August 5, 2007

My new column

I think this rather long column will help readers understand a little better why the "genealogical perspective" is so crucial for understanding human affairs:

Two Cheers For Pinker On Genealogy…But What About Race?
By Steve Sailer

Genealogy—the study of who a person's ancestors are—is viewed by American intellectuals as a quaint hobby of only individual interest. But it's actually one of the most under-explored paths to better understanding humanity.

So I was quite pleased to see the cover story in the August 6, 2007 issue of The New Republic, "The Genealogy Craze in America: Strangled by Roots" [Free registration required, or read it here.] by Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and author of the outstanding 2002 bestseller The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Pinker has become perhaps the pre-eminent spokesman for the human sciences. His next book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, will be out in September.

I was especially happy because Pinker's article cogently articulates many of the ideas about the overlooked importance of kinship that he and I kicked around via email in the late 1990s, and which have provided the basis for many of my articles ever since. ...


My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Correction: 96 zeros, not 960...

Ron Guhname said...

Let's see if I can put Harpending's point another way (I'll use the rough approximation of cousin in place of niece or nephew): if I'm English, and my world is the English people, then my cousins are just that--my cousins. But if the world is my world, then Englishmen are my cousins.

Ron Guhname said...

...Or to be more accurate, I could speak of half-brothers instead of cousins. (It sounds better than niece or nephew since they are in a different generation).

Anonymous said...

That's pretty good, Steve, but I think it could have been even more powerful. First, you could have mentioned your main point in the first few grafs (to make the reader more eager to trudge through all that family-tree stuff).

Second, you could have adduced some examples of race-based perception of kinship affecting how people behave in society. Your essay seems rather flat without them.

Finally, you could have discussed the flaws in Pinker's thesis (which filled the most argumentative six of his twenty-four paragraphs) that people dishonestly provoke and exploit unfounded (beyond close relatives) emotions of kinship to subvert society. Pinker summed up his views by writing "outside a small family circle, the links of kinship are biologically trifling, vulnerable to manipulation, and inimical to modernity." Though you danced up to where you could challenge all of that, you never really threw the punch.

Having shown that Pinker left out racial kinship, which extends beyond the family circle and isn't biologically trifling, you could have dissected all of Pinker's conclusions. Pinker did not examine racial kinship, so how could he tell us whether it is easy to manipulate, or "inimical to modernity?" Also, having missed something so big, could Pinker have missed anything else?

Briefly, I don't buy Pinker's notion that it is immoral, or at any rate, shamefully manipulative, to provoke and exploit the emotions of kinship for social purposes. I think that large scale cooperation (on which modern technological society depends) is only possible because humans can perceive more-or-less unrelated people as kin of some degree and cooperate with them as if the fate of shared (variable) genes depends upon amity. If humans, like, say, termites, could only cooperate with very close kin we would not likely have evolved into the flexible fellows we are now.

Since human social behaviour actually depends on socially-mediated quasi-kinship, we don't need to understand kinship-signaling so that we can screen it out. We need to understand it so we can build more resilient social structures.

One of Pinker's examples can illustrate my point: all those men who enlisted after Pearl Harbor really would have been saps if they risked their lives, like Sonny said, for true strangers. But they perceived their fellow citizens as kin so their cooperative traits were willing to take on personal risk in pursuit of a "family" goal. Sonny personifies a selfish evolutionary strategy, but even the cooperative strategy Pinker prefers runs on the emotions he deprecates.

Imagine living in a society populated entirely by robotic libertarian economists ;-)... the ways emotions of kinship prompt us to behave save us from such a horrible fate. Economic relations are (for humans) an imperfect substitute for those of kinship. All armies rape and loot enemy civilians, but only mercenary armies commonly rape and loot the civilians on "their side."

Pinker wrote "the institutions of modernity depend on a dissolution of family ties." It would be more accurate to say that they depend on the extension and consequent attenuation of family ties. The problem with a mafia is the boundary it puts around feelings of kinship.

