Prof. Steven Pinker - Max S. Gerber - 10122011
Prof. Steven Pinker Photo by Max S. Gerber
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Prof. Steven Pinker believes that the world is not as bad as it seems. In fact, he thinks we are living in the calmest period ever experienced by humanity. The appalling images from Bosnia, from the genocide in Darfur or from the suppression of protest in Syria - like headlines about crime waves and violence - mislead us into thinking that the world has become more violent. Actually, violence is constantly diminishing. This is the thesis of Pinker's massive new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (Viking ), which is packed with statistical evidence and graphs to back up his findings.

Pinker, who teaches at Harvard and MIT, is an evolutionary psychologist, a cognitive scientist and a linguist. He is a popular figure in the United States; his books breach the bounds of academia and appeal to a broad audience, and he is a frequent speaker at conferences open to the public. His talks and interviews are readily available on TED, YouTube and other websites. He's been dubbed an "intellectual rock star." In 2004, he was on Time Magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people, and in surveys conducted in 2005 and 2008 by the journals Prospect and Foreign Policy, he was named one of the 100 leading intellectuals. His research in cognitive psychology has garnered him dozens of awards over the years and he was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (1998 and 2003 ).

Next week Pinker will be in Israel to mark three events: the publication of his new book on violence, the translation in Hebrew of his 1994 book "The Language Instinct" and a conference on psycho-ontology in which he is participating. He previously visited Israel in 2003, to receive an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University, and also when he accompanied his wife, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein, who was invited to lecture here. Pinker, who considers himself an atheist, was raised in the Jewish community of Montreal, Canada. His wife is from an Orthodox Jewish family (her older brother is a rabbi ) and some of her work is devoted to Judaism and to religion in general.

Pinker is 57 but looks younger, with a youthful face, athletic frame and bountiful curls ("I wasn't allowed to grow my hair as a boy and now I am compensating for it" ). In a recent interview to The New York Times, he related that when he was 15, he was an avowed anarchist and declared to his parents that life would be better without a police force. The year was 1969. That October, the Montreal police went on strike, and almost immediately riots broke out and there were two murders. Young Steven understood that he had a lot to learn about human nature.

Given his striking hair and his fondness for jeans and leather boots - combined with his candidness, clarity and ability to make information plumbed in tangled reservoirs of knowledge sexy - it's easy to see why Pinker enjoys resounding success outside the formal academic framework. But together with the enthusiasm and high regard, his ideas also draw critical fire. The British psychologist Oliver James termed Pinker's views "wicked" and "utterly immoral."

Pinker's books, whether about language or human nature, are based on the evolutionary approach to psychology, according to which large segments of our mental, social and emotional life are the result of natural selection. Pinker believes that the human brain, and therefore all of human culture, developed by means of an evolutionary mechanism, exactly like organs and other traits. More precisely, evolutionary psychology applies the theory of evolution to psychology by emphasizing adaptation, selection at the gene level, and modularity: namely, the idea that the brain developed a number of mental "modules" (autonomous functional units ) which, like the body's organs, were eventually able to solve specific problems of adaptation.

One concern about this approach is the ease with which it can be abused. Eugenics (the theory of racial enhancement ) and Social Darwinism are based on the naturalistic fallacy which holds that what is natural is morally right. But the cardinal problem with the evolutionary approach itself lies in its tendency toward simplification, and in the biological determinism which would appear to follow from it. In other words, the idea that origin, gender and genetic composition destine human beings to particular traits and abilities, so that the possibility of change - personal or social - seems small, if not impossible.

In view of such an approach, the road to claims of genetic differences between women and men, or between people of different ethnic descent, appears short. It is a dangerous road and an unpopular one, particularly in the era of political correctness. In his controversial book "The Blank Slate" (2002 ), Pinker argued that we are not born "tabula rasa" (a blank slate ), but that this does not necessarily imply the existence of determinism or moral failings. Natural selection, he maintains, is a neutral phenomenon. Even if it should turn out that men and women developed so that, on average, each gender is more proficient in different skills, this does not mean that the concept of gender equality is false. Indeed, evolution also accorded the human species the frontal lobe, which enables learning and personality changes.

Reason triumphs

The evolutionary approach to psychology is also at the heart of Pinker's new book on violence. In a telephone interview ahead of his visit to Israel, he explains that the development of evolutionary psychology and the cognitive sciences leads to the insight that the natture-nuture debate is pointless, just as it is meaningless to ask whether a person's nature will be good or bad based on how he was as a child.

"Human nature is complex," Pinker explains. "It has a number of components that incline us toward violence, and components that incline us toward cooperation or inhibit us from violence - which I call the better angels of our nature. The phrase comes from Abraham Lincoln and I took it for the book's title."

The good sides of human nature are characterized by traits and abilities which Pinker believes include "a sense of fairness" (probably deriving from the evolution of mutuality ); purity (deriving apparently from intuitions of revulsion and pollution ); hierarchy (adherence to authority and to social norms ); and self-control: "the ability to anticipate the consequences of your actions, and to inhibit the ones that in the long run would be of moral harm to others."

There is also empathy, "the ability to feel other people's pain," and reason, namely "the cognitive processes that allow us to reflect on our situation and figure out the way to lead our lives."

According to Pinker, new studies that quantify the increase and decrease in violence over the course of history lead to the conclusion that it is in constant decline. As evidence of this, he notes that many forms of violence have disappeared from the world, or have at least become rare and are condemned in the West. Among them are "cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion" - as he wrote in an article titled A History of Violence (on www.edge.org ).

The idea that the world is improving is not new. In the Age of Reason (in the early 17th century ), people believed in progress and culture, and their ability to help elevate humanity from a state of barbarity and savagery to one of moral superiority. Such ideas are treated more warily in our time: From our perspective we can see how the concepts of enlightenment have led to some of the most egregious ills of modernity: occupation, colonialism and snobbism toward other nations perceived as ignorant or primitive.

Numerous contemporary studies support the idea of the "noble savage" - that is, that people are by nature inherently peace-loving but have been corrupted by modern institutions. The horrors perpetrated in the 20th century would also seem to contradict the enlightenment scenario, especially the Holocaust, which can be seen as a paradigm of how rationalism and education can be harnessed to evil and cruelty on a hitherto unknown scale.

According to the approach of the Frankfurt School - the name given to a collective of social theorists whose ideas were dominant in the early part of the last century - there was no contradiction between the barbarous crimes committed in World War II and the rational, "modern" manner of their perpetration.

From this perspective, the Holocaust was not an aberrant ideology or the opposite of enlightenment values, but a logical, albeit extreme and horrific, product of that worldview. But now that researchers have begun to count the bodies in various places and historical periods, Pinker says, it seems that the opposite is true: Modernity and its institutions have exercised a positive effect on humanity, as we are nobler today than we were in the past.

Although documentation does not exist for every place and time, and the data that do exist are not always reliable, Pinker maintains that the picture is unequivocal. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon that is present whether one is looking at millennia, centuries, decades or years, he writes in The History of Violence. It is characterized by various degrees of intensity - in the form of genocide, war, rioting, homicide or even treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. It is more widespread in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and was particularly evident at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early 17th century. Pinker explains in the interview that his new book "documents six major historical declines of violence." At the widest-angle view, he has written that "one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors." He also argues, for example, that "the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with ax marks and embedded arrowheads" indicates that "pre-state societies were far more violent than our own."

How do you explain anthropological studies which argue exactly the opposite: that when human beings were hunters and gatherers, they conducted peaceful, egalitarian lives?

"It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. If the wars of the 20th century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million. Hunter-gatherer tribes that live on the most marginal lands are so sparsely distributed that they hardly meet other groups, yet they have rates of homicide that are as high as the worst American cities, in the worst American years for homicide. If you look in general at people who live in anarchy, they have quite high rates of death from either homicide or warfare or both. Anarchy is one of the main reasons for violence, and it may be the most important."

'New peace' and 'long peace'

Because Pinker could not find enough quantitative studies on deaths in war since the Middle Ages, he examined the homicide rate: "From about 1200 to the year 2000, there was a decline in the per-capita homicide rate from 30 per 100,000 per year to one per 100,000 per year," he says.

In regard to recent generations, too, he cites extensive information showing that global violence has been gradually declining since the middle of the 20th century. He also refers to what he calls the "humanitarian revolution," by which he means the revolutions and reforms which occurred as a result of the Age of Reason, and brought about "the abolition of torture as a form of punishment, slavery, mass prisons, religious persecution, blood sports and capital punishment for frivolous misdemeanors."

