Right-wing Darwinism

Republicans swept the recent elections, and now we have to wonder what this will mean for science. Although many have argued that good science should be apolitical, unfortunately this isn't the case. The U.S. government is far too involved in science funding and policy making for a rightward shift in Congress to make no difference. And yet perhaps science is changing the right wing as much as the right wing is changing it.

Case in point: Steven Pinker, Darwinism's new poster boy and the author of several highly acclaimed books about evolution and the brain. His latest book, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature," is a kind of rejoinder to the work of pundits like the late Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that human beings are as much a product of their environments as they are of their genes. Last week I attended a lecture by Pinker on this very topic, in which he argued quite plainly that all of human nature is, in fact, biological. "There is no 'ghost in the machine,'" he explained with a chuckle. "It's all just feedback and control in the brain."

Pinker also has a theory about the politics of evolutionary science. He thinks people on both the left and the right bridle at a purely evolutionary model of human behavior because "they've lost god." His comment makes sense if you look at radical right-wing responses to evolutionary theory: conservative Christian groups are still stuck on creationism. Pinker noted that one religious pundit actually blamed the Columbine massacre on "the dangers of Darwinism," or the erosion of values associated with teaching evolution.

But what god does the left mourn when its representatives criticize the views of a pure evolutionist like Pinker? Possibly the same god who makes Francis Dolarhyde a serial killer in the movie "Red Dragon" -- the god of circumstance, of environment, of social pressures. The same god who causes kids at impoverished schools to get low scores on standardized tests, and who sends young black men to jail at rates that far exceed their proportion of the general population. In a nutshell, Pinker claimed that leftists reject his vision of human nature because it leaves no room for human life that is shaped by culture.

Pinker ripped holes in both sides of the debate over human nature, setting himself up implicitly as either middle-of-the-road or apolitical. What was truly amazing about Pinker's rhetorical strategy was that he managed to craft a palatable version of the right-wing arguments made by the authors of "The Bell Curve" back in the mid 1990s -- and he managed to make these arguments seem centrist. Perhaps it's a sign of our Republican-dominated times that ideas that were once reactionary are starting to sound mainstream. The Bell Curve, if you recall, alleged that new statistics revealed certain races (like blacks) were stupider than others (like whites).

Of course, Pinker avoided making incendiary statements like these up front. Instead he couched his argument as a clearing-up of common misconceptions about evolutionary biology. To dispel the myth that humans are born "blank slates," free of natural predispositions, Pinker explained that even our love for fat and sugar is inborn. "There is no reason for us to crave these foods now, since they are easily purchased in any drugstore or fast-food restaurant," he noted. "But we crave them because they were once crucial for our survival. Fat and sugar were so rare that when they were around, humans needed to gorge on them. And our taste for them persists."

He followed up this fairly innocuous point by noting that many people are disturbed by the notion of inborn predispositions because it leads to a belief that some people are born "better" than others. "Sameness does not equal fairness," Pinker countered. "We are all different, but we still have universal human interests." And yet, after offering this reassuring bit of logic, he began to veer into "Bell Curve" territory. He PowerPointed through a couple of charts: one demonstrated that women have less of a desire than men to do violence to others; another showed that tribal peoples killed one another more often than people in the United States did during the 20th century. The message seemed to be that some groups have inherited an instinct for violence.

So where does that leave programs like Head Start, which attempts to create a better environment for at-risk youth? If some of us are just naturally more violent than others, should we really be spending money fruitlessly attempting to change the inborn, the unchangeable? Pinker's version of Darwinism dovetails nicely with current Republican models of social spending, it would seem.

Pinker spoke eloquently about our ethical responsibilities to communities and family, just as many right-wing pundits do. And yet there was no room for social justice in his portrait of human nature. There was only the status quo.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is evolving even as you read this. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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