct but useless. Lamarckianism is a flawed theory of biology, maintaining that we mysteriously manage to grow just what would be useful. To say cultural evolution is Lamarckian doesn't buy you anything.

HB: It helps me appreciate why cultural change is so many times faster than biological change. Culture doesn't depend on the slow process of natural selection; you are pass things on directly by means of language and culture. And the notion of culture as a Lamarckian process allows considerable free play to culture and history.

SP: Culture and history cannot be seen as fundamental forces of the universe but as arising out of interactions among humans with a certain psychology in a certain physical environment.

We would all profit from seeing culture and history as connected to the psychology of the human beings who are doing the cultural innovation. When we talk about our culture giving us this, our culture valuing that, it's a loose way of talking about flesh and blood human beings. Culture doesn't do anything unless the real live bodies that make up that culture are actually behaving in certain ways. And you won't have a clear understanding of culture unless you have a clear understanding of human psychology.

When I say I'm a good reductionist as opposed to a bad reductionist, what I mean is each level of explanation should be systematically connected to the one lower down. A bad reductionist, let's say, an eliminitivist, to coin a piece of jargon, would say that once we understand psychology we can do away with culture and history; history is bunk. That's what E.O. Wilson was accused of doing in the seventies, maybe with some justification, maybe not. Science is inherently reductionist in the good sense but not necessarily in the bad sense. The bad sense, if taken to its logical extreme, would say culture can be reduced to psychology, psychology can be reduced to neuroscience, neuroscience can be reduced to cellular biology, which can be reduced to chemistry, which can be reduced to physics, and therefore you can ultimately explain the French Revolution in terms of quarks.

On the other hand, there is good reductionism, say molecular biology showing how the phenomena of life arise out of interactions at a lower level of molecules. But molecular biology doesn't replace organism biology; you can't replace a discussion of how birds fly with a discussion of protein molecules. Likewise, rooting culture in psychology doesn't eliminate it; there are high-order interactions we can never predict.

HB: You write that, "Prospering as a forager is a more difficult problem than doing calculus or playing chess."

SP: Yes.

HB: But isn't it true that over the last few centuries the calculus-doing people have determined the fate of the foragers? Again, that fact seems to allot more space to culture and history than you are comfortable with.

SP: I'm not talking about importance over the course of history. I'm only concerned with dismantling the device, the device being our mind, and figuring out how it works. I think the reason the calculus-doing people have taken over the world comes from history and politics. The people who can do calculus are the people who have guns, and people who have guns are in a better position to take over land than people who don't.

But I'm talking about evolution in a very narrow sense -- not about the sweep of history. I'm talking about the process that led to the kind of genes that built the brain we now have. "How the Mind Works" looks at humans the way E. O. Wilson looks at ants, trying to figure out what makes us tick. Larger questions about the trend of history are outside my compass. The way I'm very much not a reductionist is by saying there really are cultural and historical processes, and history is not an extrapolation of biological evolution. Civilization goes by rules that are probably not very similar to those of natural selection.

HB: I want to ask about the increasing centrality of neurology. Neurology and neuroscience seem to be edging psychology aside. It reminds me of how the first generation of scientists in artificial intelligence hugely overstated their claims, saying they were on the verge of breakthroughs that never materialized. It seems the same is now true of neurology: blitz the brain with Prozac, and pretend you've unlocked the secrets of the mind.

SP: I completely agree.

HB: It's changed the way we talk. More and more people talk not about emotions but about neurological states -- attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, dyslexia, autism, and the like.

SP: It's higher-tech language for psychological phenomena, the same way that a couple of generations ago Freudian psychology gave us a whole new vocabulary for talking about human traits: he's "anal," she's "projecting."

I do think the whole neuroscience revolution is overrated. Hillary Clinton recently led a White House conference on child development, where old ideas about child development -- like children need love -- were getting translated into neurologese. Read to your children because it's good for their neurons.

HB: You wrote, "The allergy to evolution in the social and cognitive sciences has been, I think, a barrier to understanding." Can you explain why Noam Chomsky, for example, is so allergic to evolution?

SP: He runs hot and cold. In some of his writings he's actually said, well, language has obvious selective advantages. More often, he's skeptical to hostile. He has a certain aesthetic about what a scientific theory should look like. He's a Platonist; there should be elegant, crystal-like forms behind the messiness of reality. The idea of evolution as a process of statistical noise followed by feedback iterated over many generations strikes him as just too ugly to be taken seriously.

There may also be a politic dimension, though he would deny it. Chomsky's an anarchist. Anarchism is based on romanticism, on the idea that our basic nature leads toward the common good, and that evil parts of humanity come from social organization. It's difficult to reconcile that with survival of the fittest, which says that organisms are inherently in competition with each other.

HB: A last question about the relative weight of adaptations and spandrels. Can't spandrels overwhelm adaptations, in the negative sense as well? For example, there's a spurt in, say, calculus spandreling, which fuels some furious physics spandreling, which in turn leads to some amazing spandrels concerning nuclear fission and fusion and then, boom, nuclear winter and no more Homo Sapiens to be found.

SP: It's quite possible that spandrels such as math, science, nation-states, and organized religion could be our species' undoing. These activities are all recent in evolutionary time -- since the invention of agriculture and civilizations 10,000 years ago -- and don't reflect what our minds were designed to do over the preceding 99% of our evolutionary history. We obviously haven't had the time or the opportunities to evolve a mind that would avoid steps leading to nuclear war or ecological catastrophe, because such events have not yet had an opportunity to weed out the minds that led to them. Species go extinct all the time, sometimes from their own behavior -- outstripping food supplies, migrating to areas that are safe in the short term but dangerous over the long run, and so on. We might do the same.

Second, remember that the by-products are defined by the adaptations, so one can't simply tally them up in two lists. Science, religion, art, music, and so on, are activities that are spandrels, but they are generated by mental faculties that are themselves adaptations (intuitive science, intuitive psychology, auditory and visual perception, and so on). I don't think spandrels are specific, organized neural circuits that themselves accomplish anything. They are by-products of circuits designed to accomplish something useful.

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