Steven Pinker | Thoughts of an intellectual

About Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, author and Johnstone Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His academic specializations are in cognitive science and psycholinguistics. His books The Language Instinct (1994) and How The Mind Works (1997) are two examples on those topics. In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now (2018) Pinker switched his focus to global progress, using scientific data to prove that the world is in general improving. Steven Pinker has won countless, prestigious awards and is a highly regarded intellectual all over the world.

Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

What are your thoughts on the origin of language?
– I suspect its origin goes back to before we were Homo sapiens, that is, that the common ancestor of Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans had language. One reason to believe this is that Neanderthals had a complex culture including tool making and even art, which language can facilitate. Their anatomy is also consistent with speech. That was controversial until recently, but the hyoid bone that anchors the tongue is the same shape in Neanderthals as in Homo sapiens..

– But perhaps most convincing is that Neanderthals had a gene that is involved in language and speech, the FOXP2 gene. When it’s mutated, people have difficulty articulating speech, they’re slower in acquiring language and they have difficulties in comprehending complex grammatical sentences. It appears that the modern form of the FOXP2 gene, the one that is not mutated, was present in Neanderthals, which suggests that it was present in the common ancestor (unless it was shared by interbreeding). This means that language probably was around more than 200 000 years ago. That doesn’t mean that the version of language that the Neanderthals or the first Sapiens had was on the same level that we have today, but it suggests that they were not mute.

“it’s essential to figure out what has caused progress so that we can do more of it in the future.”

In your book Enlightenment Now, you write about the positive progress in the world. Why is it important that people acknowledge that things actually are getting better?
– There are a number of dangers in being unaware of progress. One is the complement of the possibility of complacency, and that is the possibility of fatalism. People might think that since all the efforts to make the world a better place have failed and things just keep getting worse and worse, then it’s a waste of time even to try. It’s naïve, utopian, idealistic. I believe that if we are aware that problems can be solved, it empowers us to try to solve the problems facing us today. An awareness of progress is also a safeguard against radicalism. A nihilistic form of radicalism is not uncommon today. A certain percentage of the population believes our institutions are so corrupt, dysfunctional and decadent that we may as well destroy them. They believe that anything that rises out of the ashes will be better than what we have now. Not only is that belief dangerous — things can be much worse than they are in the contemporary West today, with famines, epidemics, and civil wars — but it is what elects demagogues.

– At the same time it’s crucial to understand that progress is not a natural force. It is not some mysterious process in the universe that makes everything better and better. Nature contains no such force. Progress is a phenomenon we need to explain. If you just leave humanity alone without the right ideas, you can get stasis or degeneration, not progress. It’s crucial to identify where progress comes from so that we can maximize those conditions to achieve more progress in the future. I made an argument to what those ideas are, namely reason, science and humanism. But even if I’m wrong about those causes, it’s essential to figure out what has caused progress so that we can do more of it in the future.

“identity politics, with its notion of group-based power reassignment, is not the appropriate response to the undeniable existence of racism, sexism and homophobia; the principle of equal rights is.”

What are your thoughts on identity politics?
– It’s a regrettable development. Even though it is essential to combat racism, homophobia and sexism, we ought to do so under the principle of fairness, rights and equity. That means each individual should be treated according to his or her merits and not according to the color of their skin, their chromosomes or their sexual orientation. This is different from identity politics, as it is commonly understood, namely that there is a perpetual zero-sum contest for power among racial and sexual cartels. On that view, the source of injustice is not that people have been treated with bigotry or unfairness, but that one group has monopolized power at the expense of others. To rectify that we have to upend the hierarchy and wrest power away from the faction of straight, white males and hand it to factions of gays, racial minorities and women.

– This vision of social change is hard to justify. Modern societies aren’t divided into monolithic armies of a single sex or skin color, and it’s people who suffer or prosper, not categories. Yes, group-based bigotry and exploitation exist, but at the same time there are poor white males who are horribly disadvantaged, women of color born into privilege, and every other combination. To shame or disempower an entire category of people violates the principle of fairness and can have repercussions, such as the election of President You-Know-Who. So identity politics, with its notion of group-based power reassignment, is not the appropriate response to the undeniable existence of racism, sexism and homophobia; the principle of equal rights is.

– Another regrettable form of identity politics is the notion that we should evaluate ideas based on the demographic traits of who advocates them — that an idea should be sidelined if it comes from a white male and taken seriously if it comes from a person with some other combination of gender and skin color. I appreciate where this concern comes from. I’ve often seen brilliant women ignored, interrupted, talked over and mansplained, and have heard of many more. This and other injustices must be called out and eliminated. But that’s different from considering the ideas themselves based on who talks about them. The existence of anthropogenic climate change, for example, is true regardless of who discovered it. It’s insulting to women and people of color to evaluate their opinions based on their census traits, as if they all thought alike, or their arguments could not stand on their merits.

“Climate change got branded a left-wing issue and since then people who are hostile to the left for any reason feel that to maintain their loyalty to their coalition they have to oppose dealing with climate change.”

Are you surprised by climate change deniers and the fact that there is an actual debate about whether climate change exists or not?
– I used to be utterly baffled, and like many scientists, attributed it to scientific illiteracy. But when I looked at the survey data I discovered that the cause of climate change denial is not scientific ignorance but political tribalism. Climate change got branded a left-wing issue and since then people who are hostile to the left for any reason feel that to maintain their loyalty to their coalition they have to oppose dealing with climate change.

– At the same time there’s a strand of denial on the left. Not denial of the fact that the climate is warming or that the cause is human activity, but on what we have to do mitigate it. Here I’m influenced by the Swedish nuclear engineer Staffan Qvist and the political scientist Joshua Goldstein. They looked at the numbers and found that Sweden has the world’s best record at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases while maintaining a high standard of living. Now, it’s crucial to recognize that any solution to climate change has to do both, because rich countries are not going to decide to get poorer, and poor countries are not going to decide to stay poor.

– The only way to get rich is to capture energy, so the solution to climate change cannot lie in undoing the industrial revolution, de-growing and returning to a simple agrarian lifestyle; the entire world will not agree to do that. Therefore, the solution has to be to rapidly develop abundant, scalable sources of zero-carbon energy, for which nuclear power is the only current example. Sweden slashed its carbon emissions by rapidly building out nuclear power plants while following a standard design, which is necessary to make it affordable.

– Under the the privatized model of the United States, each company builds its own custom design for the first time and gets bogged down in cost overruns and construction delays. A major kind of denial on the left (including, increasingly, Sweden) is of the safety of nuclear power compared to the alternatives, especially fossil fuels, and of the inability of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels on a global scale within the next two decades.

Social media has too a great extent changed society over the last decade. Do you use social media? Do you think it has a net positive or net negative impact on the world?
– I have a Twitter account, but I spend little time on it. I don’t look at replies, since the intellectual quality of most Twitter replies is so low. I do respond to thoughtful e-mails, because if someone takes the trouble to address something to me then at least we have the trappings of a human relationship and any disagreement can start off on a ground of respect for intellectual content. That’s generally not the case on Twitter. I’ll also respond to individual published reviews when given the opportunity (which seldom happens), and in the aggregate in my essay Enlightenment Wars.

“New media can open up a landscape of anarchy.”

– I mainly use Twitter as a publicity medium for my own writing and interviews, and as a way of sharing articles and ideas I come across that I think deserve to be more widely known. I’m fortunate to have access to original and important ideas that are not commonly presented in the mainstream media — from academic papers, reports from think tanks and not-yet-famous scientists and intellectuals — and I often try to give those some publicity.

– Regarding the impact of social media, it’s too soon to say. The expansion is so rapid that we have not yet developed workarounds to minimize their harms. New media can open up a landscape of anarchy. It happened with print publication. The first affordable books and newspapers led to decades of informational chaos; material was plagiarized and remixed, tall tales of mermaids and dragons were reproduced as fact, conspiracy theories and rumors of plots by various ethnic groups proliferated, until the more respectable sources developed a reputation for reliability and people started to turn to them — though supermarket tabloids and kook publishers persisted into the social media era. Likewise, the invention of radio brought in megawatt pirate radio stations that broadcast quack remedies, conspiracies about the federal government, wild apocalyptic preaching, and sales of holy relics like autographed pictures of Jesus. And of course television, the “vast wasteland”, was thought to bring about the end of literate civilization when it became popular.

– For social media, some of the companies have started to take steps to mitigate the harms. For example, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm no longer steers people to increasingly radical content. Twitter has stopped accepting political ads. Facebook monitors its feed for incendiary content. So far these measures are inadequate, but I suspect that people are not going to remain helpless in the rise of harmful misinformation, and the social media ecosystem will evolve workarounds.

How do you view free will?
– Like most scientists and modern philosphers, I don’t think that every time we make a decision a miracle happens. It’s all brain physiology. But “free will” does refer to a distinct neurobiological phenomenon. When people refer to “free will,” they are singling out a neurophysiological process that is distinct from the one that gives rise to reflexive or impulsive responses. The brain contains complex circuitry, mostly concentrated in prefrontal cortex, which takes in information from many sources, including memory, current goals, understanding of the social situation and internal models of what would happen in hypothetical futures. These include anticipations of reward and punishment, praise and blame, respect and shame. Also, the output of those circuits is not completely predictable; it can be deflected by chaotic or random elements in the brain. The decision process that we call “free will” is not completely predictable, and it is unfathomably complex, but that does not mean that it takes place outside of information processing by neural networks.

If we knew every bit of information existing in the brain, we could still not predict the next choice?
– Theoretically, maybe. Perhaps some Laplacian demon that knew the entire connectome of the brain, and the position and velocity of every ion and every neurotransmitter molecule, could deduce the trillions of neural firings that would take place in the ensuing moments. Though perhaps not — it’s conceivable that there are quantum effects in the brain, or thermal noise or Brownian motion in the molecules in the brain that fall below the threshold of any physically realizable measurement device. In that case, even Laplace’s demon may not be able to predict with certainty wat we will do.

– At the same time, we all can predict human behavior statistically. Clearly, the fact that society, not to mention everyday social life, functions more or less coherently means that behavior must be in large part predictable, so that our laws, norms, threats and promises can be effective. Otherwise we would be solitary hermits who just happen to share the same space, randomly bumping off each other, rather than families and institutions and societies. That doesn’t require us to predict each other’s behavior down to the last sentence and action.

“I do my best to trade off narrowness with superficiality, and always worry I’m getting it wrong.”

How much do you read?
– A lot. I’m always anxious about whether I’m making the best trade-off between depth and breadth. Books explore a subject in the detail and depth they deserve. But reading a book about one thing means that I’m not reading about other things, and though it’s embarrassing for an author of ten long books to say this, with many books one quickly reaches the point of diminishing returns. It’s important to be exposed to a variety of ideas and we can’t read an entire book about everything. I do my best to trade off narrowness with superficiality, and always worry I’m getting it wrong.

– A neurotic part of me worries that if I start a book without finishing it I will become a dissolute dilettante. But the cognitive psychologist in me knows that this is a classic example of the sunk cost fallacy – the delusion that one should pursue a course of action because one has already pursued it for so long. That’s the error I know I’m making when I think “I’ve already read 150 pages and am not learning much, but I’ve come so far I really ought to read the rest.” It makes no sense, other than perhaps to bulk up my self-control muscles.

Do you have any books that you want to recommend?
– Where to begin? The other half of my twosome, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, has a book called 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A work of fiction, which is one of my favorite books ever — a hilarious satire of academic life and a deep exploration of the nature of religious belief. David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity was a big influence on Enlightenment Now, providing a deep explanation for the phenomenon I was demonstrating, progress.

Steven Pinker’s book recommendations.

– Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene is 43 years old but still worth reading, both for its style—it’s still one of the best examples of scientific writing — and as a source of ideas. People should read it to cure themselves of their folk theory of evolution, namely that it is a force that maximizes group cohesion. Many journalists, intellectuals and professors lazily “explain” the evolution of this or that trait because it helps to “bond the group”, not realizing that they are saying something that is not the same as natural selection and is almost certainly false. They should read or re-read The Selfish Gene to learn why.

We thank Steven Pinker for sharing his knowledge with Intellectinterviews.