Understanding Human Nature with Steven Pinker – Conversations with History

Understanding Human Nature with Steven Pinker – Conversations with History

(electronic musical flourish) – [Announcer] This program is presented by University of California Television. Like what you learn? Visit our website or follow
us on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with the latest UCTV programs. (uptempo synthesizer music) – Welcome to a Conversation with History. I’m Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guest today is Steven Pinker, who is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology
at Harvard University. He’s the author of eight books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, and most recently, The
Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Professor Pinker, welcome to Berkeley. – Thank you. – Where were you born and raised? – Montreal, Quebec, Canada. – And looking back, what was the impact of family life on you? A lot of discussion
around the dinner table? – There certainly was. It was a part of the Jewish minority within the English minority
within the French minority within the Canadian-English majority. As with a lot of Jewish families, there’s a lot of conversation
over the dinner table and with friends and family. There’s an old saying,
10 Jews, 11 opinions. Also, it was a time as well as a place that was right for
speculations on human nature ’cause it was the ’60s. I’m a baby boomer. I was born in the peak
of the baby boom, 1954. And although I was too
young to be a participant in the protests of the 1960s, it was certainly on everyone’s lips. And questions arose like:
What kind of species are we? And what kind of political
arrangement best suits us? Should we all be anarchists? Are people naturally cooperative unless the state forces them
to declare their property? Or do we need a police
force and a government to keep us from each other’s throats? Or should we all be communists? Should we all be Ayn Rand libertarians? These were topics that
were on everyone’s lips and certainly got me
thinking from an early age. – Was there anything distinctive about the ’60s in Montreal
that was different than what was happening
here in the United States? – Well, there was a… I think it was even
more intensely political because the question of
the separation of Quebec into its own sovereign state
was always on the agenda, and so it was a bit like
Israel and South Africa, in that every conversation
had a political dimension. It was just on everyone’s minds because the government was becoming increasingly nationalistic, was imposing various laws to preserve and promote the French language. And that also raised the question of whether nationalism,
ethnic pride was a good thing, especially when it was
occurring simultaneously with questions of Zionism. Should there be a Jewish state? Should Jews move to Israel
as part of a destiny of the Jewish people? To what extent is the
identity of a person aligned with the ethnic group
to which they belong? – So it sounds like ethnicity,
political questions, questions of identity were really something you were hearing a lot of. – That is true. And in Montreal, I had
the additional experience that one of these debates, namely: Is anarchism the best political system? Which in the 1960s was a live issue, was kind of put to an empirical test. I remember arguing with
my parents, saying, Well, we don’t really need
police, money, government. People will naturally cooperate. And they say, what do
you think would happen if the police disappeared? And I say, well, nothing! I mean, it’s just irrational
to steal and rape and kill, and people would realize that. And one of the things about living in a kind of Gallic political
system like Quebec is that sooner or later, every
public sector goes on strike. (Harry chuckling) One week it’s the garbage collectors and then the nurses and
then the postal workers. Anyway, in 1969, it was the
police who went on strike, and within a few hours,
all hell broke loose. There was looting and riots. Not one but two people were shot to death until the Mounties were
brought in to restore order. So that was a kind of a
empirical disconfirmation of my 14-year-old self’s
favorite political theory, namely anarchism, and I realized that Mom
and Dad might have a point. – So are you suggesting
that, even at this young age, you were already something of a thinker and that this shock of
recognition led you to think, have an inkling that you wanted
to think about human nature? – Yeah, I don’t think
it was that event alone, but the whole set of events
coming from different directions from the ’60s, from Sunday school, where I was first a student then a teacher and debating moral dilemmas, from the issues in Quebec,
the issues in the news, all of them combined, and I think in combination
with my own temperament. We know that people vary in terms of their thirst
for abstract ideas. There are people whose
cognitive energy is focused on people, other’s on things,
other’s on practical issues. But then there’re some people who just like ideas for their own sake, and I think that’s the kind
of genetic hand I inherited. – And what is the impact, in
your view, of the Jewish milieu on your evolution, so to speak? – It certainly didn’t imbue me with any long-lasting religious feelings because I am a very clearcut atheist and secularist and cosmopolitan. I don’t believe that people’s
identities have to be bound up with that of some tribe or ethnic group. I mean, it’s a background and a tradition that I have a great deal of affection for. I think it’s only human to be interested in your tribal roots, as long as you don’t
take them too seriously as having any political importance. I think that the tradition of debate and kind of Tom Mudik
rabbinical back and forth was something that I thrived in. I was not Orthodox. I was brought up in a Reform movement, which was pretty secular, tried to preserve some of the traditions, largely for aesthetic grounds, had a strong historical component, remember the Holocaust, had a strong Zionist component. But it wasn’t hugely theological. – And bringing the Pinker analyst and linguist psychologist to the table to look
back at your background, is most of it sort of secondary to the genes and the makeup here that account for your journey? – I suspect the genes
had a lot to do with it, that there’d be a wide variety of families I could’ve grown up with, grown up in and still had the same kinds of interests. I think the, as far as
non-genetic influences go, the culture and the times
are enormously important. I may have gone in a
very different direction had I come of age in the ’50s
instead of the ’60s and ’70s. And of course, I had
to have the stimulation of a information-rich
society with magazines and books and newspapers
and electronic media. But I think we do tend to underestimate the genetic component just ’cause we never see it operating because very few of us are adopted. So we have this enormous confound in our autobiographical memories between the way we were
brought up by our parents and the genetic hand they dealt us. Only when you do studies with adoptees do you actually see the
effects of genetics in action. – So, where did you do
your undergraduate work? – At McGill University in
Montreal, kind of the default. My parents went to McGill,
and it’s just kind of, there was a natural conveyor belt that led most kids to
the local university. – And what did you major in, and why did you major in that? – I majored in psychology. I started off college prior
to going to McGill I went to, through the Province of
Quebec’s junior college system, I sent to Dawson College for two years. And I tried a variety of social sciences, anthropology, sociology, also philosophy, various humanities courses, biology. Psychology seemed to me
to combine an interest in big questions: What
