Steven Pinker
by Doug Linder (2004)

Steven 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 serious 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 I’m a Hobbesian.”  Asked whether parents sparked his interest in evolutionary psychology, Pinker smiled and answered, “Yes, it comes from my parents.  The question is how it comes from my parents.”  

 Pinker stayed in Montreal after high school to study psychology at McGill University.  A department head at McGill convinced Pinker to concentrate on “scientific, laboratory-oriented psychology” rather than the more popular field of psychoanalytic theory.  Pinker took his mentor’s advice.  When he moved on to do post-graduate work at Harvard, Pinker focused his attention on cognitive science.  When “I was told that people might pay you to study the mind, I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. 

 Pinker rocketed to fame—at least the level of fame possible in the world of academic psychology—in 1994 when he published The Language Instinct, which argued that human language is a biological adaptation, not a cultural invention.  Pinker’s research into the origins of 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 survival and the ability to pass along genes. 

 Pinker’s idea was not new.  Darwin himself suggested that emotion, perception, and cognition evolved as adaptations.  (Alfred Wallace, the co-founder—with Darwin—of evolution, disagreed with his friend on this point.  Wallace believed that a superior intelligence designed the human mind.) Famous nineteenth-century psychologist William James took Darwin’s suggestion and developed a rich psychological theory based on Darwinian notions of instinct and adaptations such as long-term and short-term memory.  

 Evolutionary psychology eventually lost favor, done in by its proponents’ overstatements and concerns about eugenics and Social Darwinism.  By the mid-twentieth century, things had changed so completely that behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner were insisting that psychology and biology had no relationship to each other.  The human mind, according to strict behaviorists, was “a blank slate.”

In 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 studies 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, anger, sympathy, and love all have a biological basis. 

 Pinker 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 ago those 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. 

 Such arguments met the fierce resistance of radical scientists such as Stephen Jay 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 natural selection.  “Selection simply cannot see genes and pick among them directly,” he argued.  “It must use bodies” and bodies “cannot be atomized into parts, each constructed by an individual gene.”  Gould described evolutionary psychologists as holding “a penchant for narrow and barren speculation” that amounts to “pure guess-work in the cocktail –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 oppose its teaching in colleges and universities has been called by its supporters “the new creationism.” 

 The criticisms about “biological determinism” did not deter Pinker, however, from 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 of natural selection—but Pinker developed the theory with the benefit of two decades of additional scientific research. New studies showed, according to Pinker, that genes guide the assembly of the brain and allow parts of the brain 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 high-voltage clash in the pages of the New York Review of Books over the scientific legitimacy of evolutionary psychology. 

 Pinker is convinced that the coming decades will see the obliteration of “the distinction between biology and culture, nature versus society, matter versus mind.”  He claims to find that prospect “exhilarating.”  While others believe that explaining the mind in physical terms will undermine human dignity, morality, and personal responsibility, Pinker calls all such claims the  “confusion between is and ought.”  

 The argument of Pinker and others that evolution contributed substantially to human 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 biochemistry prevents incremental evolution of human nature and means that the human mind must have an intelligent designer.  Pinker strongly disagrees.  He argues that Behe “jettisons all scientific “scruples” and makes claims that are “unproven or just wrong.” 

 Neo-conservative thinkers, including law professor Phillip Johnson, bio-ethicist Leon Kass (chairman of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics), and commentator Irving 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 convinced that Darwinism is false or whether they think it is important for people to believe that it is false.”  Pinker is reminded of a scene from the play about the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind, in which the characters playing Bryan and Darrow are enjoying a relaxing 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.” 

 Irving Kristol thinks humanity itself is threatened if people come to believe they 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 students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy.  It doesn’t work.” 

Pinker 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 moral responsibility.  Evolution might, for example, predispose men to sleeping around, but it doesn’t necessitate or 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.

 Pinker argues that a view of the mind as having been shaped by evolution is not amoral.  Morality derives from the physical structure of our brain, he contends.  The fact that eighteen-month-old children share toys and try to comfort adults is strong evidence for a moral instinct.  So too, according to Pinker, is the universality among cultures of many concepts and applications of right and wrong.  Pinker asserts that our moral sense comes from evolution, not God, and that its “circle of application” has expanded over time through reason, knowledge, and sympathy. 

 Moreover, according to Pinker, our innate moral sense is far less likely to produce evil than is religion.  He blames the stoning of prostitutes, the execution of homosexuals, the bombing of abortion clinics, the burning of witches, the slaying of heretics, and the crashing of airplanes into skyscrapers on imagined commands of God.  Actions of that sort are not responses to an internal moral sense.  The religious “doctrine of the soul,” in Pinker’s estimation, “necessarily devalues the lives we live on this earth.” The doctrine encourages suicide bombers and prevents such potentially life-saving research techniques as those involving stem cells.   

 In Pinker’s view, people who argue that evolutionary psychology drains life of meaning seriously confuse “ultimate causation (why something evolved by natural selection) with proximate causation (how the entity works here and now).” The “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 our 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 the world that exist independently of the minds that grasp them.”   The Golden Rule might well be just as real as the number 2.  Pinker concludes, “If we are so constituted that we cannot help but think in moral terms, then morality is as real for us as if it were decreed by the Almighty or written into the cosmos.”

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