I’ve been collecting thoughts offline about the dismaying politicization of science by the left and right. The file has gotten long. It occurs to me that if you read just two books with close attention, you’ll be equipped to cut through the fog of a lot of agenda-driven, dubious right-wing and left-wing sociology and psychology. If you are in college pursuing a liberal-arts degree and you haven’t read these books, I strongly urge you to read them as soon as possible.
The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
Guns, Germs, and Steel
by Jared Diamond The careful scholarship in these books comprise the most powerful, cogent fact-based arguments against racism and sexism (both male and female sexism) that I know of in popular literature. The Blank Slate explores our evolved versus conditioned mental functions and habits. Pinker is left-leaning and describes himself as an equity feminist, someone who believes in the equal dignity and rights of men and women. He brings in right-wing and left-wing politics for criticism, but especially arguments that assume that sex roles are completely arbitrary and that the human brain can be programmed any way you like. Pinker is sympathetic to how the concept of ingrained human drives and perceptual habits can be used to rationalize injustice and a broken status quo, but he stresses that we do ourselves no favors in attributing the wrong pressures to and then applying the wrong remedies for behaviors that are racist, sexist, and otherwise antisocial.
Guns, Germs, and Steel is a good counterpart to The Blank Slate, and likewise fearlessly treads politically sensitive ground. It dares to tackle head on the question of why some human groups are less technologically advanced than others. A widespread intuition on the political right is that Europeans and Asians in colder climes had to be more industrious than their cousins at warmer latitudes, that perhaps they faced greater selective pressure to develop analytical brains. This is a reasonable line of argument. Guns, Germs, and Steel, however, demonstrates why it is almost certainly wrong: human evolved capacities are likely not at issue, and geography and domesticable native plants and animals more than anything gave certain cultures a huge edge. This book can correct several naïve habits of mind and misconceptions promoted by mythology. Though I don’t think Diamond brings in Genesis explicitly, his observations about plants and the long, slow rise of agriculture strongly contradict the image of an Edenic ancestral environment.
Shying away from difficult, politically charged questions does no one any good. As Pinker emphasizes, we have enormously flexible brains and an innate sense of justice. That a certain behavior is natural doesn’t mean it’s right. That things are a certain way does not mean they ought to be that way. This is the very foundation of liberal thought, and yet some liberals reject it in favor of what seems a politically expedient line of reasoning or shout down any argument that might possibly have been appropriated and twisted by a Nazi. In the long run, these tactics only hold back progress.