In addition, there is what historians call the concept of "long peace" - namely, that since the end of World War II there has been a virtual disappearance of war between great powers, and a sharp decline in wars between developed states, and generally in Europe, particularly Western Europe. This, he says, is "historically very unusual."

If we continue to look through this same magnifying glass, Pinker notes, we discover that since the end of the Cold War there has been a "steep decline" in conflicts between states, and that if conflicts do arise they are more likely to end in negotiations and not warfare (from The History of Violence). He quotes a study by the political scientist Barbara Harff, which shows that between 1989 and 2005 the mass killing of civilians fell by 90 percent. This "new peace," as Pinker calls it, is an outgrowth of the "long peace" and "is starting to spread to the rest of the world." Finally, in this connection, there are the "rights revolutions," which are targeting violence against racial minorities, women, children, even animals.

What accounts for this overall decline in violence? In his book, Pinker cites four possible processes. One is "the replacement of anarchy by state control." The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes was right, he says: "Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish and short." This is because anarchy creates a constant fear of being attacked, which prompts those living with the fear to strike first before being assaulted.

A second is "the growth of commerce and trade, which replaces conquest as a way of getting ahead ... When it is cheaper to buy something than steal it, then people will buy it, and as roads and transportation and financial instruments and institutions make it cheaper to do business - the rest of the world becomes more valuable alive rather than dead," Pinker explains. Moreover, life has improved over time. When pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others, he says, noting that this idea can be attributed to political scientist James Payne.

A third process is "the expansion of the cosmopolitan mixing of people and ideas." In other words, "if you aren't just brought up in your tribe but interact with other people either directly or vicariously, through journalism and literature, you see what life is like from other points of view and are less likely to demonize them or dehumanize others and more likely to empathize with them," he explains.

The fourth is "the advance of reason, through literacy and open discourse and deliberative institutions like newspapers, universities and democratic governments, where people can apply their power of reason to treat violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won."

The sadism factor

If Pinker is right and violence is truly declining, why do most people seem to feel that the opposite is true? One reason, he says, is that we are getting better at reporting violence: "Nowadays, anyone with a cellphone can broadcast live color footage of violence anywhere in the world, whereas in the past a lot of violence was like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it." Another reason, he adds, is that "we care more about violence, so whenever violence does occur we consider it a deplorable problem."

In addition, more phenomena are being classified as violence, Pinker observes. In the United States, for example, people are "appalled" at state executions and are seeking to stop them. "A hundred years ago," he notes, "this would not have been called violence, but justice." Another example is a recent campaign in the United States against child bullies. This, too, would once not have been considered violence but a regular part of childhood.

"As we become more sensitive to violence, we see more and more of it," Pinker points out. "The media amplify a basic feature of human reason - namely, that we estimate probability by how easily we can remember examples of particular phenomena. This discovery was made by two Israeli psychologists: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. If your assessment of how much violence is in the world comes from having seen a sniper firing from a roof on yesterday's newscast, or a terrorist bombing, or a civil war - you will think that violence is very prevalent. What the news doesn't show you is that far more people are dying of cancer and Alzheimer's and heart attacks than of violence."

What about violence against animals? Is it possible that in the era of industrial agriculture, fewer animals are being abused than in the past?

"Certainly far more animals are mistreated today, partly because modern society tried to make meat affordable to large numbers of people. And recently people have been switching from beef to chicken, because people think it's healthier, and it takes 200 chickens to provide the same amount of meat as one cow. It is not the case that animals were treated particularly humanely in the past. Even hundreds of years ago, animals were often confined in dark barns and were often beaten, because people thought it would tenderize the meat. Geese were nailed to the floor because people thought it would make their meat tastier. You are probably right that the numbers have increased, but at least in the West there are measures that are designed to reduce the suffering of animals today, and I think this will continue."

Has the decrease in violence been equal throughout the world?

"Yes, but at different times. In the Western world, in rich and powerful countries it started after World War II, and in the world as a whole [it was] more or less after the Cold War ended, around 1990 or so."

Asked about the implications of his theory, assuming it is correct, Pinker says it means that outbursts of violence "are not a constant in human history. Human nature is a constant, but that doesn't necessarily have to result in the same rates of violence - in wars, too. If we want to reduce violence we should look at what has helped in the past, because we know some things worked. We've been doing something right, and it is important to find out what it is."

In contrast to the Freudian approach, Pinker notes, the evolutionary approach does not view violence as an urge which must be satisfied, such as hunger or the need for sleep. Rather, it is an adaptation which will survive only if its advantages outweigh its drawbacks. The implication is that it is a truly complex phenomenon that is not uniform in character.

Pinker notes that in "The Better Angels of Our Nature," he refers to "several very distinct kinds of violence, which are controlled by different parts of the brain." One type of violence is instrumental, inasmuch as it is used only as a means to achieve a goal. "When I go fishing, it's not that I'm angry at the fish; it's just that I am callous toward the fish and I enjoy the experience of fishing." Many cases of violence, he observes, "such as conquest, rape, plunder, eliminating rivals," simply entail "the use of cognition to get what you want, and not caring about what gets hurt in the process."

Another type of violence involves dominance, defined as "an urge to be superior to rivals." In humans it can be seen among individuals as well as groups; it is also evident among animals. "Revenge, and more generally moralistic violence" is yet another form of violence, as is sadism: the infliction of pain for the pleasure of it.

In his study, Pinker asks why throughout history serial killers - and, for example, parents who brought their children with them to watch public executions - experienced pleasure at the pain of others. He does not think sadism has any particular evolutionary advantage but, like many other forms of behavior, is a byproduct of an evolutionary process. "It is dominance - the pleasure taken at the knowledge that you control someone else - greatly exaggerated by the psychological phenomenon of the pleasure taken in the ability to overcome inhibition. So just as we may have a fear of heights but find it enjoyable to overcome it by bungee jumping, overcoming the inhibition of directly harming someone with our bare hands, or of [being subject to] the deeply aversive sound of screaming, can be pleasurable."

Conflict and controversy

Far from generating pleasure, Pinker's book, despite its main message, seems to have generated mainly fury. Writing in the September 21 issue of Prospect magazine under the title "Delusions of peace," philosopher John Gray asks, "Was the immense violence that ravaged Southeast Asia after 1945 a result of immemorial backwardness in the region? Or was a subtle and refined civilization wrecked by world war and the aftermath of decades of neocolonial conflict?"

It is true, Gray acknowledges, that there were 40 years of peace in North America and Europe after World War II (even if this was the result of Soviet conquest in Eastern Europe ). "But there was no peace between the powers that had emerged as rivals from the global conflict. In much the same way that rich societies exported their pollution to developing countries, the societies of the highly developed world exported their conflicts. They were at war with one another the entire time - not only in Indochina but in other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America." Another issue which Gray points out and Pinker seems to ignore relates to the crime rate in the United States and the parallel statistics of incarceration in that country. Gray quotes Pinker as observing that "more than two million Americans are in jail, the highest incarceration rate on the planet." In Pinker's eyes, Gray writes, this statistic attests to a "recivilizing process" - since it involves removing the most crime-prone individuals from the streets - but he ignores the darker side, such as the "repressive policies on drugs" pursued by the U.S., and the connection between the mass incarceration of young men and the breakdown of family units (which in itself contributes to a rise in crime ). According to Gray, Pinker also ignores the racial inequality that exists in the realm of higher education, the disappearance of jobs requiring "low" skills, the cuts in social security and mounting economic inequality - even though these factors explain why there are so many poor blacks in jail and so few rich whites. It must be asked whether the decline in saliently physical violence is not accompanied by the rise of other forms of evil.

Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Brown, who edits the paper's Comment Is Free/Belief section, was even more outspoken. He called Pinker's new book "a great piece of theater in which half-truths do battle with straw men while the reader watches in safety, defended by barricades of apparent fact against any danger of actual thought." Brown complains that Pinker does not treat the Russians' war in Afghanistan as a conflict between states but as "a Russian-bolstered civil war." In fact, Brown observes, "all prolonged colonial wars are also civil wars, and almost all of them have foreign involvement on the insurgent side as well."

But Pinker is undeterred. He thinks the international affairs experts are too gloomy by half. "Contrary to numerous expert predictions, there was no invasion of Western Europe by Soviet tanks, no escalation of a crisis in Cuba, Berlin or the Middle East into a nuclear holocaust. The cities of the world were not vaporized ... a reunified Germany did not turn into a Fourth Reich, democracy did not go the way of monarchy, and the great powers did not fall into a third world war," Pinker countered in The Guardian.

Free thought

With his usual insouciance, Pinker does not allow the world's violence to get him down. He says he likes to alternate between writing a book on human nature and a book on language. "The Language Instinct," just published in Hebrew, is one of the works which illustrate his linguistic expertise. As the title suggests, the book supports the theory that language ability is an innate human inclination. In the 1950s, Prof. Noam Chomsky transformed linguistic research by arguing that language is not only composed of a series of words or fixed structures, but that it is a "rule system, a generative procedure or an algorithm that can combine words and constructions in novel combinations of infinite scope," Pinker explains in the telephone interview. Chomsky also propounded the thesis that the basis of language is innate.

Chomsky geared his own research toward an examination of what he considered to be its greatest mystery: how children acquire language. More specifically, he wondered how the child, who is not exposed to a language in its fullness and does not learn the rules of grammar until he starts school, is able to "generalize from a finite set of sentences that he hears from parents and other children, and - to develop the rule system capable of generating infinite language."

Following Chomsky's theory, Pinker advances the idea that language is a unique ability in humans - an evolutionary product originally aimed at solving the problem of communication among hunters-gatherers. He compares language to distinctive adaptations among other species, such as the weaving of webs by spiders, or the building of dams by beavers, and terms all these forms of behavior "instincts." Much of the book deals with Chomsky's concept of universal grammar: that is, the fact that there are properties shared by all human languages. Pinker explains that universal grammar reflects the existence of certain structures in the human brain which identify general rules of speech in other people, such as whether a particular language places adjectives before or after nouns. He believes that the basic organization of grammar is "wired" into an infant's brain and that it sets in motion a rapid and specific learning process that cannot be explained in terms of rational thought or logical inferences. According to Pinker, this phenomenon exists only at a particular critical period in early infancy. The book opens with a swift survey of the clearest evidence that language is innate, including the fact that children spontaneously invent consistent grammatical speech, even if they are growing up in a mixed-culture population in which pidgin language, devoid of grammatical rules, is spoken. There is also the fact that deaf infants "chatter" with their hands in the same way that hearing children chatter with their voice, and spontaneously invent sign languages with their own grammar. Other evidence is the fact that language develops in children even if they do not learn it formally and even if their parents do not try to correct their grammar. Moreover, infants are capable of distinguishing minute differences between phonemes (basic units of pronunciation which can differentiate between words ). Pinker argues in the book that "infants come equipped with these skills; they do not learn them by listening to their parent's speech."

Yet another topic covered by the book is the connection between language and thought. Pinker argues against the notion that thought is language-dependent. Words can aid thought, he explains, but our thoughts are not entirely dependent on words, otherwise we would not be able to learn words from the outset, to distinguish between homonyms or synonyms. We are capable of thinking nonverbally, he adds. "We think in visual images, auditory images, motor images. There are many shades and combinations of emotions and abstract thoughts that we sometimes find difficult to put into words." Other chapters are devoted to language acquisition by infants, the biological underpinnings of language and its evolution. This includes descriptions of the origins of languages. What does he have to say about Hebrew? "Modern Hebrew is a mixture of roots of words in biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, with neologisms and grammatical features which the revivers of the language introduced. It was formulated and processed by generations of Israeli children who acquired it as their mother tongue and by other speakers. Biblical Hebrew evolved as a hypothesized ancient language known as proto-Semitic (whose linguistic descendants include Arabic ). It was apparently spoken by a Middle East tribe more than 5,500 years ago, although it is possible that the proto-Semites lived in what is now Egypt. They were apparently the offspring of an even more ancient tribe from which a larger Afro-Asian family emerged, which included Amharic, Berber and Somali."

Pinker will give three talks during his stay in Israel: on December 11 at the Jerusalem Theater on "The Better Angels of Our Nature"; on December 13 at Einav Center in Tel Aviv on "The Language Instinct"; and on December 14 he will take part in a conference on psycho-ontology sponsored by the Shalem Center at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem.

Pinker sounds excited about the visit. "I very much enjoy visiting," he says. "I find Israel absolutely fascinating. Infuriating, sometimes, but I'm always happy when I have a chance to visit." W