For the record, and to put earlier comments in context, below is an
e-mail to me from Herb Gintis sent in July , 2000. the double indents
are his earlier statements, partly from his review of Ulrica
Segerstrale's book as indicated, the single indents my responses. None
of this has to do with the paper I saw on his website, which is quite
differnt from the one quoted by Michael Weissman; though I stand by my
general critique of that paper, I should have said that B & G seemed to
be insanely and simple-mindedly supportive of ev psych, rather than
necessarily being insane and simple-minded people. (there is a
difference). so my apologies for that. I'm not surprised to see that
they've published stuff in "reputable" science journals. If this sort of
stuff were never published in such places it would be much less
worrisome., but its publication in such places hardly dmeonstrates that
it is not insnaley simple-minded from my perrspective. Likewise, the
fact that Gintis chooses to brag that he keeps in touch "with real
scientists" only serves further to demonstrate something broken in his
thinking, in my opinion. Judge for yourselves.
On a related note, M. Weissman, among his other remarks, points to the
achievemnt of ev. psych types (apparently) in demonstrating that humans
at times have been cannibals. However, this only argues for the thought
that there is no fixed human nature, since members of our socieity would
mostly pale at the very idea of eating human flesh. theree are some
quite genral statemnts we can make about humans, such as that we
practically all are capapable of learning syntactic, symbolic speech,
but having examined the matter a bit,I find it incredibly unlikely that
nayone willever come up with a single convincing explanation for how
this remarkable ability evolved. On the contrary, as others have said,
the weight of ev psych still seems tobe towards the socially
tnednetious and dangerous ratinoalization of what is.
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Comments redux
Date: Tue, 25 Jul 2000 00:24:53 -0400
From: Herbert Gintis <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Thanks for replying, Michael. My comments are also intercalated.
>> There is a generation of Leftist
>> intellectuals, well described in Ullica Segerstrale's excellent
>> new book Defenders of the Truth, who think
>> it is their mission in life to defend the poor,
>> stupid public against the fiendish Enemies of
>> the People.
> This is not only extremely tendentious, but quite wrong. To conduct a
> sharp debate in public, or at least for one small corner of the public
> who read what these leftists write is in no way censorship. Steven
> Pinker's books and Robert Wright's, etc. certainly outsell most of
> their critics. Where is the censorship in pointing out what appear to
> be very huge problems with their writings? To say that others'
> writings are dangerous in no way implies that the public is stupid.
> However, people are very busy, and don't have the time to consider
> everything carefully. That's why there exist specialists, including
> you. It is one of the highest callings of any intellectual to make
> sure critiques are available and can be heard, at least by anyone who
> wants to listen.
I was very angry at being called culturally pernicious and part of a
right-wing plot to undermine the welfare state. I consider this kind of
mudslinging beneath my dignity, but this time I bit at the bait and
flailed back. I know for a fact that they're wrong about the politics of
the people they critique. None is Old Left, and none is Marxist, but
there is a smattering of everything else. Moreover, what sociobiologists
are doing (and I include myself in this) is considered scientific
research, so politics does not come up very often. I can spend hours and
hours at a conference without once even thinking about the political
implications of what is transpiring.
Of course, I am very political, so I apply what I learn to social policy
analysis. You will find many pieces by me and Bowles on my web site
(including books) that are informed by sociobiology. So it is vicious
and wrong to say we are pernicious and right-wing.
The intellectual content of their critique would never lead me to verbal
excesses. I think they are pathetic in dealing with human social
behavior, although some are good biologists of barnacles, microbes, and
other important parts of the biota of the earth.
> It also behooves anyone who takes their beliefs seriously to speak out
> when they think someone else is saying something seriously
> wrong-headed that if believed might have pernicious effects. Do you
> really believe that anyone who comes across evolutionary psychology
> will be aware of arguments against it, without ever seeing them? If
> so, that means you believe everyone has had time to think carefully
> about evolution, and has taken the time. the majority of the American
> public has only the most rudimentary idea of what evolution means.
