• Steven Pinker’s Reddit AMA Recap

    Recently Harvard cognitive psychologist and noted ev psych interlocutor Steven Pinker participated in a crowd-sourced interview on the popular social news website reddit.com.  Called “AMA“, short for “ask me anything” , everyone from Louis C.K. to the President of the United States has done a Reddit AMA, which have been seen by millions of readers. According to Alexa, Reddit is the 124th most popular website in the world, by traffic. Steven Pinker wrote the best-selling book on the decline of violence The Better Angels of Our Nature.

    Here are some of the top-voted questions and Steven Pinker’s replies, in the case that you are not a redditor or do not wish to peruse the site. (Numbered only for convenience of discussion in the comments). The questions cover quite a range, from the evolution of musical ability to video game violence, feminism and rape.

    1. In your opinion, who are the least-read great thinkers and writers currently producing work?

    SP The OSU political scientist (and, coincidentally, Fred Astaire expert) John Mueller, on the history and politics of war. The Tufts linguist Ray Jackendoff, on language and cognition. The U Penn psychologist Philip Tetlock, on the psychology of taboo, and the limitations of expert prediction. The philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein (disclosure: we are married). The UCLA anthropologist Alan Fiske, on the nature of human relationships and cross-cultural variation in them. The Cambridge U historical criminologist Manuel Eisner. The UCSB psychologist Leda Cosmides and the UCSB anthropologist John Tooby. The Northwestern U scholar of medicine, sexuality, and other topics Alice Dreger. I could go on … we are living in a golden age of brilliant minds.

    2. How close (in terms of years, decades, centuries…) do you think we are to a proper theory of consciousness?

    It depends on what you mean by “consciousness” — the word can refer to accessibility of information to reflection, decision-making, and language processes in the brain (sometimes called the “easy problem of consciousness” — a bit of a joke, because there’s nothing easy about it); or it can refer to phenomenal awareness, subjectivity, the fact that it “feels like something” to be awake and aware (the so-called “hard problem of consciousness — though a better term might be the “strange problem of consciousness). I think we’re well on the way to solving the so-called easy problem — there are neurophysiological phenomena, such as connectivity to the frontal lobes and periodic brain activity in certain frequency bands, that correlate well with accessible information, and there are good functional/evolutionary accounts (related to “blackboard” or “global workspace” computational architectures) that explain why the brain might be organized into two pools of information processing. As for the strange problem of consciousness — whether the red that I see is the same as the red that you see; whether there could be a “zombie” that is indistinguishable from you and me but not conscious of anything; whether an upload of the state of my brain to the cloud would feel anything — I suspect the answer is “never,” since these conundra may be artifacts of human intuition. Our best science tells us that subjectivity arises from certain kinds of information-processing in the brain, but why, intuitively, that should be the case is as puzzling to us as the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, relativity, and other problems that are far from everyday intuition. [Sorry for the long answer, but that’s one of the deepest questions in all of human knowledge!]

    3. Do you support the hypothesis that depression is an adaptation?

    I don’t know the literature well enough to say, but it’s not implausible that occasional, mild, temporary depression in response to an identifiable setback is an adaptation — the main reason being the phenomenon of depressive realism, namely the more accurate assessment of outcomes and probabilities among the (mildly, temporarily) depressed than among happy people. Clinical depression is another story.

