Peace, war, and evolution: My profile of Steven Pinker in tomorrow's New York Times

By Carl Zimmer | November 28, 2011 1:49 pm

The New York Times has launched a series called Profiles in Science. When I was invited to join the undertaking, I proposed writing about the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. I had run into Pinker at the World Science Festival in June, and he had told me about his next book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which was due out in the fall. In the 800+ page tome, Pinker argues that rates of human violence have been crashing for millennia, and he offers psychological explanations for the fall.

I’ve followed Pinker’s work since I first came across his 1994 book, The Language Instinct. In the wake of the book’s success, he quickly became a leading exponent of evolutionary psychology, coming out swinging against its critics such as Stephen Jay Gould. When Pinker described his book to me, I was intrigued. I wondered how someone who argued that human nature was shaped long ago by natural selection would end up arguing that human nature–or at least human experience–is now changing rapidly for the better. But there were other things I was wondering–how, for example, does a writer of massive books about human nature live inside the same body as an expert on irregular verbs?

So I headed up to Cambridge to ask a bunch of questions, out of which a profile emerged. You can read it in tomorrow’s Times, or on their web site.

At the site, you can also watch a video interview with Pinker from NYT senior producer Thomas Lin.

Comments (9)

  1. John Kubie

    Enjoyed the article, and learning more about Pinker.

    Not sure I understand the implications of the end of the article:

    “… He endorses the new book “Winning the War on War” (Dutton/Penguin), by the political scientist Joshua S. Goldstein, which argues that the slogan “If you want peace, fight for justice” is precisely the wrong advice.”

    Is this referring to “retributive justice” or basic, reciprocal fairness? Also, where does the slogan come from?

  2. Jess Tauber

    Too bad Pinker rejects out of hand the notion that iconicity preceded symbolicity in the evolution of human languages. We have very strong evidence from syntax that this process continues to this day, and from ideophones that the lexicon is enriched by iconic forms as well- especially when old vocabulary slowly dies away due to erosive phonological processes. But people are allowed their opinions, even if they come from the hip.

  3. Great profile of the many-faceted, difficult-to-pigeonhole Pinker (and since Pinker himself linked to it on Twitter he must’ve thought so as well!)

  4. John Kubie

    Jess, can you elaborate? What are “iconicity” and “symbolicity”? (I can guess). When did Pinker say what?

  5. John Kubie

    I accept the empirical assertion that violence has declined. An interesting question is whether the decline is due to sociological changes and the transformation of group organization.

    Francis Fukuyama in “The Origins of Political Order” argues that there has been a one-directional transformation from clan-based and tribal organization to nation states. He proposes that in nation states individuals trade personal independence and freedom for protection and safety through militarization.

    I haven’t read either Pinker’s or Goldstein’s books, but I wonder if they discuss this and whether the decrease in violence may be due to Fukuyama’s proposed mechanism.

  6. Jess Tauber

    John- it was in one of his earlier books- may have been Language Instinct, but hard to remember. He was specifically pooh-poohing Robin Allott’s notion of sound symbolism (a bit different from my own, from 30 years of research). I’ve also had some exchanges with Prof. Pinker himself about the issues which weren’t reassuring, a while back. The problem seems to be that many syntacticians generally assume an entirely abstract cast to language, for a variety of reasons, with a mathematical and symbolic underpinning. This has been the bias since even before Chomsky in that linguistic tradition. But people who actually look at the shapes of vocabulary items and follow the historical processes that languages undergo see a different picture. Word orders, distances between items in phrases, clauses, order of elements in derivational and grammatical morphology, where new information goes and so on often start out ‘iconic’- that is, in a string of derivational morphemes the scope of each item helps sort out how close they end up to the form representing the main idea. They don’t have to STAY that way- later on other factors may trump iconicity, such as processing efficiency, phonological ease, and so on. The structuralists (linguists who think that the underling branched tree of the syntactic string is the most important thing) don’t often look at historical processes. Functionalists (who look at what forms and structures are used for, rather than how they’re put together) are much more amenable to iconicity. Iconicity here means that some aspect of the behavior of a form mirrors part of the meaning or impact of that form. Rhetorical lengthening (‘It was a BIIIIIIIIIIIG deal!), loudness and stress, and other effects also help here. Phonological iconicity (often, wrongly, termed ‘sound symbolism’) includes onomatopoiea and also forms that use the structure of the phonological system as a guide to meaning (for example labial phonemes (/p/, /m/ etc.) in final position in roots, crosslinguistically, over many languages and language families, very very often has a sense of closure, acquisition, etc., but in initial position to opening, release. But velar finals in the same environments (/k/,/g/) refer instead to opening and release, but the initials to closure and acquisition. Other phonemes have other senses in different positions and are also in complementary distribution. All together we end up with a matrix of forms versus meanings in different phonological environmental contexts that motivates the meanings of the words that utilize this mechanism. Not all languages have the ‘same’ matrix, and they don’t all use it the same way. But there is a limit to the variation, based on my survey of several hundred languages. As iconicity fades away due to structural and sound change we see the rise of symbolicity where the shape of the form has no relation to its meaning. In syntax this can happen as well. Some languages have almost no iconic vocabulary, others have up to tens of thousands of such forms (hundreds of thousands if not millions over dialect areas, since each person, family, village has their own peculiar mixtures of realized iconic forms, while normal vocabulary instead is usually shared by everyone to a large extent). Over many hundreds of years such iconic vocabulary either drops out or becomes naturalized into the regular lexicon and starts to change historically with the rest of the language. In general the more use the language makes of affixes (synthesis) the fewer iconic forms it has. Polysynthetic languages like Cherokee or Inuktitut have almost none. Very low synthesis languages (Gbaya for ex.) have the highest numbers. It is very interesting that as either affixation or compounding grows in importance, iconicity tends to decline in both syntax and (pre)lexicon. If you haven’t seen any of this in Pinker’s work, despite his grounding in psychology, it begs the question of WHY? There was a long research tradition of work on such iconicity (beginning in the 1930′s until the early ’80′s) in the latter field. Even Chomsky himself once told me he was always interested in this (p.c)- I actually think he was pulling my leg, and that conversation never continued.

  7. David B. Benson

    Carl Zimmer — Nicely done. Interesting to compare Pinker’s ideas with Mike Gazzaniga’s and also the article today on eyewitness evidence.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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