Saturday, December 15, 2007



Steven Pinker and Violence



As most people interested in the fields of psychology and linguistics will know, Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist best known for his tweaking of Chomsky's idea that children possess a generative or universal grammar. For Chomsky, this meant that all languages conformed to the rules of a kind of "proto" grammar that children possessed instinctively and could apply on the basis of just a few examples. Chomsky, however, didn't spend a lot of time describing where this ability came from: it was "innate" and all children possessed it. In some sense, it could be described as a by-product of mind. Now, Steven Pinker was not happy with such vagueness and developed the idea that children's innate grasp of grammar is a product of natural selection rather than mind per se. Natural selection developed the neural networks conducive to language acquisition when it became necessary for people to speak. On the basis of this flimsy distinction, Pinker came up with the idea that language is an "instinct". In essence, Pinker has been parasitic of Chomsky's ideas, but gives them a smart new twist which has succeeded in putting his name on the academic map. Pinker, in addition to his more serious work has written a lot of science for dummies type stuff. Now, he has a new book ready, entitled: "A History of Violence" and earlier this year he gave a taster of its theme at the TED conference in Monterey, California.

In this short talk, Pinker states his belief that violence has been on the decline for centuries and that today we live in the most non violent period in history. In order to back this up, he inundates his listeners with warped statistics. Apparently male Indians in America had a far higher risk of dying at the hands of another male than we have today. Who would ever have guessed such a thing? Of course, he doesn't take into account that all males in agricultural or hunter gatherer societies were liable to be called upon to defend the tribe. Furthermore, he ignores the way modern society divides human labour: there are particular groups concerned with enforcing law and fighting foreign armies. The deaths may be innumerable, but clearly in a world that has nearly quadrupled its population in the last hundred years, most males are not going to be killed. Pinker, of course, sets up his statistics in a particular and biased way. What would his graph have looked like if he'd counted up the dead killed in wars during the last millennium? Very different in fact! Lowest estimates conclude that more than 100 million people have died in twentieth century warfare. That's far more than in any other century of human history!

In his egotism, Pinker doesn't even bother to look at what past thinkers on the subject of human violence have had to say. In particular, he ignores Michel Foucauld's series of lectures given at the College de France in 1976 under the title, "Society Must be Defended". If he had studied Foucauld, he would have understood that in the modern age, violence has become institutionalized and often operates more on the level of threat: think of America and the Soviet Union during the cold war and the concept of MAD. A war never occurred because the consequences of what would have happened had both nuclear arsenals been released, were too awful to contemplate. In other words the THREAT of annihilation kept war at bay for 45 years! In today's world of modern technological societies, the ever present threat of violence to bodies is successful in preventing most people from breaking the rules

Pinker's analysis is superficial and wrong. Time magazine included this man in its list of the world's 100 most influential people. If that is true, then God help us all!

6 Comments:

Blogger Medway said...

John, you might add that Chomsky himself only 'tweaked' the Kantian idea of innateness and applied it to language. Kant's categories of perception turned British empiricism on its head and gave us an internalised view of human nature. As for Pinker, he is just another 'innate abilities' propagandist, and, as you say, his stats are skewed here...the 20th century must have been one of the most bloody on the large scale, though on the local scale we might not have to carry weapons personally in everyday life, and suburban life in the west must be alot more comfortable and secure for a larger number of people than ever before.

8:39 PM  
Blogger pluto85 said...

A convincing presentation of the facts

3:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pinker's "instinct" does nothing for me.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

You say he was parasitic of Chomsky's ideas. If we regard this criticism as valid, than all scientists who did not found their science are guilty as well. "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." You criticize the distinction between an "innate" ability and one bequeathed by natural selection as flimsy. He saw a giant gaping hole in a theory of importance to his field, and he filled it. I see nothing risible there. Finally, ho is it biased to show statistics by percentage rather than total. He was talking about two discrete groups of people, one of which outnumbers the other by several orders of magnitude. Comparing the totals of anything from each would yield absolutely meaningless data. The conclusion you suggest would be the proper one would be like saying that Americans are more fertile than Canadians because they produce a greater number of babies, whilst ignoring the fact that the population of Canada is only slightly larger than that of California.

12:45 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

Most of what you say has been covered in the comments on TED (see later post on this board)

All I would say here, is that it seems to me most evolutionary psychologists and their supporters seem to believe they have some special grasp on reality that the rest of us lack. I don't think Chomsky, Wittgenstein, Foucault would call themselves evolutionary psychologists, but they have nevertheless made great contributions to human knowledge. Is Pinker and his ilk even in the same league?

2:24 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Whether they are arrogant or not (I don't really know, my experience is pretty limited) is immaterial. They're scientists; in the end, only their ideas matter. Which brings me to my next point, that is doesn't matter what Chomsky, Wittgenstein, or Foucault would call themselves, or whether Pinker is worthy of their legacy. To paraphrase Einstein( I think): Individual Scientists don't matter; the world would still have had calculus, without Leibniz or Newton, but without Beethoven there can be no Moonlight Sonata. I think he used some other work, and through in Mozart as a bonus, but you get the gist. The truth will come out eventually, and in the grand scheme, it is of little consequence who finds it first.

2:36 AM  

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