This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 20 3rd, 2007.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in addition to 14 other cities around the world. Every episode of this show, we try to look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture through the lens of naturalism, scientific naturalism, focusing mostly on three research areas pseudoscience and the paranormal, alternative medicine and secularism and religion, that intersection of religion and nonbelief in our society. We do this by drawing on CFI I’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guest, Steven Pinker, I want to welcome some new CFI campus groups that are forming or have formed at a few colleges around the country. These are groups of skeptic and humanist students who work with us to promote science and reason at their schools. So a big welcome to new groups at University of Albini Cornell University and a reincarnation of a group at Broward Community College. If you’d like to work with us to start a group at your school or see if there is a group at the school you’re attending. Go to Campus Inquirer dot org. And now a word from this episode’s sponsor. And we’ll get to Steven Pinker.
Hi, I’m Barry Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We publish what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. And so sure that you love this magazine. I want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about, to get your sample copy. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. I mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you. And you can begin and join the Skeptical Inquirer. Thank you.
It’s a real pleasure for me to have Steven Pinker on Point of inquiry. He’s a renowned cognitive neuroscientist and evolutionary psychologist, a research psychologist. He’s Johnstone, professor of psychology at Harvard University. His research on cognition in language one, the troll and ward from the National Academy of Sciences and two, prizes from the American Psychological Association. He’s also received several honorary doctorates and many awards for teaching graduate and undergraduate teaching for general achievement and for his critically acclaimed books, including The Language, Instinct and How the Mind Works and also The Blank Slate. He’s also a humanist laureate of CFD International Academy of Humanism. Pinker has appeared in many television documentaries and writes frequently in the popular press, including the New York Times, Slate and Time magazine. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Steven Pinker.
Thanks very much. You’re universally regarded as something of an expert on what science shows us about human nature, also about human cognition. The mind with your earlier book, How the Mind Works. Like it or not, some people think you’re revolutionizing the concept of of self or of human nature. You’re giving us this thoroughly biological understanding of human nature. Is it safe to say that some people find your work a little threatening because. Well, the science you’re promoting says that there’s a lot less to us than most people think. We don’t have souls. Our freewill is something like an illusion. I mean, these findings smack right up against the core beliefs of most people in society.
Yes. In fact, there are people who get upset because it seems to say that we’re much less than you might think. And there are also people who get upset because it seems to suggest that we’re more than what people might think. Let me explain. As you noted, a lot of people are wedded to the idea that we have a soul, that that’s the seat of our consciousness, that that’s the source of our voluntary actions, that soul finds a purpose given to it by God or some set of duties. And even that, the soul survives the death of the body and allows us to live forever.
And you’re skeptical of all those claims?
Yes. And I really can’t take credit for a materialistic world view about the human mind that’s been certainly the trend for many decades, if not more than a century.
Coming from the discovery that all aspects of conscious experience are manifestations of brain activity, that our emotions, our thoughts, power decisions all seem to consist of neural firings in the brain, that if the brain is damaged, we lose the ability to experience or do these things that as we do, then we’re getting better and better at reading the signals of the brain that correspond to them. And this doesn’t just prove the existence of the soul, but it certainly means that it is no longer necessary with a skull full of 100 billion neurons connected by 100 trillion synapses. There’s plenty of complexity in there to account for the complexity of human experience.
And when we look at specific aspects of our minds, we also see if they have a intelligible evolutionary basis that our fears, our our lusts, our ways of making sense of the world are what you would expect, given a big brain primate living in a social setting and living by its wits. Now, I have argued that this fear that this will lead to a breakdown of all moral values is really misplaced, that it is still the case that people suffer and prosper. And therefore, we have moral systems that respect the ability of others to suffer and prosper the way each of us does that. The fact that we can explain why we have certain feelings and how we have them based on what happens in the brain, doesn’t mean that those feelings aren’t real. If the reason that Pet I, my child, is that she’s for loving children were selected over the course of our evolutionary history because they would be helping copies of themselves that are inside the child. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t love my child. I love my child was any less real. It’s completely real to me. It’s as real as anything. It just means that we don’t just stare at it and accept it as a fait accompli. But we have some insight as to why we should have that. Emotion doesn’t mean we don’t have it. We now understand why.
And some of these insights come from your. Research in a field called evolutionary psychology, I want to talk about that, but more specifically about human nature. You say that science is coming down on one side of this great historical debate over human nature, whether people are born the way they are or they’re made the way they are by their environments.
