It’s easy to feel dwarfed—or, perhaps more accurately, entirely intimidated, overwhelmed, painfully daunted—by author and experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. Pinker has written more than 10 books. Time has dubbed him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Prospect and Foreign Policy have featured him on their list of the top 100 public intellectuals working today.
And then there’s the intense output that landed him on such lists: Pinker’s life’s work is the study of the architecture of our minds and world; he explores with great zeal questions such as how language develops in children, what role evolution plays in language, the nature of human nature. Heady subjects he seemingly takes on with ease, and ones that would leave most of us weeping with frustration into the groundswell of jargon-rich research papers documenting them.
Pinker believes humans are “systematically self-deceived; each one of us thinks of ourselves as more competent and benevolent than we are.” We might, perhaps, but in the context of people like Pinker who are wickedly smart, seemingly capable of processing that which 95% of people cannot, it’s easy to feel, well, small.
There’s even the matter of his hair—his trademark plumage that led him to be deemed the first member of The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists. (Seriously.) How does one acquire such a capable mind, and the locks that adorn it?
Pinker grew up in Montreal, in a community that featured the likes of Saul Bellow, Leonard Cohen and William Shatner. His father was a sales rep, landlord and lawyer, and his mother looked after the home, and later got a master’s degree in counseling, becoming vice principal of a Montreal high school. Growing up in the ’60s, Pinker regarded himself philosophically as a teenage anarchist … until the police went on strike, and looting and riots ensued. It was a formative moment that he has cited as giving him a glimpse into his future as a scientist, “Namely, that cherished beliefs can be cruelly falsified by empirical tests,” he told The Harvard Gazette.
Pinker was a voracious reader, and had a keen interest in the workings of the mind. As a result, his parents urged him to become a psychiatrist instead of an academic—the scholarly world was in turmoil in the 1970s, and many would-be professors wound up unemployed. But Pinker followed his path, seizing on the expanding field of cognitive psychology, and went from McGill to Harvard to MIT. The root of his passion: as he told the Gazette, “What could be more interesting than how the mind works?”
In his professional life, Pinker pinged back and forth between teaching at Harvard and MIT. And then, after penning highly technical books intended for his peers, a rather amazing thing happened: Pinker decided to take his knowledge and adapt it for a general audience.
In so doing, he lets us in on a conversation we might otherwise miss, and brilliantly expands our minds. When asked by The Times Literary Supplement about the best advice he has ever received, he replied, “When I crossed over from academic to popular writing, a university press editor advised me not to make the common professor’s mistake of talking down to readers, as if they were semi-literate chicken pluckers.” Rather, the editor urged him to think of readers as all sharing the same high intellect—they just happen to not know something that Pinker does. And that’s exactly how his writing comes across; in the process of blowing our minds, he refrains from shoving his IQ, and the jargon that tends to fall like snow from the clouds of scientific journals, down our throats. Pinker breaks the stereotype of the staid intellectual in more ways than one. Rather than vanishing into the weeds of the subjects he is writing about or discussing, he approaches them with wit and flair. He’s personable. He’s funny.
He eschews the quietly bemoaned notion in academia that today’s Millennials are the least intelligent and laziest generation. He knows and accepts his limits, admitting that any thoughts he might have had about writing a novel to complement his nonfiction went out the door after he married novelist Rebecca Goldstein, and saw the raw talent that truly goes into fiction.
On a wider scale, he puts his superpowers to good use, breaking down the psychology behind phenomena like the “The Dress” for Forbes, which subsequently dubbed him “Rock Star Psychologist Steven Pinker.” Showcasing his sheer passion for science and the subjects he studies, on his website you can even find his genome and scans of his brain.
And finally, we circle back to perhaps the clearest indicator that he doesn’t necessarily walk the line of the expected: his hair. As critic Steven Heller wrote in Design Observer, “Arguably, how one wears their hair is the most important sign of personal identity. A hairstyle is more than just style; it is a trademark or, if you will, a logo for a personal brand. Hair is a graphic device, every bit as designed and ultimately mnemonic as any other vivid iconography.”
Pinker breaks it down: “First, there’s immaturity. Any boy growing up in the ’60s fought a constant battle with his father about getting a haircut. Now no one can force me to get my hair cut, and I’m still reveling in the freedom. Also, I had a colleague at MIT, the computer scientist Pat Winston, who had a famous annual speech on how to lecture, and one of his tips was that every professor should have an affectation, something to amuse students with.” On a “Colbert Report” appearance, Colbert whipped out a security wand and scanned Pinker’s hair for weapons.
Pinker’s new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. And in it, he reveals—using data and a host of visuals—that the common narrative that the world today is the biggest wreck it has ever been, is egregiously incorrect. Rather, Pinker details, we are thriving. Never before have humanity’s achievements been greater when it comes to health, wealth, peace, democracy, quality of life, happiness and other factors—a perspective that’s easy to overlook in a news cycle focused on the negative, that which today is dubbed newsworthy. (As Tibor Kalman once observed, “We don’t talk about planes flying; we talk about them crashing.”) Pinker also delves into the territory that ruffles the feathers of a loyal Trumpian base today—how a demagogue tends to thrive on the notion that a system, and the world at large, is broken.
All told, Bill Gates liked Enlightenment Now so much he dubbed it his “new favorite book of all time.” Asked by Rolling Stone if he considers himself an optimist, Pinker said that he probably is—but reminded his interviewer that in this book, as with his others, he’s merely pointing out facts based on data. Facts that he, and he alone, I’d add, was able to obtain, digest and interpret for readers. And that is the power of Pinker—he takes his amazing mind and focus, and offers it to the world, as all those visible and outstanding talents in other fields do, from the virtuoso guitarist to the investigative journalist to the artist. It is reason to not be daunted by the Steven Pinkers of the world, but to realize what they contribute, for they make up the chorus of thought that enlightens the darkness.
In simply doing his work, Pinker gives us perhaps what we need most right now: perspective and, crucially, hope.—Zachary Petit
Debbie: Steven, I understand that the Hardy Boys books were some of your favorite books growing up. What about them did you enjoy most?
Steven: They were fabulous whodunits. They had protagonists who were a bit older than I was as a boy, and enough to both identify with them and to look up to them. They were very well‑written and had intriguing plot lines.
Debbie: I have a 10‑year‑old nephew and he is beginning to read those books now. He had left one in my bedroom when I went to visit recently. I couldn't believe how much they actually reflected so much about basic human behavior. Did you feel that when you were reading them growing up?
Steven: I hadn't thought about it at the time, but yeah, because they applauded human ingenuity, figuring out who did it from clues with dark human motives.
Debbie: And a real interest in the way people see things.
Steven: That's right. Like film noir, which were the addled version, they did show some of the darker impulses of human nature which has been a lifelong interest.
Debbie: You stated that you grew up in Montreal, as part of the Jewish minority, within the English‑speaking minority, within the French‑speaking minority in Canada. I am wondering, how did you develop any kind of self‑esteem in all of those minorities?
Steven: I guess being the oldest son in a Jewish family gives you a bit of a tailwind in life, perhaps. Growing up in a pretty comfortable baby boom, postwar, suburban New Year is not one of the more challenging environments to grow up in. I was very fortunate. I was made to feel fortunate because my parent's and grandparent's generation lived through the depression, through the second war. Many of the parents of my friends were Holocaust survivors and refugees from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
I was made to feel that I was being brought up in a privileged time and place. I didn't have to live through the depression or the war. This was impressed on me as a child, how fortunate I was. I actually thought I was living through boring times in which nothing historic happened or would happen. Now I realize that I was living through incredible times —the nuclear arms race, eventually the Cold War and then the collapse of the Soviet empire, the whole revolution in women's rights which no one anticipated until it started to happen, the revolution in gay rights, the dawn of the mini‑computer, the microcomputer and then the Internet.
All these happened during my lifetime, so my grandparents and parents thought that interesting historic stuff happened, and I was just going to live in a boring suburban wasteland. Though not to be true, we've lived through remarkable times.
Debbie: I read that you visualized your parents looking at a map and saying, "Damn, what's the closest that we can get to New York? Oh, there's this cold place called Canada. Let's try that."
Steven: My grandparents, yes.
Debbie: Your grandparents, was it really that arbitrary?
Steven: No, this is my own fantasy. The United States tightened its immigration policies in 1924. All of my grandparents ended up in Canada around 1926. I'm just guessing that the rest of their family did end up in New York and Montreal was a second choice. For me, I'm glad they ended up there instead of say Argentina or South Africa or Palestine, which would have led to a much more challenging childhood for me.
Debbie: Leonard Cohen also grew up in the community you grew up in and I understand that your mother knew him.
Steven: There is a photograph of my mother at age 14 towering over a 13‑year‑old Leonard Cohen at the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal where they were both in the confirmation class.
Debbie: Wow! Did you ever meet him or was that just a childhood experience of your mom?
Steven: That was a childhood experience of my momma. I never met him. I never met him. He was very big when I was a teenager. Songs of Leonard Cohen came out and we all would play 'Suzanne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." Then he fell out of popularity and suddenly became hip just in the last 10 years of his life. I was fortunate enough to go to a concert of his in Boston which was spectacular, even though at the time he was pushing 80.
Debbie: Initially your mother was a homemaker through the 1950s and '60s but during the '70s she got a master's degree in counseling and then later became vice‑principal of a high school in Montreal. Your dad had a law degree, but for much of his life, he worked as a sales representative and a landlord and owned real estate in Florida. Yet you've said the biggest influence they had on you was at the moment of conception.
Steven: Yes. In intellectual life, it's almost taboo to talk about the influence of genetics—and that was the subject of my book, "The Blank Slate," that very taboo part of human nature—but the evidence from the subfield of psychology called behavioral genetics shows that genes matter. They make much more of a difference to the formation of a personality and intellect than parenting.
That doesn't mean that everything is in the genes, because the cultural environment matters—your peer group, the neighborhood and community that you grow up in—and there's a huge factor of random chance. Luck of the draw. Influences that are neither genetic nor familial. But the role of parenting, itself, turns out to have very little influence on shaping of the person.
Of course, parents have an enormous impact on the quality of childhood, whether your childhood is happy or miserable, and of course, parenting—being a human relationship—also has an influence on the relationship that you have with your parents for the rest of your lives, but the idea of children as little balls of clay that their parents shape turns out not to be true.
Debbie: Do you think that the effects of our parents on our lives is overrated?
Steven: It is overrated. I do.
Debbie: Do you think that parents have, ultimately, a big effect on how you respond to things? For example, you could have the same child in two different families ‑‑ one treated one way, one treated another way ‑‑ but the response to the way that they're treated, because of our genes, might be the same?
Steven: It could be, yes. It's also easy to forget that children affect parenting. It's not just that parenting affects children, but how you deal with a child very much depends on whether it's a rambunctious child or a placid one, a sociable one or a retiring one. A lot of the effects that we attribute to parenting may just be the way parents have to deal with the children as they pop out of the womb.
Debbie: How much effect did genes have on our intellect or our temperament versus sheer chance?
Steven: If you look at the variation among people within a culture—Lisa versus Sally, Sam versus Adam—I think about the same. Maybe about 50 percent each?
Steven: Yeah. Here's a concrete way to put it. Consider identical twins...And not the exotic case of the identical twins separated at birth, which doesn't happen very often. When it does, scientists are fascinated, because you've got same genes, different environment, so it's a great thing to study, but let's put that aside. Just think about identical twins that you know. They have the same genomes. They are brought up in the same family. Same parents, same older sibs, same younger sibs, same school, same neighborhood, so the heredity is the same and their environment is very close to being the same. Therefore, they should be completely indistinguishable, right? Well, if you know any identical twins, you know, no, they're not completely indistinguishable.
They're highly correlated. They're much more similar than two people plucked off the street or even two fraternal siblings, but they have distinct personalities. They follow different paths in life. How can that happen, if we're shaped by our genes and our environment? They have the same genes and the same environment, but still they end up not exactly the same.
There has to be a big role for sheer chance, the luck of the draw, both in the way your brain develops—because the genes can shape brain development, but they can't control it down to the last connection—and to random events that unfold as you live your life that may have a big cumulative effect that's very hard to keep track of, moment‑by‑moment.
Which twin gets the top bunk bed, who gets the bottom bunk bed? Did one of them inhale a virus and get a cold and stay home from school, the other one went to school that day? Did one of them get chased by a dog? None of these are formative, but they add up to a different lifeline for each individual.
All of these developmental, neurological, individual, idiosyncratic events seem to play a huge effect in shaping the person, about the same size as the effect of the genes.
Debbie: You've stated that you think a lot of what makes us what we are, we don't have any conscious access to. Is there any way to understand this better? Will there always be some part of our consciousness, aside from how it evolved, that we'll never be able to understand?
Steven: I suspect there will be. Not because there's anything mystical, or uncanny, or paranormal, but we're not going to ever, I suspect, have a instrument powerful enough to trace out every last connection of every last neuron in the hundred trillion synapses in the human brain. Nor is any graduate student going to scamper along behind a little baby with a clipboard keeping track of everything that happens.
Debbie: Your parents wanted you to become a psychiatrist given your interest in the human mind and given their assumption that any smart, responsible young person would go into medicine. What made you decide to defy their wishes and study cognitive psychology?
Steven: This is in the 1970s after the academic bubble crashed. In the late '50s after Sputnik, huge expansion of the university system, anyone with a PhD could just waltz into a job.
Debbie: Then they were riding cabs at that point, right?
Steven: Exactly. There are articles in the "New York Times" magazine about PhDs in philosophy driving cabs and working in sheriff's office. Parents, they were justifiably concerned. My mother's suggestion was, "Well look. If you are a psychiatrist you get to do everything you can do as a psychologist, plus you have a stable income seeing patients."
I really did not want to take out four years of my life to go to medical school to study something that wasn't my primary interest, and I didn't really have an interest in seeing psychiatric patients, so I took my chances. Fortunately, I chose a field, cognitive psychology, which was in a growth phase within universities. A lot of psychology departments wanted to expand in cognitive psychology, and so I did not have a problem getting a job as an assistant professor.
Debbie: Were your parents comforted by the notion that you were at least getting you PhD from Harvard University?
Steven: Yes. Their misgivings were put to rest a long time ago.
Debbie: Your thesis was on visual imagery and the ability to visualize objects in the mind's eye. You then started your career working in the visual realm, as well as with language, but ultimately chose to focus on working with language. Why?
Steven: I was interested in how we visualize three‑dimensional objects in scenes, because clearly in design, but in many other fields like organic chemistry, even in fiction where you have to visualize plots unfolding in a three‑dimensional space, you have to have the ability to imagine how objects and people arrange themselves in 3D space.
It was something of a paradox that intrigued me, that while clearly we imagine a three‑dimensional world, we don't imagine things that are flat as pancakes, but imagery always seemed to be from a vantage point. It's, whenever you close your eyes and imagine something, there is perspective in it.
If you image standing between a pair of railroad tracks, for example, you see them in your mind's eye converging to the horizon. Now, of course, the railroad tracks in reality are parallel otherwise the train would derail. [laughs] The projection that we experience on our retinas when we physically see something seems to be replicated in the mind's eye in our visual memories and our visual manipulation. Likewise, when you imagine a globe, or a box, or a face, you imagine it from one surface, only the visible surface. You don't have X‑ray vision in your imagery. You have to mentally turn it around for new surfaces to come into view.
The challenge that I faced was, what's going on in the brain that allows visual images to simultaneously represent the third dimension, but always be specific to a vantage point? How do we bring in new information as we visualize ourselves exploring a scene or manipulating an object? That was the puzzle that engaged me.
Debbie: Why did you abandon that line of work?
Steven: What happened was, at the same time, as a graduate student I was interested in how children learn their first language, their mother tongue. I started off as kind of a theoretician. Mainly, how is this even possible? You got a baby who doesn't know whether he's going to end up speaking Swahili, or Japanese, or English, or Yiddish.
The brain is completely unprepared for any particular language. Child hears all this noise coming out of his parents mouths for a couple of years, and within a couple of years the child is producing his or her own sentences, brand new sentences that aren't just memorizing what they heard before. What's the algorithm in the child's brain that goes from one to the other? That goes from, speech from parents to an ability to speak and understand.
Debbie: And construct.
Steven: And construct, crucially to construct. I started off just looking at computer simulations from artificial intelligence, from math models. Just, how is this problem even solvable? What could allow a child to acquire a language? Then I started to test these ideas by bringing kids into the lab or by analyzing transcripts of their speech.
What happened was that my field seemed to be more interested in my work in language acquisition than in visual cognition. Visual cognition was a more crowded field. There were other people who were doing the work better than I was, but the world was telling me that it found the work in language more interesting, and so I gravitated toward it and it took over my research life.
Debbie: In your first book, "The Language Instinct. How the Mind Creates Language," you wrote, "You and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability. We can shape events in each other's brains with exquisite precision. I'm not referring to telepathy or mind control, or other obsessions of fringe science.
