Magazine article The American Prospect

Beyond Intellectualism

Magazine article The American Prospect

Beyond Intellectualism

Article excerpt

I spent much of high school trying not to be interested in ideas. I studied hard and made good grades, but I didn't hang out with the nerds. This was partly because hanging out with nerds wasn't cool and partly because the kind of intellectualism they exuded didn't enthrall me. They talked about Camus and Sartre and Nietzsche--people I hadn't heard much about in my life as an Army brat and people my mildly anti-intellectual father would have disdained had anyone explained to him who they were.

Then my sister's husband (an aspiring psychologist whose preference for graduate school over employment my father wasn't wild about) suggested I read Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B.F. Skinner.

As intellectuals go, Skinner was pretty dismissive of intellectuals--at least the ones who blathered unproductively about "freedom" and "dignity," the ones he considered insufficiently hard-nosed and scientific.

Look, he said, people are animals. Kind of like laboratory rats, except taller. Their behavioral proclivities are a product of the positive and negative reinforcements they've gotten in the past. Want to build a better society? Discern the links between past reinforcement and future proclivity, and then adjust society's disbursement of reinforcements accordingly. No need to speculate about unobservable states of mind or ponder the role of "free will" or any other imponderables. Epistemology, phenomenology, metaphysics, and 25 cents will get you a ride on the New York subway.

This was my kind of intellectual--an anti-intellectual intellectual! I became an ardent Skinnerian.

The ardor eventually faded. I ended up spending a fair amount of my writing career disagreeing with Skinner. He believed, for example, that people are almost infinitely malleable. In his utopian novel, Walden Two, he takes readers to a magical place where things like jealousy and envy are becoming relics of the primitive past, thanks to the masterful deployment of positive and negative reinforcement during childhood.

In high school, I bought into this view, but in college, a reference to the "sociobiology" controversy on the cover of Time magazine caught my eye, and I started looking into the Darwinian underpinnings of human behavior. This train of thought culminated--about two decades after I encountered Skinner--in my book The Moral Animal, a full-throated defense of evolutionary psychology.

The book wasn't unrelievedly anti-Skinnerian. …

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