The Cultural Determinists and Their Lies

(This first reaction paper combines information from Alford and Hibbing [article. notes], Pinker, [amazon. notes], Ridley [amazon. notes], and Tooby and Cosmides [article. notes]. It also amounts to a renunciation of the ideas that drove my computer science thesis.)

The criticisms thrown against biological factors in human behavior from the outside are rational — from the perspective of ideology, prestige, and power. Substantive criticisms of biological factors have come from the researchers themselves, who criticizer earlier work in the field and make better explanatory models than what previously existed.

The Standard Social Science Model is based on a “utopian vision” (Pinker 27), and this ideology led researchers to greet genetically-related findings “with fear and loathing because they were thought to threaten progressive ideals” (103) or to support racism, sexism and… “biological determinism” (Tooby and Cosmides 35). Such findings were considered closer to fascism (Ridley 3,186) instead of the more fashionable Marxism (Pinker 127, 410, Ridley 243-244). “Immoral” thoughts (269) that threaten the utopia are attacked as such, even though it is the job of researchers to think about even disquieting things (279). This bias in favor of the world as they want it has lead to embarrassing hoaxes (Ridley 204, Tooby and Cosmides 44), blinded them to short (Pinker 311) and long (307) term declines in violence, and other incorrect assessments of the field (Alford and Hibbing 718).


Prestige is an important element as well. The existence of the social sciences as they exist now is traceable to an ancient division of labor between the social and natural worlds (Tooby and Cosmides 20) and the subsequent belief that cultural effects have cultural, not physical, causes (Ridley 205, Tooby and Cosmides 22). A unification, whether of practical questions like homicide and war (Pinker 323) or entire fields such as psychology and anthropology (Tooby and Cosmides 121) leads to questions of why psychologists as we know them and their methods should even exist (21). Likewise, for the same reason that much of art criticism is merely “the upper classes denouncing the tastes of the lower classes” (Pinker 277), intellectuals have denounced those who focus on genetic factors to keep their own place secure. A realization that one’s political theories or methods of research may be genetically influenced (Alford and Hibbing 716-717) places a social scientist’s behavior into a world of limitations and frailties (Pinker 239).

The most disturbing line of attack against new knowledge is the desire for power. Pinker beings his book by writing “The belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences has led social planners to write off people’s enjoyment…” (Pinker x), which is perhaps why Leftism is not only a mover against genetic factors (133) but also in favor of earlier disasters like eugenics (153). More recently, social scientists have pushed an authoritarian agenda centered on “renewing” once vibrant neighborhoods (170) or making families eat in large dining halls (246). It is perhaps not surprising that totalitarianism requires the super-plasticity of environmental determinism (Ridley 185). The possibility that the scientific enterprise to understand society is under malevolent attack from certain political forces should not be doubted – especially when attack from other political elements is widely recognized (Pinker 129).

Regardless of the motive, the substance of criticism matters, and for the most part the criticism has been absurd. Life-long liberals such as E.O. Wilson (110) and entire research programs (105-106) were accused of being tools of oppression, racism, and other ills. Critics often ignored basic rules of logic, focusing on irrelevancies such as the sex-life of researchers (114). Of course, this was when criticisms were at least made in the medium of writing: death-threats (Pinker 114) and attempted (115) and successful (314) censorship have also been used. Robert Kurzban, whose work was featured in Pinker (257), mentioned last year in a lecture at UNL that movements have been made to censor his work because they “challenged” a student’s “identity.”

These attacks are doubly unfortunate because many claims are debatable. Tooby and Cosmides say that children are born with the same potential (25,33), but if traits associated with violence (Pinker 315), intelligence (Ridley 25), and even political beliefs (Alford and Hibbing 714-715) are largely heritable then some infants come equipped with more potential in a given society than others. Likewise, the seminal claim that humans have an enforced uniformity (Tooby and Cosmides 38) is questioned by computer models showing stable dimorphism (Alford and Hibbing 718). Even more so, the utility of a theory built around a universally-designed (Tooby and Cosmides 35) “incredibly intricate, contingent set of functional programs” (24) may decline to zero if the majority of the program is regulatory and not structural (Alford and Hibbing 717). Such a finding would call into question the factual validity of the mind as an information-processing machine with “invariant relationships between informational inputs and “behavioral” outputs” (Tooby and Cosmides 66). Even central questions of whether investigation into selection’s pressures should focus on genes (67) or not (Alford and Hibbing 708,712) has been left to biological researches themselves (also Tooby and Cosmides 36), and rarely their so-called critics.