Even in the depictions of believers, these are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. That ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other's minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is." Steven how did we become a species that is capable of such a sophisticated way of communicating?
Steven: I think the first step in studying language is to remind ourselves of what a near miraculous gift it is. To those of you who are listening to this podcast, you're proof because you're washing your dishes, or driving, or jogging...
Debbie: Right, it's all language.
Steven: ...and coming into your ears is [gibberish noises] but it's clearly not just any old noises, you're interpreting those noises in this particular discussion to talk about that ability itself, language. We don't really know how language evolved in the human species, because all of the intermediate stages are extinct, between a chimp who can't talk and a human who can.
There is much we don't know. It must have unfolded over hundreds of thousands of years. It probably evolved in concert with other unusual traits of homosapiens. We're unusually sociable among species, we get along with people who aren't related to us, and we cooperate in large teams. Of course, we have a great deal of technological know‑how. We make tools and clothing. I suspect that these three abilities co‑evolved, each one of them boosting the evolution of the other two, because you're unlikely to evolve language unless you're on speaking terms with other people.
That is, you're giving them tips that will help them, you're coordinating your behavior, so you've got to have some kind of social bond in the first place. Of course, language is a way to intensify social bonds, because you can trade favors. I can do something for you now, and exchange for something that you might not do for me for another few years, and that connects us together.
As a species, we depend so much on technologies that we invent that aren't in the genes, they have to be passed along, how to make tools and artifacts, and language is big boost to doing that. I think that trilogy, and a number of other things that make us very weird primates, but I think all of them go together.
Debbie: I did a little trick with one of the lines in the passage that I wrote. If you change the word, "language" to the words, "graphic design," the sentence still very much holds up, "Simply by using graphic design, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other's minds." I thought that was quite interesting.
Steven: It's interesting to think of the trade‑off between graphic communication and linguistic communication, because each can do something that the other cannot. It's very hard to describe analog changes, continuous changes, in words. In fact, I'm a huge fan of data graphics, and in my last two books, each one of them has close to a hundred graphs. I find that, as a communications medium, it makes an enormous difference. If I say that, "Deaths in warfare have come down since 1946," people say, "Yeah, yeah." Then I show them a graph, it's like...
Debbie: A big delta.
Steven: "Oh my God! It's a huge delta," exactly...and longevity and wealth. We're even seeing that air pollution has gone down. It's not just that it has a bigger wallop, emotionally, it's that you can track when the biggest changes occurred. Was there a big drop, it leveled off, was it, nothing happened for a while and then it fell off a cliff, all of which are very hard to communicate in words.
Conversely, there are many things that you can't communicate in graphs.
Steven: Graphics, poetry, or even just prose, just A to B to C, but not D. Logical relationships, "this or that," "this not that," "if this, then that," you cannot convey with pictures. I think we're even seeing in a lot of journalistic media, and in non‑fiction books, an increasing reliance on graphics.
As the software makes it easier to implement and, I think, as the culture is getting more numerate, we realize that verbal descriptions only convey part of reality.
Debbie: Hence the popularity of emojis.
Steven: I think that's yet a third communication channel, which is distinct both from, say, graphics in terms of charts and data, and language. It's the emotional coloring of speech, which is yet another channel, separate from either of those. It is interesting that emojis really do convey something that is very difficult to convey in words alone. I wrote a book on writing style, and one of the things I had to deal with was the constant complaints that the language is deteriorating, that the kids today can't construct a grammatical sentence, they don't know no punctuation, they can't spell, complaints, by the way, that you can trace back literally hundreds of years. We're seeing the same thing in 1960, and in 1940, and in 1920, and 1900.
Regarding emojis, I was very amused to read a pretty hifalutin style manual from the 1950s, from an Oxford professor. He was saying, "It's really a shame that we don't have a punctuation character that could convey that a sentence was intended ironically or in jest and ought not to be taken seriously. It's be really useful if we could have such a character." I thought, "This guy is calling for the invention of the smiley face, the first emoji."
Debbie: Absolutely...or the wink, I was going to say the winking, smiling face.
Steven: ...or the wink. Yeah, that's right.
Now, I think a lot of purists say, "Oh, it's the decline of the written word, people using emojis," but back then, the Oxford professor was just saying, "You know, we could really use some emojis."
Debbie: You write this, regarding change in general, in "Enlightenment Now," people often confuse changes in themselves with changes in the times, and changes in the times with moral and intellectual decline. This is a well‑documented psychological phenomenon.
Every generation thinks that the younger generation is dissolute, lazy, ignorant, and illiterate. There is a paper trail of professors complaining about the declining quality of their students, that goes back at least 100 years. You make a claim, a very powerful one, that this is not the case. [laughs] Why do we do this?
Steven: People do confuse, just change, with deterioration, partly because any change makes your own skill set obsolete. Everything you've been working for, all your life, and now the kids are using...just when you learned how to use Twitter, everyone's on Instagram. It's like, "Oh, damn," and that keeps happening and happening.
Debbie: Then we respond to that with dismay, or with...?
Steven: People do respond with dismay. Thomas Hobbes put it several hundred years ago—which itself shows that this is not a new phenomenon—he said, "Competition of praise inclineth toward reverence to antiquity, for men compete with the living, not with the dead." That is, if you're saying, what a mess current society is, you're dissing all your rivals. You're saying, "Back in the good old days, they really knew how to write, they really knew how to run society," and you're putting down your contemporaries. It's always a tempting thing for social critics, who want to put themselves in a morally‑superior position.
Debbie: I think it's interesting, if you live long enough, you begin to hear "back in the day" so many times, that you're not really even sure what day anybody is referring to.
Steven: Yes. Back in the peaceful '60s? Are you kidding?
