This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Human Nature’s Pathologist

Steven Pinker was a 15-year-old anarchist. He didn’t think people needed a police force to keep the peace. Governments caused the very problems they were supposed to solve.

Besides, it was 1969, said Dr. Pinker, who is now a 57-year-old psychologist at Harvard. “If you weren’t an anarchist,” he said, “you couldn’t get a date.”

At the dinner table, he argued with his parents about human nature. “They said, ‘What would happen if there were no police?’ ” he recalled. “I said: ‘What would we do? Would we rob banks? Of course not. Police make no difference.’ ”

This was in Montreal, “a city that prided itself on civility and low rates of crime,” he said. Then, on Oct. 17, 1969, police officers and firefighters went on strike, and he had a chance to test his first hypothesis about human nature.

“All hell broke loose,” Dr. Pinker recalled. “Within a few hours there was looting. There were riots. There was arson. There were two murders. And this was in the morning that they called the strike.”

The ’60s changed the lives of many people and, in Dr. Pinker’s case, left him deeply curious about how humans work. That curiosity turned into a career as a leading expert on language, and then as a leading advocate of evolutionary psychology. In a series of best-selling books, he has argued that our mental faculties — from emotions to decision-making to visual cognition — were forged by natural selection.

He has also become a withering critic of those who would deny the deep marks of evolution on our minds — social engineers who believe they can remake children as they wish, modernist architects who believe they can rebuild cities as utopias. Even in the 21st century, Dr. Pinker argues, we ignore our evolved brains at our own peril.

Given this track record, Dr. Pinker’s newest book, published in October, struck some critics as a jackknife turn. In “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (Viking), he investigates one of the most primal aspects of life: violence.

Over the course of 802 pages, he argues that violence has fallen drastically over thousands of years — whether one considers homicide rates, war casualties as a percentage of national populations, or other measures.

This may seem at odds with evolutionary psychology, which is often seen as an argument for hard-wired Stone Age behavior, but Dr. Pinker sees that view as a misunderstanding of the science. Our evolved brains, he argues, are capable of a wide range of responses to their environment. Under the right conditions, they can allow us to live in greater and greater peace.

“The Better Angels of Our Nature” is full of the flourishes that Dr. Pinker’s readers have come to expect. He offers gruesomely delightful details about cutting off noses and torturing heretics. Like his other popular books, starting with “The Language Instinct” (1994), it is a far cry from his first published works in the late 1970s — esoteric reports from his graduate work at Harvard, with titles like “The Representation and Manipulation of Three-Dimensional Space in Mental Images.”

Read more


Purchasing via the links below helps support RDFRS
Amazon.com - The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Amazon.co.uk - The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes

TAGGED: BEHAVIOR, BOOKS, PSYCHOLOGY, REVIEWS


RELATED CONTENT

Rats Manipulated to be Attracted to Cats

Richard Dawkins - RichardDawkins.net Comments

Rats Manipulated to be Attracted to Cats

R. Elisabeth Cornwell at TAM 2012 -...

- - TAM 2012 - JREF Comments

R. Elisabeth Cornwell at TAM 2012 - Social Networks: Civilizing the Future

Grey parrots use reasoning where...

- - The Royal Society Comments

Research suggesting that grey parrots can reason about cause and effect from audio cues alone- a skill that monkeys and dogs lack- is presented in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today.

Modern culture emerged in Africa 20,000...

Thomas H. Maugh II - LA Times Comments

Modern culture emerged in southern Africa at least 44,000 years ago, more than 20,000 years earlier than anthropologists had previously believed

The Wisdom of Not Being Too Rational

Michael Balter - Science Comments

Studies to examine how children learn tasks that are not obvious and can even be counterintuitive.

Gorilla Youngsters Seen Dismantling...

Ker Than - National Geographic News Comments

After a poacher's snare had killed one of their own, two young mountain gorillas worked together Tuesday to find and destroy traps in their Rwandan forest home

MORE

MORE BY CARL ZIMMER

The Mystery of the Missing Chromosome

Carl Zimmer - Discover Magazine Blogs Comments

There’s something fascinating about our chromosomes. We have 23 pairs. Chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest living relatives, have 24. If you come to these facts cold, you might think this represented an existential crisis for evolutionary biologists.

Free iPad app: Evolution - Making Sense...

Carl Zimmer - iTunes Comments

Science writer Carl Zimmer and evolutionary biologist Douglas Emlen have teamed up to write a textbook intended for biology majors - free app available for the iPad

We Are Viral From the Beginning

Carl Zimmer - Discover Magazine Blogs 13 Comments

The human genome contains about 100,000 fragments of endogenous retroviruses, making up about eight percent of all our DNA

Tree of Life Project Aims for Every...

Carl Zimmer - The New York Times 19 Comments

The first goal of the project, known as the Open Tree of Life, is to publish a draft by August 2013. For their raw material, the scientists will grab tens of thousands of evolutionary trees that are archived online. They will then graft the smaller trees into a single big one.

A Hot Young Earth: My Answer to the...

Carl Zimmer - The Loom 6 Comments


A Hot Young Earth: My Answer to the
Annual Edge Question

The Language Fossils Buried in Every...

Carl Zimmer - Discover Magazine 8 Comments

A British family with a bizarre speech deficit 
has led linguists to FOXP2: a gene that begins to 
explain how our ancestors acquired language.

MORE

Comments

Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment