LectureHop—Steven Pinker

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When I arrived at Jerome L. Greene Hall last week at 6:20 for a 7:00 lecture, I found a large mob already milling around the doors. This can’t be for Steven Pinker, I thought, although he is psycholinguist with, as some linguists would have me say, an emphasis on the “psycho.”

But by the time the doors open, the Harvard psychology professor had indeed managed to fill the entire room and half of a second—as it turns out, the lecture would be projected onto a screen. But my disappointment quickly vanished, as Pinker’s high-pitched voice and sheer glee proved entertainment enough.

Pinker, author of The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature, has made his name by arguing against the Lockean notion of tabula rasa, which dictates that all men are born blank and are shaped by their environment. We are not all born blank, nor are we born equal, claims Pinker-our behavior is the sole product of the genes we are born with, unalterable by parenting or environment. A tricky idea to introduce to a public raised on behavioral psychology.

He did give a convincing lecture, shaking his long curls hypnotizingly and making reference to such divergent characters as U.S. Representative Tom DeLay and the Bloodhound Gang. “All my opposition today is based on three doctrines, each of which can be associated with a dead, white, European male.” he said, mentioning by name Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes. “Only a newlywed believes he or she can change the behavior of his or her spouse.”

Well, newlyweds and supermoms—the newest crop of behavioral extremists, whom he addresses directly. Ritzy preschools will not make your children smarter. Traumatic experiences will not turn them gay or give them schizophrenia. Pinker, childless and twice divorced, claimed that when mothers are told they do not have the power to shape their growing child’s behavior, they respond confusedly, “if that’s so, why should I be nice to my kids?”

The post-lecture Q & A gave skeptics a chance to raise the objections laying heavy in the room. One would-be spoiler announced that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a less serious type of autism which inhibits a person’s ability to understand and empathize with others. “I was born with limitations, and my environment helped me to overcome them,” he protested. “Does a mental illness allow a person fewer degrees of freedom in the arena of how much their genes allow or constrain them?”

Pinker turned the question on its head. “Syndromes such as Asberger’s are not constraints, but rather productive creative mechanisms,” he replied. There is no more or less free, he explained—just different angles from which people experience their surroundings.

Another audience member wondered why homosexuality exists if all behavior is determined by natural selection. Pinker, obviously relieved at the softball question, declared this a rare instance in which political correctness and the innatist view intersect. He spoke of the possible existence of a “gay gene” which has been tentatively identified in both women and men. When found in women, it has been shown to cause them to menstruate an average of six months earlier, allowing a woman to have almost an entire extra child. And as long as the gene doesn’t cause exclusive homosexuality, this leads to higher rates of reproduction. One more question down.

But despite his smooth presentation, Pinker’s view has not yet been assimilated into mainstream psychology and linguistics. Boris Gasparov, director of the linguistics department at Columbia, prefaced his lecture on Pinker with this disclaimer: “When someone uses neurons and linguistics in the same sentence I just stop taking them seriously.” Pinker caused a stir in January 2005, when he defended Larry Summers’ suggestion that females may lack the same degree of intrinsic ability for math and science as men.

It is hard to say what kind of an effect Pinker had on his audience. My own personal response was probably best summed up by the Brothers Karamazov, also quoted by Pinker: “It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science…and yet I am sorry to lose God.”

Pinker closed his lecture by reciting slowly and carefully the lyrics to the Bloodhound Gang’s “Ain’t Nothin’ But Mammals”: “You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” He left us with a slightly more depressing view on life, and we all went home to procreate and otherwise follow the paths predetermined by our genes.

I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.

—Sara Maria Hasbun

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  1. wow,  

    His hair is gorgeous.

  2. J Train  

    "Our behavior is the sole product of the genes we're born with, unalterable by parenting or environment."

    This has got to be the most ignorant statement in academia. So he's meaning to tell us that children who grow up in war zones aren't going to have their behavior affected by the atrocities they witness? Or that a child who is isolated from human contact for the first several years of life is going to grow up just like anyone else? Bullshit. I reckon he just likes to push people's buttons.

    • um...

      If you read his book you realize that he doesn't make things so black and white. He doesn't discount that the environment has an effect, just the degree to which it does – the mix being different for different traits. Also, he does a great job at showing how the interaction of nature and nurture is often pretty hard to tease out. Is someone who grows to be tall the product of his 'tall genes' or enough nourishment? He clearly wouldn't have been so tall without either of those things, making assigning causality pretty tricky, and ultimately a question of percentages. No one argues that people grow penises or breasts in response to some environmental stimulus (except, of course, if you consider your DNA to be part of your environment); just like no one argues that your preference for converse over new balances is completely genetically determined. Most things fall somewhere in between. Not all that controversial if you ask me.

      • Stephen  

        finally someone who has an informed opinion and actually read the book. pinker never discounts environment... either way agree or disagree, it is something to consider. If a child grows up in a warzone is their behaviour actually going to change? That is just as left field as you're making Pinker's argument out to be. Are Israelis and Palestinians irreversibly mindwrecked by the decades long conflict they have been in? Is their outlook on the world different? Sure. Is their behaviour different? That's hard to argue. I don't think everyone turns out to be some sort of callous blood thirsty revenge machine.

  3. J Train  

    Oh yeah, and the fact that he supports Larry Summers' claim about women and science is proof that Harvard is going way downhill. Spend a little less time on your hair and more on making sound arguments, pal.

  4. curly q  

    this was such a great lecture to attend. i enjoyed the write up- nice job!

  5. Stephen  

    Prof. Kuflik was sitting next to me and kept talking the whole time. He's the coolest.

  6. i'm not defending his view  

    but he does have plausible defenses to your two objections. One that genes may only express certain character traits or tendencies--its unlikely that the genome is sensitive to larger matrix which takes in all the variables of teh environment, including teh siutations you mention, (the same reason why he said the bloke's disability was actually an opportunity). Thus, he has a reasonable theory in that sense and it is very plausible that cognitive abilities are also linked with genes which express gender. To jsut get angry at harvard and larry summers becuase they try to make an academic argument that doesn't fit your politically correct view of life isn't a legitimate scientific rebuttal. It sounds like this was a really interesting lecture and i'm sorry i missed it. Great write up

  7. i'm in  

    prof. kuflik's human rights class. he certainly enjoys talking. its good because the 20% of interesting that he says does then amount to a significant number of things to consider

  8. sumaiya  

    this write up was just what a write-up should be, clear, no-frills, and fun. i wish i could write like you sara!

  9. Correction  

    It's "Asperger's," not "Asberger's."

  10. dhm.

    Pinker never said that behavior is the "sole" product of our genes - that is a position of hard genetic determinism, which he disputes in The Blank Slate. You're making a hyperbolic exaggeration, maybe for the sake of having somehting nice to write, but you perpetuate the general confusion and hysteria that this topic is always met with.

  11. smh

    I'd like to point out that this article was not meant to take a stance one way or the other. While the general sentiment in the lecture hall was one of skepticism, I have not yet come to my own conclusions. I actually do research with a former student of Pinker's. And you're right, a few of his quotes, when not allowed the luxury of a chapter-long explanation, invite indigant hysteria. This is why he his lectures have always inspired so much controversy (eg his support of Summers).

    • Owain Evans  

      "He left us with a slightly more depressing view on life, and we all went home to procreate and otherwise follow the paths predetermined by our genes."

      "[Pinker claims] our behavior is the sole product of the genes we are born with, unalterable by parenting or environmen"

      These sentences are a flat out distortion of Pinker's argument. In the book, he says that 50% of the *variation* in human behavior has a genetic cause, while the other 50% is environmental. That is to say, differences between individuals can be put down half to environment and half to genetics.

      He explicitly says in the book that genetic determinism has been refuted by empirical evidence, and that environment (especially peer group during adolescence) can have an important impact on personality.

      "While the general sentiment in the lecture hall was one of skepticism, I have not yet come to my own conclusions. I actually do research with a former student of Pinker's."

      I don't see how you can read the sentiments of a lecture hall full of people.

  12. for an alternate view  

    read this week's "Freakonomics" in the NYT magazine.

  13. J Train  

    So essentially Pinker is saying human behavior is the product of both nature and nurture?

    Uh, thanks, Pinker, we kind of knew that already...

    • Owain  

      The book is called the Blank Slate because lots of people still think that human behavior is all a product of nurture--that we are blank slates to begin with. He gives plenty examples of anthropologists and humanities intellectuals who believed this (and lots of those people still believe it).

      Moreover, most of the people who believe that human behavior is the product of both nature and nurture do not base their belief on scientific evidence (or, at least, they know very little about the evidence). Pinker cites lots of evidence and discusses some of the most interesting consequences of the evidence (like parenting making much less of impact on children than many people think--unless, of course, the parents are extremely abusive etc.)

    • Stephen  

      you are oversimplifying.

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