Debbie: Exactly. What good old days?
Steven: When the cities were in flames, when we had a segregationist run for President and win five states, when war was raging in Vietnam, and thousands of Americans were being killed?
Debbie: Point out those days for us. You pose a question in The Language Instinct that I would like to ask you, if language is thinking, then where did it come from? Did it come from human minds interacting with one another?
Steven: I don't think that language is thinking, and that's a major theme in The Language Instinct. That as amazing as language is, it is not the same as thought. We don't think in the English language.
We use snatches of language as memory aids, a scratch‑pad, but we also think in imagery, we think in abstract thoughts that are not the same as strings of words, which is often why it's hard to write. Writing does not simply consist of dictating the contents of your consciousness.
If you do that, then no one will understand what you're talking about. It takes a lot of work to take abstract thoughts and to shape them into grammatical sentences.
Debbie: You also ask this question, if language were really thought, it would raise the question of where language would come from, if it were incapable of thinking without language? How did we think before there was language?
Steven: Exactly. In fact, going back to an earlier topic, language development in children, part of my own theory as to how children develop language is that, they aren't just cryptographers hearing blah, blah, blah, and trying to decode sequence of sounds, they hear language in context. They see their parents looking at things, they see the things their parents are looking at, they're constantly updating their own mental model of the world. They have a good hunch as to what their parents are probably referring to. What they do is, they juxtapose the sounds that they hear coming out of other people's mouths with their interpretations of the world, which is not itself language. It can't be, they haven't learned language yet. That's how they learn language.
Likewise, language is always changing. We invent new words to label thoughts that we didn't have words for, we struggle to put our thoughts into words, and our non‑verbal thinking overlaps with that of other species, like chimpanzees, who are pretty smart.
Chimps have a concept of objects and locations, and cause and effect, and other agents and their intentions. Rudimentary, compared to ours, but clearly, other animals can think. Our thinking got more sophisticated in the course of evolution, and language developed as an accompaniment to a cognitive system, which existed way before language came into the world.
Debbie: You believe that language isn't instinct?
Steven: Yes. That was the title of my first popular book, which I stole from Charles Darwin. He said, "Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children."
Debbie: ...but not to write. Very different.
Steven: ...not to write, clearly, not to write. Writing is not instinctive, which is why I wrote another book, "The Sense of Style," on how to write clearly.
Debbie: Where do our instincts come from?
Steven: I think, ultimately, from evolution, from the process of natural selection, which gives us the tools to survive in our environment.
Debbie: Let's talk about your brand‑new book, "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress," what made you decide to write this particular book?
Steven: In a way, it grew out of a book that I wrote in 2011 called, "The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," which in turn, grew out of, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature."
The common thread is human nature, what makes us tick, what kind of creatures are we. In arguing in The Blank Slate, that there is such a thing as human nature, that we're not blank slates that parents write on, or society, I had to deal with the fact that, a lot of aspects of human nature are not so pleasant, we have jealousy, we have revenge, we have dominance, we have lust, we have selfishness.
There are reasons to believe the evolution programmed those into our brain. That leads to the question, "Well, jeez, does that mean that we're doomed to constant conflict, and war, and crime, and harassment, and rape, because we can't help it, it's in the genes, evolution made us do it?" At the time, I said, "No, that doesn't follow, because those nasty parts of human nature aren't the only parts. Evolution also gave us empathy, and reason, and a moral sense, and self‑control. At any given historical period, how we actually behave depends on how strong our norms, and our institutions, and our values are, compared to our unpleasant urges and impulses," and that can change over time.
I even noted, in fact, if we look at history you see, obviously behavior isn't the same in every historical period. We've made some progress, we abolished slavery, the Soviet empire collapsed with very little violence, rates of violent crime had gone down since the Middle Ages, a little factoid that I was aware of.
When I repeated these positive comments in a blog post, I started to get mail from historians and social scientists, saying, "Did you know that rates of deaths in warfare have plummeted since 1946?" someone else said, "Did you know that rates of domestic violence are down," someone else said, "Did you know that rates of child abuse are down?"
These are people who didn't talk to each other, whose work was buried in the academic journals, and I thought, "Oh my goodness! There seems to be pattern here." In area after area, if you look at violence objectively, quantitatively, it's going down. That's a very different picture than the one you get from the headlines.
Since I am privy to all of these different facts, they deserve to be between a pair of covers, and as a psychologist, what a challenge to try to explain them! How is it that with human nature, which changes very slowly, if at all, we've managed to change our behavior so dramatically. That led to The Better Angels of our Nature. The title was just waiting for me to steal—it's from Abraham Lincoln—that I believe in a complex human nature. The metaphor of the better angels in our nature suggests that, that's not all there is to human nature, but it is an important part of human nature that we can encourage and, clearly, we have encouraged, given the way all of these forms of violence have gone down over time.
Then I realized that the story is even bigger than violence, that if you look at other measures of human wellbeing, such as, how long we live, how many kids die in infancy, how many mothers die giving birth, how many people are illiterate, how much free time we have, how much time we spend on housework, all of these show improvement.
It adds up to a picture that really vindicates this somewhat old‑fashioned notion of progress. "We've made progress!" You wouldn't know it reading the papers.
Debbie: No, we'd think that civilization was doomed, which is how I feel most days.
Steven: ...which is how we feel most days. That's a disconnect between reality and the perception that we get from journalism and intellectual life, that I thought deserved exploring.
Again, it raised the question of, what propelled this progress. It doesn't happen by magic, I don't think there's a mystical arc of justice. People did things, and may...
Debbie: You don't think that the arc is bending towards justice?
Steven: If it is, we have to explain why, because it's...
Debbie: Where'd the arc come from?
Steven: Who put the arc there?