When you gave Pinker the last word, the very last portion of it read: "in an age in which technology allows us to indulge these emotions as never before, our political culture systematically misunderstands them." You could have challenged that too. Modern politicians and parties understand race-based feelings of kinship quite well and exploit them frequently. I should hardly need to point out examples to you.[1]

(It may be that most modern Americans don't understand Iraqi clan loyalties, but perhaps if Americans had been warned that clans get along like separate races do, they might have understood them better. I admit that such a warning might have been censored because it could imply the possibility of a certain disharmony in American society, but that caveat reinforces my point more than it undermines it.)

[1] If you're not Steve, think about names like "Robert Mugabe" or "Robert Byrd." Do you pick up the hint of a pattern?

Anonymous said...

Oops, I hit "publish" instead of "preview" by accident that time. If you saw something stupid just above, read down for the correction!

Anonymous said...

Okay, here's one mistake-- I linked to Steve's discussion of racial politics in Mexico, but Pinker wrote of "our political culture," so he was probably thinking of American political culture. I ought to have linked to one of Steve's explanations of racial politics (e.g., affirmative action politics) in the USA. Now I'm off to bed-- perhaps I'll be able to write more clearly tomorrow.

Jun said...

The genetic anthropologist Henry Harpending of the U. of Utah has pointed out that if he had never met his grandchildren before, he'd have a hard time picking them out by sight from the other children playing on the street. Yet, he'd have very little difficulty visually distinguishing children by race.

I think this is probably more true of somewhere like the States where people have been "out-breeding" for a few generations. If Henry lived in a more traditional society where people were still marrying their 2nd & 3rd cousins (i.e. the girl/boy next-door), chances are he would have an easier time spotting his grandkids.

Anecdotally -- I was visiting Ireland once and was in the small village that my mother came from. An old man that I didn't know at all stopped me in the street and said, "You must be one of the Kathleens" ("Kathleens" being a nickname given to one of my great-grandmothers' family -- family nicknames are common in Ireland 'cause in certain regions, almost everybody will share a handful of surnames!). I was astonished that he was right. Apparently, according to him, I am a dead-ringer for one of my great-grandmother's sisters (i.e. one of my great-aunts on my maternal grandmother's side).

Anonymous said...

I had expected Sailer to make the point that grandchildren who have four grandparents of the same ethnicity look more similar to their forebearers than grandchildren who have grandparents of different ethnicity. I did not expect him to claim that grandchildren don't look that much like their grandparents.

I also wonder if Steve Pinker has ever read Frank Salter and if he has, would he dare mention it. Something tells me that he would not mention On Genetic Interests even if his life depended on it.

Ron Guhname said...

You've got to give Pinker some credit: he quoted the dreaded Steve Sailer.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Pinker missed the racial implication, I think he's being delicate, and smart; he wants to stay mainstream after all, and his readers can draw their own conclusions.

Anonymous said...

"Something tells me that he would not mention On Genetic Interests even if his life depended on it."

His (professional) life depends on not mentioning it!

Anonymous said...

Mark is obviously on the diversity squad. That being the case I'd like to know exactly which government agency would "look into it" if I were to order Frank Salter's On Genetic Interest, Levin's Why Race Matters, Taylor's Paved With Good Intentions, Rushton's Race, Evolution and Behavior from and donate say $100 to iSteve?

Anonymous said...

Oxford population geneticist Bryan Sykes estimates that the ancestors of living natives of the British Isles arrived there, on average, an astonishing 8,000 years ago, or 320 generations

Stephen Oppenheimer does not fully agree with this. In his book, Origins of the British, he points out that the English are much more Germanic than the Irish, Scots and Welsh. British scientist, Mark Thomas, also argues for a signficant Germanic component in the heritage of the English:

Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England

Finally, Professor Richard Coates of the University of Sussex also disagrees with the idea that the English are of predominantly non-Germanic ancestry:

Invisible Britons: the view from linguistics