Edge, the onine community of “third culture” advocates (the “third culture” is meant to be a bridge of sorts between traditional science and the humanities — in practice, it is largely an invasion of traditionally humanist concerns by scientifistic methods and theories), has released their Annual Question: “What is your dangerous idea?”. Last year’s question, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” produced some really great musings on the nature of science and knowledge, but despite my respect for many of the participants (though I admit that Stephen J. Gould’s presence at Edge is sorely missed), after having dipped into a random-ish sample of contributions, I find this year’s contributions somewhat predictable and even humdrum.
Of course, as far as I can tell, there’s no anthropologists on Edge’s “council” of scientific thinkers (I may have missed one or two — there’s a lot of people associated with Edge), and the handling of culture overall tends to be a little sloppy, with a lot of reductionism and not a lot of nuance. Which is maybe why it makes sense that Steven Pinker would think his contribution — “Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments” — might actually be a dangerous idea. Pinker notes that ideas relating to sex and race differences are widely perceived to be dangerous, citing for example the villification of Harvard president Larry Summers after last year’s comments on women’s under-representation in the sciences. However, I don’t find this to be a very dangerous idea at all — an uncomfortable one, perhaps, but one that most people hold to some degree or other. I would consider dangerous an idea whose ramifications had the potential to drastically alter the way society is structured, and I don’t see that the assumption of innate differences between groups would have that effect. Given the centrality of such assumptions in the history of the modern world, I think it’s fair to say that Pinker’s “dangerous idea” fits quite comfortably with the status quo — it is after all the idea that many of our social institutions are built on.
In fact, I think a far more dangerous idea is that people do not differ genetically on a group basis, at least not in any significant way. Of course, I side with the effort Pinker dismisses with his straw man description of those who would “reengineer” the “intellectual landscape” to rule out hypotheses about race, intelligence, innate predelictions, and so on a priori. But consider the ramifications of an absolute equality of talent, potential, temperament across the human species: if all humans are innately equal in their potential to succeed and to make meaningful contributions to their societies, then the fact of poverty, of small-mindedness, of difference itself has to be explained as cultural, which is to say it has to be considered as something that we create ourselves. The infant with the potential to become a great doctor, physicist, peace activist, parliamentarian, anthropologist, designer, artist, parent, urban planner, minister, author, friend, diplomat, geologist, therapist, singer, gardener, athlete, or diviner but instead ends up dead at 18 of drug overdose or gang shooting or collateral damage or murder conviction or disease or suicide bombing or knife fight or suicide or car accident is our collective fault. And if we are serious about the commitment to “political equality”, to “universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups” as Pinker claims to be, then the ramifications of the prospect that differences in station cannot be attributed to differences in biological makeup implies a radical restructuring of our societies, institutions, and thought patterns. And if we are not committed to equality on these terms, it implies an ever-increasing dissonance between the ethical precepts that supposedly guide our social and institutional efforts and the reality we embrace, or the outright abandonment of those precepts.
That’s what I consider dangerous!