Tag Archives: Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker on anarchism

“As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike… This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).” 

Pinker, Steven (2002), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin Putnam, ISBN 0-670-03151-8.

There have also been other police strikes with severe consequences for law and order. One that resulted in immediate anarchy and violence was in Melbourne, Australia in 1923.


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Steven Pinker on free markets

“We know that markets make countries freer, richer, and happier compared to totalitarian central planning, but we also know that the habit among both the hard left and hard right to equate capitalism with anarcho-capitalism (no regulation, no social spending) is wrong. You can be in favor of free markets with regulations, just as you can be in favor of free societies with criminal laws. Even the freest of free marketeers has to acknowledge that markets don’t provide a decent living to those with nothing to offer in exchange, such as the young, old, sick, and unlucky, and they also have to acknowledge that markets alone fail to protect public goods that no one owns, such as the atmosphere. Not surprisingly, all wealthy capitalist countries have extensive social spending and regulation. And as a Canadian I can confirm that free-market societies with greater social spending and regulation than the United States are not grim dystopias sliding down a slippery slope to Venezuela, but are rather pleasant places to live, with greater happiness and longevity, and less violent crime, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and educational mediocrity.” – Steven Pinker, The Weekly Standard, 15 February 2018.

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Steven Pinker on identity politics

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. Pinker has been named as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals by various magazines. He has won awards from the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the American Humanist Association. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. He has served on the editorial boards of a variety of journals, and on the advisory boards of several institutions. He has frequently participated in public debates on science and society.

Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status. Its signature is the tic of preceding a statement with “As a,” as if that bore on the cogency of what was to follow. Identity politics originated with the fact that members of certain groups really were disadvantaged by their group membership, which forged them into a coalition with common interests: Jews really did have a reason to form the Anti-Defamation League.

But when it spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values, including, ironically, the pursuit of justice for oppressed groups. For one thing, reason depends on there being an objective reality and universal standards of logic. As Chekhov said, there is no national multiplication table, and there is no racial or LGBT one either.

This isn’t just a matter of keeping our science and politics in touch with reality; it gives force to the very movements for moral improvement that originally inspired identity politics. The slave trade and the Holocaust are not group-bonding myths; they objectively happened, and their evil is something that all people, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, must acknowledge and work to prevent in the future.

Even the aspect of identity politics with a grain of justification—that a man cannot truly experience what it is like to be a woman, or a white person an African American—can subvert the cause of equality and harmony if it is taken too far, because it undermines one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment: that people are equipped with a capacity for sympathetic imagination, which allows them to appreciate the suffering of sentient beings unlike them. In this regard nothing could be more asinine than outrage against “cultural appropriation”—as if it’s a bad thing, rather than a good thing, for a white writer to try to convey the experiences of a black person, or vice versa.

To be sure, empathy is not enough. But another Enlightenment principle is that people can appreciate principles of universal rights that can bridge even the gaps that empathy cannot span. Any hopes for human improvement are better served by encouraging a recognition of universal human interests than by pitting group against group in zero-sum competition.” – Steven Pinker, The Weekly Standard, February 2018.


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Pinker’s new book out tomorrow, previewed in the Guardian and the WSJ

I have pre-ordered a copy of this book.

Why Evolution Is True

Yes, tomorrow is the release of Steve Pinker’s new book , Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason Science, Humanism, and Progress, which is already at #48 on Amazon. I gave a preview of it here, noting that Bill Gates called it “my new favorite book of all time,” replacing Steve’s earlier book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Gates had read a prepublication copy, and his encomium surely boosted sales. But this book is destined to be a best seller, and I’m glad.

I’m glad because it promotes humanism, science, rationality, and progress, and claims that faith and dogma (i.e., religion) don’t promote social progress. You can see this in two precis of the book that Steve has written for the Guardian and for the Wall Street Journal. (The former is free; the latter is behind a paywall but judicious inquiry might yield a pdf). I now…

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Cultural universals vs cultural relativism

cultural universal (also called a human universal), as discussed by Emile DurkheimGeorge MurdockClaude Lévi-StraussDonald Brown,  Steven Pinker and others, is an element, pattern, trait, or institution that is common to all human cultures worldwide. In his book Human Universals (1991), Donald Brown defines human universals as comprising “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception”, providing a list of hundreds of items he suggests as universal. Steven Pinker lists all Brown’s universals in the appendix of his book The Blank Slate.

Evolutionary psychologists hold that behaviors or traits that occur universally in all cultures are good candidates for evolutionary adaptations. Some anthropological and sociological theorists that take a cultural relativist perspective may deny the existence of cultural universals: the extent to which these universals are “cultural” in the narrow sense, or in fact biologically inherited behavior is an issue of “nature versus nurture“. The existence of cultural universals provides strong evidence against the currently fashionable notion that all human behaviours, including gender differences, are culturally determined.

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Pinker opposes BDS boycott of Israel by American Anthropological Association

Why Evolution Is True

Various universities, student organizations, and academic associations have been joining the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), urging a boycott of Israeli academics. Their recomendations range from complete non-interaction with Israeli academics to milder “sanctions”, including boycotting of institutions rather than scholars (i.e., you could invite an Israeli academic to speak at your university).

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is about to vote on a resolution supporting the BDS by imposing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, based on these principles, outlined in the linked pdf:

Whereas, The AAA’s 1999 Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights states, “Anthropology as a profession is committed to the promotion and protection of the right of people and peoples everywhere to the full realization of their humanity” and “the AAA has an ethical responsibility to protest and oppose… deprivation;” and whereas the AAA has historically upheld those rights, including the right to education and academic…

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