> Yet evaluating the claims of evolutionary psychology certainly
> requires far more knowledge than that. What is the harm in pointing
> out some of the problems?
Every doctrine can have pernicious effects. The strong cultural
relativism supported by the Old Left had terrible effects. Liberalism,
Christianity, science, etc. All can have bad effects when misused. The
idea that sociobiology (or ev psych) is systematically misused for bad
political purposes is, I believe incorrect. There are some stupid
policies purported to be based on ev psych---for instance, K.
MacDonald's anti-Remitism, Ruston's racism, Thornhill and Palmer's
analysis of rape, Herrnstein and Murray's theory of inequality---but
they are roundly criticized within the behavioral ecology community.
The irony is that the Old Left was about the most serious set of
supporters of socially pernicious doctrines I can imagine. And yet never
in my life have I said "Marxism is pernicious, and part of a left-wing
plot to destroy freedom and democracy." Partly because there are many
strands of Marxism that such a description is completely false of. And
partly because anyone who uses such language is deserving of contempt
just for doing so.
>> Rose is a minor character in
>> Segerstrale's book, which centers on Steven
>> Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Science for the
>> People. But Rose and Rose are just a newer
>> version of this old story.
>> Instead of furthering our
>> of human behavior, Rose, Rose and their
>> Postmodern friends just tear down the work of
>> others, and implicitly hope that people will keep
>> on believing the traditional notion that
>> beings are a blank slate (tabula rasa), on which
>> society can write whatever protocols it
> I haven't read Rose and Rose, but I find it hard to grasp how
> post-modernists come to side with the modernist tabula rasa approach,
> rather than something much more complex. Gould, Lewontin and Science
> for the People are not in the least post-modernists in my estimation.
> I would probably prefer them if they were.
This was a mistake. They're not post-modern at all. I just should have
said "left wing friends"
>> Stephen Pinker, David Buss, Leda Cosmides and
>> John Tooby, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, and
>> many others, have written absolutely major
>> scientific works discrediting the Standard
>> Sciences Model, but they are treated like hacks
>> by this group of self-appointed,
> It's absurd to call the Roses, Gould or Lewontin either unproductive
> or censors.
None is productive in behavioral science as applied to human beings.
Gould and Lewontin are brilliant in different ways, but both are inept
and out of the element in dealing with human society. All of them
critique in public the writings of researchers in areas where they are
> As for the brilliance of your list of Evolutionary Psychology stars,
> I have only read the first on your list, Pinker, with any care. My
> favorite example of utter nonsense from him concerns his claims that
> the American love of perfect lawns is a throwback to evolutionary
> origins in the African savannahs. He at least could have consulted
> some books on landscaping and its history before publishing this. The
> lawn, far from being in our genes, pretty clearly seems to have
> originated in early modern English enclosures' leaving large sheep
> meadows that could then come to represent wealth even more purely
> without the sheep. Where are there lawns that are not English derived?
> Am I to take it that Piltdown man wasn't a hoax and was in fact the
> ancestor from whom we derived our love of lawns? Would Pinker expalin
> say Japanese rock gardens on the same basis? ....
Neither you nor I is a linguist, and what Pinker says about lawns, or
even Pinker's popularizations in general, are not at issue. So I can't
judge Pinker except by reputation, which is excellent. I am not a great
fan of his popularizations, either. The others on my list I know much
better, and my statement stands. At any rate, let's not discuss content
of the Rose et al critique. That was not the issue for me. I very much
appreciate good critiques of sociobiological theories. Sometime when you
are coming to Northampton, you can drop over my house and we can discuss
it. But first, you might read some of my work over the past several
years, as a basis for discussion.
>> We don't need a bunch of parasitic drones
>> censoring our science for us.