Debbie: Who put the helium and the hydrogen in the arc?
Steven: Exactly, that's exactly right. Now, if you're a religious person, you could say, "Well, God carved the arc," but then, why did God let so many people kill each other for so long? That doesn't seem to be part of a particularly just cosmic plan, and I'm more likely to locate these changes in human behavior.
That's what led me to the ideals of the enlightenment, that the key idea is that if we increase our knowledge, if we understand how the world works, if we set the goal of making people better off, healthier, more knowledgeable, longer‑lived, happier, bit by bit we can succeed. That was the enlightenment dream.
You could dismiss it as starry‑eyed and naive and, "It'll never work," but what the graphs tell us is, it did work, it is working, if we continue the project of trying to improve human welfare through human knowledge.
Debbie: You begin the book by recounting, how over the years, you've been asked some mighty strange questions, but there, on the first pages of this 500‑plus page book, you reveal the most arresting question you have ever fielded, after one of your talks. I was wondering if you could share the question with our listeners, and then tell us how you responded.
Steven: I gave a talk, and in the course of the talk—it was based on The Blank Slate—I noted that the mind is the physiological activity of the brain, and that, when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, the person goes out of existence. All attempts to try to communicate with the souls of the dead [laughs] have failed. This is just standard neuroscience, so just the...We are what our brain does.
Steven: This is just standard neuroscience, so just the...We are what our brain does. A student stood up and said, "Why should I live?"
Debbie: What an extraordinary question!
Steven: What an extraordinary question! Obviously, she was not suicidal, she didn't mean it sarcastically, she was sincere. My guess was, and I think this is true, she had a traditional, religious upbringing, which included the immortal soul. This was a new idea to her, and she really wanted to know.
My policy, in any case, in a talk is, there's no such thing as a stupid question, I always try to answer them sincerely and on the terms of the questioner. The response that I put in the book was, undoubtedly, more coherent and more eloquent that what I said at the time, [laughs] but I had the luxury of recreating it from memory.
I reiterated what I think of as the ideals of the enlightenment, that we are intelligent creatures, we are social creatures, we can learn, we can argue, we can debate. Each one of us has sources of pleasure and flourishing. We enjoy the beauty of the natural world, we enjoy the beauty of the cultural world.
We bring up children, we enjoy the love of our family and our mates, and because there's nothing special about any of us, I can't claim that I deserve to flourish, and you don't, because I'm me and you're not. As soon as we start to get together, we're committed to providing that flourishing for everyone else. Now, that's a reason to live, to take advantage of the flourishing that our nature gives us, and to ensure that, that's available to as many people as possible.
Debbie: You state that the notion of applying reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, and old‑fashioned—your words, not mine—but you wrote this book because you have come to realize that it is not. Is that based on the research that you've undertaken, or is that something that you feel you can prove through observation and just the sense of the longing that humans have for something better?
Steven: It's something that you can appreciate, reading the papers or looking at history, where people have spent enormous energy in pursuit of things other than human flourishing, such as the glory of the nation, or the race, or the faith, or the tribe. Many wars have been fought just to expand territory, to enhance the glory of an empire, to prevent a province from seceding.
Many people believe that the lives of the mass of humanity are not worth living. That humanity flourishes only if there are heroic supermen who achieve feats of artistic greatness and that everyone else can go to hell. There really are alternatives. It sounds like, "Oh yeah, human flourishing, everyone agrees with that," but no, everyone doesn't.
Debbie: You include the original definition of enlightenment in your book, and I was shocked when I read it. You state that it's, the original definition of enlightenment was, humankind's emergence from its self‑incurred maturity.
Steven: That's from Emmanuel Kant, and his essay, "What is Enlightenment?" and by it, he meant the child‑like acceptance of what authorities tell you. He argued in this short essay, which is one of the founding documents of the Enlightenment that...
Debbie: 1784 essay? Is that the one you're talking about?
Steven: That's right, yes, exactly. Really, because we have the power of reason, we ought to question authority, and received wisdom, and conventional understanding, and just ask, try to understand. Our understanding is never going to be complete. What our predecessors hand down to us, undoubtedly is going to have some errors, and we should think, and reason, and argue, and debate. You shouldn't repress speech, you shouldn't enforce dogmas, you should constantly be trying to understand the world.
Debbie: It's a very optimistic view.
Steven: It is, and that's why, after introducing the ideals of the Enlightenment, I said, "Well, how did the Enlightenment thing actually work out in the end?" The answer, then, I plot in graphs. That led to the belief in progress, which many people think of as idealistic and old‑fashioned...
Debbie: ...or they're afraid of it.
Steven: ...or they're afraid of it, but it's an empirical hypothesis. Everyone agrees that it's better to live than to die, almost everyone. It's better to be healthy than to be sick, it's better to be literate than to be illiterate and ignorant. Let's measure these things over time. Have they increased since the Enlightenment? The answer is, in every case, they have.
Debbie: I'd like to read this passage to you and ask you one question about it: "Rather than trying to shape human nature, the Enlightenment hope for progress was concentrated on human institutions. Human‑made systems like governments, laws, schools, and markets are a natural target for the application of reason to human betterment.In this way of thinking, government is not a divine fiat train, a synonym for society, or an avatar for the national, religious, or racial soul. It is a human invention, tacitly agreed to in a social contract, designed to enhance the welfare of citizens by coordinating their behavior and discouraging selfish acts, that may be tempting to every individual, but leave everyone worse off. As the most famous product of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence put it, 'in order to secure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.' In your estimation, how did we end up here, facing the current political situation we are in, in the United States?
Steven: I think the ideals of the Enlightenment, which really shaped the American nation. I'm a Canadian, I'm an immigrant, and like many immigrants, I love my adopted country, foremost because, the United States, above all, was a product of the Enlightenment, that the passage that you just read from the Declaration of Independence, was a perfect Enlightenment statement for the rationale for government.