Well, this gets to the other side of the fear that you mentioned getting in the interview. I said some people are upset that there seems to be less to us than they previously believed.
And others are upset because he seems to be more of us, namely, that we’re not a blank slate, that we’re not born to have the environment kind of figure out who we are.
Exactly. And once again, it’s a moral concern. I think that drives this anxiety that if we ask blank slates and some of us might have more written on our slates than others, and there’s a fear that that would be legitimate discrimination and oppression of races or sexes or ethnic groups.
Right. It sounds a little Nazi like for some of your critics who serve.
I mean, for some people who who aren’t very good at thinking perhaps. But there’s nothing Nazi about the idea that Tabatabai is not a blank slate. Be any more than there’s something Stalinist about the idea that humans are capable of learning. Obviously, their murderous ideologies that can make a mockery of any scientific findings.
A lot of the Nazi ideology was supported by mad pseudoscience about racial struggle and inferior races and a kind of twisted caricature of Darwinism that proposed that the units of selection are racist, which no sane biologist would argue about. Evolution consists of a struggle of one race versus another. But in the other direction, the murderous Leninist and Stalinist Maoist ideologies held the exact opposite that the mind is a blank slate. Or at least there’s nothing you can say about human nature other than through its dialectic interaction with the environment. And therefore, we can reprogram a populace with whatever characteristics we want. By controlling every aspect of the environment, leading to another kind of totalitarian dictatorship.
I think both of these are our completely illogical that we, I think do have a human nature. That is, we there are certain emotions that you find universally in all cultures, certain ways of thinking and learning. But it doesn’t mean that specific beliefs or attitudes are innately, obviously aren’t. Nor does it mean that people are qualitatively different. Nor does it mean that we should prejudge people by the characteristics of race or ethnic group or gender. We have a policy of treating people as individuals, even if it did turn out that some of it that that men and women aren’t identical. There would be no license for discrimination out of the commitment to treat people fairly.
I want to stick with this discussion of politics or at least political ideologies for a moment. I didn’t call you on the show to have a protracted debate about politics, but it seems like these two views of human nature, Stalinism, on the one hand, are Naziism. On the other hand, they’ve been linked in more broad terms to political conservatism or political liberalism. People on the right seem to me to have kind of a negative view of human nature and see it as stark, an immutable. The argument goes this society should be organized in a way to limit the negative effects of this human nature, that it’s basically selfish people on the left. At least some argue that human nature is basically good and malleable, that it could be changed if only society were different are good. Human nature could flourish, could flower. I don’t know if you’re on the right or on the left, but regardless of where you stand politically, would you tell me what science has to say as opposed to what the left or what the right has to say about human nature? What’s the science have to say? Now, that’s kind of like asking you to explain the meaning of life in 15 seconds.
That’s the discussion.
Yes. The yes. And they discuss all of these things in my book, The Blank Slate, in particular the chapter on politics. Well, I shouldn’t press it by saying that all of these things are controversial. So I certainly couldn’t claim to convey what science says because there are other scientists who would disagree with my interpretation. But I think the following would be a good example of some defensible conclusions that have some political implications. I don’t think that the sexes are identical, and I think, therefore, that any policy that seeks to equal outcomes for men and women across the board will have to. Resonate against their men or women or go against their preferences. Not that men are completely different from women, but just that their interests and talents form two overlapping distributions so that on average they won’t end up in the same distributions of jobs and other outcomes. I think that individuals differ in personality and intelligence, which means that even in a perfectly fair economic system, a level playing ground, not everyone will end up with the same amount of wealth. And you think that is genetically determined in part, not a drop? I would say influenced because the genes don’t absolutely determine the nature of your brain, but they do have a strong statistical influence. I think people favor them selves and their families over an abstraction called society. I think that people favor their tribe or ethnic group above humanity as a whole has as a default tendency. I think we can intellectualize and try to counteract them because we also have frontal lobes that can reason and learn from the lessons of history and can counteract our inclinations. But I do think that that we have those inclinations as a peasant background, I think were systematically self deceived. I think we think each one of us thinks of ourselves as more competent and benevolent in an objective where we are. I think people crave status and power. Anyway, that’s a list of things Jim Underdown.
That’s a little of what science, especially this burgeoning field, evolutionary psychology, would you say is telling us about human nature?
I would I would argue that those are some of the conclusions that come out. Yes. Although, again, they’re not. It’s not like physics where there’s a complete consensus.