> I really don't understand what justifies your use of such intemperate
> In your later missive to me you said:
>> At any rate, here is what set me off:
>> In the introduction to 'Alas, Poor Darwin' Hilary and Steven Rose
>> evolutionary psychology as 'a particularly Anglo-American
>> phenomenon' (p. 1).
> I suspect this is mostly true. Why is it insulting or even a
> negative, in any case? It took Darwinism (or Newtonianism) many years
> to flow across the English channel. Many intellectual and scientific
> endeavors begin in just a few countries .
>> Evolutionary psychology is said to make 'culturally pernicious'
>> claims (p. 3)
>> and to have a political agenda that is often 'transparently part of
>> right-wing libertarian attack on collectivity, above all the welfare
> Well, in Silicon Valley, at least, which is rapidly engulfing Oakland,
> where I live, the correlation between beliefs in evolutionary
> psychology and in libertarianism is very high. That may not be truly
> fair to some of the thinkers in the field, but it's so. It doesn't
> take much to see why this correlation exists, especially when you also
> consider the influence of Dawkins' famous title : the selfish gene.
> Many followers of evolutionary psychology among computer science grad
> students, whom I happen to have encountered take it to support both
> radically individualistic anti-statism and anti-feminism. Would it
> have spread in popularity so rapidly if it didn't encourage such
> interpretations? I happen to share the Rose's doubts.
Part of the reason it pisses me off to be called right wing is that this
leads many bright intellectuals, such as yourself, to conclude the area
is not worth studying. Everybody is into evolutionary thinking these
days, so where I come from, its progressives that think evolutionary
psychology is great. The fact is, no decent behavioral theory,
promulgated by researchers who build and test analytical models, implies
anything in particular about social policy or political positions,
because values intervene between the facts and the politics. I use
evolutionary psychology and sociobiology to figure out how to make a
better world for the poor and the oppressed, and how to offer more
dignity for the common man and women. To me the Roses are just
antiquated parasites, fighting battles that were over thirty years ago,
and adding nothing to the fight for a better society.
>> Since I work in the area of behavior ecology, I take that as
>> applying to me, which is deeply offensive to me. And false. I have
>> other deep objections to these people, but enough...
> If someone is a vegetarian and likes Wagner and Nietzsche does that
> make him a Nazi? Yet HItler certainly was the first, and used the
> latter as means of propagandizing for his regime. If someone who
> shared all three likes had lived in the thirties, it might have been
> wise to at least check the beliefs of those with whom he was possibly
> quite innocently associating.
Pinker, Buss, Daly and Wilson, Cosmides and Tooby are NOT NAZI'S!!!! I
don't always agree with them, but there's no way they form a right-wing
bloc of some kind. They are not pernicious AT ALL, as far as I can see.
> Let me add that the fact that you don't label your work evolutionary
> psychology but rather behavioral ecology is interesting. Ecologists
> are as interested in nurture as in genetics, I would think. If you are
> not the same as an evolutionary psychologist, why should you feel so
> affronted by a sharp critique of them?
I don't like the term ev psych much because it's too narrow. It
describes work on the nature of the human brain, but ignores all sorts
of social bases for behavior that cannot be captured by an "adapted
mind" concept. I think behavioral ecology or sociobiology is the more
general term. I also think that my view will become prevalent in the ev
psych community over the next decade or so (I'm forever and optimist),
and I think they are doing very interesting work. Some are my friends,
I have no problem sharply criticizing much of the received doctrine in
ev psych, but I do so as a fellow researcher and I like to do so by
writing research papers that provide alternatives. I have always
operated on the principle that the only effective critique to a theory
is a better theory. I don't know if I have a better theory, but I work
on the problem twelve hours a day, or so.
Thanks for calling me to task for my excesses. I will try to keep my
emotions on a leash from now on in dealing with this issue.
Herbert Gintis 413-586-7756
Department of Economics 413-586-6014 (Fax)
University of Massachusetts Home Address:
Amherst, MA 01060 15 Forbes Avenue
http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~gintis Northampton, MA 01060
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