So anyone who knows me well knows that Steven Pinker is one of my intellectual heroes. Founder and long-time Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, now professor of psychology at Harvard, fantastic popular science writer, populariser of Chomsky's work on the innate nature of language, (arguably) foremost populariser of the stunning implications of the new science of evolutionary psychology, and psycho-linguist (what he describes as his "day job") . . . he was still down-to-earth enough to respond to my fan mail and then thoughtfully and substantively respond to a subsequent unsolicited critique of an idea in one of his books! What a guy.
Anyone who's read him already knows what an entertaining writer he is. But, a couple of years back, I pulled his book The Language Instinct off the shelf just to re-read the bits I'd highlighted. And I found myself nearly reduced to tears of laughter! I thought, How could a book of popular science be this blisteringly funny? Well, judge for yourself: here are those excerpts. Enjoy!
"If thought and action are products of the physical activity of the brain, and if thought and action can be affected by experience, then experience has to leave a trace in the physical structure of the brain . . . According to a New York Times headline, 'Talk therapy, a psychiatrist maintains, can alter the structure of the patient's brain.' I should hope so, or else the psychiatrist would be defrauding her clients . . . A special issue of the journal Educational Technology and Society was intended 'to examine the position that learning takes place in the brain of the learner . . .' The guest editor (a biologist) did not say whether the alternative was that learning takes place in some other organ of the body like the pancreas . . ."
"On another occasion an African American activist accused him of racism for claiming that black facial expressions were no different from white ones. (Sometimes you can't win.)"
"Behavioral science is not for sissies."
"Rose repeatedly counters the '[genetic] determinists' with the declaration 'We have the ability to construct our own futures . . .' But Rose never explains who the 'we' is, if not highly structured neural circuits, which must get that structure in part from genes and evolution. We can call this doctrine the Pronoun in the Machine."
"When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2001, its leaders made a ritual denunciation of 'genetic determinism,' the belief held by no one that 'all characteristics of the person are hard-wired into our genome.'"
"People who say that IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to executing a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child's IQ by five points, or the presidential qualifications of George W. Bush."
"An idea is not false or evil because the Nazis misused it . . . Ideas are connected to other ideas, and should any of Hitler's turn out to have some grain of truth if races, for example, turn out to have any biological reality we would not want to concede that Nazism wasn't so wrong after all."
"[Talk-show host Laura Schlesinger] has called on gay people to submit to therapy to change their sexual orientation, because homosexuality is a 'biological error.' This kind of moral reasoning can come only from people who know nothing about biology. Most activities that moral people extol being faithful to one's spouse, turning the other cheek, treating every child as precious, loving thy neighbor as thyself are 'biological errors' and are utterly unnatural in the rest of the living world."
"Even the word 'minority' the most neutral label conceivable, referring only to relative numbers was banned in 2001 by the San Diego City Council (and nearly banned by the Boston City Council) because it was deemed disparaging to non-whites. 'No matter how you slice it, minority means less than,' said a semantically challenged official at Boston College, where the preferred term is AHANA (an acronym for African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American) . . . In postmodernist and relativist thinking, images are held to shape our view of reality, or to be our view of reality, or to be reality itself. This is especially true of images representing celebrities, politicians, women, and AHANAs."
"The first thing to keep in mind is that aggression is an organized, goal-directed activity, not the kind of event that could come from a random malfunction. If your lawnmower continued to run after you released the handle and it injured your foot, you might suspect a sticky switch or other breakdown. But if the lawnmower lay in wait until you emerged from the garage and then chased you around the yard, you would have to conclude that someone had installed a chip that programmed it to do so."
"This 'Hobbesian trap,' as it is now called, is a ubiquitous cause of violent conflict. The political scientist Thomas Schelling offered the analogy of an armed homeowner who surprises an armed burglar. Each might be tempted to shoot first to avoid being shot, even if neither wanted to kill the other. A Hobbesian trap pitting one man against another is a recurring theme in fiction, such as the desperado in Hollywood westerns, syp-versus-spy plots in cold-war thrillers, and the lyrics to Bob Marley's 'I Shot the Sheriff'."
"Because of the logic of deterrence, fights over personal or national honor are not as idiotic as they seem. In a hostile milieu, people and countries must advertise their willingness to retaliate against anyone who would profit at their expense, and that means maintaining a reputation for avenging any slight or trespass, no matter how small. They must make it known that, in the words of the Jim Croce song, 'You don't tug on Superman's cape; you don't spit into the wind; you don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger; and you don't mess around with Jim.'"
"In the 1960s it all seemed so simple. War is unhealthy for children and other living things. What if they gave a war and nobody came? War: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! The problem with these sentiments is that the other side has to feel the same way at the same time. In 1939 Neville Chamberlain offered his own antiwar slogan, 'Peace in our time.' It was followed by a world war and a holocaust, because his adversary did not agree that war is good for absolutely nothing."
"So men are not from Mars, nor are women from Venus. Men and women are from Africa, the cradle of our evolution, where they evolved as a single species."
"'Peer group' is a patronizing term we use in connection with children for what we call 'friends and colleagues and associates' when we talk about ourselves. We groan when children obsess over wearing the right kind of cargo pants, but we would be just as mortified if a very large person forced us to wear pink overalls to a corporate board meeting or a polyester disco suit to an academic conference."
"The never-ending campaign by postmodernist artists to attract the attention of a jaded public progressed from puzzling audiences to doing everything they could to offend them. Everyone has heard of the notorious cases: Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of sadomasochistic acts, Andres Serrano's 'Piss Christ' (a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine), Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung, and the nine-hour performance piece 'Flag Fuck (w/Beef) #17B,' in which Ivan Hubiak danced on stage wearing an American flag as a diaper while draping himself with raw meat. Actually, this last one never happened; it was invented by writers for the satirical newspaper The Onion in an article entitled 'Performance Artist Shocks U.S. Out of Apathetic Slumber.' But I bet I had you fooled."
"As for sneering at the bourgeoisie, it is a sophomoric grab at status with no claim to moral or political virtue. The fact is that the values of the middle class personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidance of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy are good things, not bad things . . . And if they want to hang a painting of a red barn or a weeping clown above their couch, it's none of our damn business."