Darwin’s Dangerous Clan? A Response to the Critics

At Foseti’s, commenter JohnK rejects my labeling of Pinker et al. as reactionary, writing that it is a “preposterous” appellation, while Nick B. Steves thinks I’m “not quite right” about equating reaction with the Dangerous Clan’s acceptance of HBD. He writes that “while belief in HBD is (for all practical purposes) a necessary component of reaction, it is quite far from being sufficient.”

The relationship between HBD and neoreaction is an open area of inquiry, so I won’t make any final pronouncements here. Essentially, the relationship is one of movement between “levels of commitment” or “orders of knowledge.” We begin with brute facts and general theories about the facts, then, if we’re inclined, we can draw, from the facts and theories, higher-order conclusions about humanity or policy or ethics—“theories about the theories,” as Richard Weaver says.

I work in an academic milieu, as far Left as you can get, so perhaps I’m more inclined than others to grant reactionary status to people like Pinker and Chagnon, who challenge the Cathedral’s blank slate orthodoxy at a purely theoretical level. I can appreciate, however, that others might not find value in the academic case for HBD if its proponents are, in every other respect, devout progressives whose higher-order conclusions about humanity are not at all informed by HBD.

But the men in the picture, whose academic beliefs are certainly reactionary: are their larger worldviews informed at all by HBD? Do they inch toward reaction, or at least stop themselves from moving ever-leftward with the historical current?


Here’s Dawkins, charting a distinction between the social and the biological uses of “race,” in which he uses this distinction, surprisingly, to draw a profoundly conservative conclusion about affirmative action (or “positive discrimination” as they call it in Britain):

We can all happily agree that human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations. That is one reason why I object to ticking boxes in forms and why I object to positive discrimination in job selection. But that doesn’t mean that race is of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance . . . . However small the racial partition of the total variation may be, if such racial characteristics as there are are highly correlated with other racial characteristics, they are by definition informative, and therefore of taxonomic significance. (pp. 338)

In a single paragraph from The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins affirms HBD at an academic level, denies its usefulness at a social level, and yet draws a policy conclusion that could have come from the mouth of Thomas Sowell or Clarence Thomas.

And here’s Dawkins again, supporting John McWhorter’s famous essay about affirmative action and the black middle class:

I salute John McWhorter, and hope that his essay on Affirmative Action will receive the widest possible dissemination. If I can be of any assistance in getting it published in England, please let me know.

In addition, Dawkins gives nods to eugenics and isn’t afraid to call bullshit on feminist victim-mongering.


And Daniel Dennett, responding to the same McWhorter essay on affirmative action just mentioned:

If it is true that Affirmative Action (in college admissions) now primarily impacts middle-class (at least not hugely disadvantaged) minority students, then McWhorter is certainly right that some of the standard justifications for it have simply lapsed, however ringingly they might have justified the policy thirty years ago.

Just how widespread and influential in contemporary African-American culture is the “distrust of the nerd'” that he identifies so vividly? If “victimology” and the conviction that it is “inauthentic” for an African-American to be a good student plays the dominant role he claims it does, then he is surely right that Affirmative Action, by reinforcing these attitudes, is going to become ever more self-defeating.


David Haig sounds like some secular neoreactionaries I know:

A true psychology has got to be an evolutionary psychology. Whether every theory that goes under the name of evolutionary psychology is evolutionarily justified is a different question, but in terms of the question whether Darwin is relevant to understanding the mind and human behavior, evolutionary psychologists have got it right. We are evolved beings and therefore our psychology will have to be understood in terms of natural selection, among other factors.

Haig also provides an insightful analysis of Marxist biologists who still cling to the hope of Lamarckism:

My neo-Darwinian preferences should, by now, be clear to readers of this review, and I will not attempt a self-analysis that undoubtedly would be self-serving. Rather I will give my subjective impressions of the reasons why many people I have talked with, both in the general public and the scientific community, have a visceral attraction to Lamarckism and a visceral dislike of Darwinism. These reactions relate to the two aspects of natural selection: random variation and ‘survival of the fittest.’ A neo-Darwinian view, with its emphasis on chance and randomness in the origin of variation, is perceived as positing a world without meaning that is less attractive than a Lamarckian view in which organisms have agency in shaping their evolutionary destiny. Natural selection, with its reliance on differential survival and reproductive competition, is also perceived as bleak and harsh. The beauties of the human form are ascribed to the elimination of the slightly less perfect in lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. A consistent application of this view has led some prominent evolutionary thinkers to espouse eugenics (Haig 2003). But it is a view from which many recoil. Phenotypic plasticity and the inheritance of acquired characters seem to hold hope that we all can improve without processes of selection.