are human beings like? What’s the nature, how do we communicate? How do we think? What is our emotional repertoire? But with a methodology that held out hope of resolving those questions, namely laboratory studies. And so the combination of it
being an empirical science and asking cosmic questions
was what appealed to me. – And did you do much humanities
work as an undergraduate? – Yeah, I took English course, an English pretty much every semester. I took, certainly took a fair
number of history courses and a lot of philosophy, so yeah. – So, we’re gonna talk
a little about your work as a linguist, as a psychologist, as a scientist really, in a way. But I always like to ask my guests what you see as the skill set and the temperament involved
in the kind of work you do, which is actually
comprehending many fields. – Yeah, I think it’s trying
to see the simplicity underneath the complexity, that it’s not being satisfied
with some abstract fancy overarching summary statement, but trying to think about the nitty-gritty
mechanisms underneath it. What concretely does language mean? What goes on in a person’s mind,
millisecond by millisecond, as they retrieve a noun with
which to begin a sentence and then a verb with which to continue it? Each step of which is very simple, but in combination generate
the full complexity of the phenomenon. So I think of myself as having
a very narrow bottleneck in my mind through which
everything must pass. So I’ve got to dismantle everything and put it thought that little ring and then reassemble it on the other side before I feel I really understand it. – So it’s really zeroing in. It’s almost an engineer skill, thinking about how this works
by breaking up its parts. – Yeah, and I think of psychology as a kind of reverse engineering. We’ve got this complex
artifact, the human brain. How does it work, and in particular, what was it designed to do? Now of course, not literally designed because I am not a creationist. But as with other products of evolution, there is a kind of simulacrum of design that is the result of natural selection. Just as we understand physical organs, like the liver or the eye, as having a biological function, so the mind and its various parts, I think, are most insightfully understood by trying to figure out
what their function is. Why do we fall in love? Why do we speak and understand? Why do we see in depth? Why are we disgusted? Why do we fight? Why don’t we fight at other times? And I think that the ultimate answers to a lot of those questions
come from the process that gave rise to the
complexity of the brain, and that has to be the
process of natural selection. – There must be a lot of
patience involved in what you do. I know some of your early work
was with children and so on. So is that another element here
that becomes very important? – It sure is, and there has to be, especially in the field of psychology and any empirical science, there has to be a certain love of data, of just getting your hands dirty, sifting through it, looking
for, trying to puzzle solve. What are the patterns? Where are the misleading
patterns that you should ignore at the end of the day? In fact, when people,
like students, ask me: What field should I go into? I’m interested in the human mind. Should I go into artificial intelligence? Should I go into psychology? Should I go into linguistics? Philosophy of the mind, neuroscience? I say the choice of the actual field as opposed to the topic depends on how you like to spend your day. What do you concretely like to do? If you like to write code, go into artificial intelligence. If you are content to
analyze sentences on a page, linguistics is how you
should spend your time. If you like lab work and
you don’t mind wet stuff, go into neuroscience. But if you like the idea of
experimenting with people, if you like going through lots of numbers and seeing their patterns,
then go into psychology. And they’re often very surprised because people think of their career in terms of the content
that interests them, and obviously that’s the starting point, but just as important is: What are the actual activities that occupy your waking hours? – Let’s go back now to your education. So where did you do your graduate work? – I went to the psychology
department at Harvard, and I got my Ph.D. at Harvard. Then I got a postdoctorate fellowship at the Center for Cognitive
Science at MIT down the river. – What led you to particular… The many fields that
you’ve actually entered? Was it one research
project led to another? Or was it more what you
just said about your advice? – Yeah, it’s one research, one thing leads to another. And I think when people
reconstruct their autobiographies, they’re much too apt to impose a satisfying narrative arc on it and to have everything
foreshadowed by early events, whereas I suspect any
honest biographer looking at anyone’s trajectory would see that there’s a lot of happenstance and opportunities and what
was around at the time and people just followed a path, making a choice at every point. This seems like the right
thing to do at the time. And that was certainly the case with me. I went into graduate school, not interested in language per se. I was interested in cognitive psychology, so that’s really anything having to do with intelligent processes in the mind. My Ph.D. thesis was on visual imagery, how people imagine objects and scenes and manipulate them in their mind’s eye. But I first started to work
in language in large part because Harvard, at the time, it just denied tenure to
every cognitive psychologist except one who’d studied
language development in children. I took a stimulating
graduate seminar with her. That was kind of all that
was around (chuckles) and wrote a paper for a course that she and other
professors said could be of interest to the field as a whole. Why didn’t I polish it for publication? I was worried about being unemployed. This was the era in which Ph.D.s were first
reported driving taxis and unemployed and I– – This would be the ’70s? – The ’70s, yeah.
– Yeah, yeah. – We hear about it now, but it was the first
wave of that worry was when I was a grad student. So I kinda pursued the opening. I developed this theoretical
paper into a publication. I was then hired back at
Harvard a couple of years later to teach courses in language acquisition. And because I had to teach it, and because I had to
supervise students in it, my interest in it deepened. All the while, I continued to pursue
research in visual attention, recognition of three-dimensional shapes, mental transformations. Then I kind of responded to feedback from the world. What the field was telling me, that it found my writings on language acquisition more interesting than my work in visual cognition. I got more invitations, my publications were more easily accepted, and I kind of got feedback from the field as to what everyone else
thought was most interesting among in my portfolio. – Before we talk a little more about particular aspects of your research, capture for us the intellectual excitement that was there in the beginning– – [Steven] Yeah. – When you started graduate school, but also over the life of
your career, there must… The amazing intellectual
(chuckling) excitement about the way the brain is opening up, not just in the research, but also, the research of the brain, but visually with all
the technology and so on. – Yeah, I usually pursue a topic when I find some source
of tremendous excitement, when it just feels like there are whole vistas to be explored. And I felt that way as an
undergraduate just learning about what was then a new field
called cognitive psychology. Psychology had been dominated for many decades by behaviorism, the philosophy of psychology
advocated by B.F. Skinner, that mental entities,
like beliefs, desires, wishes, images, rules, were suspect. They were unmeasurable,
hence, unscientific and should be banished from
a science of psychology, which should only be about behavior. This was a dominant
school for a long time, but for obvious reasons,
it was quite constricting. Starting in the ’50s and ’60s, with the importing of