Nature-v-Nurture is not Stability-v-Instability

“The Psychological Foundations of Culture,” by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, in The Adapted Mind, Oxford University Press. [notes].

The Origin of Politics: An Evolutionary Theory of Political Behavior,” by John Alford and John Hibbing, Perspectives on Politics, Vol 2. No. 4, December 2004, 707-723 [notes].

“Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?” by John Alford, Carolyn Funk, and John R. Hibbing, American Political Science Association, May 2005, http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/GeneticsAPSR0505.pdf [notes].

The syllabus for Child Psychology calls for a short, interpretive paper over some aspect of the text. I will choose to comment on a paragraph in Chapter 1, under the heading “Relative Influence of Nature and Nurture?”


Berk states on page nine(references excluded)

A theory’s potential on the roles of nature and nurture affects how it explains individual differences. Some theorists emphasize stability — that children who are high or low in a characteristic (such as verbal ability, anxiety, or sociability) will remain so at later ages. These theorists typically stress the importance of heredity. If they regard environment as important they usually point to early experiences as establishing a lifelong pattern of behavior. Powerful negative events in the first few years, they argue, cannot be fully overcome by later, more positive ones. Other theorists are more optimistic. They believe that change is possible and likely if new experiences support it.

While I generally admire the author’s balanced view of the nature-nurture controversy, I believe this paragraph is confused. Prominent nature-oriented perspectives have emphasized early learning and stability. Sigmud Freud, for example, believed that psyhosexual development in early childhood can have lasting impact (Berk 17), while even Jean Piaget emphasized that an early childhood passage through the sensorimotor stage was necessary for success concrete and formal operations (21). Under either Freud or Piaget, a child’s maladaptiosn early in life will cascade into problems later on. At the same time, proponents of genetic influences attack the idea that traits must be stable throughout life. “Just as teeth or breasts are absent at birth, and yet appear through maturation,” the founders of Evolutionary Psychology write, “evolved psychological mechanisms… could develop at any point in the life cycle.” (Tooby and Cosmides 10). Likewise, a researcher working at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln discovered that the influence from socialization on many aspects of personality plummets during life (Alford and Hibbing 2004; Alford, Funk and Hibbing 2005). Under any of this “nature”-oriented research, “stability” is called into question if not attacked.

The precise role of nature and nurture is unknown, but the issue is larger than just “stability.”

Citi Dividend MasterCard to Cut Food & Gas Rebate from 5% to 2%

3 tips: Maximizing Card Rewards,” by Gerri Willis, CNN, 10 August 2006, http://money.cnn.com/2006/08/09/pf/saving/toptips/index.htm.

Credit card issuers slash rebates on use at pumps,” by Harriet Brackey, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 25 August 2006, http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/local/sfl-znoreward25aug25,0,5553635.story?coll=sfla-business-headlines.

Credit cards may become a little less good for you.

Citigroup said this week that it would slash by more than half the cash rewards it pays to holders of the Citi Dividend MasterCard on purchases at gas stations and grocery and drug stores. The 5 percent cash back will soon be 2 percent.)

American Express, too, will end double cash-back points paid on “everyday” purchases to cardholders in its Membership Rewards program starting in October.

(The second bit is especially interesting if you consider a recent CNN “correction”)

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that 6 million credit card solicitations were sent out annually. In addition, it incorrectly indicated that American Express would eliminate double-reward points on all merchandise. CNNMoney.com regrets the errors.

This isn’t exactly a big scandal — Citibank and MasterCard are not in a league of villains with NationMaster and Ask.com — but it’s still annoying. Getting 5% has been nifty, and it will be annoying trying to find an alternative card or, failing that, using anyone-but-CitiMasterCard out of spite.

Is any 5%-on-food card company not betraying the hopes and dreams of American shoppers — and American democracy — by continuing such a rebate program?