A neo-Darwinist would undoubtedly argue that ascribing the origin of purposeful agents in the world to a process without inherent purpose is intellectually satisfying. But this is a view that leaves many cold. It is not how they emotionally react to ‘works of nature.’

Like Dawkins, Haig isn’t afraid to talk eugenics (scroll down on the link). Commenting on arch-eugenicist W.D. Hamilton, Haig says,

I think that many of Hamilton’s ideas on eugenics are naïve and misguided, but I support his plea that this should be a question on which one could have a reasoned, nonacrimonious exchange of views. The extent to which the human genome is deteriorating is an important question that should be squarely faced, rather than side-stepped.


Alas, Richard Wrangham is, unfortunately, unable to connect his HBD theories to anything else. Scratch him from the list . . .


Out of the entire group, Steven Pinker is most likely to hold (in secret) a worldview that tends far rightward of Cathedral norms. Continuing with the affirmative action test piece, we find that Pinker has publicly called AA what it is: reverse discrimination.

The number of countries that have laws on the books that discriminate against ethnic, religious, or racial minorities has been in steady decline. In fact, the number of countries that have tried to tilt the scale in the other direction with affirmative action and remedial discrimination policies has increased. So now more countries in the world discriminate in favor of disadvantaged minorities than discriminate against them.

Pinker famously defended Larry Summers’ comment about IQ and the reality of gender, even debating the point in an open forum. As far as the policy implications he drew from his work on this debate, Pinker envisions what might be construed as a libertarian ideal of “maximizing individual abilities”:

I share Nora Newcombe’s desire to move away from a concern with gender differences in mathematical ability to a focus on individuals and how we can maximize their abilities, at least in the spheres of education and public policy. But she does not play out the radical implications of this move. Other than in the context of evolutionary psychology (which elegantly predicts a number of interesting gender differences), a focus on gender differences arises because people ask why the genders are disparately represented in certain walks of life. Almost invariably, disparities in numbers are interpreted as proof of discrimination and discouragement. This, of course, is a fallacy, since the disparities could arise from differences in average temperaments and talents instead or as well. And it’s a fallacy with consequences: if the discrepancies attributed to bias really come from sex differences, then the costly measures designed to counter them (aggressive affirmative action, presumptions of ubiquitous prejudice, re-education programs, diversity bureaucracies, etc.) are misbegotten. If people didn’t obsess over disparities in gender representation in the first place, they would not create the need for researchers to determine whether the disparities may be caused in part by gender differences in ability or interests. So if people want to minimize the importance of the science of gender differences, they should speak out against gender bean-counting in university science departments.

But in the essay “Dangerous Ideas” we find Pinker at his most wonderfully dangerous . . .

The taboo on questioning sacred values make sense in the context of personal relationships. It makes far less sense in the context of discovering how the world works or running a country.


Perhaps not neoreactionary, but certainly chinks in the Cathedral’s edifice. Maybe we can call them the “socially acceptable diplomats” of neoreactionary thought, men standing against the strong current that heads toward Left Singularity, even if they are not actively moving in the opposite direction.

15 responses

  1. No academic is a reactionary when speaking under his academic identity or and identity that can be connected to his academic identity

    Not Dawkins and not Pinker. They are leftists.

    And if they were ever to utter a reactionary thought under the names by which they are know in academia, they would swiftly cease to be academics.

    June 14, 2013 at 7:55 am

    • spandrell

      Cut them some slack. They are pushing heredity and that’s a net good.

      June 14, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      • Right. They’re laying the intellectual groundwork for real reactionary insight and theory, whether they know it or not. (Real progressives know it, and that’s why they hate people like Dawkins.)