Government isn't there to perpetuate rulers, it's there to allow the people in the society to flourish. Moreover, what makes a nation is not an ethnicity, it's not a race, it's not a creed, it's a social contract among people who want to live the richest lives. Government is necessary to do it, because you can't thrive in a state of anarchy. Now that, it's an abstract idea.
Pushing back against this product of the human intellect, brilliant men and women like Jefferson, and Madison, and Hamilton, are our more primitive impulses, like tribalism, like authoritarianism, like the idea that our particular tribe is inherently worthy, ought to achieve greatness, ought to outclass and dominate other tribes, ought to be led by a powerful leader, who is virtuous and wise and good like the people. These are, I think, deeply rooted in human nature. I think they're mistakes. I think the whole American experiment was to come up with a better rationale for government, than a strong monarch leading a noble ethnic group or race. That's what makes the United States different from a lot of other countries that were based originally on race and ethnicity. The battle is always there. This is an intellectual construct, I think it's a good intellectual construct, but human nature pushes back.
Debbie: Do you believe that we can overcome this moment?
Steven: I think we can, because I think we have in the past, because a lot of measures of human conflict have gone down. Europe, which was just torn apart by wars, literally for centuries, Western Europe, France and Germany, constantly at each other's throats. Then, after 1945, it stopped. Western Europe just said, "Let's not fight any wars anymore," and they did. They didn't fight any wars anymore in Western Europe. It's almost obvious now, "Yeah, of course, who would think France and Germany would ever go to war against each other?" My goodness, literally for centuries, that's all they did! Even Canada and the United States, my country of birth and my adopted country, you go to the border and you see these tourist attractions, which are these forts and cannons from a time when the United States and Canada fought wars against each other, the War of 1812. It's not as if we ever lose the impulse of competition, of dominance, of revenge, of ethno‑centricism, but our institutions can be a bulwark against them.
Debbie: You state that the ideals of the Enlightenment are products of human reason, but they always struggle with other strands of human nature, loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking—I'm very, very guilty of that one—the blaming of misfortune on evil‑doers. Have you found that one strand is stronger than another? Is bad stronger or weaker than good?
Steven: It very much depends on the historical time and place, and on the strength of the institutions that are in place. When government breaks down and people are left in a state of anarchy, then you do get the worst of human nature.
You tend to get high rates of violence, you get the abduction and rape of women, you get constant plotting of revenge or of preemptive attacks, "Let's do it to them before they do it to us," you get a "Lord of the Flies" type scenario. If you have a strong civil society, under the umbrella of stable institutions like schools, like rule of law, court system, institutions of business, then that tends to allow people to trust one another more. They're not constantly thinking, "How can I screw him before he screws me?" It can be a virtuous circle, and successful societies like those of northern and western Europe, seem to do pretty well. The United States is, by many measures, a bit of a laggard in terms of successful, liberal democracies. By a lot of measures, we don't measure up that well to Denmark, and France, and Norway, and Germany. We have higher rates of crime, and of lower lifespan, higher infant mortality, more drug abuse.
Debbie: Which is shocking.
Steven: Which is shocking, considering how rich we are. The United States, it's still a pretty good place to live, as far as countries go, across the world, but we're underachievers, given how rich we are.
Debbie: You wrote this in the chapter on happiness, "Today's Americans are not one‑and‑a‑half times happier than they were 50 years ago, as they would be if happiness tracked income, or third happier if it tracked education, or even an eighth happier if it tracked longevity. People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever, and the proportion of Americans who tell pollsters that they are happy, has remained steady for decades." Why is that the case?
Steven: There is a paradox about the United States, and it actually led to a misconception among psychologists and economists in general, namely, life has gotten objectively so much better. We live longer, we're richer, and we're well‑fed, why aren't we happier? The answer is, most countries are. United States is an exception, in that the American level of happiness has remained pretty constant since the late 1940s. That's not typical of Western nations. Most Western nations have gotten happier, and most nations, in general, get happier as they get richer.
United States not possibly in part because inequality, because a lot of the gains have been enjoyed much more by those at the top than those at the bottom, that maybe one possible explanation. Another maybe that the United States, its fortunes have in some ways have sunk since the heyday of the 1950s, when everything seemed great. Yankee ingenuity gave us the atomic bomb.
Debbie: We went to the Moon.
Steven: We went to the Moon, and women were happy consumers and housewives and America had a mission to spread democracy across the world. We started at a high point of self‑confidence in the 1950s, when it just seemed like it was going to be the American century. Then there was Vietnam, and Watergate, and recognition of poverty, and the nuclear arms race. This was a great disillusionment in the United States, and it maybe that we had farther to fall, in terms of our national self‑concept.
Debbie: How is it possible to measure happiness? Is it just asking somebody, "How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 10?"
Steven: That's the main method, yeah. It sounds dumb, but on the other hand, what better measure can there be, who could be a better expert? Now, of course, if you're a social scientist, you can't just take it on face value. In fact, self‑reports of happiness do correlate with other measures that we would think are other ways of measuring happiness. Like, how happy do your friends and family think you are? What parts of the brain are active? Are they the same parts of the brain that light‑up when you see kittens? If people say they're happier, are they less likely to see a clinical psychologist for depression? You always try, when you're a social scientist, to triangulate your measures to make sure they really are measures of what you think they are. Self‑reported happiness turns out to be surprisingly good.
The other way to ask people is, if you imagine the worst possible life for yourself and the best possible life, kind of as a ladder with 10 rungs, what rung do you think you are? Now, a good life‑bad life isn't identical to happiness, because there's some things that don't necessarily make you happy, but you feel make for a more valuable life. Having children. Having children makes people less happy. Parents are unhappy because kids are a pain in the neck. The happiness goes down, but very few people regret it, and they think that they've lived a good life if they've brought up children.
