Interview: Steven Pinker

Why is Denmark happy? Do you believe in self-domestication? Is George Orwell right? By the end of Steven Pinker’s Union talk, the questions he is asked have become impossibly broad. The Harvard Professor of Psychology seems unphased. In the space of an hour, his answers leap between history, criminology, philosophy and anthropology.

Pinker’s interests appear varied, but one main principle underpins his research. In the 1980s, he wrote about humans’ innate ability for language acquisition. This seemingly innocuous subject led him to attack swathes of modern academia. In his 2002 book The Blank Slate, he condemned the ‘modern denial of human nature’ which overemphasises nurture and suggests everything is socially constructed – a theory which he thinks underpins movements from Maoist politics to postmodern art.

I ask Pinker why a ‘blank slate’ view of the human mind remains popular. “I think there are a number of appealing moral and political areas within the doctrine of the blank slate, at least among the people who consider themselves to be the educated or the enlightened,” he says.

“I don’t think the blank slate is as common among people who just apply their own common sense, but I think the educated elite have developed the idea that there is something reactionary about the idea of human nature, and so the blank slate is a more politically correct view… One reason the idea is popular is that it seems to make equality easier to achieve. That, if the slate is blank, it means zero equals zero equals zero, and that we’re all the same.”

Another element to the blank slate’s success is the “fear of fatalism”: if human nature is emphasised, it seems “people cannot be held responsible for their actions, so you won’t be able to reward, punish, criticise, hold anyone accountable because they’re just machinery. Then there’s the more nebulous fear that if we’re all products of evolution, that somehow makes life less worth living. The idea, for instance, that I don’t really love my children, I’m just perpetuating my genes.”

Twelve years have passed since Pinker first condemned the idea of ‘the blank slate’. Is the concept less dominant today? “I don’t know. All I can say is that the idea of human nature is nolonger taboo. One can raise questions that one couldn’t have raised twenty years ago.” However, postmodernism remains “a kind of relativism and ‘blank slate’ view on steroids”, which prevents rationality in the humanities.

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The ‘denial’ of human nature has undermined progressive political movements, Pinker argues. He opposes the notion that gender is entirely socially constructed, viewing the idea as unnecessary when advocating equality. “In public opinion polls, most people are equity feminists, and this is true, surprisingly, not just in the West but in slightly more benighted parts of the world – in conservative, fundamentalist Islamic countries. The majority believe men and women should have equal opportunities.

“I think the more ideological, tendentious aspects of academic feminism are held more unevenly in the population. There are certain aspects of academic, gender feminism which have become parts of conventional wisdom – like the idea that rape has nothing to do with sex, but only to do with domination – you hear that a lot, just because it’s been something that is drummed into people for enough decades, and there’s been enough continuation that if you diverge from that then you’ll be attacked as justifying rape.”

His criticism of postmodern feminist philosophy has resulted in his vilification on parts of the blogosphere. He concedes that he sometimes vets his views to avoid criticism. “I’d say I’ve been tactful in what to emphasise, and what to downplay. Largely because it’s possible that one thing could overwhelm all public attention to a work. You pick your battles, you choose which aspects to emphasise, so I don’t blurt out everything on every topic.”

Nevertheless, his recent work has caused controversy. 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that levels of violence have decreased throughout history. For some, the view is counterintuitive to the point of insensitivity: how can one suggest that brutality is declining while images of terror and war dominate our TV screens? Pinker rejects this criticism. “If we’re really concerned about violence we need to understand it, we need to know how much there is, and what causes it to decrease. In fact, that’s our only hope of reducing violence. So it’s never a good idea to systematically delude ourselves. And I think the press does delude us. Not intentionally – they just want to sell papers and attract clicks – but it’s part of human nature that we gravitate towards big, violent, salient events.”

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He believes that if we are committed to reducing violence, we must acknowledge its recent decline. “You have to diagnose the disease before you can treat it; you have to know which cures work and which ones are quack. Indeed, the fact that violence has gone down in recent history gives us hope that we can reduce it further – you should not see parts of the world like Congo and Sudan as hell-holes that will always be violent.”

But to many on the left, the notion of declining violence seems a triumphalist defence of the West’s system of government. “In part I plead guilty. I think that liberal democracy is a good thing. I think that the question of whether free markets are conducive to values such as less genocide, less war, is a question worth asking, and I think there is empirical evidence that that’s true. If that’s the case then we should promote it.”

I suggest that this is a principled, not scientific, conclusion. Pinker refutes this. “It’s not an ideological attempt which begins with the idea that, say, free trade is an inherent good: rather it’s an empirical question of whether it leads to things that we value, and I present evidence that in fact [free trade] does.”

In university common rooms this idea would induce fury, but the professor is warmly received at the Union – our interview is delayed as he is swamped by people keen to discuss his theories. In spite of his attacks on the axioms of left wing academia, Steven Pinker is unscathed.