        June 14, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    • Here’s Dawkins on feminism:

      If he’s a progressive, he’s of a very centrist sort, one who is not committed to Leftism for Leftism’s sake but is committed to certain tenets of it because he things it’s reasonable. Wherever he ceases to see Leftism being reasonable (feminism, affirmative action, knee-jerk reactions against eugenics, censorship of racial studies), he argues against it. That’s not the trait of a real progressive, a la Gould, who never argues against The Cause, come hell or high water. Most real progressives consider Dawkins a privileged white male at best, a traitor at worst.

      June 14, 2013 at 4:00 pm

      • The differences that disturb members of the Cathedral are minute and insignificant.
        Differences within the Cathedral are not interesting.

        June 14, 2013 at 6:41 pm

      • But these differences are fuel for our own fire. I’ll take what I can get.

        June 14, 2013 at 7:40 pm

      • Should you give such an academic a pat on the back, he is likely to slash your tires and send the police to kick down your door, for fear of being associated with such a terrible person.

        An academic has no friends to the right, and no enemies to the left. Thus his friends are his enemies, and his enemies are his friends. Academia is like The Party depicted in “1984”.

        June 15, 2013 at 12:11 am

  2. Jeff

    Doesn’t the Cathedral operate an *adaptive* fiction? If the science becomes too obvious to deny, won’t they just adapt to fit it to their larger fiction? Progressives were the original eugenicists, and don’t they still favor the abortion of Black babies?

    June 14, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    • If the science becomes too obvious to deny, won’t they just adapt to fit it to their larger fiction?

      Yes, it can certainly do that. That’s how powerful it is, just like anti-capitalist propaganda can easily be more fuel for capitalist production and consumption.

      The “progressives” of yesteryear you mention are very different from post-1960s progressives. People like Margaret Sanger or, hell, H.G. Wells held an unsentimental and class-based Leftism. Today, Leftists are very sentimental and have exchanged class for race and gender concerns.

      June 14, 2013 at 4:26 pm

  3. But even the Dawkins you quote proves his progressive bona fides:

    “We can all happily agree that human racial classification is of no social value and is positively destructive of social and human relations.”

    It is one thing to agree that “positive discrimination” is counter-productive or even that government (and employer and ???) institutions ought to operate in a race-blind manner, and quite another to “happily agree” that race has “no social value” and is “positively destructive of social and human relations.” Easy to say safe within the thick walls of Oxford… but ignores the normal experience of 99% of the mass of humanity.

    Social and human relations evolved quite specifically to maintain in-group/out-group distinctions, of which race is probably the biggest one. They can, of course, at times, and especially today, be counterproductive and/or destructive. But it’s hardly a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For a guy that, capital-B, Believes in evolution, he’s seems mighty willing to discount adaptations that must have been, for most of the last million years, rather successful. Today, this adaptively successful, 800 lb. genetic gorilla ought only be taken into account for the puposes of human taxonomy, ya know, to help persons of African descent avoid prostate cancers… or something.

    June 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    • I suppose you’re right. But whenever I read sentences like the one you quote, I assume they are just peace offerings to keep the PC police off of backs, whether offered wittingly or almost unconsciously. At least Dawkins follows his belief to its logical conclusion, i.e., if racial classification is socially useless, then we shouldn’t have a racial spoils system. I’ll take that kind of reasoning any day over the typical Ta-Nehisi Coates “race is a social construct but we should still give lots of stuff to people because they’re black” claptrap.

      June 14, 2013 at 3:51 pm

  4. R. Jones

    Yeah, given the constraints that these guys face; the fact that they want to keep their job and not be utterly alienated, I’d say they do a pretty good job. Though obviously not reactionaries, but they do deserve a pat on the back for their work.

    June 14, 2013 at 11:26 pm

  5. Aaron

    Somewhat on topic: have you ever seen Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk? You should check it out. Haidt identifies as liberal and this makes his message about a 100x more likely to be received, which happens to be one of his points.

    June 15, 2013 at 1:38 am

    • Yes, Haidt’s work is quite valuable. And from what I understand, his research has completely ameliorated his own Leftism. I believe he identifies as a centrist these days.

      June 15, 2013 at 1:41 am

  6. Pingback: linkfest – 06/16/13 | hbd* chick

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