    Steven Pinker with Stephen Colbert

    4. a) A lot of new information about the brain’s inner workings has come out since you wrote How the Mind Works. It does seem that the book was written cautiously enough that it is still very relevant and accurate to date. Hypothetically, if you were to write a similarly-themed book today, what new information would you seek to impart?

    b) Although you are an atheist and a prominent intellectual, you haven’t been associated with the so-called “atheist movement” identified with some other prominent atheists. Would you say this is because you do not have an agenda regarding the beliefs of others? Is there another distinction you might attribute it to?

    a: I wrote a new foreword to the 2009 edition of HTMW that addressed that question. Pretty much everything that I wrote about could be fleshed out in greater neurobiological detail today, but I continue to believe that the computational and functional (evolutionary) levels of analysis provide the greatest amount of insight (I am, after all, a psychologist, rather than a neurophysiologist) so the emphasis of the explanations of the book would not change today. As far as subject matter is concerned, the biggest addition I would make today is our new understanding of moral psychology, as elucidated by Rick Shweder, his former postdocs Alan Fiske and Jonathan Haidt (who ran with his ideas in slightly different directions), Philip Tetlock, and Joshua Greene.

    b. Atheism is simply the denial of one set of beliefs, and it has never been a priority to stipulate one among the many things I don’t believe in. The atheist/humanist/freethinker/secularist/bright movement found me (and I’m happy to support it) because I presented a thoroughly naturalistic, ghost-free account of the mind in How the Mind Works, including an analysis of religious belief as an interesting puzzle in psychology. After having written Better Angels I now have a stronger intellectual and moral commitment to Enlightenment humanism, classical liberalism, and the ideal of human rights, because I saw how those ideas were instrumental in bringing about the best things that have happened in human history — the reduction of institutionalized violence, and the development of knowledge and technologies that have increasingly allowed human beings to flourish.

    5. I’m having a tough time deciding– which of your works should I read first?

    I would recommend “How the Mind Works.”

    6.  Professor Pinker, by far the most vehement and hateful criticism I have heard of your masterpiece work The Better Angels of Our Nature has to do with your claims that hunter-gatherer societies were far more violent than most state societies. (Dr. Jared Diamond has also received strong criticism for a similar stance.)

    Is this view very controversial among anthropologists generally? Do they largely disagree with you or agree with you? If they disagree, why do you think that is?

    I suspect it has to do with the Blank Slate ideology you write about in your book of the same name. Namely, that leftists often argue that we are products of our culture, and hence without the corrupting influence of capitalist society, life in a state of nature should therefore be quite peaceful.

    My claim wasn’t about hunter-gatherer societies specifically, but about traditional societies that live in a state of anarchy, specifically, not under the control of a centralized state. Thus I present data from h-g societies, and separately data from hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups. Most of them have rates of rates of violence that are high by the standards of modern states. I presented every quantitative estimate I could find in the literature; the low end of the range extends to rates of death in warfare of 0, but the high end includes societies in which a quarter to a half of the men are killed by others. The average across all estimates is way higher than for state societies in the 20th century. As far as I can tell, this conclusion is not controversial among anthropologists who care about numbers, and have examined quantitative data on per-capita rates of violence in different societies. It is blazingly controversial among non-quantitative anthropologists, though the objections are often political and moral rather than empirical — namely that it is harmful to non-state peoples to depict them as having high rates of violence, since it would make it easier to justify exploiting or oppressing them. My own view is that none of us should sign on to the bogus implication that IF a traditional people has high rates of violence THEN it would be OK to exploit them. People are what they are; all societies have violence, even if rates differ, and needless to say it is never justified to exploit or oppress people.

    7. Speaking of Jared Diamond, what are your thoughts on his works, especially his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he argued that environmental factors explain most of the divergence of different societies.

    It’s a fascinating theory, which was explicated even before Diamond by my friend Thomas Sowell, the economist who wrote a trilogy of books on culture. The most interesting claim is that societies advance technologically, culturally, and (I would add) morally when they sit in a wide catchment area for innovations — crossroads, trading routes, ports, cities. No one is smart enough to invent anything worthwhile on his or her own; we need to skim and combine and collect the greatest hits from a huge pool of potential innovators. It’s cosmopolitan cities like London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Boston that allowed democracy and Enlightenment ideas to flourish; conversely, remote and insular societies tend to live by codes of tribal loyalty and blood revenge.

    8. a. In How The Mind Works you opined that music probably has no purpose from an evolutionary psychology perspective. Do you still think that?

    b. Are you still doing any basic linguistics research? I really loved Words and Rules and would like to read another book like that.
    c. What do you think about the claim that evolutionary psychology is a lot of unverifiable just-so stories? What should and shouldn’t we expect to learn from evo. psych.?

    a. Yes; I have still not seen a bona fide adaptive explanation for music. Ironically, when it comes to music, everyone is a rabid, evidence-free, panglossian, just-so-story loving adaptationist, while when it comes to psychological phenomena for which we have enormous bodies of empirical evidence, they are in a state of denial. I think it’s the moralistic fallacy again: we value music, therefore want it to be an adaptation; we deplore violence, selfishness, tribalism, rape, and sex differences, therefore want them not to be adaptations.

    b. I’m doing research on the phenomena of innuendo, indirect speech, euphemism, and so on; also some historical studies on how we ended up with regular and irregular verbs. But most of my linguistic energy these days is concentrated on style and usage — why is it so hard to write clearly? Who decides what’s correct and incorrect? And that is in preparation for my next book, a writing style manual for the 21st century, rooted in modern linguistics and cognitive science.

    c. Evolutionary psychology has provided literally hundreds of testable hypotheses, many of which have received substantial support, many of which have been falsified. One only has to dip into journals like Evolutionary Psychology, Human Behavior and Evolution, and increasingly, mainstream psych journals to find them. I lay out the logic of how to test an adaptive hypothesis in several places, including the foreword to the new edition of HTMW, and in my review of The Literary Animal, among other places. Adaptive function is one of several indispensable levels of analysis of basic psychological phenomena, others being the neurobiological substrate, the developmental trajectory, the phylogentic history, and the information-processing software (I owe this, of course, to David Marr and Niko Tinbergen). The reason it is indispensable is the same reason that function is indispensable in understanding any biological system — could we really claim to understand the heart, or the kidneys, if we ignored what they evolve to do? Is the hypothesis that the function of the kidney is to filter blood an unfalsifiable just-so story? Of course not!

    9. What is your take on artificial intelligence? Is our lack of understanding of consciousness the barrier to building a more intelligent than human AI?

    Not in the least. As I mentioned, we do have a decent understanding of consciousness in the sense of why an intelligent system might make available a pool of information to a variety of its modules while keeping other information encapsulated within those modules. The only sense of consciousness we don’t understand is whether the artificially intelligent computer or robot we build would subjectively feel anything — but that has nothing to do with how we built it. That’s why the problem is “strange.”

    10. Whiskey or Rum?


    11. The popular explanation for the cause of rape is that rape is about power; rather than sex or attraction or anything else. In The Blank Slate you wrote:

    I believe that the rape-is-not-about-sex doctrine will go down in history as an example of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. It is preposterous on the face of it, does not deserve its sanctity, is contradicted by a mass of evidence, and is getting in the way of the only morally relevant goal surrounding rape, the effort to stamp it out.

    From what I’ve read of behaviour studies – the causes of behaviour are very complex and there are zero behaviours except for rape that are explained by one single cause. Why is rape pretty much the only behaviour out there for which academics will accept only one single explanation? How does a delusion spread among people who should be immune to them?

    It’s the “moralistic fallacy,” the idea that we should shape the facts in such a way as to point to the most morally desirable consequences.

    In the case of rape, the fear was that if rape has a sexual motive, then it would be natural, hence good; and instinctive, hence unavoidable. Since rape is bad and ought to be stamped out, it cannot come from “natural” sexual motives. My own view is that these are non-sequiturs — rape is horrific no matter what its motives are, and we know that rates of rape can be reduced (in Better Angels I assemble statistics that US rates of rape are down by almost 80% since their peak).

    One surprise that I experienced upon re-reading Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book “Against Our Will,” which originated the rape-is-about-power-not-sex doctrine, is that idea was a very tiny part of the book, thrown in almost as an afterthought (Brownmiller said she got the idea from one of her Marxist professors). Most of the book is a brilliant account of the history of rape, its treatment by the legal system, its depiction in literature and film, the experience of being raped and reporting it, and other topics. It’s also written with great style, clarity, and erudition. Though I disagree with that one idea, I would recommend it as one of the best and most important books on violence I have read.

    12. Some differences in IQ scores between males and females have been shown to exist; including in spatial ability and math ability. The differences appear 1) in the mean and 2) in the variance of the scores. Do you think this explains part of the difference between the proportions of men and women in STEM degrees and related occupations? If so, how much do you think it explains?

    There do appear to be some small sex differences in the tails of the distributions of spatial and abstract mathematical ability, though I think they play a far smaller role in observed sex imbalances in STEM occupations than differences in interests and life priorities (among male-female differences). There are also female-unfriendly STEM subcultures that have made talented women uncomfortable, compared to the alternatives available to them. I don’t think we have any way to weight the relative influences of all these factors.

    13. What do you think is the likelihood of in the future discovering intelligence differences between population groups using neurological comparisons and genetic comparisons rather than by just comparing IQ scores? Academics today seem to dismiss the idea as impossible. But is the idea that groups can evolve in very different environments and not end up with different intelligence levels realistic? I’ve read that more than half of genes are expressed in the brain.

    It’s possible, but I don’t think that evolutionary theory predicts that they should occur. It’s hard to think of an environment in which the human hallmarks of intelligence, sociality, and language would NOT be adaptive, which is why, as Ambrose Bierce put it, our species has infested the whole habitable earth and Canada. Intelligence just isn’t particularly dependent on geography. Combine that with gene flow and you can’t predict a priori that there ought to be race differences.

    14. The Science paper you did with Ned Sahin and Eric Halgren showed that Broca’s area responds to manipulations of phonological, lexical and syntactic information on separate timecourses. Could you discourse a bit on how this should inform our theories of “dedicated” cortical modules (e.g., what the criteria for a cortical module ought to be)?

    A major point of my paper with Sahin and Halgren is that functional specialization in the brain (aka “modules”) is more likely to exist at the circuit level than at the level of Brodmann-size areas. Which should not come as a surprise — the intelligence of the brain, after all, resides in the microcircuitry, not in slabs of wonder tissue. In our computers, cohesive programs and data structures are physically fragmented, and don’t consist of contiguous patches of silicon; the brain may be even more subtle in the way information is distributed macroscopically across its tissues.

    15. I seem to remember hearing that you’re interested in a cognitively (and neurally?) informed theory of prose style. Is that true? If so, would you mind talking about it?

    Too early — I never know exactly what I’m going to conclude until I write the book! There is a web video of a talk I gave at MIT’s Nuclear Science & Engineering program which has some of my preliminary thoughts.

    16. I recently read an article about how culture is so pervasive and powerful that research might not be giving us a full picture since so many white, western college kids are the participants in so many of our research studies done in the social sciences. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the issue in regard to social sciences as a whole; mostly on if it’s worthwhile to do studies, and brain scans, on people from different countries and cultures that are outside of the western world so as to get a more complete understanding of all humans and their behavior. And what, if anything, you think might change from that new information.

    I agree with Henrichs et al. that too many conclusions about human psychology have been based on convenience samples of university undergraduates. I suspect that these are people who have honed the style of thinking that can variously be called Piagetian Formal Operations, Flynn-effect intelligence, and academic intelligence, as opposed to more species-typical ecological intelligence. Incidentally, one of the great virtues of evolutionary psychology has been its inclusion of data on non-Western populations in drawing conclusions about human emotion and cognition.

    Look at the hair. You know I’m right.

    17. Do you believe in the idea that violent video games could increase violent tendencies in children?

    There is no good evidence that violent video games cause real-life violence. Christopher Ferguson has reviewed the literature extensively and shown that claims to the contrary are bogus (and the Supreme Court agreed). Just for starters: the era in which video games exploded in popularity is exactly the era in which violent crime among young people plummeted. It’s not true, though, that anyone is fated to be violent. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, I presented a hundred graphs showing rates of violence changing over time, mostly downward. The near-80% decline in US rape since the early 1970s, and the halving of the homicide rate since 1992, are just two examples. Rates of violence respond to certain features of an environment, such as the incentives of an effective police and criminal justice system, and the surrounding norms of legitimate retaliation. They just don’t respond to video games.

    18. Could you please respond to Leon Wieseltier’s review of Thomas Nagel’s most recent work? Have you read Mind and Cosmos, and was your response to it perhaps more politically shaded than academic?

    No, my response was intellectual. (See my comments buried in the comment list of the on-line version of Wieseltier’s essay.) The reviews by Michael Weisberg & Brian Leiter (The Nation), H. Allen Orr (NYRB), and Elliott Sober (Boston Review) capture most of my objections — all are available on the Web. I have to add that I have been enormously influenced by Thomas Nagel’s brilliant earlier writings, including The View from Nowhere, The Last Word, the essay “What is it like to be a bat?” and other works. But Mind and Cosmos is, I agree with the reviewers, a poorly argued work, particularly given the astonishing claim in its subtitle. The strange late turn in Nagel’s writing reminds me of an important lesson I drew long ago: Never be a disciple or yes-person of any thinker, no matter how brilliant –no one is right all of the time.

    19. I’m a psychology and linguistics double major at the University of Pittsburgh. A lot of the time, linguistics students here are inundated with either one side or the other of the generativist/functionalist debate. From what I’ve read of your work, you tend to side with the generativists. What’s the strongest argument you’ve heard for a functionalist perspective?

    I think the dichotomy is bogus.

    20. I have studied a lot of your opinions on second wave feminism, and was particularly inspired by your stance as an equity feminist. What do you think of third wave feminism? Do you think it is a waste of time to encourage women to pursue math and science because of biological differences?

    Quite the contrary! Whatever differences exist are statistical and small, and tell us nothing about an individual. And it would be unethical and wasteful not to encourage every person, regardless of gender (or any other irrelevant factor) to pursue her or his talents to the utmost.

    Commentary from Ed

    I really appreciated the candor (not shying away from controversial questions like those about rape or violence) and Pinker’s focus on academic rigor over political entanglements. He also showed great skepticism in pointing out a false dichotomy (19),  in agreeing with Henrich et als criticism of social science (which I previous wrote about here)., and in discussing the moralistic fallacy (11)  in play when some discuss the etiology of rape. He warns against hero worship (18) because no one is always right. He is not afraid to say  “I don’t know” (3) or “we might never know that” (2) rather than avoid the appearance of ignorance. This is the stuff of excellent scientific skepticism.

    Pinker again corrected distorted strawmen versions of his positions regarding feminism and STEM fields. Importantly, he points out that the sexual dimorphism in sexual ability is a matter of imperfectly overlapping bell curves, and that individual variation is high, which means discrimination by sex is unfounded. He also says we should encourage everyone of any gender to pursue math and science.

    It’s great to see Pinker’s open support for secularism, humanism and social justice (4). Surprisingly few academics, let alone those who routinely appear in the media,  are willing to take that stand.

    Lastly, I enjoyed the updates about previous books. Now I have to go buy a new copy of How the Mind Works to check out the new introduction.

    Further reading

    There is a LOT of discussion over at the reddit page not posted here. Much of it is very interesting, or at least entertaining, so take a look.

    On the web

    Harvard page
    Personal website


    Words and Rules wiki amazon
    The Language Instinct wiki amazon
    How the Mind Works wiki amazon
    The Blank Slate wiki amazon
    The Better Angels of Our Nature wiki amazon

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  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.