Pinker grew up in Montreal’s
English-speaking Jewish community. “It
was a culture with a lot of arguing,” Pinker recalls.
“I was never outgrew my conversion to atheism
at 13,” Pinker said in a 1999 interview, “but at various times was a
cultural Jew.” About the same time as he
lost religion, Pinker found his interest in the human mind. “I was a 13-year-old anarchist, and wanted to
study human nature, through anthropology, psychoanalysis, and
psychology. I was a Rousseauan then; now
Hobbesian.” Asked whether parents
sparked his interest in evolutionary psychology, Pinker smiled and
“Yes, it comes from my parents. The
question is how it comes from my parents.”
stayed in Montreal after high school to
psychology at McGill
University. A department head at McGill convinced Pinker
to concentrate on “scientific, laboratory-oriented psychology” rather
more popular field of psychoanalytic theory.
Pinker took his mentor’s advice.
When he moved on to do post-graduate work at Harvard, Pinker
attention on cognitive science. When “I
was told that people might pay you to study the mind, I knew what I
do with my life,” he said.
rocketed to fame—at least the level of fame possible in the world of
psychology—in 1994 when he published The Language Instinct,
that human language is a biological adaptation, not a cultural
invention. Pinker’s research into the
language soon led him into the controversial field of evolutionary
psychology. In his next book, How the
Mind Works (1998), Pinker promoted the idea that most common human
behaviors are those that many generations earlier contributed to
the ability to pass along genes.
idea was not new. Darwin himself
suggested that emotion, perception, and cognition evolved as
adaptations. (Alfred Wallace, the
disagreed with his friend on this point.
Wallace believed that a superior intelligence designed the human
Famous nineteenth-century psychologist William James took Darwin’s
suggestion and developed a rich
psychological theory based on Darwinian notions of instinct and
such as long-term and short-term memory.
psychology eventually lost favor, done in by its proponents’
concerns about eugenics and Social Darwinism.
By the mid-twentieth century, things had changed so completely
behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner were insisting that psychology and
had no relationship to each other. The
human mind, according to strict behaviorists, was “a blank slate.”
the 1970s, the tide turned again.
Evolutionary biologists such as E. O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology,
and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, drew from new
to argue that many human behavioral tendencies evolved when organisms
interacted with offspring, allies, and adversaries over long periods of
time. Soon a new band of evolutionary
psychologists began pushing the idea that emotions such as guilt,
sympathy, and love all have a biological basis.
seems to have an adaptive explanation for nearly every human behavior. People in urban areas today fear snakes,
Pinker says, because when humans gathered food in the woods millennia
that failed to fear them rarely contributed to the gene pool. Gossip is a popular pastime because knowledge
of what others are up to was an adaptive advantage.
arguments met the fierce resistance of radical scientists such as
Gould, who mislabeled them as “biological determinism.”
Gould agreed that evolution shaped the
brain, but insisted that individuals and not genes are the unit of
selection. “Selection simply cannot see
genes and pick among them directly,” he argued.
“It must use bodies” and bodies “cannot be atomized into parts,
constructed by an individual gene.”
Gould described evolutionary psychologists as holding “a
narrow and barren speculation” that amounts to “pure guess-work in the
–party mode.” Gould was by no means the
only critic of evolutionary psychology.
So strong have been the attacks, in fact, that the efforts to
teaching in colleges and universities has been called by its supporters
criticisms about “biological determinism” did not deter Pinker,
taking the Darwinian explanation of psychology a step further. He argued in his 1998 book How the Mind
Works that biology partially explains our moral sense.