ideas from other fields, like computer science,
cybernetics, information theory, psychologists started to realize you could study
intelligence scientifically without banishing the
contents of the mind, that thinking could be thought of as a kind of information
processing or computation, that motives and desires and
emotions could be understood in the language of
cybernetics and feedback, that knowledge and belief
could be thought of as a kind of information representation. And so you could be rigorous
and study these abstract, ethereal, airy-fairy concepts,
like beliefs and desires. That was a tremendously
exciting opportunity, and there was the cognitive revolution that pursued this
starting in the late ’50s, and it was the momentum from that, with a bit of a time lag,
that as an undergraduate, got me interested in cognitive psychology. Then when I got to MIT as a post-doc, this is many years later, this is 1979, there was a lot of things
that were happening that were advancing this agenda
of understanding the mind as a kind of information processing. There were theories of
grammar from Noam Chomsky and my post-doctoral
advisor, Joan Bresnan, who I learned linguistics from. There were ideas from the
computational analysis of vision from the great computational
neuroscientist David Marr, who was at MIT at the time. Philosophy of mind had
kind of joined forces with experimental scientist
to try to make sense of questions like imagery,
innateness, will-following, which had also been
banned from philosophy, but now philosophers were
exploring this landscape. And so all of those ideas
combined into the field then became called cognitive science, not just psychology, but also philosophy,
linguistics, computer science, led to an enormous amount
of energy and enthusiasm. Later, that got kinda,
started to bleed away under the new developments
in neuroscience. The first wave had not given
a whole lot of attention to the physical structure of the brain. And then that became the next wave and starting in the late ’80s and ’90s. But, and then, at other
times, I found other ideas. It seemed to be there was
a world to be explored in the particular areas
within cognitive science that I then pursued. – It sounds to me like
you’re saying in a way that it’s not just other
disciplines seeping in to one’s discipline, but rather to be truly
interdisciplinary is the road to dealing with some very
interesting problems. So you’re really a man who
transcends any one discipline in the different kinds of work. You’ve kind of–
– Yeah. – Is that fair? – I think so. So even though I do
advise students to live with the reality of academic disciplines and to choose their career based on concert activities they like to do, in terms of understanding things, the disciplines are
something of a nuisance, of kind of a historical legacy that we should try to surmount. If you’re understanding language, it is, I think, folly to study it only from the perspective of linguistics or of psychology or computer science. It’s all phenomena are connected, all knowledge is connected, and we need all the tools we can get. It’s hard to understand anything. To restrict yourself to one discipline really means putting on blinkers and not getting a full picture. – What do you see,
having studied the brain, and your own experiences in life, what is the key to creativity? I mean, you’ve been dealing with ideas, back in Montreal at the dinner table. – Yeah.
– Sounds like. And sort of experiencing
the events of the ’60s. Talk a little about that because: Is it interdisciplinary
work that exposes you to all of these new ideas
in the various fields you’ve dealt with? – Yeah, certainly, and
studies of creativity show that it doesn’t consist
of just lightning bolts of inspiration out of the blue, that creative people
always immerse themselves in vast amounts of material from the field that they’re interested in. Novelists read lots of novels, and musicians have huge
record collections. And someone interested in ideas
has to absorb a vast number of ideas that have been
thought of by others. No one is smart enough, or at
least I’m not smart enough, to come up with anything truly original and useful on my own. It always involves getting inspiration from a vast kind of
feedstock of other ideas. And this consists not of, partly of absorbing
ideas from other fields that might be directly relevant, and they can come from
all kinds of sources, from game theory, from
theoretical computer science. But also being able to combine ideas from diverse fields
into a new conglomerate that where the newness is
putting things together that had never been put together, and from a kind of process of analogy that I’m actually interested
in as a cognitive psychologist. There’s a kind of mental,
analogical reminding process where one idea reminds you of another that doesn’t really have
anything in common on the surface but has a deep commonality in terms of their underlying structure. So an example, I’m working on Photoshop, and I’m darken one part of the image, and I darken it too much so it stands out, so I gotta darken another one. And, oh, now I darkened that too much. And now I, and before I know
it, the whole image is dark. And I’m immediately
thinking of a wobbly table, and how you cut off a
little bit of one leg, and, oh, now it wobbles. You gotta cut off another
part of another leg. I’m jogging and have music set to shuffle on my iPod, and some of the songs are the wrong tempo, but I can’t sort of
stop and pick the songs. So I just fast forward
through song after song until I get the one that’s
suitable for running. It reminds me of how, in baseball, a pitcher can’t signal the
catcher what he’s gonna pitch, and so he shakes off or
nods to the various pitches selected by the catcher, and that’s how they communicate. These are very different domains, but they have an abstract
underlying structure. In one case, adjusting something
to a desired criterion, but overshooting in one local area and having to compensate in others. In another case, selecting something by going through a set of alternatives and rejecting each one until the desired one comes up in the set. That process, which I’m
interested in as a psychologist, I think also can apply to coming up with new ideas as a scientist. So trying to understand, for example, why violence is so prevalent
throughout human history. What’s the common thread across so many different times and places? Well, there’s a problem in game theory called the
prisoner’s dilemma on how what can be advantageous
for each rational player in isolation works to the disadvantage of two of them in combination. That’s usually described in terms of two partner in crime
who are being bribed by the D.A. with different
prison sentences. But it also applies to the dilemma of whether you should attack someone at the risk of being attacked by them or both should lay down your arms. And that reminding led me to work out a prisoner’s dilemma-like matrix
for the dilemma of violence and, conversely, how one can escape it and strive toward peace. So I think that creativity
depends on deep analogies. – And what is involved in
going down one of these paths? To what extent do you navigate
between mastery of a subject and being superficial about a subject that’s not your main subject?
– Yeah. I think you do have to immerse
yourself in another field. I don’t believe… There’s some scientists who think, I wanna approach a problem fresh, and I don’t wanna read about that field. I don’t wanna be contaminated. I want my creativity to be unsullied. And I think that’s a big mistake. My approach has always been,
read deeply in the other field. There are other people who
know a lot more than you do. Respect what they have done. You can see what blunders
they might have made or other people have made. You can learn from their mistakes. And so I always try to
become an honorary member of whatever field I’m writing in. Go to the conferences,
find out the gossip, find out the standards of
status and competition, and what generates them. It gives you more insight when
you actually read the field. So, yeah, I always… I think there is a big
danger in being a dilettante, and it should be resisted. – There’s a, what shall we say? A conflict, a dilemma, a
dilemma’s the word I wanna use, in your work in the sense that working on particular problems in a
narrow field, say linguistics, but then also moving to
address general topics. So you begin with language, and dealing with irregular verbs. – Yes, right.
– And children. And you most recently write
a major tome on violence. So I’m curious about how
you’ve navigated this movement from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I believe you think both
works are very important at getting at the problem
that you see as central, which is understanding human nature. – Yes, and human nature
is the common thread between irregular verbs
and genocide. (chuckles) At first glance wouldn’t seem
to have a whole lot in common, but both of them are
products of the human mind. I spent a lot of my career
studying irregular verbs, not just because of fascination
with linguistic detail, but because I thought they were a good way to get at cognitive architecture. What are the elementary
mental steps that go on in the brain when you understand
and produce a sentence? And my argument was that, if
you compare irregular verbs, like bring brought, come came, make made, which don’t follow a rule and
have to be just memorized, compare them with regular forms, like blog blogged, mosh moshed, google googled, where they do
follow a rule and, moreover, when a new word comes into
the language, like to google, you don’t have to go to the dictionary to look up its past tense form. You just generate it by
a mental rule, add E-D. You’re getting the two
components of language, and you can argue two components
of mental life in general, that drive intelligence, namely memory lookup
and online combination, and they’re equated for meaning, two ways of talking about something that happened in the past. They’re almost the same
in terms of complexity, but they tap different, or so I argue, different cognitive systems. So it’s a very particular phenomenon that can be studied in a
lot of depth and richness, but it has implications
for fundamental issues. Now the common denominator
between that and, say, genocide is just that, is human nature, and the trajectory that took
me along there was as follows. I argued that, to understand language, one of the things you have to
understand is the innate basis that makes language acquisition possible, an idea associated with Noam Chomsky, although I wouldn’t put
it the same way he does. But just learning requires
a learning mechanism. The learning mechanism has to be innate. To understand learning, you gotta understand the innate part. They’re not dichotomous. The question, if we have a specialization for acquiring language, what other specializations
does the brain come with, led me to how the mind works and where I talked about
other components of the mind, like the emotions, fear, disgust, love, perception, depth, color, motion, shading, reasoning, number, probability, shape, other people’s minds,
physical objects, and so on. And I tried to give a
kind of inventory of the, or an anatomy of cognition. Well, then that led to
the question, a lot of: Is there something dangerous or retrograde or reactionary about
positing human nature? If evolution gave the
mind a certain structure, does that mean that it’s hopeless to try to make the world a better place because people are wired with ugly motives like jealousy
and greed and dominance? And so hope for progress is futile because people just screw
it up no matter what you do. It’s human nature, we’re built that way. And I got a lot of political pushback at the idea of human
nature along those lines. Or, and that’s kind of a
left wing kind of objection. The right wing objection is: Well, if you’re saying that it’s all machinery, it’s all evolved neural circuitry, where does that leave the soul and free will and responsibility? And isn’t it giving
people an excuse to act in accord with Darwinian instincts? My adaptations made me do it,
my amygdala made me do it. And are you undercutting
all morality and decency by pushing a biological
understanding of the mind? So I dealt with that in a
book called The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, denying the premise that a belief in human nature somehow
undercuts hopes for progress or meaning or morality, that, on the contrary, I
think a robust understanding of human nature is a prerequisite to making the world a better place. You’ve gotta look at what humans are like in order to figure out what
could make them behave better. – And in that book, The Blank Slate, you really argue against people saying, there’s a blank slate, and you can undertake all these programs that will make them better. – That’s right, so the
title, The Blank Slate, was the title of the idea
I was arguing against, the idea that the mind has no structure, that we are simply programmed
by parents, society, culture, media images, and so on. And in The Blank Slate, I pointed out that it’s not just a question of kind of philosophical analysis that human nature does not
logically imply fatalism about the human condition, but you just open your eyes, and you look at the human condition, and you see that it
obviously has improved. We aren’t involved in
constant tribal warfare where women from one band
are abducted by another. We don’t burn heretics at the stake or break people on the wheel. We don’t have legalized slavery. And I made that point in The Blank Slate, and then I reiterated it as
the answer to a question posed on an online forum, edge.org, where one year John Brockman
asked 100 scientists: What are you optimistic about? And I listed some of these observations. The Soviet empire vanished
without hardly any violence. Apartheid was dismantled, slavery abolished, human
sacrifice, and so on. Then I started to get when,
as soon as it was posted, I got a flood of mail from scholars in fields I was barely aware of, saying, you know, there’s
much more of an evidence for a decline of violence
than you even realized. I got letters from people in your field, international studies, saying, Well, you may not be aware that people in international studies
have been shaking their heads in disbelief over the
decline of great power war, that since World War II, the world’s 800 pound
gorillas have stopped fighting with each other, which they did for half a simillimum before. Another group that keeps track of war on a year by year basis said, Well, we plot war deaths, and here our curves go like that. I had a colleague in
psychology at Harvard who said, Oh, you could have added that
rates of child abuse are down, rates of spousal abuse are down, approval of spanking is down. Historical criminologists said, in every European country
for which data exist, rates of homicide have gone
down over the centuries. I started thinking, this is amazing. There are all of these
curves that plot violence, and they all look like that, and no one knows about
it, and this matter! Is this such a thing as progress? Is there such a thing as enlightenment? Have the strivings of the human race for the last few thousand
years made us better off or worse off? It’s hard to think of a more
fundamental question than that. And everyone has the wrong answer. Wrong in the sense that, whenever you try to test it empirically, you see things are
getting better, not worse. And contrary to the image
of the world projected by journalism, which is there
are crisis after crisis, and the world is going
to hell in a handcart. So I thought, first of all, having been privy to all of these data, I should try to make them known. But more interestingly, as
a student of human nature, how could I try to make sense of all of these trends
going in the same direction? First of all, why were
