Rationality and why it seems scarce

Like many people out there I have been eagerly waiting for Steven Pinker’s book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021) to come out. It is a solid read that probably deserves its 4.5-star rating on Amazon. Pinker explains mostly what it is (overview of rational tools from Ancient Greek syllogism to modern Game Theory) and much less why it seems rare and why it matters. There is a lot to be learned about the pitfalls of equating correlation and causation and different cognitive biases, such as the myside bias and that only about 10% of people solve the Wason selection task correctly (I am not one of them).

However, this is where the strength of the book ends. Pinker is aware that most of his readers haven’t bought his book to get an overview of rational tools. Chapter 10, titled “What’s wrong with people?” starts like this:

This is the chapter most of you have been waiting for. I know this from conversations and correspondence. As soon as I mention the topic of rationality, people ask me why humanity appears to be losing its mind.

Yes, this is indeed the reason why I patiently worked through the nine previous chapters and why I had bought the book. And it’s here that the book really disappoints. It doesn’t present any novel ideas. It leaves more open questions than it answers. It is more about logic than psychology and it touches on many interesting recent findings but then stops short instead of delving deeper into the matter. Pinker mentions WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people but doesn’t explain why they are more rational the rest of us (they are more field-independent). Joseph Henrich has a lot more interesting to say about this phenomenon:

Mobile hunter-gatherers, who possess extensive (not intensive) kin-based institutions, are field independent. Consistent with this, anthropologists have long argued that, compared to farmers and herders who have more intensive kin-based institutions, hunter-gatherers emphasize values that focus on independence, achievement, and self-reliance while deemphasizing obedience, conformity, and deference to authority.

So, why are WEIRD people similar to hunter-gatherers? Could it be possible that food producers have a higher herd mentality than foragers who value independence highly? What about the evolution of the myside biases? All we learn is that both conservatives and liberals (perhaps a little bit less often) are prone to the myside bias. Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and has nothing to say about that? Avi Tuschman has dedicated a whole book to the evolutionary psychology of conservatism and liberalism. Why do conservatives consistently deny science (e.g. global warming, evolutionary theory, vaccines) more often than liberals?

Pinker makes a distinction between reality mindset and mythological mindset. It’s quite an obvious distinction to make, but is it really a useful one? Some of the most rational people had irrational beliefs: Newton believed in alchemy, Einstein didn’t believe in the randomness of the universe (God doesn’t play dice), and Elon Musk believes that we may live in a Matrix-like simulation (depending on the odds this belief is more or less ir/rational).

The book evades the question “Are there people who are more rational than others?” Well, like there are people who are more athletic than others, there are people who are more rational than others. The best I could find in the book was the distinction between motivated and impartial reasoning. Here is how I think it stacks up against concepts by other authors:

Pinker violates his own principles of rationality when he says:

Poverty needs no explanation; it is the natural state of humankind. What needs an explanation is wealth. For most of human history, around 90 percent of humanity lived in what we today call extreme poverty.

Of course poverty does need an explanation and it was not the natural state of humankind for the most part of human history. Anthropologists describe hunter-gatherers as the original affluent people who don’t know hunger. It is true that foragers own very little, but that is because they discourage possessions as these are an obstacle to mobility. Asking a hunter-gatherer how they feel about being poor would not have made sense to them in the past. Hunter-gatherers did not live in poverity. Poverty is mostly a relative concept and poverty only came into being with the advent of agriculture and inequality.

The last chapter is about “Rationality and Moral Progress”. Pinker shows how impartial reason lead to making the lives of many people better. To us is seems obvious that slavery is bad and Pinker gives us the obvious reasons why it is, but he fails to explain why it took humankind millennia to understand that. Slavery probably arose shortly after the advent of agriculture and was abolished in the US only in 1865. What did people take so long to dig it’s a bad thing??? Why were heretics prosecuted for so long? It’s totally irrational: if you are right God will punish the heretics anyway, if the heretics are right God will punish you. The reasonable thing to do is not prosecuting heretics. How could people fail to see the logic? Pinker goes on to show how rationality has lead to moral progress in some more cases. But hang on. Was it really progress? All the cases Pinker lists, from beating children to gender equality were already there before. Yes, if you look closely the supposedly moral progress turns out to regress into the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer era:

What a big surprise. Could it be that more rational people have a hunter-gatherer mindset? Indeed, this is what I have been arguing for. Unfortunately, Steven Pinker is an ardent enemy of the Myers-Briggs personality test. There is a temperament called “analysts” or “rationals”.

Incidentally, these people make up about 10% of the population. Could it be that they are overrepresented among the 10% of people who don’t fail at the Wason selection task? They are certainly not infallible, but these are the people who are overrepresented among scientists, engineers, inventors and software developers. Where do they come from, evolutionarily speaking, and why are they so rare?

A genetic map of Europe shows that approximately 20% of our genes are derived from hunters (evolutionary providing role) and gatherers (caregiving role).

If the percentage of rare rational/NT/hunter type in each country corresponds approximately to the ratios with farmer-herder genes the idea that these rationals have a higher amount of hunter-gatherer genes as compared to farmer-herder genes will become a realistic possibility. And history will have to be reexamined. This is what I did in my book:


Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on October 5, 2021.