So where's the science?

January 16, 1998

I was relieved to encounter halfway through Tim Cornwell's article on Steven Pinker's new book, How the Mind Works, some trenchant criticism from Stephen J. Gould (THES, January 9). But apart from quoting Gould's response Cornwell offered no further critical consideration of Pinker's thesis.

The application of "Darwinian fundamentalism" to the great questions of the human condition is becoming increasingly popular with people like Pinker who have no background in evolutionary biology but know a sexy topic when they see one. When such views are furthered by an academic of Pinker's fame, it serves to endorse a view that is intellectually lazy, socially dangerous and worryingly media-friendly.

To take an example that Cornwell cites. Pinker's explanation for the existence of prostitution as a relationship whereby the male pays for sex while the female accepts money for the transaction is that the male is subject to the biological imperative to scatter his seed as widely as possible while the female is seeking a mate capable of providing for her offspring.

This "explanation", because it ignores the role of economic forces in establishing the power relations between the participants, cannot account for the thriving trade in child and gay prostitution or in females employing male prostitutes where the claimed "genetic urge" is absent. Yet, by defining the adult female prostitute/male client transaction as the norm and then positing a biological basis for it, Pinker implies such behaviour is "natural" and therefore not a suitable object for social control. His approach, in fact, is not evolutionary at all. It is to assume that the products of our society and culture are genetically determined (true at a certain level, but intellectually vacuous, since it does not distinguish between behaviours that are directly determined and those that are merely spin-offs) and then to try to guess what aspects of early human life might have been favoured by natural selection to produce this behaviour. It is a guessing game anyone can play, but once it becomes dressed up as science ("evolutionary psychology") by an eminent media don, then we are entitled to ask "where's the science in this book?" Victoria Martin, St Anne's College, Oxford

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