our ancestors so violent? Why is the default in human life, I think, some rate of violence that
today we would not accept? And what did our ancestors
do to drive it down? What are the degrees of freedom? What’s the plasticity in human behavior that would allow a rate
of homicide to fall by a factor of 50 over 800 years? Or that would suddenly allow
people to stop going to war? And so there was a
meaty scientific problem as well as a phenomenon that I thought should be better known. – Before we talk about some
of you conclusions there, let’s go back a minute ’cause I wanna cut into two insights that
come from your work, which I gathered just reading your stuff, not doing it justice in
preparation for this interview. One is that neuroscience and all the scanning
technology now enable us to really see the physiological basis or come to an understanding
of the physiological basis behind the activity of the brain, which begins to answer the question of the mind/body dichotomy. That’s a very important insight. – I think at the most global level of understanding what the mind is, certainly the fact that it’s
implemented in brain tissue is a indispensable part of the story. There’s no, I don’t think there’s a soul. There’s no free-floating
entity called the mind that is anything other than
activity of in neural networks. On the other hand, in order
to understand human affairs, the level of brain physiology and anatomy may not be
the most perspicuous one. It may not give you the
insight that you want, even though, ultimately,
that’s where it all is. Sometimes you have to look at
a higher level of analysis, at the content of ideas, at the social networks
that propagate ideas, and your answer may not be uncovered by studies of neural networks, just as if you’re criticizing a movie. You get your DVD, and the movie is nothing but
the little pits in the DVD. But on the other hand, if I ask you, “Is this an original film? “Is it a witty film, is
it a hackneyed film?” Putting the DVD under a microscope and looking at the pits is
not gonna give you the answer. (Harry chuckling) Even though there’s nothing
that isn’t in those pits, but it’s just not the most
enlightening way to study it. And so I think that brains
imaging experiments, functional neuroimaging
are part of the story, but they make sense only to the extent that you have an idea of
what the different systems of the brain are designed to do and what content they’re processing, not just whether they’re on or off. – And when we look at a theme
that runs through your work, in addition to the particulars,
which we just discussed, it’s really about how the mind works to really engage reality and to preserve social
relations as they develop. That’s sort of key. Is it not?
– Yeah. – In you’re moving from language to the study of violence, for example. – Right, so if I were
to step back and say, “What’s the deal with homo sapiens? “What makes us what we are? “Why are we such a weird primate?” I think it’s a combination
of three major things, one of them being, no how, that we figure out how the world works and we manipulate it to
our advantage with tools and other things to a much greater extent than any other animal. We have language, so we can share the
fruits of our discoveries, and we can coordinate our
behavior in large ensembles by striking deals with each other. And we are social, we
cooperate with non-relatives, very unusual in the animal kingdom. But we have that triad, each one of which supports the other two, and that’s the starting point for understanding our very odd species. From that, question like: How do we learn? What is education for? When do we get along,
when do we not get along? What would allow us to get along better? I think has to refer back
to our nature as a species, including that triad. And by the way, it’s because
of our capacity for no how, for coming up with new ideas, that believing in human nature
does not make you a fatalist. You aren’t just stuck with the
way we’ve always done things, not because of any magic, not because any soul transcends
our biological limitations, but because one of the bits of our biology can crank out new ideas by combining old ideas through
analogy and composition. And so the reason we’re not stuck with the way we’ve always done things is that we can come up with new ideas, and we can share them through language, we can keep the ones that
work, tinker with them, and that is kind of an avenue
towards improving our lot, given the materials we have to work with. – As you’ve moved from language
to a study of violence, one of your tools has been the extent to which your writing is
so clear and lucid, I mean, especially the book on
violence is just a great read. Talk a little about that, how writing has been an important tool, and what you’ve learned about the brain that helps you understand it’s importance. – Yeah, so writing is itself
a topic that interests me both because that’s
one of the things I do, and I try to increase my readership by writing in a clear and engaging way. But of course, it’s
also part of the content of what I study, namely
how language works. And so I’ve always been interested in: What are the processes
that I, as a writer, and I, as a reader, go through that make me resonate to
a well-crafted sentence or stumble at a bloated
and turgid or opaque one? In fact, I’ve combined those interests in my next book called The Sense of Style, which is a writing manual
but one that is based in findings from cognitive
science and linguistics. Most style manuals… By the way, one of my
favorite genres of literature. I love reading style manuals, and I have for many decades.
(Harry laughing) But they are based
generally on the intuitions and personal experience of
journalists and writers, and they have tended not to be systematic. The writers kind of have hunches, they have feelings, they have intuitions, they have the writerly ear. But can we do better and say, what are the steps that take place as a person reads a sentence, such that some kinds of
sentences allow the whole process to go smoothly and others gum it up? – And what are some of your findings? Do you wanna share any
of those with you that? – Sure.
– What in particular, yeah? – Some of them are that, because writing is an unnatural act, we evolved to speak, but
we didn’t evolve to write. Therefore, one of the
first things you have to do as a writer is imagine what kind of situation you’re pretending to be in, that you’re simulating as you write. Your reader is not physically present. They can’t react with facial expressions. They can’t furrow their brows. They can’t interrupt you and say, “What the hell does that mean?” So how do you, what social
situation should you simulate in order to write clearly? That’s the first step, and I think that the answer to that is, you are pointing to something in the world that you want your reader to see, and you’re giving them
an unobstructed view. Now that’s an image of what you’re pretending
to do as you write, the conversation you’re
pretending to have. And a lot of concrete bits of
writerly advice all fall out of that central image of: What are you pretending to simulate? Things like avoiding
a lot of slang posting and metadiscourse. Now that we’ve analyzed this, I’m gonna discuss the following 17 points. Academics do that, it bogs
down academic writing. It’s not what you would do if you were having a conversation about something in the world. And so referring back to
that central image allows you to deduce one of these guidelines for writing as a consequence. A second bit is to overcome
the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is the inability that we all have to imagine what it’s like not to know
something that we do know. Once you know something, it
just seems second nature. You just magically project your
knowledge to everyone else, and you don’t realize that other people, what’s obvious to you
isn’t obvious to them. And an enormous amount of
