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Steven Arthur Pinker (1954–), a Canadian linguist, psychologist, and notable atheist, has written both academic and popular books on his areas of special interest. In 2003 he became Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has become known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and of the computational theory of mind.
His book The Language Instinct (1994) popularized Noam Chomsky's theory that language is an innate faculty of mind, and to that he added that this faculty evolved by natural selection, improving human abilities to communicate.[note 1][note 2] The Blank Slate (2002) is a polemic against human exceptionalism, arguing against the "blank slate" hypothesis that the entire human personality is acquired through socialization and environmental conditioning, the "noble savage" belief that all human capacity for vice, violence, and crime is similarly learned from a morally corrupt environment, and that there is a "ghost in the machine", a mind or soul that is separate from the brain.The Better Angels Of Our Nature (2011) makes the case that violence has decreased as humans adopt more complex social organizations, improve communications, and build networks of trade, and that the perception that we live in an unusually violent time rather than a remarkably peaceful one exemplifies confirmation bias.
Political correctness gone mad
Pinker gave a short speech regarding political correctness, and how making inconvenient or uncomfortable facts unsayable can lead some people to be a bit more vulnerable to the alt-right. The alt-right seized on a short clip of him saying "the often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right". And with the support of the alt-right, he got the condemnation of the left, due to social media like Twitter being terrible for context. Pinker's book Enlightenment Now, where he claims the left has been captured by "identity politicians, political correctness police, and social justice warriors", was criticized for mischaracterizing left politics.
Ironically, in Enlightenment Now he claims that there has been a decline in racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes since 2004 (which he attempts to prove by looking at Google search statistics), and uses this as an example of the growing civilisation, rationality and greatness of modern society — despite the fact that he now seems to want to relax social restrictions on what is unacceptable. As Jeremy Lent says, "Pinker seems to view all ethical development from prehistory to the present day as 'progress,' but any pressure to shift society further along its moral arc as anathema."
Pinker has been called "The World's Most Annoying Man," by journalist and social activist Nathan J. Robinson. Robinson's criticism is in part that Pinker is a Pollyanna who downplays problems like climate change, white supremacy, or unregulated capitalism, expecting that things will just sort themselves out. His status as a friend and associate of the rich and powerful, including frequently-expressed mutual admiration with Bill Gates, praise by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Clinton, and attendance at rich boys' summer camp Bohemian Grove have led to criticism that he is a stooge of the super-rich; Pankaj Mishra called him a member of the "intellectual service class" who provide intellectual justification and boosterism to the elite. John Gray[note 3] called Enlightenment Now "embarrassingly feeble … a parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest … a therapeutic manual for rattled rationalists".
He has been criticized by Jeremy Lent for his charts, arguing that he cherry picks time-frames and charts that will make everything look like things have always been improving while ignoring bad things. Pinker has also been criticized for mischaracterizing history and spreading misinformation and perpetuating colonialist and Eurocentric narratives about progress and history.
The historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller notes that Pinker conflates technical heritability (the contribution of genetic difference to trait difference within a specific environment) with the more colloquial meaning of 'heritability', which is that something is genetically determined. :64 His confusion over the science may be one of the reasons he has found himself lumped with proponents of race science, such as Charles Murray.
He has also been accused of racism for his comments on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment which he called, "a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people", suggesting that institutional medicine had never been racist apart from that one time. The historical record tells a different and darker story of how "racist policy and practice have also been integral to the historical formation of the medical academy in the USA".
Pinker has been criticised for his closeness to white supremacist eugenicist Steve Sailer. He was criticised for using data from Sailer's blog, and acknowledged and criticised Sailer's racism, claiming that while Sailer was racist, his data was not. But in addition he published an essay by Sailer in a 2004 book, and has a quote from Sailer praising his work on his website.
Things can only get better
One of his most controversial claims, made in The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and Enlightenment Now (2018), is that we live in an age of unparalleled peace, and that violence is on a steady decline which will continue as humans become more civilized and peaceable. There is certainly some evidence to support this, such as the rise in life expectancy across the world over the past 200 years (though this is mostly attributable to modern medicine), although even then it is unclear if Pinker correctly explains why this happened.When asked what he means by violence, he refuses to describe it exactly, saying
How do you define “violence”? I don’t. I use the term in its standard sense, more or less the one you’d find in a dictionary (such as The American Heritage Dictionary Fifth Edition: “Behavior or treatment in which physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing damage or injury.”) In particular, I focus on violence against sentient beings: homicide, assault, rape, robbery, and kidnapping, whether committed by individuals, groups, or institutions. Violence by institutions naturally includes war, genocide, corporal and capital punishment, and deliberate famines.
He really loves making lists, with Four Better Angels cited as the parts of human nature that are forces for good: empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason. He explains the change as due to 5 historical processes:
- The modern nation-state, which claims the monopoly on force and supersedes personal revenge
- Commerce, creating increased dependency on others
- Feminization, increased respect for women's rights
- Cosmopolitanism, leading to increased understanding of others
- Rationalism, increased belief in rational methods of problem-solving rather than violence as a tool
Some of these are mainstays of modern liberal thought, such as the idea that commerce promotes peace (similar to Thomas Friedman's Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention); the rise of rationalism is the mainstay of modern science and classical liberalism (although links between rationalism and a peaceful, happy society are contested).
There are various issues with his central thesis that violence is decreasing (and that it will continue to do so). As mentioned, he isn't clear about what he means by violence, which seems to exclude various forms of coercion and destructive behavior. His views seem to reflect a particular historical and cultural perspective: violence depends very much on whether you're living in a middle-class suburb in a low-crime western democracy, or a Middle Eastern refugee camp. Germany has seen far fewer wars in the last 70 years than at any other time in its history, but the same may not be true of Yemen.
A number of specific criticisms have been raised:
- Is war really declining? Pinker has shown a graph that seems to demonstrate a decline in the number of wars in the past 70 years. However Nassim Nicholas Taleb attacked this suggestion, claiming that major wars are rarer in history, maybe every 100 years, and therefore we simply do not have enough data: Pinker is basing his optimism on a statistical blip.
- Questionable historical sources, which make it hard to assess how violent the distant past was. Spencer McDaniel questioned his knowledge of the ancient and medieval world, with historians still debating how violent hunter-gatherer societies were. McDaniel particularly criticised "Pinker’s extensive and largely uncritical reliance on a small number of unreliable sources and works of outright fiction" as historical sources; Homer's Iliad is probably not an accurate manual on Greek culture or warfare.
- Lack of concern about impending eco-catastrophe: Pinker dismisses worries that increasing global warming will result in more death and conflict, suggesting that we'll all be fine thanks to technology. Violence against the environment does not meet his definition of violence.
- Obvious violence replaced by more subtle forms of coercion. Pinker notes that improvements have been made in civil rights in the US over the past 200 years, noting a decline in racist violence through the 20th century and beyond. However this ignores other continuing forms of repression such as the prison industrial complex.
- Who is responsible? He seems to believe that the cause of this improvement in peace and civility is down to centrist capitalist influences from sensible liberals and center-right leaders, not left-wing radicals, despite the fact that many figures such as Thomas Paine or the Suffragettes were treated with less than respect by the moderates of their era, even if they didn't die violently. John Gray has noted that Pinker ignores all the bad things about capitalism and associated ideas such as social Darwinism, and seeks to blame every bad thing in history on anti-Enlightenment and "irrationalist" thinking.
- Innate human qualities. One of the central themes of Pinker's thought across linguistics, sociology, and history is his belief in a common, innate, immutable human nature, that includes his "four better angels" (empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason). However, while there is evidence that some moral sense is innate, there is also a evidence that there are limits to innate morality (with other instincts such as tribalism also innate), and moral sense at minimum requires development rather than blossoming without nurture.
- What is the end-point of Pinker's rationalism? Is it necessarily human-rights-based democracy, with all its flaws and conflicts, or some kind of 'rationalist' dictatorship like that of China?
Association with Epstein
Pinker has been criticized for his association with recently infamous pimper of children and sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein, accepting transportation to Ted talks on Epstein's plane and appearing in a photograph with Epstein and Lawrence Krauss. When Epstein was indicted for sex crimes in 2006, Pinker testified as a linguist for the defense. Pinker was asked by his friend Alan Dershowitz to opine "on the precise meaning of a federal law about using the internet to entice minors into prostitution or other illegal sex acts."
In August 2020, Pinker's Twitter account subsequently began blocking other accounts referencing Pinker's relationship with Epstein. At first it was thought that he was using automated scripts, but in an email response to Vice Motherboard, he stated that a colleague had notified him of his feed as being
“”… infested with trolls and bots posting with [Pinker] and Jeffrey Epstein, though I had no connections with him other than third parties who had invited us to some of the same events.
“”… offered to monitor my feed and implemented some simple text searches on Tweetdeck to flag those accounts, which that colleague then manually blocked. The colleague doesn’t block anyone for criticizing or disagreeing with something I’ve written.
He defended philosopher Colin McGinn after McGinn was accused of sexual harassment by a student. After McGinn resigned his tenured position and set up a consultancy firm on "business ethics", Pinker signed on as an adviser to the firm, saying McGinn had already been punished too severely and defending his involvement, "It was basically a favour to him, a gesture of friendship with no consequences."
Here are some of his books.
- The Language Instinct (1994) ISBN 978-0-06-097651-4
- How the Mind Works (1997) ISBN 978-0-393-31848-7
- The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) ISBN 978-0-670-03151-1
- The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (2004) ISBN 978-0670063277
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3
- The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014) ISBN 978-0670025855
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018) ISBN 978-0525427575
- Vyvyan Evans (2014). The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct. Cambridge University Press.
- Michael Tomasello (1995). Language is Not an Instinct, review of The Language Instinct in Cognitive Development 10, pages 131-156. Elsevier.
- For an opposite view, see Evans' book.
- A short critique of The Language Instinct appears in Tomasello.
- Not that John Gray.
- Curriculum Vitae: Steven Pinker Steven Pinker (archived from July 15, 2017).
- See the Wikipedia article on Computational theory of mind.
- Atheist Alliance of America 2013 National Convention: Steven Pinker (September 04, 2013 03:51AM GMT) Richard Dawkins.
- Political Correctness is Redpilling America (Jan 2, 2018) YouTube.
- Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A. by Jesse Singal (Jan 11, 2018) The New York Times.
- The World's Most Annoying Man by Nathan J. Robinson (May 29, 2019) Current Affairs
- "Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why." by Jeremy Lent (May 17, 2018) Patterns of Meaning.
- Pinker’s progress: the celebrity scientist at the centre of the culture wars by Alex Bladsel (September 28, 2021) The Guardian.
- Unenlightened thinking: Steven Pinker’s embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for rattled liberals, John Gray, New Statesman, Feb 22, 2018
- Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” Debunked by Spencer McDaniel (July 24, 2020) Tales of Time Forgotten.
- The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture by Evelyn Fox Keller (2010) Duke University Press. ISBN 082239281X.
- The unwelcome revival of ‘race science’ by Gavin Evans (Mar 2, 2018) The Guardian.
- Reckoning with histories of medical racism and violence in the USA by Ayah Nuriddin, Graham Mooney, Alexandre I R White (October 03, 2020) The Lancet 396(10256):949-951. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32032-8
- See the Wikipedia article on Longevity.
- Frequently Asked Questions about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, StevenPinker.com.
- See the Wikipedia article on The Better Angels of Our Nature.
- [https://monoskop.org/images/2/27/Horkheimer_Max_Adorno_Theodor_W_Dialectic_of_Enlightenment_Philosophical_Fragments.pdf Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments by Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno (1947/2002) Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804736324.
- This fascinating academic debate has huge implications for the future of world peace by Zack Beauchamp (May 21, 2015, 12:20pm EDT) Vox.
- See the Wikipedia article on Historicity of the Homeric epics.
- Is Humanity's "Moral Sense" Inherited or Nurtured? by Darcia F. Narvaez (January 22, 2017) Psychology Today
- As Babies, We Knew Morality by Emily Esfahani Smith (Nov 18 2013, 11:00 AM ET) The Atlantic.
- Pinker, Epstein, Soldier, Spy by Colleen Flaherty (July 17, 2019) Inside Higher Ed.
- Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker and Jeffrey Epstein have an odd relationship that provides insight into the relationship between the institutions of science, the movement of capital, the profit motive and science funding. Long thread incoming. by Nathan Oseroff-Spicer (07:56 - 10. Apr. 2019) Twitter (archived from July 9, 2019).
- Jeffrey Epstein's First Criminal Case Was Helped By A Famous Harvard Language Expert by Peter Aldhous (July 12, 2019, at 7:41 p.m. ET) Buzzfeed News.
- How a Famous Harvard Professor Became a Target Over His Tweets: The outcry over free speech and race takes aim at Steven Pinker, the best-selling author and well-known scholar. by Michael Powell (July 15, 2020) The New York Times.
- Harvard’s Steven Pinker is apparently blocking people who mention his connection to Epstein by Eilish O'Sullivan (August 27, 2020) Daily Dot.
- Free Speech Crusader Steven Pinker Blocking Anyone Mentioning His Epstein Ties by Edward Ongweso Jr (August 28, 2020, 11:24am) Vice.
- A Star Philosopher Falls, and a Debate Over Sexism Is Set Off by Jennifer Schuessler (August 2, 2013) New York Times.