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Steven Pinker

“I am a feminist. I believe that women have been oppressed, discriminated against, and harassed for thousands of years. I believe that the two waves of the feminist movement in the 20th century are among the proudest achievements of our species, and I am proud to have lived through one of them, including the effort to increase the representation of women in the sciences.

But it is crucial to distinguish the moral proposition that people should not be discriminated against on account of their sex — which I take to be the core of feminism — and the empirical claim that males and females are biologically indistinguishable. They are not the same thing. Indeed, distinguishing them is essential to protecting the core of feminism. Anyone who takes an honest interest in science has to be prepared for the facts on a given issue to come out either way. And that makes it essential that we not hold the ideals of feminism hostage to the latest findings from the lab or field. Otherwise, if the findings come out as showing a sex difference, one would either have to say, ‘I guess sex discrimination wasn’t so bad after all,’ or else furiously suppress or distort the findings so as to preserve the ideal. The truth cannot be sexist. Whatever the facts turn out to be, they should not be taken to compromise the core of feminism.
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From Steven Pinker, in his debate with Elizabeth Spelke on the topic of Science and Gender.

Since his breakout book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker has outlined and continually advocated a conception of human nature which I find extremely compelling. It’s foundational claim is that we are not plastic in the way twentieth-century behaviorists would suggest. Human nature is not malleable in any robust sense of the term; but instead it is very rigidly pre-programmed by our biology, which is — perhaps not intuitively — the reason for our complex abilities and variations. The fact that, say, we are wired to acquire a rigid grammatical structure in childhood, and hence speak a language, is what allows us to communicate in such a wealth of information, emotion, and ideas to others. Of course we are plastic in the sense that we learn the language of our childhood environment (I’m not writing this in Japanese, after all), but our ability to internalize grammar emerges from our biological make-up, which we do not choose. (Pinker, who studied in the M.I.T. linguistics department under Noam Chomsky, uses this example among others to emphasize his point.) 

Gender is just one of the specific biological factors which distinguishes us and shapes our proclivities, abilities, and attributes. It is also perhaps the most misunderstood characteristic we posses, and is fraught with sensitive points and political considerations. Modern, leftist feminism seems to brush over this fact, conflating — to use an image from economics — equality of outcome with equality of opportunity. The latter is morally necessary. The former is scientifically preposterous.

Pinker delineates and actively patrols the fine line separating gender distinction from gender discrimination, and for that reason, his debate with Spelke is worth reading or listening to.

More from Pinker, one of our clearest and best communicators of cognitive science:

Steven Pinker

The F Word

Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin

Hitler, Stalin, and the Power of Ideology

Boston Marathon

The Psychology of Terror