opaque writing is that way because the writer didn’t stop
to think: What does someone who doesn’t know my
field start out thinking? Third is to understand
the mechanics of syntax, that these are the tools that
writers have to work with, and in any craft, you’ve
gotta understand your tools. So just knowing what is English syntax. What does it do, how does it work? How can it work poorly? So that’s another dimension. And finally: What do you do about rules of correct and incorrect usage? Don’t dangle your participles. Don’t split your infinitives. No prepositions at the end of a sentence. Don’t use, confuse mitigate and militate. The vast majority of commentary about writing focuses on correct usage, which I actually think is
the least important part of good writing, but it is something that
writer’s have to keep in mind. And it turns out that,
if you do the scholarship on where these rules came from, you realize that a lot of
them are really pointless and can be blown off. We’ll get splitting infinitives, ending a sentence with a
preposition, it’s nonsense. It doesn’t mean you
should flaunt all rules. Some of them really do enhance clarity. Some of them mesh with the expectations of the literate reader and
they ought to be followed. But one should, instead of taking rules of correct usage as the 10 Commandments, they’re just inerrant, you can subject them to
criticism and scholarship and say, “Well, does
this rule really help, “or should we just blow it off?” – Let’s talk a little
about the violence book. I mean, it’s a massive undertaking. But what’s interesting in
your conclusion, in a way, the struggle is about the
better angels within us, and the darker, what is the term you use? – And the inner demons? – [Harry] The inner demons. – Just keeping, not
mixing metaphors, yeah. – Which are not a… It’s not a surprising analysis
coming from a psychologist. But what is really interesting is, in this book, you move to
the more general phenomena that determines the
influences which wins out, that that is the inner
demons or the inner angels. Talk a little about that–
– Yeah. – And what you conclude because for a reader who’s
looked at all of your work, is that something of a surprise, that you’re looking at
the big picture there? – Well, I hope not,
’cause indeed, I think, in trying to understand
the decline of violence, there are two parts of the phenomenon that need to be explained. One of them is the violence,
and the other is the decline. So both are facts, at least so I argue. I spend many pages in
the book and many graphs, first persuading the
reader that it is a fact, that violence really has gone down, and then turn to the question of why. Well, why? It can’t be that we just have
this inner thirst for blood that periodically has to be slaked. Violence is not like hunger or thirst or the need for sex or the need for sleep. Clearly, it is adjusted by circumstances, and the reason it can be adjusted is that whatever violent urges we have, what I call the inner demons, things like urge for dominance, thirst for revenge,
tendency towards sadism, sheer exploitation, using
someone as a means to an end, that’s not all there is in human nature. Human nature is complex. And together with these various
temptations toward violence, we have a number of things
that inhibit us from violence. We’ve got self-control,
these massive circuits in the frontal lobe of the brain that can count to 10, hold your horses, save your money for a rainy day, and make us think twice before
lashing out in violence. There’s empathy. Under certain circumstance, we feel other people’s pain. We don’t wanna hurt them. We wanna prevent them from suffering. There are norms, moral norms. There are certain things you just don’t do if you wanna be considered
a decent person. There’s reason. Can we treat violence as
a problem to be solved, the same way we solve problems
like disease and hunger? And what changes over
the balance of history, what allows, over the course
of history, is the balance between the inner demons
and the better angels, and that’s where societal, historical, institutional changes can come in. You can have institutions like government that penalize impulsive
violence or predatory violence, and since we do take in
information about the environment, if we think that the police
are gonna haul us off to jail if we stab someone over a parking space, maybe we’ll think twice
about stabbing someone over a parking space. If norms change so that lashing out when you’re insulted is no
longer a sign of manliness but now is a sign of boorishness, then people will, are more
likely to adhere to that norm. If we, in general, are more
enlightened and educated, and we, no matter how much we are fired up by patriotism and jingoism, we think, well, gee, the other side is, too, and our ancestors were, and it got them into
a whole lot a trouble, like in World War I. Maybe we should think
twice, stand back, reflect, and figure out how to
get out of this pickle instead of pushing it
through to the bitter end. Then our cognitive processes of reason can pull us away from violence. So the three components,
what makes us violent, what makes us nonviolent,
what changes in our society to favor the latter over the former, that’s the way I tell the story. – A couple of final questions. One is, where do you see
the big breakthrough coming in our understanding of the brain? – I don’t know if there’ll
be one big breakthrough, or at least if there is, I’m probably the last one
who’ll be able to predict it. I think that ideas from many
sources have to be combined. What I find most exciting
is the breaking down of the barriers between
traditional domains of humanistic scholarship, like history, like jurisprudence, like philosophy, like linguistics and philology, even music and literature and art, and bringing it together with our increasing
understanding of human nature. What can our knowledge of motives, like dominance and revenge, tell us about the conduct
of international relations? How can our understanding
of visual cognition lead to insight about
sculpture and painting? How does auditory analysis mesh with our understanding of music? Can there be understandings of poetics and literary style that are
informed by linguistics? Now many scholars in the
humanities just have a hissy fit when they hear about this. They think it’s a
reductionist, scientistic, determinist, positivist, atavist, and I think that attitude
is sealing the doom of the humanities. I think there’re tremendous opportunities for mutual benefit on each side, and I hope that the
universities will be a place in which these opportunities
for insight are explored. – And one final question. If students watching this interview were to find insight from your
intellectual journey, what should they learn from your journey? And how would you advise them
to prepare for the future? – Certainty to… I’m giving some somewhat
contradictory advice. One of them, one piece
dealing with the realities of the academic scene as it exists, the other of holding out
hope for changing it. So the reality is disciplines are here. You wanna get employed,
you wanna get tenure, respect the disciplines. On the other hand, I think that’s a deplorable
state of affairs, though it is the reality, and is if you wanna play your part in trying to overcome
this unfortunate legacy, immerse yourself in other disciplines, Be interested in topics, ideas, problems, phenomena not in academic guilds. Negotiating those two, I mean, that’s one of the great
things about tenure. Once you have tenure, it
does give you the freedom to peer into what’s going on
in the next guy’s discipline. – Well, on that note,
Steven, I wanna thank you for taking time to be on our program. It was a very insightful discussion, and I think it’s gonna lead
a lot a people to go out and read some of your
books if they haven’t. – (chuckles softly) Well,
thanks very much, Harry. – And thank you very much for joining us for this conversation with history. (uptempo synthesizer music)