All right. We’re talking about the lack of complete consensus when it comes to evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology started out with a lot of fanfare, but some critics of the field say that it’s it’s failing to pay off. That at best, it’s a nascent science. At worst, it’s kind of like a pseudo science. So what is evolutionary psychology as opposed to psychology in general? And do you think from your vantage that it’s beginning to pay off as a science?
Oh, absolutely. There’s just an example. There’s a mammoth handbook of evolutionary psychology that came out last year that has chapters filled with experiments and cross-cultural surveys and other sources of data on just about every topic in human psychology, from parenting to sex to aggression, to the emotions, to memory, to learning, to perception.
There are a large number of topics that only began to be studied in psychology. What’s evolutionary psychology? Put them in the spotlight. Things like sexuality, beauty, religion, play, food, art, are all flourishing areas of research now, which is not true. Fifteen years ago, before evolutionary psychology burst of privacy and also psychology was very short of anything that scientists would recognize as a theory. There was basically summaries of the data. People remembered the end of a list of words buried in the middle. He’d say you’d explain it by virtue about the recency effect, which is kind of like the Moliere play in which a learned professor was asked what makes morphine, put people to sleep? And he said it’s sleep inducing power. There was a lot of that circularity in psychology. And what evolution does is it gives you an answer to the question of why our mental faculties work the way they do. That doesn’t just put you back to repeating what we know about human psychology.
So evolutionary psychology is psychology from the perspective of evolution. It’s one thing to show that natural selection should have favored a certain trait under certain cert, under certain conditions, say hip to weight ratio or something like that. But it’s another thing to show that those traits did actually evolve in our species. You’re saying that evolutionary psychology is coming up with the evidence to show that these traits in our nature are human psychology have actually evolved in those ways? Just the fact that a tree would have been adaptive under certain conditions doesn’t necessarily show that it actually happened. You can’t dig up evolutionary evidence in the fossil record that, you know, we favor a certain hip to weight ratio.
No. But that isn’t what a hypothesis of evolutionary adaptation needs as an empirical test in the first place. Because picking up a fossil still doesn’t tell you what its function is. To understand the function of something, you have to do things. You have to have an engineering analysis of the problem. That was perfectly designed to solve. And of the engineering specs of a system that would solve that problem in the kind of world in which we evolved. That isn’t psychology. That’s that’s theory. That’s engineering, basically. Then when you have a list of design specs, then you do your psychology. You bring people into the lab or you go out into the rainforest of the savannah. You test real life human beings to see how they think or feel in that domain. And you see whether the design specs of optimal system correspond to the way we find people really working as an example. Any vision engineer designing a seeing robot would hit on the solution of using stereoscopic vision. That is, you have two cameras looking at the scene from vantage points. And you do a little bit of trigonometry and you can go from the disparity in the images and the angle which they’re pointing to determine how far away something is basically. Principle, the range finder. If you were designed to design a self-propelled robot that would or or vehicle that would explore the surface of Mars, you’d go back into it. Now you can ask. Well, humans have two eyes to the two eyes. Provide data that is used for depth perception. And the answer is yes. And that you establish a perception lab. The fact that predictions from an engineering analysis and facts about a human being from a perception lab coincide. Point for point gives you confidence that the system that you observe in humans is an evolutionary adaptation. As a simple case from vision that you can do the same thing using a Priore predictions from, say, genetics to predict what our social emotions should be. What kind of feelings we should have towards our siblings or our children or our parents. You can look at reproductive physiology again, kind of engineering analysis and predict what would be an optimal strategy for finding a mate, maximize the number of children that you would expect. And in each case, you drive predictions from some field other than psychology and you catch them doing the psychology.
We talked earlier about maybe two kinds of sets of fears over the implications of your work, both from, you know, the people who believe were born with a blank slate and those who adopt a set of assumptions about the social and human nature that that aren’t supported by science. Your work in evolutionary psychology treats a lot of these big questions, but the answers you’re giving would seem alarming to both of those sets of people. Are you treat questions surrounding altruism, origins of morality. How did we get to, you know, even think that there’s such a thing as goodness, gender roles, sexual orientation? You mentioned even artistic expression. We touched on where that comes from. But when it comes to positive claims that evolutionary psychologists make about these topics, wouldn’t you concede that the jury’s still out and that at least right now there is a lot of scientific guesswork?