Debbie: There's a really remarkable passage in the book about what we perceive as being happy. I'd like to read that, and then ask you a couple of questions about it. You state, "People who lead happy, but not necessarily meaningful lives, have all their needs satisfied. They're healthy, they have enough money, and feel good a lot of the time. People who lead meaningful lives may enjoy none of these boons. Happy people live in the present, those with meaningful lives have a narrative about their past, and a plan for the future. "Those with happy, but meaningless lives are takers and beneficiaries, those with meaningful, but unhappy lives are givers and benefactors. Parents get meaning from their children, but not necessarily happiness. Time spent with friends makes a life happier, time spent with loved ones makes it more meaningful. "Stress, worry, arguments, challenges, and struggles make a life unhappier, but more meaningful. It's not that people with meaningful lives masochistically go looking for trouble, but that they pursue ambitious goals. "Finally, meaning is about expressing, rather than satisfying the self. It is enhanced by activities that define the person and build a reputation."
Steven: I have to give credit where it's due, it's based, in part, on the work of a psychologist named Roy Baumeister, who asked people—it sounds like a stupid question, "How happy are you?"—he also asked people, "How meaningful do you think your life is?" Again, you think, "What a crazy question to ask people!"
Debbie: A lot of people superimpose those over each other, happiness and meaning.
Steven: They do, and in fact, they are correlated. On average, people who live meaningful lives are happier, but only on average, because there are some people who say, "My life is super meaningful. I'm not so happy," or vice‑versa. What Baumeister did was, he looked at what differentiates them, to the extent that your happiness is not completely predicted by the meaningfulness of your life. What accounts for the discrepancy? This list of factors, such as time spent with family, children, a narrative of your past, a plan for the future, ambitious plans that might leave you frustrated, are all components that push you more toward meaningfulness, although maybe not toward happiness.
Debbie: How much of happiness is dependent or impacted by the hedonic treadmill?
Steven: The hedonic treadmill was a theory in psychology, in part based on the finding that Americans had not gone happier even as they got richer, that we adapt to our circumstances, the way the eye adapts to light, that, when you're inside, you see things perfectly well, you step outside, for a second, you're blinded by the light, and then you adapt...or vice‑versa, you go into a dark movie theater. The idea is that, good things happen, and you're happy for a little while, and then you settle back to your baseline. You suffer a misfortune and you're sad, but then time heals all wounds and you go back to normal.
Debbie: The setpoint.
Steven: The setpoint, yeah, and the set‑point determined, like a lot of things, in large part, but not completely, by genetics. There's some truth to that, but it turns out to be an exaggeration, that happiness can change over their lives as a result of events, like being married, like moving to a richer country, that winning the lottery, contrary to an earlier understanding...it used to be thought that winning the lottery doesn't leave you any happier in the long‑run, eh, it turns out it does make you happier.
Debbie: I'm glad to hear that. It feels like, "Wow, if that doesn't make you happy, what will?"
Steven: There is a tragic, moralistic view that everything that we—almost maybe a Buddhist view—that all our striving is for naught, it doesn't make you happier in the long‑run, and the earlier finding that lottery winners were no happier turns out to be false, fit into that narrative that all of our striving after wealth, and comfort, and so on, is for naught. It turns out it's not for naught. It's not the only thing, and a lot of us make choices that leave us less happy, but more fulfilled—I think we all do—but still, we have to acknowledge that when things go well, you really do end up happier.
Debbie: At the end of your book, I'm left with a sense of hope and optimism. In the final chapter of Enlightenment Now, you state that history confirms that when diverse cultures have to find common ground, they converge towards humanism. Is it possible to speed‑up this process?
Steven: I sure hope so, and I do think that greater mobility, greater communication, greater education will tend to push in that direction. To those who say, "Well, every culture is different. Every culture has its own unique values and norms, and you can't impose one culture's values on another," no, I don't think that's true. We all are human beings. We all want to be healthy. We all want to see our children grow up healthy. We don't want to be starved. We don't want to be ignorant. As a matter of fact, when people from diverse cultures are thrown together and given the challenge, "OK, you guys gotta get along. What are you gonna come up with?" They actually do come up with stuff. We've got the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed by a majority of the world's countries in the late 1940s. Muslim and Christian, Western and Eastern, and thrown together and said, "What do you come up with?" They came out with a pretty long list, like people should be able to express their opinions. People have a right to an education. People have a right to respite from work. People have the right to their culture. The list was pretty long. More recently, the United Nations came up with Sustainable Development Goals. What do we want to accomplish in the next 15 years? It actually wasn't that hard to come up with a list like we should eliminate disease, like we should have education for girls, like we should reduce violence against women, like we should clean up the environment, like we could deal with climate change. It actually isn't that hard to find agreement if you are forced to set aside your parochial cultural norms and traditions and explore your common humanity.
Debbie: That gives me great, great hope. I have one final question for you, Steven. It actually is something that you wrote about very early on in your career. I'm hoping it'll clear up a debate I'm having with a close friend. What is the plural of Walkman?
Steven: I wrote an entire book on irregular past tenses and plurals. A lot of people aren't sure. Walkmen doesn't sound quite right.
Steven: Walkmans, I would actually go closer to Walkmans, for reasons I explain in my book, "Words and Rules," which also has explanations why it's the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of Maple Leaves, why you say someone flied out to center field instead of flew out, all of those little conundrums of language.
Debbie: Yet another remarkable book by Steven Pinker. Steven, thank you so much for being on Design Matters today, and thank you for helping us understand the world we're living in a lot better.
Steven: It's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.