100 thoughts on “Understanding Human Nature with Steven Pinker – Conversations with History

  1. Even assuming human nature exists, at present humans can only conceptualize it through a linguistic and cultural matrix. Thus the argument that there's no human nature outside of history has some validity.

  2. If we HAVE descendants  (a big if,) they will laugh their butts off at our pathetic attempts to hide our ape behaviour and ape nature.  How small must your brain be to believe that we are so special?  We are a smart but destructive species.

  3. i was listening to this while doing something else and I couldn't stop picturing in my head that Joe Pesci is conducting the interview… 

  4. I like Pinker. He strikes me as less of an ideologue than most, I guess, "socially oriented" academics. He makes not pretenses about people not being "blank slates" and understands not only that men and women are different, but also that there are differences among races of human beings. I say in the current academic climate that take massive intellectual honesty balls.

  5. I strongly disagree with Steven's assertion that everyone interested in a field should study up on what has already been done and attempt to push that line of knowledge further.  Some percentage of prospective students need to start with no preconceived notions, even to the point of protecting and cultivating their ignorance of a particular subject or field and see what random things their line of inquiry turns up. It is inefficient to do this because most people will only re-discover a small portion of what is already known but every so often one of these solitary sojourners will stumble on something so totally unexpected and unpredicted that it may not have been discovered by a hundred people in a hundred years using the ordinary method of "driving to the end of the existing knowledge road and trying to build it a little further."  This deliberate cultivation of serendipity and making random connections between seemingly unrelated things is something that A.I. will probably never be entirely able to replicate.

  6. I like Steven Pinker's ideas a lot. Very interesting. But his dismissal of anarchism is jarring. He dismisses it, on jokey scientific grounds on the basis of ONE example? One personal example, that had no control group and was full of extraneous variables. That is not scientific, Stevie baby. 

  7. His "Anarchy Failed" example of violence in the streets when the police went on strike  is hardly an example of failed anarchy. It assumes that in a stateless society no security services are available. He might as well assume that stateless society's will have no educational services because n government exist to provide it.Or no more construction since no state authority will issue building permits. Bad thinking for such a smart fellow.

    Additionally.  government police get a raise when they strike as they essentially commit extortion via monopoly. In a stateless society employees of security force on strike would either get fired or put their company out of business… Maybe both! That would be a one-time lesson to workers of competing firms.

    This shows how powerful state education is. An intelligent man like Mr. Pinker sides with the state in spite of the many fallacies in his absurd conclusion.

  8. Google (Jewish) Youtube (Jewish) watching a jew jerking off another Jew, quoting other Jews. Let me read on wikipedia (Jewish) or ask some friends on fb (Jewish). We all live in Israel, some haven't realized it -Sam Harris. Don't non Jews see the funny pattern? Something, something piffy.

  9. The question to Mr. Pinker is can we understand our minds through analysis and through accumulation of knowledge from any field. Since he has done so much research and analysis on human mind through so many fields dose he totally understands himself, which he calls human nature? If he dose not understand himself by knowing so much, then why he thinks that his books or his information will help others to understand themselves, or their nature? Also his definition of violence is very limited to a gross violence like killing, rape, torture, and so on, but he dose not see the violence in himself as an ambitious, competitive, selfish person, and so on……….So with all his expertise and knowledge he has not understood the human problem, which is himself and without understanding the problem one cannot solve that problem.

  10. I noticed that Pinker is really boring when he is lecturing but far more interesting when he is being interviewed.

  11. People going ape shit right after police go on a strike hardly is an argument against anarchism. I'm not sure whether Pinker simply wants to conform to the status quo with this simplistic view or if he really doesn't get it. The thing is, anarchism, like any advancement in mankind's moral understanding requires widespread change in philosophy. It wouldn't be the philosophical anarchists looting after governments were gone. They'd be philosophically and spiritually ready for such a change. It would be the government-dependent non-anarchist going ape shit.

  12. I don't know how they did this, but the image is crystal clear and beautifully lit. I plays smoothly. I wish other video makers had this skill.

  13. Not impressed with the interviewer's superficial, basically trite questions. Why didn't he ask Pinker about the main differences between Chomsky's linguistic cognitive theory of language and his own, for example ? On their points of agreement, divergence etc ? Or the limits of human understanding…things like that. Shit interview. A typical example of an interviewer who knows nothing of concepts/philosophical interests of his guest.

  14. Human nature is what we all think and feel, but have to rise above. Rape, murder, pedophilia, casual sex or casual violence, theft, these are all in NATURE. All animals do those things. 90% of natures births are from rape outside of humans. I'm not at all saying they are acceptable or okay, I am saying that they are natural, and that we as humans, need to rise above our natural and primal instincts and feelings. That's what separates us from animals. There you go. Key to the universe.

  15. his comment on the empirical test on anarchism seems odd, surely just removing an institution like the police suddenly in a hierarchical, class, competition and power  mad world is of course courting insanity the environment does need to be conducive we would need to be imaginative create systems that foster cooperation

  16. is his threesome we think, we share, we cooperate? man talk about systems based on fear that work against us – imagine if our culture reflected values conducive to he three

  17. I don't have a very strong view on this, but when he mentioned the situation he experienced with the police going on strike when he was a child, I couldn't help but think of a dam breaking. So I'm not sure that's a fair way for him to judge human nature.

