Michael Covel interviews Steven Pinker. Steven is a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He covers phenomena that have traditionally not been looked at scientifically such as: visual perception, war and peace, and differences in writing styles. He has authored numerous books with his most recent being, “The Sense of Style.”
Steven knew he was an atheist from the age of 13. He never had a big revelation because God was never a real part of his consciousness. However, his religious awareness as a young man helped to guide his career into using science, and science only in his research. He puts science as the decider of “what is.”
Michael asks, “How has human behavior been shaped by evolution.” Steven based his book, “The Blank Slate” around the idea that humans aren’t born with a blank slate. He says that to have the ability to analyze speech and comprehend speech you have to have something there at birth. If the mind has a built in structure, where did it come from? Steven argues it comes from evolution and natural selection. He uses a combination of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology to back up his theories. He also covers why there has been so much controversy surrounding the idea that we are not born with a blank slate and why our common sense so often clashes with our political conviction. One reason he offers is because many think the idea of equality means that we should be indistinguishable, essentially like clones. He argues that fairness should not be based on sameness.
Michael goes back to the blank slate concept and asks, “Are we born good or bad? And explain what you have learned throughout your career about the evolution of language.” Steven says we have some good and some bad. The brain is massively complex and layered. There is so much going on in the brain when someone speaks and when someone listens and retains the information. Eggs and sperm have about 70 mutations. That is how we have natural selection that makes someone run faster, see better, think faster, etc.
Next, Michael and Steven dive into the history of violence, where it came from and where we stand today. Steven says you can’t get an accurate view of violence from the news. They find the worst violence and promote it. The rate of homicides have plummeted over the years. There are far less wars going on now than in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and so on. Since the end of WWII there has been a steady decline. Civil wars have still occurred but they are far less plentiful than they use to be and death rates are also less than they use to be. Steven’s next book, due to be published in 2017, is a defense of science, reason and humanism as a source of aiding in morality.
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