Pinker’s ideas were not novel—E. O. Wilson
had suggested as early as 1975 that our moral reasoning was a product
natural selection—but Pinker developed the theory with the benefit of
decades of additional scientific research. New studies showed,
Pinker, that genes guide the assembly of the brain and allow parts of
to “organize themselves without any information from the senses.” He points to studies of twins that prove
genetics controls the amount of gray matter in different cortical
regions—regions that control intelligence and personality traits. How the Mind Works led to renewed
attacks from Stephen Jay Gould—the two scientists engaged in a
clash in the pages of the New York Review of Books over the
legitimacy of evolutionary psychology.
is convinced that the coming decades will see the obliteration of “the
distinction between biology and culture, nature versus society, matter
mind.” He claims to find that prospect
“exhilarating.” While others believe
that explaining the mind in physical terms will undermine human
morality, and personal responsibility, Pinker calls all such claims the “confusion between is and ought.”
argument of Pinker and others that evolution contributed substantially
nature and moral sense provoked attacks from the right, as well as the
left. Creationist biochemist Michael
Behe, for example, argued that the “irreducible complexity” of
prevents incremental evolution of human nature and means that the human
must have an intelligent designer.
Pinker strongly disagrees. He
argues that Behe “jettisons all scientific “scruples” and makes claims
“unproven or just wrong.”
thinkers, including law professor Phillip Johnson, bio-ethicist Leon
(chairman of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics), and commentator
Kristol have joined the attack on evolutionary biology.
As Pinker notes in The Blank Slate
(2002), “It is not clear whether these worldly thinkers are really
that Darwinism is false or whether they think it is important for
believe that it is false.” Pinker is
reminded of a scene from the play about the Scopes trial, Inherit
in which the characters playing Bryan and Darrow are enjoying a
conversation. Bryan confides his thoughts on his
fundamentalist supporters: “They’re
simple people; poor people. They work
hard and they need to believe in something, something beautiful. Why do you want to take it away from
them? It’s all they have.”
Kristol thinks humanity itself is threatened if people come to believe
lead “meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.”
He argues that unadulterated truth isn’t for
everybody: “There are different truths
for different kinds of people. There are
truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for
truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are
appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that should be
of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.”
recognizes that the implication of Darwinism most feared by
creationists is the
“idea that evolution can explain mind and morality.”
Pinker tries to reassure readers of The
Blank Slate that evolutionary psychology doesn’t mean the end of
responsibility. Evolution might, for
example, predispose men to sleeping around, but it doesn’t necessitate
excuse that behavior, Pinker points out.
The common fears about evolutionary psychology are misplaced. It doesn’t lead to inequality; it doesn’t
mean we cannot hope to make a more perfect society; it doesn’t mean all
behavior is biologically determined; it doesn’t lead to nihilism.
argues that a view of the mind as having been shaped by evolution is
amoral. Morality derives from the
physical structure of our brain, he contends.
The fact that eighteen-month-old children share toys and try to
adults is strong evidence for a moral instinct.
So too, according to Pinker, is the universality among cultures
concepts and applications of right and wrong.
Pinker asserts that our moral sense comes from evolution, not
that its “circle of application” has expanded over time through reason,
knowledge, and sympathy.
according to Pinker, our innate moral sense is far less likely to
than is religion. He blames the stoning
of prostitutes, the execution of homosexuals, the bombing of abortion
the burning of witches, the slaying of heretics, and the crashing of
into skyscrapers on imagined commands of God.
Actions of that sort are not responses to an internal moral
sense. The religious “doctrine of the
Pinker’s estimation, “necessarily devalues the lives we live on this
The doctrine encourages suicide bombers and prevents such potentially
research techniques as those involving stem cells.
Pinker’s view, people who argue that evolutionary psychology drains
meaning seriously confuse “ultimate causation (why something evolved by
selection) with proximate causation (how the entity works here and
“metaphorical motives” of genes are not the real motives of people. Even if the good, the true, and the beautiful
are merely “neural constructs, movies we project onto the interior of
skulls,” it does not mean that those “movies” aren’t real.
Pinker compares our innate moral sense to our
sense of number—both might have developed to “grasp abstract truths in
world that exist independently of the minds that grasp them.” The Golden Rule might well be just as
as the number 2. Pinker concludes, “If
we are so constituted that we cannot help but think in moral terms,
morality is as real for us as if it were decreed by the
written into the cosmos.”