  18. My god!! the interviewer spends almost half the video on nothing… WE KNOW PINKER IS QUALIFIED, WE KNOW HE'S GREAT so get on to the ideas and data and knowledge, he suchs his dick and flatters him way too much for half the damn video at least!! I watched other Pinker videos and the guy likes getting to it right away, so what is this shit about where he studied when he didi it what sort of family he comes from, did they encourage learning (for god's sake!!), how he decided to study what he did… the video is titled "Understanding Human Nature," so get to it dumbass!! — Pinker has a lot to say about it and you just spend and waste your time and ours and his on bullshit!! We want to hear wha he says about HUMAN NATURE!!

  19. Pinker tells humans they're basically wonderful, which is what we all want to hear. He ignores that our current system is based on organized brutality against the biosphere and billions of sentient animals. We're the most destructive species ever seen.

  20. @ 25min's: isn't he just copying Lakoff? Kinda like how his book THE STUFF OF THOUGHT just steals data from the field of Cognitive Linguistics in general.

  21. His book Better angels of our nature's first chapter churned my stomach more than when I read American psycho. Great read btw.

  22. he doesn't do it.  I watched the whole deal… enthralled as always by Pinker…. and a nice discovery.. Edge.org... but…. 12:37 how does he explain that it was that 2nd pulse only, in a very short window of Darwinian time…. that abstract thought and a human language suddenly burst forth??? that is not Creationist yet also is counter to Chomsky's thesis of a Language Snowflake? and that is not just Chomsky. of course. hey! me too! it seems to have been sudden (language capacity) or is that he completely disconnect language with some sudden miracle of abstract thought capacity?

  23. He is atheist and secularist? What a laugh. This guy is Jewish to the core, and he takes this VERY seriously. He has lauded Jewish intelligence and given lectures on it. He is a Jewish liar and total bullshit artist. Wake up people.

  24. The truth is this. Humanity is evolving into one or other. I call this "Final Destination" . That is to say that humanity at the end will evolve to being a pure good soul or pure evil soul.

  25. Canadians…hard to imagine, despite all the Harvard and MIT can offer, could ever teach a Canadian how normal people think. I can say this because I had to hear years of anti-american abuse from them. French Canada at that, and I doubt he could read Camus.

  26. Listen, Americans should be very cautious of Canadians. Don't get me wrong, they are very good people through and through, but they do not like Americans at the core. We should always be very suspicious of this as Americans. DONT TRUST CANADIANS

  27. He is just one of those smart baby-boomers who have become leading professors and intellectuals. The baby boomers are not only "Woodstock", they form the elite of the societies of US and Europe. I am full of awe for this generation.

  28. Thats what's wrong with America, too many of you fkg inbred you know what!
    The first words out to their mouths is jew this & jew that! Imagine a world where they didn't exist!

  29. What a wonderful conversation. I’ve listened to many of Prof. Pinker’s talks over the years and I always find him fascinating, lucid, and through provoking. Glad I found this one also.

  30. Everything humans does is essentially a part of their nature. You can't just cherry pick a certain aspect of their behavior and call that "natural" or "nature". It's all of it, both good and bad. Then you can argue that there are some bad traits to that "nature" or there are some good traits, and point them out, but essentially every little single thing we do is a part of our "nature". This is how we are designed, and it's very complex, it's something we won't understand anytime soon.

  31. at 28:30 Prof. Pinker claims that he acts as if it's best to respect the people in the other field when your research takes you in that direction. Look for their blunders. I'd like to know how Prof. Pinker does this, given that the Harvard Library collection is smaller than what can be attained through Online Libraries in gray and black markets. Give us something on your research methods for secondary research, please.

  32. 46:25 ; ' what is obvious to you is not obvious to those you are relating 'it' to.
    Mr. Pinker has, in this statemen,t made it obvious that he completely understands : ' the biggest flaw in communication is the ILLUSION that it has happened '.
    Be as articulate as you can and listen as closely as you can . And even if you are sure you ' get it ' , do it again etc. !

  33. Pinker tinkers dangerously, silly re violence supposed decline—his sources faulty, results foolish, inferences fanciful, conclusions perverse.

  34. Thank you. One of my favorite realm of science. "We continue to make a world a better place" indeed.

  35. 28:17 I want my creativity to be on ……? Would anyone please write what Steven said?

  36. I'd love to know how much of the reduction of violence is due to humans "becoming better" and how much is just due to people spending more of their time inside on the internet and video game systems and the overal reduction in virility due to things like endocrine disruptiors or selection for mates of less dimorphism.

  37. Umm… sorry, but what was wrong with apartheid and slavery? Everyone concerned was better off under these systems. Can we put the breaks on the PC machine for just one fucking moment and get practical??

  38. I did enjoy Pinker's narrative. But at the end, it's the same old problem..which is Deal with the Present in the Hopes of Changing the Future. There are very few people who want to do that, and/or have the endurance for it. And those people typically have such a narrow view of things because they are so heavy into education and intellect that they cant see the forest for the trees.

    I believe more than anything, for whatever reason, people desire even need to be a part of something greater than themselves. Why else would anyone fight in a war? At the current moment crime may be dow , but depression and anxiety are not. And in my opinion that is because there isnt something for people to latch on to. Religion is fading. Theres no global crisis. No world war. And thats good. But because of our long history of it all, now we are wandering around without a goal and without an inclusiveness because of the lack of war and global crisis.

    Hopefully that made sense.

  39. Thank you for this information and post. I thought you might like to watch a talk I gave regarding a Christian perspective of Human Nature. Human nature is an interesting study for sure:


  40. I might be reading this wrong but he says in one sentence that he doesn't support ethnic political action but then he says he support Zionism which is just that?

  41. he is a great scientist in psychology but he knows nothing about sociology or he is ideologically driven in this field

  42. I think a lot of people have these questions, the average person but it’s suppressed by the day to day. I think everyone should talk about this for a better understanding of why we have our views, the way we act and react, idk of This makes sense but….

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