Depends on the particular claim. I think for some things, the evidence is overwhelming. The claim, for example, that the mind is the activity of the brain that I think is as firm as anything in science. They claim that the sexes are not identical in all respects. It is extremely strong for some things. There’s just total mystery. Is there an evolutionary function of art and music? I don’t think there’s any good theory supported by data that it is. So I think there’s no one answer to your question. I think it’s a gradation all the way from uncontroversial claims. Mind is what the brain does to ones where our ignorance is almost total.
One last question on evolutionary psychology. Is it responsible for people like you to popularize evolutionary psychology, given the controversial moral implications of the work that you’re doing? Well, you’re making it popular science before some people say it’s even yet science.
Well, no, for two reasons. One of them is that the the claims that I explain are ones that I believe are supported by data and in fact. I explained to the reader the data behind the claims that the reader, therefore is equipped to reject if they don’t think that the evidence is strong enough. And also, I see considerable length explore the moral and political implications and implications of these claims. Done so in the last chapter of the language instinct in the first chapter of How the Mind Works. And then I voted a whole book, Blank Slate, just to examine angry political and ethical implications and non implications of these findings.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of the blank slate through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Steve, I want to ask you about something that is a raging debate. If it’s also a fun debate between me and some of my friends, that’s about call it the social construction of reality or that we are determined by our environment, especially when it comes to homosexuality. Most scientists would say that there’s a strong genetic component to it. I think you say that others say that gays are made that way because their environment. We haven’t really treated this topic before on the show. Where do you come out on the question? Is the research strongly suggestive one way or the other?
No, I think we should have strongly suggested that there’s a genetic component, but not that it’s a strong genetic component. I think it’s probably no more than about 30 to 40 percent of the variance can be in Web sexual orientation can be explained by genetic variation. If that amount about that, that’s a lot of unexplained variation. On the other hand, I don’t know if anyone has pointed to an environmental factor that explains any of the variance in homosexuality or at least exclusive homosexuality. I’m not talking about homosexual behavior, but rather men who prefer to have sex with other men and avoid opportunities to have sex with women.
Right. If you’re stuck on a desert island or in prison or something like that, there is an environmental determinant of your behavior. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that that your identify self-identified as gay.
Exactly right. Now, the only thing that I know of is there’s some evidence for possible prenatal influences that there’s some data that a man with a number of older brothers is more likely to be gay, suggesting that perhaps there is some effect of exposure of the mother to testosterone from the older brothers, from previous pregnancies that might change prenatal environment for the later born son. I think there’s some other statistical factors that add a few percentage points one way or another to the likelihood that a boy will be gay. But I think that there’s a lot we don’t know. Certainly, I’ve never seen any explanation say that there’s an adaptive function to homosexuality in the biologist since even though some people guessed that, like E.O. Wilson has some guesses about it.
And some people say that, you know, their selection of individuals who protect their SIL siblings rather than their own children.
Right. That’s been tested. Fact that we can say with a fair amount of confidence that it’s wrong. That is it is not the case that gay men are any more kind to their nieces and nephews than straight men. And the the theory that the adaptive value of homosexuality is that the investment in your siblings kids in increasing their own health and fitness exceeds the loss of having children of your own. It’s kind of unlikely on the face of it, just on the basis of the engineering analysis, because you’re related to your own kids by 50 percent in your nieces and nephews by by twelve and a half percent. So the boost you give your nieces and nephews that have to be four times greater than the number of offspring that you have on your own. So it’s unlikely in the first place that it makes a very strong empirical prediction that gay men should absolutely dote on their nieces and nephews and give them four times the amount of support that they would have given their own kids. And that’s clearly false. So I think that, by the way, that refutes the claim that evolutionary hypotheses are untestable. That’s one that’s testable, tested and refuted. So it’s I think is still a mystery. It’s one, by the way, that we’re not going to get the answer to any any time soon because there isn’t a lot of funding for research on the origins of homosexuality. And it is so politicized in both directions by the religious and cultural right on the one hand and by gay activists on the other, that a lot of people are intimidated from doing this kind of research. They don’t need the headache.
Switching gears a little. In a recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer, you argued that the humanities need to be reinvigorated by by a cross-fertilization with the natural sciences. The sciences of human nature.
Yes. By the by their own admission, the humanities in universities are in trouble. They don’t have a progressive agenda. That is, there’s no agreed upon set of goals. The way there is in science, there’s there’s little excitement about progress in the field. There’s a lot of malaise by their own description. And I think it’s not a coincidence that the humanities have been isolated from from the science. And there are many opportunities for them to enlighten one another.
But you’re saying it’s the humanities fault, not science is fault.
I think this fault goes wrong. Scientists are indifferent, heavy. The humans are often hostile. But, for example, the study of music could clearly be enlightened by what we know about auditory pattern perception. Study fiction could be applied by cognitive psychology of how we conceive of other people’s mental states from linguistics. How language is used to convey emotional effects and to shift listeners point of view from evolutionary psychology on what kinds of conflicts that people in all cultures play out. I think the study of jurisprudence and moral philosophy could be enlightened by research on the human moral sense. So I think that there are many, many opportunities for products of the human mind, which is what the humanities study to be enlightened by a process by which the human mind creates these products, namely the sciences of human nature.
Before we finish up, I want to get back to a discussion of human nature. The concept of human nature has been very useful in the history of our culture. It’s kind of been a touchstone for discussions about our place in the universe, questions about the good life, questions about morality, the human nature that we get from your work and your colleagues. Can we can we ask of that concept, the same things that we asked of the older concepts of human nature? In other words, can a naturalist view of human nature a view steeped in evolutionary psychology? Can it help us orient ourselves in the same way that an older concept of human nature did?
I would hope so. I would hope that a notion of human nature, that the sciences would be more complex and nuanced than folk theories. The theory that humans are innately selfish and aggressive for the theory that we’re innately peaceable and cooperative are both above way too simple. The ultimate theory is probably going to be there are circumstances in which we are co-operative to some extent. To some people, in certain ways, there are circumstances in which were aggressive in particular ways, to particular people, to particular extents. So on the one hand, one would hope for a more nuanced theory than that we get from common sense. Also, one wants insight as to why human nature takes the form that we observe. That is not just a guide which has created Adam and Eve, and we’re stuck with whatever human nature arose in that act of creation. But we can satisfy our curiosity as to why we’re the way we are as opposed to some other way we could have been.
We weren’t able to talk about your work on language or many of the other topics that you treat. There’s a lot more for us to talk about. But to finish up our conversation today, I want to ask you, you’re pretty much ideologically on the same page as, say, Richard Dawkins or Dan Dennett when it comes to your world view is a view based on the modern sciences, our place in the universe, the meaning of life. Yet you are a mainstream popularizer of science and you don’t get much flak for your atheist. You’re out as an atheist, but you know you’re not. And people are railing against you for them. Why is that? Let me ask you another way. Do you think that all scientists who share your views about these ultimate questions, do they all have a responsibility to speak out or should they just live and let live? You’re kind of you’re doing both at the same time and you’re not getting. People aren’t poking you in the eye for it.
Well, I have never written a book on religion or atheist or God, so I’m a little less conspicuous in that regard. Although when I do write articles in magazines like Newsweek or Time that presuppose a naturalistic worldview, that there are occasional irate letters. But you’re right, I haven’t been a direct target. It’s more of a stealth campaign. It’s just that we’re. I would like to say that we’re learning more and more about what makes us tech, including our moral sense, without needing the assumption of being a year or a soul. And it’s actually getting crowded out by the success of naturalistic explanations. So, as you know, I make no bones about the fact that I myself am to be an atheist and would defend atheist in this empirically supported view. But I haven’t confronted it. I haven’t expressed it.
Loudly and clearly and by itself, it’s been in the lines Jim Underdown do you think, given the the currents of culture today, that there’s an onus on scientists to confront it more than than they are now?
Yes. I mean, I think in a way that acknowledges the positive aspects of religion, like community and spirituality. It doesn’t have to be aggressive or insulting. But I think it to be intellectually uncompromising. I think that if there is no need to invoke the soul, we say that if there’s no need to invoke design in the universe, we should say that if there’s no need to attribute the moral sense to a divine gift, we should say that I think we should say what is what we feel capable of persuading reasonable people. I don’t think we should counter dogma with dogma, but we have reasons for we believe and we should articulate them.
Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Steven Pinker.
Thanks for having me.
You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot. Center for Inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting WW w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode or any of the other episodes, or just to talk with other Freethinkers and Nola Finian’s out there who share your point of view. Maybe go to CFI Dasch forums. Dot org views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect my views or the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show should be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our website point of inquiry dot org.
Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael and contributors to today’s show include Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe.