DS: As I embark on a fourth DSI sojourn with one of today’s leading writers and thinkers, Steven Pinker- noted cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, I want to first thank you for agreeing to be queried. Since several other interviews have occurred in this series, you know that I have striven to make these not just interviews of the moment, but to still have much of, if not all, the relevancy it now contains if someone should read this years later, online, in a book, or in some yet to be written biography of you. Of course, we will touch upon your latest work, but I am more interested in the Pinkerian take on things, not only in your fields of expertise, but on matters a lay reader, who may have but a vague notion of who you are, would be surprised to hear you opine on. One of the reasons I think you are one of the leading writers in the sciences is because you have an excellent and lucid style of writing. You analogize well, to distill arcane points into explicable nuggets, and you are a good raconteur. That being stated, let me first allow the newcomer to your work a chance to read, from the horse’s mouth, who Steven Pinker is, what he does, and some of the major accomplishments you’ve made, as well as some of the goals you seek to achieve in your various fields.
SP: Thanks, Dan. I was born in 1954 in the Jewish Anglophone community of Montreal. After getting a bachelor’s in experimental psychology at McGill, I’ve spent most of my life bouncing between Harvard and MIT, with a few intervals in California (Stanford and Santa Barbara). My initial research was in visual cognition – mental imagery, shape recognition, visual attention. But starting in graduate school I cultivated an interest in language, particularly language development in children, which eventually took over my research. I’ve written many experimental papers in language and visual cognition, and, in the 1980s, two highly technical books on language. The first outlined a theory of how children acquire the words and grammar of their mother tongue. The second focused on one aspect of this process, the ability to use different verbs in appropriate sentences, such as intransitive verbs, transitive verbs, and verbs taking various combinations of complements and indirect objects.
After that book, I spent the next fifteen years or so on the distinction between irregular verbs, like bring-brought, and regular verbs like walk-walked. The reason I obsessed over this seemingly small topic is that the two kinds of verbs neatly embody the two processes that make language possible: looking up words in memory, and combining words (or parts of words) according to rules. Among the papers I wrote during this project was a monograph that analyzed 20,000 past-tense forms in children’s speech, concentrating on errors like bringed and holded that reveal children’s linguistic creativity at work.
In 1994 I published the first of five books written for a general audience. The Language Instinct was an introduction to everything you always wanted to know about language, held together by the idea that language is a biological adaptation. This was followed in 1997 by How the Mind Works, which offered a similar synthesis of the rest of the mind—from vision and reasoning to the emotions, humor, and the arts. In 1999 I published Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which presented my thoughts on regular and irregular verbs as a way of explaining how language works in general. In 2002 I published The Blank Slate, which explored the political, moral, and emotional colorings of the concept of human nature. My new book, The Stuff of Thought, is about language as a window into human nature: what tense reveals about the human concept of time, what verbs reveal about causality, what prepositions reveal about our sense of space, what swearing shows about emotion, what innuendo and euphemism show about social relationships.
I also write for the press on various topics relating to language and human nature – my most recent articles have been on the psychology of kinship, the historical decline of violence, and the use of metaphor in politics.
DS: Before we wade into the morass of language and the mind, my wife Jessica once had to memorize this textbook definition of language: Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols. My query- is it still applicable today? If not, what more can be added to that definition?
SP: As the author of a book called The Language Instinct, I’d certainly disagree with the “non-instinctive” part. The definition-writer is correct to note that human language, unlike most forms of animal communication, is voluntarily produced (in physiological terms, it is under the control of the cerebral cortex rather than the limbic system), and that the content of the linguistic signals (words, their meanings, and the constructions in which they are assembled) have to be acquired to a much greater extent. But the very fact that language is “purely human” suggests that we humans have to be equipped with an instinct to use and language, since all neurologically normal kids in a normal social environment acquire (and in some cases invent) language, without needing formal lessons.
DS: I first encountered you and your work over a dozen years ago, on the excellent (albeit now sadly forgotten) PBS tv show Thinking Allowed, hosted by Jeffrey Mishlove. I actually had the chance to interview Mishlove a few years ago, on my now defunct Internet radio show Omniversica, and enjoyed his willingness to go beyond materialism, even if I disagreed with some of his ideas on the preternatural. That’s an area I will touch on in a bit, but what struck me most about that three part series he did with you was how good a communicator you were- in both the Carl Sagan/Albert Einstein media savvy way (you and your famous locks) as well as an ability to break down the most ineffable concepts into morsels the laity can understand. First off, were you always a Great Communicator (pardons to President Reagan), or was it a developed skill, needed for your mission? And, though I will delve more deeply into this in a bit, as well, that ability to communicate also includes a knack for the written word. Again, natural, or acquired?
SP: That’s very kind. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of conveying difficult concepts without dumbing them down. I’ve long been a teacher (I put myself through college as a math tutor and Jewish sunday-school teacher), and have long paid attention to the mechanics of pedagogy – especially the use of language, visuals, and analogies to get ideas across. Not only has my research touched on all of these mechanisms (I once was involved in a project on the perception of graphs, for instance), but I read style manuals for fun, and like to analyze sentences I admire in other people’s prose to figure out why they work. I have no way of knowing whether I inherited any talent at communication -- my parents and siblings are highly articulate, but of course I grew up with them, so we don’t have an unconfounded nature-nurture comparison there. But whatever talents I did happen to be born with, I certainly cultivated, and continue to cultivate.
DS: Many scientists simply have not a way with words. Einstein’s essays, as example, are not engaging nor well phrased, and even Darwin, who could have moments of clarity, seemed to rarely find concision an ally. Yet, while I think the creative arts, including fictive writing and poetry, are in a several decades long down cycle, I think science writing is in a Golden Age since the mid-1970s or so. From E.O. Wilson, to the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, to Sagan to Jared Diamond to Martin Rees and Timothy Ferris to Robert Bakker and Jack Horner, Daniel Dennett, and a few dozen others, the world of science is bristling not only with ideas, but people who can clarify and excite the public. Science books often make best seller lists, yet, if that is so, why are Americans so ignorant on things like abortion, stem cells, evolution, race, sexuality, and on and on? Is it the old phenomenon of wanting to have the books on their shelves, as status symbols, but their never being actually read? I recall the old scene in Annie Hall, where Woody Allen exasperates over some boob misinterpreting Marshall McLuhan, and Woody pulling out the man, himself, to depants the fool. Do you ever encounter folks like that, who think they know more about ‘Steven Pinker’ and his ideas than you do?
SP: I agree that we’re living in a golden age of science writing. No such list would be complete without Richard Dawkins, and I’d also add John McWhorter and Geoff Pullum in linguistics, Judith Rich Harris in psychology, Steven Landsberg and Robert Frank in economics, and Robert Wright and Matt Ridley in evolutionary psychology, among others.
As for scientific illiteracy, there is a combination of causes: bad science education, the continuing higher prestige of the humanities over the sciences in American and British elites and universities, the ascendancy of romanticism in American popular culture since the 1960s, and the fact that ideas are sociopolitical and moral identity badges as well as true-or-false propositions. Republican politicians distance themselves from evolution not because they are ignorant of it or misunderstand it: (probably both are true, but that’s also true of many who profess a belief in evolution. They distance themselves because they identify evolution with amorality and nihilism.
DS: Why is it that science books, when reviewed, are almost always reviewed solely for their social or political relevance and their rightness or wrongness on a given issue, rather than their crafted skill with words?
SP: My impression is that the quality of writing is often briefly commented upon, but that there is little analysis or criticism of what makes the prose work or not work.
DS: After all, every science text will be outdated in a few decades, but if the writing is great, it should still be read. I think of the great essayist Loren Eiseley, whose supernal prose is as poetic and cogent today as it ever was, even if some terms are outdated. Have you ever read Eiseley? Who were the scientists whose writing, as well as works, inspired you as a child? I recall the How, Why And Wonder Books, as well as the dinosaur paintings of Charles R. Knight.
SP: I only became aware of Eiseley through your recommendation, and have yet to read his books, but I look forward to doing so. As a child and teenager, I devoured the World Book Encyclopedia, the mail-order Time-Life series of books on science (one arrived at our house every month), and heroic biographies of scientists and inventors. As far as stylists are concerned I loved George Gamow’s whimsy in One, Two, Three, Infinity, Martin Gardner’s economic prose in his Scientific American “Mathematical Games” feature, and an old textbook on invertebrate biology my mother gave me called Animals Without Backbones by Ralph Buchsbaum (I quoted it in The Language Instinct), and I see that it is still in print). In college I discovered the witty prose of Anglo-American analytic philosophers like A. J. Ayer, Gilbert Ryle, W. V. O. Quine, Nelson Goodman, Hilary Putnam, and Jerry Fodor, and then two great stylists in my own field, George Miller and Roger Brown. Roger was one of my graduate school advisors, and I wrote an obituary for him that called attention to his literary style.
DS: Let’s talk of your latest book, The Stuff Of Thought: Language As A Window Into Human Nature. I posted the first in depth online review of it, and I think it’s perhaps your most accessible book. When I read it my first thought, re: the book and my using it for this interview, was ‘Pinker just lobbed a grapefruit into my gearhouse.’ Now, this is a softball metaphor meaning you just threw me a ball that’s easy to hit a home run off of. Why do our minds think in such ways? Is it an evolutionary adaptation? If so, what possible benefit can it have?
SP: In SOT (as well as two previous books) I speculate that analogy and metaphor may
be the gift that allows us to apply cognitive abilities that evolved for concrete pursuits (such as dealing with space, time, force, and matter) to more abstract domains, like science, government, and economics. We use the language of space to talk about abstract variables (e.g., the economy rose, my spirits fell), and we use the language of force to talk about steady states and causation of change (e.g., Amy forced herself to go; The bureaucracy won’t budge). Presumably the language reflects the way we think about these phenomena, at least for some of us some of the time. An open question is: for how many of us, and at which times? That’s something I’m now studying empirically, with a graduate student, James Lee.
DS: Let me focus on your latest book for a while, and ask a few questions based upon specifics that you raise in that book. The book opens with the notion that 9/11 may be considered one or two events (or three or four). How is how we view such an event important? After all, I recall arguing with people, right after it happened, that the very image of the falling towers would leave a far longer and more deeply lasting impression than anything else. This video on YouTube seems to bear me out. People have long forgotten most details, and it all has blurred into a gray fog. Why is the old cliché, ‘an image is worth a thousand words,’ so correct?
SP: One reason that the number of events on 9/11 is significant is that it was the subject of a $3.5 billion lawsuit – in particular, over whether the leaseholder was covered for two “events” or just one. That hilarious-but-sad YouTube clip, in which people could not say which month “9/11” happened in, makes a linguistic point – that over time, transparent expressions, such as “9/11,” congeal into rote-memorized sounds, so people stop hearing the “9” in the “9/11.” Much of language is shaped by this process, as I note in SOT and in Words and Rules.
DS: You also mention the last two Presidents infamous parsings of meaning- Bush’s 2003 State Of The Union claim about Iraq seeking uranium, where the word in question was ‘learned,’ and Clinton’s use or abuse of ‘is.’ Which man abused language more? From a pragmatic standpoint, however, was not Bush’s abuse of language worse, since thousands (or up to hundreds of thousands) have died because of what he said. Clinton’s words merely soiled a dress.
SP: Yes, I agree. Also, as I note in the book, Clinton’s notorious discussion of the meaning of is was linguistically sound, whereas Bush’s use of learn was probably mendacious.
DS: Since the purpose of these interviews is to get away from the formulaic interviews that proliferate online, where the same queries are asked over and again, let ask a few questions you pose rhetorically, on pages 4-5 of The Stuff Of Thought, so that folk who merely think of you as a brainiac with a thick mop of hair, might get to know a bit more of Steven Pinker, the man, citizen, and scientists. I quote: ‘Does stem-cell research destroy a ball of cells or an incipient human? Is the American military incursion into Iraq a case of invading a country or liberating a country? Does abortion consist of ending a pregnancy or killing a child? Are high taxes a way to redistribute wealth or to confiscate earnings? Is socialized medicine a program to protect citizen’s health or to expand government power?’ To me, questions 1, 2, and 4 present two reasonable views of the same thing. In case 1, the ball of cells is an incipient human, but the fact that it’s incipient is what matters, not its destruction. In case 2 we did both; it’s the aftermath, and lack of planning for it, where the horrors have arisen. And in case 4, both apply, but I see no harm in redistributing wealth, since the very structure of our system allows certain people via their work or ingenuity (but most likely via their connections) to get rich in the first place. Without the system there’d be no wealth to distribute or redistribute. In case 3, the former claim is so, because a fetus is not a child. It is not born yet, and few human cultures have ever recognized conception days, for a very good reason- since the day can rarely be pinpointed. The final case is an example of the latter option necessarily following the former. The real question is whether that is a good thing or not, not whether it is one nor the other. To use another metaphor, ‘are you willing to step in the shit?’ What are your views?
SP: Your elaborations are incisive, and are consistent with my argument later in the book that our ability to frame an issue in different ways does not imply that political debate reduces to a beauty contest between rival frames, or that it is a matter of “mere words.” People can analyze, question, and evaluate rival framings, as you have done here. But I think I will accept your invitation to avoid stepping into the canine biosolids.
DS: You also deal with the idea of identity, and use the examples of William Shakespeare and Paul McCartney. In my review of the book I opined, ‘No, he does not dig into that silly canard over whether Shakespeare was gay or not because he wrote some sonnets from a feminine perspective, but he asks simply what do the words William Shakespeare mean? When one talks of The Bard, is one referring to the man commonly thought of as the Bard- the playwright who used that name (or its differently spelt variations), those thought to be Shakespeare (such as Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe, and a galaxy of others!), a great writer/poet, the author of Hamlet, or whomever it was wielded the pen?….He claims that whatever the case, the name is still attached to that ‘guy.’ Well, yes and no. Here’s why, and perhaps this is a point of view that only an artist or creator (as opposed to its antipodes- a scientist, or discoverer, like Pinker) could have. The name William Shakespeare not only refers to a human being, and a deceased one, but also that person’s works….while it may be true to state that William Shakespeare was a great writer, the author of Hamlet, or really Edward de Vere, that is only true when using the past tense. When one states that William Shakespeare is….all of that is false, except for the fact that Shakespeare is the poems and plays collectively, for when one asks, ‘Have you ever read Shakespeare?’ they are not asking if you ever saw the moldering tattoo on the dead man’s thigh that said, ‘Mother.’’ What is your main assertion about appellations, and do you agree with my idea that the word ‘Shakespeare’ now subsumes the man?
SP: I do agree, and it’s a subtle and interesting point. The famous argument that names are “rigid designators” (i.e., apply to the entity in the world originally dubbed with the name, rather than to whatever satisfies some definition) does not apply when the name is used metonymically (i.e., to refer to something associated with the usual referent of the name). The word Shakespeare, when used as a shorthand for “the works of William Shakespeare,” is not a rigid designator, but has a definition.
DS: As an asides, and mentioning people becoming words, or eponyms- such as gerrymander, bowdlerize, and boycott, is it the uniqueness of a name that heightens its chances of incidental immortality? As example, I often thoroughly respond to folk, in email or on blogs, and do so point by point. I guess I’d call it ‘schneiderizing’ an argument, but it sounds silly, as my name is not as ‘odd’ to the ear as the three mentioned. That, and the term to fisk has become accepted as a point by point refutation (named after a British journalist, Robert Fisk). Yet, I see that as almost as silly as using my own name. Perhaps that’s due to my being an American, and Yankees fan, and recall the way Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk willed a Game 6 home run with his arms. To me, that’s true fisking. What do you see as markers of such aborning eponyms?
SP: What makes a new word stick in the language is something of a mystery, as I discuss at length in the chapter on naming. Sometimes successful new words fill a lexical gap – a concept that people need to express, but lack a word for, such as spam – but not always. We still lack a good word for unmarried heterosexual partners, for example. The fame of the referent probably does play a role, as does the sound of the name. But to be honest, no one really knows why some words stick and others don’t.
DS: You also write, ‘While taboo language is an affront to common sensibilities, the phenomenon of taboo language is an affront to common sense. Excretion is an activity that every incarnate being must engage in daily, yet all the English words for it are indecent, juvenile, or clinical. The elegant lexicon of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables that give the English language its rhythmic vigor turns up empty-handed just when it comes to an activity that no one can avoid. Also conspicuous by its absence is a polite transitive verb for sex- a word that would fit into the frame Adam verbed Eve or Eve verbed Adam. The simple transitive verbs for sexual relations are either obscene or disrespectful, and the most common ones are among the seven words you can’t say on television.’ Simply put, I think it’s one of the best published assaults on the subject I’ve read, and my query is, ‘What the fuck is wrong with so many people that they get so bent out of shape about words regarding such basic issues?’
SP: Thanks, Dan. In part, people get upset about taboo words because they get upset about what the words refer to – we don’t like to smell or step in feces, and most of the time we don’t like to see people urinate or copulate or flatulate, so we don’t like to think about these things by hearing words for them, either. But clearly this is only a small part of the story. In the earlier part of this answer, I did use words for each of these things which were not objectionable, like urinate. So another part of the story is that taboo words are produced with the tacit recognition that they are dysphemistic – that is, used to call attention to the disagreeable nature of the referent, use with the precise intention of offending, or both. So sure enough, listeners are offended. Yet another part of the story is that taboo words vary across time and subculture, so that the same word can have very different effects on different speakers. And part of the story – the one your question taps, I think – is that people differ in terms of how much informality they expect, and how much open discussion of sexuality, religion, and other touchy subjects they are prepared to take part in.
DS: To me, it is an excessive indulgence in, or aversion to, taboo language that is the odd thing. Especially when such occurs online, at blogs that try to censor and shape discussions. Do you feel that blogs, and the Internet do anything more than display the utter stupidity, cowardice, and sciolism of humanity? Online, people do not like it if one has a) an opinion b) states it and c) are correct. Wrongness is forgivable, being right is not. What is it about the Internet that fosters such ills- the anonymity?
SP: It’s not clear that it’s a phenomenon specific to the internet – just listen to AM talk radio.
DS: The book is also suffused in culturata- from the pop- such as Seinfeld, to the obscure- such as urban legends, and I think you are a master at using examples of accessible tidbits to illustrate your points, whether or not I may agree with the point. Do you take voluminous notes and record such things? Have you many scrapbooks. I am never without pen and paper, and constantly write notes. Or do you simply have the detritus of trivia floating around your head?
SP: I keep a physical file of clippings and cartoons that may be relevant to a given book. I also have a directory on my computer disk, a “Favorites” category in my web bookmarks, and a text file in which I tap in allusions or ideas that could be helpful some day.
DS: You also flay a philosopher named Jerry Fodor, and his idea that things are conceptually innate, and stand apart from a relation to other things. I agree that this is false, although, at the other end of the spectrum, I have argued with others who believe that all is subjective. To me, there are blacks and whites with a helluva lot of gray between. Not all gray, not black and white. You seem to take that view. I state, in reviewing your book, ‘….on a scientific level, the book does something quite amazing: it bridges the chasm that many Academics have over language itself. Postmodernists believe language is a circular self-referential trap, while pragmatists believe it lends insight into what reality is. Pinker’s book seems to posit that that is a false dichotomy, not because both claims are false, but because both are fundamentally true.’ Have I stated what your view is? If not, clarify and expound, please.
SP: This would require another book, but in brief: I think that a language maps onto internal representations (in a language of thought) that are not the same as the language itself (e.g., English). I think that those internal representations get their meaning both from the relationships among the representations (e.g., the meaning of my concept of “dog” in part comes form its connection to my concept “animal”) and from the relationship between the representation and the world (the meaning of “dog” comes from the fact that when my visual system is in the presence of a dog, I think the thought “dog”). By the way, Fodor himself has endorsed these positions (indeed, was responsible for first articulating them) at various points in his career.
DS: In a stinging display of humor, you write this, in ridiculing Fodor’s belief: ‘Fodor correctly notes that history has often vindicated unconventional ideas- after all, they laughed at Christopher Columbus and Thomas Edison. The problem is they laughed at Manny Schwartz, too. What, you’ve never heard of Manny Schwartz? He was the originator and chief defender of the theory of Continental Drip: that the southern continents are pointy at the bottom because they dribbled downward as they cooled from a molten state. The point is that they were right to laugh at Manny Schwartz.’ You demonstrate the Appeal to Authority fallacy here. Is the use of such a fallacy usually based on an intellectual or ethical lack? What other fallacies are your pet peeves?
SP: I debated whether to retain that passage, and decided to keep it because Jerry (a former colleague of mine at MIT, and someone I respect a great deal) is himself is an avid practitioner of aggressive humor. If he can dish it out, he can take it. But back to your question. The fallacy here is not really the Appeal to Authority, but the opposite fallacy – The Appeal to the Heretic, namely that if someone is a revolutionary who bucks the establishment consensus, that is sufficient reason to believe his claims.
DS: You also state, of Fodor’s idea, ‘….it’s hard to see how an innate grasp of carburetors and trombones could have been useful hundreds of thousands of years before they were invented.’ This got me thinking on an old idea I had, and one which I’ve heard a few times, as the basis for possible stories- that is the idea of being born ‘out of time.’ As example, there are doubtlessly living potential blacksmiths and abacus whizzes whose talents are meaningless today, just as there were potential astronauts or computer programmers centuries or eons ago, who never got a chance to display their skills. If such talents are not immanent, what are they? Is the analogy to a potential drunkard who never tastes alcohol in his life apt?
SP: I have a gentle anthropologist friend who told me, “Every day I thank God that I was not born a Yanomamö tribesman” (and he is an atheist). It’s a great question. Presumably to the extent the society defined specialized niches and freedom of choice, people would have gravitated to professions demanding cognate abilities. The programmer might have been a “computer” in the original sense (a guy paid to do sums), or perhaps a bureaucrat who implemented precise laws, or a Latin teacher. Perhaps one of the tragedies of postindustrial society is that certain talents (e.g., being a superb machinest, or seamstress) no longer have such niches.
DS: In your chapter, Cleaving The Air, you write of how people often mistake chronology for causality. As example, you cite two potential assassins who try to kill a man, and use this as an example of the ‘counterfactual theory.’ Please elucidate.
SP: Actually, the counterfactual theory arose to solve the problem that chronology is not causality. I take some herbs and my cold sore goes away. Does that prove that the herbs cured the cold sore? No, to show that you’d have to show that if the person failed to eat the herbs (the counterfactual scenario), the cold sores would have remained. The dual-assassin thought-experiment, for its part, was intended to make life difficult for the counterfactual theory. Specifically: two assassins conspire to take out a dictator at a public rally, with the first one to get a clear shot firing whereupon the other melts into the crowd. They end up killing him with simultaneously fired bullets. But if Assassin A hadn’t fired, the dictator would still be dead, and ditto for Assassin B. Hence, according to the counterfactual theory, neither one killed him! But that can’t be right. So the counterfactual theory has problems, too.
DS: To give this a real world grounding, let’s go to the JFK Assassination, and the ideas of whether Oswald acted alone, or was part of a conspiracy. Putting aside the facts, and arguing over them, I believe that’s a false choice. Oswald could have acted alone, yet there could have also been a conspiracy. His claims of being a patsy may have been true. Suppose he told others of his plan, in a fit of macho braggadocio, and then some of the slimy people he hung around with shadowed him, and had assassins in place, should Oswald miss. Oswald shoots the ‘magic bullet,’ then there’s a frontal kill shot by another of the gunmen Oswald was unaware of, and Oswald panics, flees, kills the cop, and looks guilty as hell. Yes, he planned and shot at Kennedy. Even hit the President, and Governor Connally. But, technically, he did not kill JFK. Is he guilty of assassinating the President?
SP: There you have it – a possible real-life example. “Multiple sufficient causes,” it’s sometimes called.
DS: In a sense, though, such an exercise seems akin to the Presidential parsings you mention. Also, it reminds me of one of Zeno’s Paradoxes- the one where one can never move because one would have to get halfway to a place, then a quarter of a way, then an eighth, and so on. Is counterfactualism merely mental masturbation?
SP: You haven’t watched enough Law and Order – courtroom examples pop up all the time. Can a widow of a smoking asbestos miner sue the tobacco company (who will say the asbestos killed him) or the asbestos company (who will say the smoking killed him)?
DS: In that same chapter you mention force-dynamics and morals (or as I prefer, secular ethics). Please elucidate. In reading of it, it reminded me of the old canard about how would your life be affected if the whole population of China disappeared overnight. I have always answered honestly. I’d be taken aback, shake my head, then do what I gotta do. Yet, so many others, of a PC mindset, would pontificate on how upset they were. I see that as hypocrisy. Is that force-dynamics?
SP: Yes, the example comes from Adam Smith. I’m not sure if force-dynamics (the idea that we conceive of causation as the exertion of force by a potent agonist against a resistant antagonist) is the best explanation here. It probably has more to do with the triggers for empathy.
DS: In a similar vein, two other arguments on ethics come to mind. One is that I do not necessarily value human life over other forms of life, or even non-life. As example, a few years ago, a cat I adored ran away. Last year, another cat I loved died. I still recall when the first cat was lost, how my best friend could not comprehend my devastation. ‘It’s just a cat,’ he said. From his perspective, he likely dismissed my grief as anthropomorphizing. Yet, it was not. I simply valued a being that gave me nothing but joy and love. Unlike mankind, cats do not steal, lie, cheat, and wantonly murder. Yet, there are some people- and not just wacky anti-abortionists, who value the slightest thing human over all else. What are your views on such?
SP: I am not a vegan, whereas I am opposed to murder and slavery, so I must be at least something of a human chauvinist.
One escape hatch would be to argue that humans, because of our social ties, self-consciousness, and ability to anticipate the future, suffer more acutely from murder and slavery than animals do, and that’s why it’s not as bad to kill an animal as to kill a human. But I think that such an argument is not enough to truly justify meat-eating and leather-wearing.
If it isn’t, then either I’m a horribly immoral person (which is certainly possible) or the human-animal boundary would have to have some moral status. One could argue that the boundary a bright line that, on one side, prevents obvious horrors like infanticide and involuntary euthanasia of the retarded or demented (who may have cognitive abilities akin to those of animals), while on the other, still allowing us to swat flies, comb out lice, and poison rats (and perhaps eat clams, or fish, or chicken, or beef, depending on how widely you spray-paint the line). I suspect that this is ultimately not a solvable problem, and that we’ll muddle through with a compromise: on the one hand, animal life deserves our moral consideration; on the other, the human-animal divide has a place in moral deliberation as well.
DS: Then there is the old example of, ‘What if a building was burning, and you could only save a person or the last extant manuscript of the works of William Shakespeare (or The Mona Lisa, or some other great work of art). Which would you save?’ Most people say, the person, and likely mean it. Yet, to me, I would have to weigh the person and the works. Even a good person is likely to not have a fraction of the cultural impact of a great work of art, especially over the centuries. Yes, saving Darwin or Galileo or Picasso or Rembrandt, over their works, is easy, for they can recapitulate most of that stuff. But saving Larry MacDougall, of MacDougall’s Plumbing? I’m not gonna lie, Larry would probably die, because nothing he could ever do would likely be as valuable to human culture as that great work of art. And it’s not because I devalue a human life, as much as I truly value human creations over human non-creators. Does that belief make one a cold, calculating proto-Fascist, a Stalinist wannabe, an über-sensitive lover of all things, or simply a mature, rational adult?
SP: I think I’ll stay away from that one. For one thing, my plumber might be reading this.
DS: To me, the great art that survives always leaves its audience looking upwards; it forces understanding on the percipient, whereas bad and pretentious art is hermetic. In my review of The Stuff Of Thought, I bring out that to play with words is to inevitably play with ideas, yet few seem to see that. Why?
SP: I’m not clear enough about who isn’t seeing what to answer that.
DS: In the chapter, The Metaphor Metaphor, you write of the inability of most people to separate themselves from themselves with language. And it put me in mind of the very notion of so-called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing, by writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. I’ve long found this to be bunkum. Not only does the human mind think metaphorically, but it thinks punctually. Punctuation is not a mere ad hoc device for the page, but a representation of the mind’s processes. Thus, most stream-of-consciousness writing fails and feels patently phony. Do you feel punctuation is generated, and not generative?
SP: An interesting question. You’re certainly right that stream-of-consciousness prose did not catch on as a compelling literary device. We’re all conscious, and we all want to get inside the heads of other people, and consciousness really does seem like a stream (in William James’ original metaphor), so one might have thought that a flow of unpunctuated words would simulate consciousness and be an appealing way to experience another person’s mind. But as you note, it does seem to have been more of a one-shot experiment – perhaps even a gimmick – rather than an enduringly effective medium. The question is why, and I can only guess.
In the history of punctuation itself, there’s a tension between the use of punctuation to indicate prosody (melody and rhythm in speech sound) and to indicate syntax (and the correlated distinctions in semantics and thought). If the former, then wordless thought may indeed be punctuation-free. If the latter, then thoughts would have natural boundaries – perhaps temporal breaks between mental propositions, or parts thereof -- that are indeed akin to punctuation, so omitting them is unnatural.
But many other issues are mixed in to your question. Are there different modes of thought, some discrete, others more flowing? Does the discrete nature of language make the rendering of stream-of-consciousness in words inherently difficult, so that the reader has to be aware of what the author is trying to achieve to appreciate his or her efforts -- which would thereby be a rarefied artistic accomplishment, rather than an easily accessible simulation?
DS: What of most contemporary art? You have been called retro by some avant-garde types, because you criticize much modern art. In a New Yorker review Louis Menand writes, ‘Pinker thinks that modern art is all ideas because it is only as ideas that he can experience it. In fact, Ofili’s painting is not ‘smeared in elephant dung,’ and Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ is not ‘a crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine.’ It’s a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine, and, technically and formally, a rather beautiful and evocative piece.’ The problem I have with this sort or review is that it’s all the criticism of intent. Menand simply does not deal with your writing, only what he feels you believe, and whether or not it’s good or bad. This is de rigueur in reviewing. Why is that? After all, when I read the elegant prose of a Loren Eiseley it matters not if the science is decades out of date. The writing is supernal.
SP: As far as modern art is concerned, my intent was not really to criticize it (I like many of the products of Modernism) as to explain a phenomenon, namely that the elite arts are in trouble. Humanities departments are floundering, the contemporary visual art scene is a travesty, and elite art music has become esoteric and marginalized (in an era in which popular music has exploded in creativity). The point of my chapter was to connect this decline to the denial of human nature among 20th-century intellectuals, critics, and elite artists – in particular, to the claim that beauty is a bourgeois social construction, rather than reflecting properties or our perceptual, emotional, and cognitive faculties.
If I were to write the chapter today I would have drawn finer distinctions. I would have distinguished more sharply between modernism and postmodernism; the latter is far more guilty of the denial of human nature. I would have distinguished between the different forms that modernism took in different genres (music, for example, as opposed to fiction, painting, and architecture). And I would have distinguished between the great original works of modernism, which represented admirable creativity, and the products that arose in its decadent phase, when it became a stultifying dogma.
Still, I stand by my main argument – that critically admired yet popularly despised products of 20th-century elite arts such as atonal music, brutalist architecture, postmodernist lit-crit, and grotesque conceptual art are, at least in part, products of the modern denial of human nature and the separation of the arts and humanities from the sciences.
DS: I never practice the ‘criticism of intent,’ nor do I focus solely on the ideas. If the actual craft of wordplay is bad, who cares if the idea is good? In my review of The Stuff Of Thought, I write, ‘Another thing that makes Pinker’s writing so good is that whether or not one agrees with his view, on a moralistic or logical level, one cannot help but be caught up in its argument, for look how plain and lucidly unfolded his argument is. There is no preening intellectually, nor self-congratulatory backpatting. And, finally, while I mentioned his nice inversion of both the human anatomy and grammar, he also distinguishes between taboo language as the thing itself, and the reasons why we invented and use such language. It is in these sly little *pops* that Pinker shows he not only understands the origins of language, but how to subtly use its often hidden ‘tricks,’ such as recapitulating visuals with linguistic tropes, and also using semi-hidden anaphora to induce an almost mesmeric quality before hitting a reader with an idea. What is anaphora? Read a Walt Whitman poem, where every line begins with the same few words or phrase, or read the Biblical ‘begats.’ Anaphora tends to have a mesmeric effect on a reader, lulling him into a sense of complacency so that the turn on to a new idea, theory, or concept is all the more jarring. In effect, anaphora acts as an amplifier to make the proposition all the more memorable in the reader’s mind, and also likely more receptive to it….That Pinker uses such verbal abracadabra, not only here, but throughout this book and his others, is more proof of what separates him, technically and stylistically, from many of the other excellent writers in science’s current Golden Age. Again, you may disagree with Pinker on any or all levels in regards to his scientific claims, but my assertion of his excellent writing is unassailable.’ Now, aside from the fact that I praise the craft, I actually am dealing with the words you write. The criticism of intent disallows that, for it presumes an übertext behind what is written, and only Menand can decode that for potential readers. In effect, he’s reviewing a different book from the one you wrote- in this case, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature. Yet, when he writes, ‘In fact, [Chris] Ofili’s painting is not ‘smeared in elephant dung,’ and [Andres] Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ is not ‘a crucifix in a jar of the artist’s urine.’ It’s a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine, and, technically and formally, a rather beautiful and evocative piece,’ we have no idea if he’s quoting you or Tom Wolfe, from Wolfe’s book The Painted Word, which he says you quote. Aside from being grammatically fuzzy as to who he is referencing, he’s playing a semantic game, just as such shock artists, as the two mentioned, or Karen Finley- who has smeared herself in her own feces, do so just to get attention. Ofili’s paintings are, indeed, smeared in elephant dung, as well as with it. I have seen them up close. Thus, Menand is being disingenuous, and trying to impute that disingenuity on you. And while it’s true that Serrano’s work is a photo, not the bottle itself; a) we do not know if he is quoting you nor Wolfe, b) the difference between the single metaphysical level of the bottle as a Duchampian work, and the photograph, is slight in comparison to its artistic merit, and c) if the crucifix was replaced by a Twizzler, no one would care. The very selection of the crucifix is the giveaway as to the fact that the ‘art’ is simply an idea, and prank. Yes, one may admire the shade of the urine color, for aesthetic or other reasons, but it’s clear that Menand has an axe, and is wielding it willy-nilly. Thoughts?
SP: The howl of rage in Menand’s review is largely defensive. Menand knows that his home fields, the humanities and arts, are in bad shape, and that the school of thought he identifies with, postmodernism, deserves much of the blame. But he bristles at an outsider making these points, and refuses to hear out the suggestion that an increasing consilience between the arts and sciences points to a way out of the self-inflicted catastrophe. (Brian Boyd, in his American Scholar essay Getting It All Wrong, offers a brilliant critique of this blind spot in Menand.) Rather than coming to grips with the phenomenon I identified, Menand tried to discredit my competence to write about the topic with various “gotchas,” such as the list of works of shocking art that have made recent headlines. Sure, Piss Christ is literally a photograph of a crucifix in urine, not a crucifix in urine, just as the expression “Warhol’s soup cans” does not literally refer to cans of soup but to paintings of cans of soup. I agree that his pedantic harping on this shorthand is a sign of desperation.
As for the photo itself—well, I know a thing or two about the technical side of photography, and I can tell you that “technically and formally,” Piss Christ is similar to what you can see from serious amateurs in any issue of Popular Photography. As you point out, to discuss this work in technical and formal terms, rather than as an attempt to shock, is disingenuous – if it were a photo of a twizzler in a glass of apple-juice, no one would ever have heard of it. And what if it were Piss Martin Luther King? Or Piss Anne Frank? Or Piss Mohammed?
DS: In a lighter vein, you wax on about the name Steven in science, and then discourse on the popularity of naming children. Yet, you only touch on, tangentially, one of the more bizarrely interesting phenomena in this regard- the naming habits of black Americans. After all, there are not many LaToyas running about the veldts after wildebeests. To what extent is this similar to the phenomenon in the 1970s, where blacks declaimed they were ‘descended from kings’? Most of these American black names have nothing in common with African black names.
SP: There are two phenomena here. One is the romantic connection with Africa that became a source of cultural motifs in African American culture beginning in the late 1960s (dashikis, Afro hair styles, names like Aisha, and so on). That is similar to the vogue for Celtic names among contemporary Irish-Americans , or the fad for Israeli names among Orthodox Jews in the 1970s and 1980s. Another is a trend in which African Americans have been giving their children creative and euphonious new names – Shaquille, Latrelle, LeBron, LaTonya, Chamique, Semeka, and so on. These seem more faux-French than faux-African, and what they illustrate is that trends in baby naming often revolve around sound patterns rather than meanings. (Examples from mainstream white naming patterns include Jennifer, Jenna, Jessica, Jesse in the 1970s, and Lois, Gladys, Doris, Dolores, Glennis in the 1920s). The popular sounds vary across subcultures. Sometimes they sample from a romantic or nationalistic source, but sometimes they just recombine an endemic pool of favored sounds or sound templates.
DS: Ok, let’s take a step back from The Stuff Of Thought, and speak more generally. Since language is manifestly a major part of your life’s work, what do you see as causing the devolution of simple and engaging conversation? Is it emailese, Postmodernism, Political Correctness, video games, Madison Avenue, hip hop, etc.? Or, is this a cyclic thing, as I think, and there will have to come a time when people will want to stop reading novels by a writer simply for his or her social status- ethnicity, sexual preference, disability, socioeconomic status, and appreciate the written word for its ability to move alone, by planting abstraction sin the mind’s palette?
SP: I’m wary of interpreting social trends, since so few of them are independently documented. Do we really know that conversation has deteriorated, or, do we, like so many generations before us, simply assume that civilization has declined, the younger generation is going to pot, and the good old days are gone? I’m with you in deploring certain phenomena – pretentious Pomo gibberish, identity politics in the arts, and the phobia of articulateness among many college-age people (I remember recently being interviewed by the editor of a student newspaper at a major university and being appalled at her unwillingness to frame a single question as a complete grammatical sentence. As you note, this could be cyclical – I hope so.) But other of the phenomena you cite may be neutral or even healthy. People command multiple registers, so I don’t think email diction will change the spoken language any more than the advent of the telegram a century ago caused people to omit articles and prepositions or end every sentence with “STOP.” Words infiltrating our language from other subcultures and dialects has always been the source of its richness – whether from sports, jazz, sailing, technology, or hiphop. Literally thousands of words and idioms we now find indispensable came into the language as slang or jargon from some subculture.
DS: Although it’s not PC to admit, I feel that- like language acquisition- and the need to learn it by 6 or 7, lest end up a wild child like Kaspar Hauser, there is a similar limit to honing one’s talent with words, and if one has not done so by 30, that’s it: lights out. Also, that writing talent is immanent. You cannot learn to be a great writer. You are or are not. Someone without the gift is doomed to failure. I’ve seen this with literally hundreds of wannabe writers. I know, when I’m in a groove, it’s like the view from the cyborg in The Terminator films- I can instantly revise and handle multiple drafts at once. Lesser writers cannot. Also, I’ve seen, historically, how most writers tend to peak between the ages of 35 and 50. Do you agree with these views on writing? Have their been studies on writing and other artistic abilities that have demonstrated that these can be so?
SP: I’m not an expert on the lifespan development of talents in different fields, but certainly writing is more forgiving of the aging process than, say, mathematics, where people really do accomplish their best work in their twenties and early thirties. Great writers are thought to reach their peak later in life than mathematicians and scientists (though I recently read that even with writers there is a peak; you don’t get better and better as you get older and older, alas).
Presumably success in each field depends on a specific tradeoff between raw brain power – CPU speed, so to speak – which declines with age, and the acquisition of an inventory of elements, motifs, and strategies to recombine, which increases with age (in the case of writers, this would be words, idioms, constructions, and turns of phrase). Different fields require different mixtures of computational power and inventory richness, and so the peaks are found at different ages.
I suspect you’re right that good prose style is partly heritable, since everything is partly heritable. And as a teacher, I clearly see some students who just have a way with words from Day 1, and others who, with all the tutoring in the world, still have to struggle to compose a phrase that isn’t clumsy or opaque. As with everything else, the very best writers cultivate whatever talents they are born with, paying attention to good examples, scrutinizing their own works, constantly trying to improve.
DS: Many artists seem to deny their own creativity, pawning it off on God, or some other force or demiurge. I call this the Divine Inspiration Fallacy. There is no Muse. For better or worse, it’s all me, or you, or any artist. Comments on its existence, origins, verity?
SP: With ourselves, it must be because our own thought processes are mostly unconscious, so we have no access to the true source of our ideas. In viewing other people, we see the product, but not the process, of their thoughts. We don’t see the years of apprenticeship and immersion, the crumpled drafts in the wastebasket, the trains of thought that led nowhere, the penultimate attempt that brought the thinker to the threshold of Eureka! As I note in How the Mind Works, careful, fact-driven accounts of the creative process from historians and biographers tend to be deflationary – geniuses engage in a lot of practice, a lot of play, a lot failed experiments, and a lot of slow incremental progress, rather than being struck by lightning bolts of inspiration.
DS: I maintain that the creative arts are higher than the performing or interpretive arts, because you are basically starting with less to work with. In short, an actor interpreting Shakespeare or O’Neill has it much easier than the two playwrights did in conjuring the drama. Similarly, I posit that writing and poetry are the two highest general and specific art forms, for writing is wholly abstract- black squiggles on white that merely represent and must be decoded, whereas the visual arts are inbred, and one can instantly be moved by a great photo or painting, while even the greatest haiku will take five or ten seconds to read and digest. Poetry is the highest form of writing because, unlike fiction, it needs no narrative spine to drape its art over- it can be a moment captured, and wholly abstractly, unlike a photo. Do you agree with these views? If so, why do you think this is so? I would bet that since language (at least written) is only a six or so thousand year old phenomenon, while sight has been around for 600 million years or more, that’s a hell of a head start the visual arts have over writing.
SP: Too hard a question! I wouldn’t disagree, but am not so sure I could support you either. By the way, I’d date language to 60,000 rather that 6,000 years ago (that’s how old our species is, and every human group ever discovered has complex language, regardless of its degree of technological development). But that’s still consistent with your argument.
DS: Speaking of words, and their practice, where have all the great interviewers like a Mishlove, Phil Donahue, or Bill Buckley gone? In preparing for this interview, I read many online transcripts, and watched some video interviews, and I was underwhelmed by both the queries and any real sense of passion on the interviewers’ parts. One of the things we’ve tried to do with these interviews is avoid the canned sort of responses that most interviews- print or videotaped, indulge in, yet most people find comfort in hearing the expected. On a tangential note, a similar claim can be made about clichés providing comfort. Have you ever studied clichés in your work? I would think that, since they are defined by their numerical frequency, they would be an easy subject to take up. No?
SP: I think you’re right about the art of interviewing, especially in the popular media. Even a middlebrow with a know-nothing persona like Johnny Carson used to have many scientists and intellectuals on his program, like Carl Sagan, who was such a regular that Carson’s comic impersonation of him (“billlllions and billllions of stars”) was instantly recognizable. The younger, hipper hosts – Leno, Letterman, O’Brien – restrict their interviews to actresses and comedians. Even the more intellectual-friendly hosts—Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—do their interviews with an ironic smirk. Again, if we judge the culture by the level of its middlebrow accomplishments, the lack of any contemporary interview format as extended and in-depth as what one used to read in Playboy (the only reason I looked at the magazine, of course) tells you something.
That having been said, my girlfriend and I recently rented DVDs of old Dick Cavett shows from the 1970s, hoping to indulge our nostalgia for an era in which an urbane, witty, literate man could host a popular talk show. What a disappointment! By today’s standards the show (which stretched over 90 minutes, not today’s 60) dragged interminably, with huge expanses of dead air and conversations that went nowhere. The show clearly came from a more leisurely age, which is not necessarily a good thing, In terms of intellectual stimulation, 90 minutes watching Cavett in the 1970s was far more a waste of time than 90 minutes of surfing the Internet, or even the cable dial, today.
DS: Let’s talk about life as a public intellectual. Obviously, I am engaging you for what you have put forth into the public arena, and to get new spins, insights, on to certain things, and to elicit heretofore unknown opinions. Yet, intellectual- as a noun, has suffered many blows since the 1950s, when the Marxists of Academia were shamed by their folly in support of Stalinist Russia. There was some redemption when the Left was right on Vietnam and Civil Rights, but increasingly, just as the Right has gone off the deep end with their obsessions on homosexuality, abortion, the rise of Right Wing Agitprop Radio, and viewing America as the Great Savior of the world (hence the Iraq War), the Left has been every bit as silly, with New Age Charlatans, the Feminazi rise, the embrace of censorship under the auspices of PC protection for the innocent, and the demonization of America as the Great Satan.
Whereas the Right Wing has left its mark on Corporate America and Evangelical Christians, the Left has a stranglehold on Academia. Let me raise the specter of two names that I think have done grievous damage to the term ‘intellectual.’ The first is likely the more obvious name- linguist Noam Chomsky- a former colleague of yours at MIT. I am no expert on his scientific work, but I do know a bit more than the average layman, and while there’s no denying his eminence in cognitive theory, why would someone like him basically abandon his eminence and research in a field he is the Elvis Presley of, and spend decades playing the buffoon on subjects well outside his purview? Certainly, no one denies him his right as a citizen to speak out politically, but, as I am a writer, and would put my chops on, say- poetry, against anyone living or dead, I would never think that that expertise qualifies me as an expert on Bulgarian politics nor the mating habits of bees in Malaysia. So, why do you think Chomsky, and others in Academia, feel a need to display their sciolism in so many areas outside their expertise, and why do people take a Chomsky so seriously when he has proven to be so wrong on so many political issues- from shilling for the Khmer Rouge and other Communist Totalitarian states to exculpating terrorism to seemingly agreeing with some Holocaust Deniers? Granted, he’s been right on many issues domestically, too, but HE’S A LINGUIST, not an expert on everything. And it seems to me he has wasted his truest gifts in the field he helped establish, on things he’s accomplished nothing in, and damaged his own reputation to boot. By contrast, I’ve never read nor heard you opining on such things. Are you just a mealy-mouthed wimp, or do you learn from others’ mistakes?
SP: Mealy-mouthed wimp, for sure. Though I share your assessment of Chomsky’s political opinions, I diagnose the situation differently. We’re not seeing a case of dilettantism or ignorance – Chomsky commands vast amounts of knowledge in the political fields he writes about, which is one of the reasons he impresses, indeed intimidates, audiences. Nor could he ever be called intellectually lazy – he applies a powerful intellect to advancing his world view. And as he rightly notes, professional credentials should not be the main criterion in evaluating someone’s arguments.
I would say that the problem with Chomsky is rather that with such a clever mind, such impressive erudition, and such formidable rhetorical skills, he has the power to push an idée fixe arbitrarily far. He can wow sycophants, blow off critics as stupid or evil, explain away embarrassing data, and rationalize mistakes at will. Lesser mortals might be humbled by a critic, or embarrassed by a counterexample, or forced into a reassessment by an unpredicted turn of events.
In Chomsky’s case, as I noted in The Blank Slate, we’re seeing a fundamentally romantic view of human nature, in which people naturally cooperate and create without the need for external incentives, until these faculties are stifled by malign social institutions. We also see an all-encompassing moralistic theory of political and historical causation – that world events can be understood as the intended outcomes of a morally odious agent, namely the United States and its allies. Tragedies, well-meaning blunders, painful tradeoffs, human limitations, least bad options, historic changes in contemporary standards of political conduct—none of these play a role in Chomsky’s causal model. Disciplinary expertise and training are beside the point – when you’re determined to advance an all-encompassing theory, intellectual and scholarly power can work to your ultimate disadvantage in terms of providing an accurate rendering of reality.
DS: I mentioned sciolism, and the Internet, Google, and outlets like Wikipedia, have led to what I’d term a sciolistic dialectic online. Since Wikipedia and other outlets are so manifestly flawed- again, why should I be considered adept enough to comment on Bulgarian politics?, what do you see as a solution to this detrital mass of misinformation? How can the average layman, who wants to improve his knowledge of whatever subject, possibly distinguish the good and trustworthy information from the 99.99% of utter garbage out there?
SP: Thanks for teaching me the useful word sciolism. Wikipedia is flawed, to be sure, but I’m rather impressed by how good it is. It is a surprisingly self-healing system whose notorious errors get corrected in minutes, and it is infinitely more useful than, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica. Whereas Wikipedia embodies a collective, distributed intelligence (of the sort that allows market economies to outperform planned economies, or Linux to be less buggy than Windows), articles in the Britannica reflect the quirks of the single academic who has been charged with writing them. Many of the articles are so parochial and oblivious to the background assumptions of laypeople as to be effectively useless. When I have used it to learn things in technical fields I don’t know about, I often find that I can’t understand a word of the Britannica piece. I used to blame myself, until it dawned on me: if I find a Britannica article too hard to understand, who on Earth is it intended for? Also, entrusting a topic to a credentialed expert often means entrusting it to the oldest scholar around, and the one with the most time on his hands – not a good way to get state-of-the-art knowledge about a field of science! Britannica articles in my own field are often written by embittered graybeards who long ago fell out of touch with the advancing front.
A general principle in cognitive psychology is that “statistical prediction” outperforms “clinical prediction.” That is, a statistical aggregate of a lot of data (even when the formula for aggregating them is fairly primitive) has a better track record than a single “expert.” For example, simple formulas and algorithms do better at diagnosing diseases, investing in stocks, and predicting recidivism than doctors, financial analysts, and parole officers, respectively. It wouldn’t surprise me if, contrary to intuition, a large self-regulating community would converge on higher-quality information than a single credentialed expert.
DS: Back to the idea of ‘intellectual.’ The second name I will drop aggravates me far more than the political nonsense (or naïve-té, to be generous) of Chomsky, and that is the late New Age charlatan, Joseph Campbell. Granted, without George Lucas’s mind-numbing Star Wars films, no one would likely have heard of him. Then there were the interviews and PBS television series with Bill Moyers- another of the Left’s noxious counterparts to Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, and his wholesale mangling of basic mythologies. Even worse were some of his ludicrous notions on the monomyth (Yes, Joe, humans do tell tales that are similar in structure and content!) and other obvious literary devices. Kurt Vonnegut once parodied Campbell’s nonsense with his own ‘in the hole’ trope: The hero gets into trouble, the hero gets out of trouble. What aggravates me more about Campbell is that while Chomsky is both championed and denounced in colleges, Campbell’s New Age ideas are accepted with little rebuke, which leads to the dumbing down of culture by the Oprah Winfreys of the world. PC is now about a quarter century old phenomenon. You have been around long enough to see its rise. Do you see an end in sight? And while no one denies that there are good aims in multiculturalism, simply put, there are simply not enough qualified nor excellent voices in most fields to warrant many of the changes in curricula. Anyone who would suggest that, say, a Nikki Giovanni, should have her ‘poetry’ taught in favor of Percy Shelley, is a fool. And what galls me is that it is always the worst and most politicized hacks whose works are held up to bump off a Dead White Male from his perch, whilst, in my poetry example, a great black poet, like a Robert Hayden or James Emanuel, is never seen as an alternative. This manifests that the Old Boys Network is merely under siege from a new Girls And Boys Network that cares as little for true quality and diversity as the dinosaurs they seek to displace. When do you believe multicultis will tire of the mere novelty of exotica and demand true excellence- not just writers that ‘respect’ them and their tribe?
SP: I wish I knew. It’s generally impossible to predict how long social trends (like the rise and fall of the name “Steve”) will last. For one thing, PC, PoMo, and multi-culti got their start in the 1960s, whereas the counterrevolution only found its legs in the early 1990s (perhaps the kickoff was the Newsweek cover story which first popularized the old term “political correctness.”). Perhaps a change will only happen when the cohort of academics who got tenure in the expansive 1960s retires – as Max Planck said about science, the field advances funeral by funeral.
DS: My wife Jessica, has worked in science, and has told me tales of office politics, but even though science has a reputation as being politicized, is it really as bad as the rest of Academia? Does politics determine granting? If so, it seems that the writings of scientists- at least in popular books, is far less politicized than those from the MFA creative writing mills. Is this an accurate assessment?
SP: There’s politics in the sense of who-you-know, and politics in the left-wing-right-wing sense. Both are operative in science funding, unfortunately. But at least they are viewed as bad things that should be eliminated or minimized, whereas I get the sense that within much of the humanities, politics (in the left-right sense) is seen as ineliminable and perhaps even to be welcomed. Scholarship is seen a means of advancing a salubrious social and political agenda.
DS: How has the Bush regime hurt science funding in America? Recently, some former Surgeons General testified to Congress re: the politicization of their work by the current and past administrations. Has your university and/or field been affected? I would think that studies of the brain and language are less controversial than D&C abortions (misleadingly called partial birth abortions), stem cells, and studies on homosexuality.
SP: You’re right: the fields I work in are, fortunately, not as vulnerable to contemporary political interference as stem cells or global warming. What damage there is comes more from the left more than from the right (though the right does plenty of damage in other fields). “Evolution” is a poison word in grant applications in psychology, not because it will lead to godless humanism but because it will lead to Nazi eugenics. And there is tremendous support for any effort to prove that women are indistinguishable from men.
DS: Since I mentioned homosexuality, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard your views on the subject. One of the interesting things about research into it is that many of the top researchers are gay, even though many of the top critics of such research are straight, and feel that finding a ‘key’ to homosexuality will somehow lead to genetic efforts to eradicate it. Yet, it seems that a ‘single point of origin’ for the behavior- or, a smoking gun, seems increasingly unlikely. Both the gay gene and the gay brain proved to be rather silly ideas, and no more likely to cause homosexuality than a weak father figure. Human beings are far more complex a thing than any other living creature on this planet- even the dolts, therefore if one could actually pinpoint a cause or causes of any behavior- especially complex things like sexuality (be it preferences, fetishes, frequency), it’s likely to be multivalent. That is, one would find dozens of ‘causes’ for any group of a thousand homosexuals, with many things overlapping, but each person’s ‘real reason’ being a secret formula. In short, I think the dog is chasing its tail, and origins are not as important, in such cases, as implications. Thoughts? And, if so, could homosexuality be a) more closely related to fetishism because b) same sex sexual play and dominance play are rampant among higher animals, especially mammals?
SP: I think one has to distinguish homosexual behavior, which is no more of a puzzle than any other form of non-procreative sex (such as masturbation), from exclusive homosexuality, that is, the avoidance of, or failure to seek, heterosexual opportunities. The latter really is an evolutionary puzzle, because (at least in men) it is partly heritable (i.e., is affected by the genes, though not necessarily a single “gay gene”), and one would expect that any genes that lead, on average, to fewer offspring than their alternative alleles would quickly be selected out.
At this point there are no good theories on the evolutionary basis of preferential or exclusive homosexuality. One reason is that this is a topic that neither the left nor the right particularly wants to see funded. You’re right that political correctness is pushing its thumb on the other side of the scale this time. In this case, the left likes genetic explanations, and the right hates them, because a genetic basis for homosexuality would seem to imply that gay men can’t be blamed for having made a sinful choice, that they can’t be persuaded out of it through religious counseling, and that they don’t need to be kept from children to prevent them from proselytizing new converts. (Never mind that all of these concerns are non sequiturs.)
When an issue gets politicized, science is the first casualty, and here too advocates have tried to bully researchers away from conclusions that appear not to put their favored groups in a good light. Michael Bailey, perhaps the country’s leading researcher on homosexuality, nearly had his life ruined by nuisance lawsuits, bogus ethics charges, and false personal accusations because he argued that in one kind of male-to-female transsexual (the ones who are attracted to women) the men are motivated by sexual concerns rather than by being women trapped in men’s bodies. (I even got some abuse for writing a nice blurb to Bailey’s book.) So it’s not a topic in which a wave of smart young researchers are going to dedicate their budding careers.
As I mentioned, at this point, we don’t have a good theory. E. O. Wilson suggested that gay men are like “helpers at the nest” and channel their resources into nieces and nephews rather than offspring – which is clearly wrong. (Among other things, gay men have been found not to indulge their nieces and nephews any more than straight men do.) Dean Hamer had the most interesting suggestion – that the “gay gene” he discovered (still contested), when passed onto women (2/3 of the time, because it is on the X chromosome) made women go through menarche at a younger age, resulting in a lifelong reproductive advantage, which more than compensated for the disadvantage when the gene is in men. Bailey, following Ray Blanchard, has suggested that the mother’s immune system is sensitized by male fetuses and produces antibodies that inactivate testosterone or its receptors in the fetal brain; his evidence is that men with more older brothers are more likely to be gay. Another hypothesis, proposed by Gregory Cochran and Paul Ewald, is that homosexuality is caused by an infectious agent. Yet another is that our environments have recently change in such a way that genetically sensitive men who might have been heterosexual in evolutionary typical environments are tweaked toward homosexuality today. But no one knows the answer, and no one is likely to find out any time soon, at least not in the United States.
Whatever the answer is, it may be different from women, because women’s sexuality is so much more complex and fluid than men’s. Women are far more likely than men to change sexual orientation during their lifetimes (the LUG or lesbian-until-graduation phenomenon), to experiment with homosexuality, to happily do without sex at certain stages of their lives, and so on. For those reasons I’d predict that homosexuality is less heritable in women than in men, and less sensitive to other biological factors like prenatal influences.
DS: On a related score, most mammals seem to have a need to play- i.e.- do activities that seemingly serve no benefit in terms of seeking food, sex, etc. What is the cause of play? Could it be that more complex brains simply need to unwind, and ‘cool down’?
SP: Juvenile play is common in the animal kingdom, and its obvious function is experimentation and practice in preparation for actual encounters with the world. Juvenile predators play at stalking (as in a kitten with a string toy), juvenile prey animals play at dodging and fleeing, juvenile apes engage in play fighting, little boys play with toy weapons, and so on. Peter Gray, the author of the psychology textbook I use in my course and an expert on play, notes that even in grim situations like refugee and concentration camps, children’s play is distinctively practical – while the adults use play as an escape from reality (e.g., card or board games), the children invent macabre reality-based games, like withstanding simulated abuse from pretend guards. With adults, too, a lot of play consists in pushing the outside of the envelope of survival – experiencing controllable doses of ancestral dangers like speed, heights, water, animals, exhaustion, and enemies, presumably to see how far one can go into dangerous territory without crossing the line into genuine harm.
This is not to deny the possibility that some play just consists of pressing the pleasure buttons of the brain. Given that we are technologically clever enough to do all kinds of amazing things, we are bound to be clever enough to short-circuit our pleasure circuitry as well, such as with recreational drugs, music, dance, and other enjoyable pursuits.
DS: And, if it is true that play is a way to cool down a brain, what of dreams? At least to me, since I only know what my dreams are like, my dreams seem to be void of symbolism, and are merely the unspoolings of my mind from a day’s stress. As example, a few months ago, while preparing an early draft of this interview, I was doing research on you by watching this video of a lecture you did after the release of The Blank Slate. I watched the full near two hour long video, and that night, both Jessica and I had dreams with you in it. Jess could not recall her dream, but mine was this: I was the narrator of a film- perhaps a documentary about you, and possibly a student of yours. Yet, the Steven Pinker in the dream, while looking as you do, was not a cognitive psychologist, but an expert on global warming and the melting Arctic ice cap. There were some other students who accompanied you and me to the Arctic to do some research. One was a female student who was likely your lover. Then, after forgetting some parts, the ice caps quickly melted, and all of us returned to the Arctic shores drenched. However, you were immediately arrested by government authorities for either plagiarism or tax evasion, spent a few years in jail, and won the Nobel Prize for something or other. When you got out of jail, with me narrating the film of this all, you gave a big kiss off to the media, not unlike the Woody Allen character does in the Martin Ritt film The Front. Then, I woke.
Now, I see no great Freudian symbolism, and most of my recalled dreams are similar, where people from my past, or an occasional celebrity, meets me and engages in rather dull things (save for a recurrent dream of Sharon Stone in fishnet stockings!). It seems obvious that you were in the dream because I saw the video not long before I slept, a day or two earlier I’d read a piece in Discover magazine on the melting of Arctic ice, and the hiking around that occurred in the dream was because that day Jessica and I had gone hiking in a state park.
So, if dreams, and their causes, are so pedestrian, why do so many still try to imbue so much into them? Or are my dreams an exception? Has anyone ever studied the obsession over dream interpretation rather than the interpretation of dreams themselves? And does anyone really understand why we dream? Is it the brain’s way of cooling down, as I suggest?
SP: Yes, I tend to agree that the content of dreams is a screensaver – any old pattern will do. Lots of interesting and important things happen to the brain during sleep, but the actual screenplay of dreams is unlikely to matter.
You raise a good question about the appeal of dream interpretation, which may be universal, and is always accompanied by a sense of profundity and portent. The nineteenth century anthropologist Edward Tylor suggested that the experience of dreaming is a major reason that people everywhere are dualists, believing that the mind and body can part company. After all, when you’re dreaming, some part of you is up and about in the world – indeed, a netherworld that follows inscrutable laws – while your body is in bed the whole time. Much of religion and mysticism consists of thinking about a mysterious other-world of spirits, ghosts, and souls, which is often felt to be close to the incorporeal world of dreams.
DS: Let’s move on to eugenics. Despite the infamous misapplications by the Nazis, as well as White Supremacists in this nation, I think both eugenics and euthenics are good things, and I feel both hover over all discussions of cloning and stem cells today. Yet, how can one claim to be for liberty and deny others a right to choose their kids eye color, or sex, or a desire to clone oneself? Do you feel that the fear of creating a race of supermen is overblown? Would not Murphy’s Law play a role? Or the Law Of Unintended Consequences?
SP: Yes, I’ve made such an argument before the President’s Council on Bioethics, and in a related Boston Globe op-ed.
DS: On a related note, I cite the two above ‘Laws’ because I feel ‘greatness’ is a random thing. When people have tried to make available the sperm or eggs of Nobel Laureates or Mensans, the kids turn out to be rather average. This gibes with the fact that almost all great people, such as Picasso, Newton, Einstein, and most famously-Thomas Jefferson, have never had any forebears nor descendents come close to their achievements. And the few famed people who’ve had success run in their families- the Adamses, the Darwins, the Barrymores, have never really had greats in their clans, or- as in the Darwin case, Erasmus was not in a league with his grandson Charles. I call this fact the Infinity Spike, meaning that the idea that a Master Race could be engineered- at least intellectually, is folly. Perhaps physical characteristics, but the chances of two Mensans or Nobel Laureates producing another Michelangelo or Kurosawa are only negligibly greater than such a person coming from a plumber and a teacher. Perhaps a three or four out of fifty million chance versus a one and a half to two chance. In short, greatness spikes toward infinity out of nowhere- there is no predictable bell curve nor progression toward excellence. What are your thoughts on this posit?
SP: Yes, see above. The great biochemist George Wald, one of the Cambridge lefty scientists of the 1960s, was asked to contribute to Shockley’s sperm bank for Nobel prizewinners. He wrote, “If you want sperm that produces Nobel prizewinners, you should be asking people like my father, a poor immigrant tailor. What have my sperm produced? Two no-good guitarists!”
Of course, today’s women who pay more for sperm from elite college graduates, or who choose not to bear the child of some low-life from a drunken one-night-stand, are not being irrational. Intelligence and personality are heritable, at least statistically. But you’re right that true genius and other extreme traits are not heritable because of the laws of probability – what statisticians call regression to the mean. This is related to your Infinity Spike.
DS: And, what if my idea about an Infinity Spike is correct- would that mean that it’s folly to try to ‘breed’ a race of Nobel Laureates?
SP: As far as extreme people are concerned (Hitlers, Einsteins, Mozarts), your “infinity spike” idea is surely right. A countless number of things have to align adventitiously for such an unusual person to arise. First, there might have to be dozens or hundreds or thousands of genes, not just one or two, in an exact combination—what behavioral geneticists call “emergenesis.” Second, even identical twins raised together are nowhere near perfectly correlated, despite their identical genomes and near-identical environments. This shows that there must be an enormous role for chance, either in brain development, unique experiences, or both. Third, the exact time and place in which a baby is born surely matters – a Mozart or Hitler today may not find a niche that allows their peculiar powers to express themselves.
And on top of this these factual uncertainties, there are the numerous tradeoffs. There may be genes that might have side effects, such as increasing the IQ of some of your children by 10 points and leaving others confined by spasms to a wheelchair. There may be genes that are desirable only in optimal doses: a gene that makes kids bolder might be desirable if his other 20,000 genes would render him pathologically shy, but not if the other 20,000 would render him a reckless maniac.
Then you have to ask how we would get there from here – if there is even a small chance that the first experiments in enhancement would produce a deformed child, how would those experiments ever get done?
And even if all these technical issues were worked out, there would still be the issue of personal preferences. People, probably irrationally, are horrified by genetically manipulated soybeans – can we really be so sure that they would welcome genetically manipulated babies? It’s instructive to look at the predictions about our “inevitable” technological future that were common when I was a child in the 1950s and 1960s -- nuclear-powered automobiles, moving sidewalks in domed cities, meals in a squeeze tube, blowing the Great Barrier Reef to smithereens with nuclear bombs to create new shipping lanes. These are risible today not just because of technical infeasibility or costs but because of changes in values. At the time, convenience and effortlessness trumped everything else in life. Today we put a value on exercise, biodiversity, naturalness, sensory richness, and medical safety that just didn’t figure at the time. The same may be true for designer babies and other Brave-New-World scenarios.
DS: Let’s move on to a different meaning of The Bell Curve. I refer to the infamous 1994 book (and some would call racial screed) by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. You seem to be sympathetic to it, on a statistical level, but averse to many of its conclusions. As example, you believe that IQ is not immanent, but malleable, and cite statistics that show the IQs of ethnic groups can change over time. To me, this seems rather obvious.
As example, about 15 years ago a cousin of mine urged me to join Minnesota’s Mensa Society, to which she belonged. Well, the experience was disturbing, for the Mensans were a collection of all the worst stereotypes of nerds, geeks, and weirdos one could imagine. Furthermore, I had to take one of their IQ tests, which was dated 1969. The questions were atrociously constructed, and were manifestly not objective, nor did they measure anything which could be called creative. To join, one had to achieve the 98th percentile. I got to the 92nd percentile, but there were a dozen or so questions that I knowingly gave the ‘wrong’ answer to simply because the premises were false and/or I disagreed with the ‘correct’ answer I knew they wanted.
Two examples: one question asked to choose the object that went with a cup. The choices were a spoon, fork, saucer, or table. To me, the natural answer, from my less than middle class childhood, was a table. Cups go on tables. Of course, I knew they wanted the answer to be saucer; but that’s simply a cultural bias, and says nothing of a real intellectual nature. The second example was to link geometric shapes. They gave a square and asked to link it to other geometric forms: a circle, a hexagon, an octagon, and a square. Now, I knew they wanted it linked to the latter three shapes, because all of those shapes were polygons. Yet, to me, since the latter three had an even number of angles, and the triangle an odd number, it could be linked to the circle, since a circle has an infinite number of angles, and infinity can be either an odd or even number, they can be linked most closely.
Thus, I think IQ tests merely measure a pedestrian or functionary level of intellect. What are your thoughts on its efficacy in measuring real human intelligence? And, the main criticism- amongst seemingly hundreds, of The Bell Curve, was that is was not multivalent, and did not include different sorts of intelligence, such as Howard Gardner’s Seven Intelligences: language, math and logic, musical, spatial, bodily & kinaesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Comments?
SP: The thing about Mensa these days is that it is aimed at people whose social identity hinges on being smart, rather than at people who are smart or people who do interesting things thanks to the fact that they are smart. Hence the wonk stereotype. My sense is that this was different before urbanization, ubiquitous college education, and social stratification by intelligence, at a time when smart people were more scattered across the country and different socioeconomic circles. During my 21 years as a professor at MIT I would often meet students who had been the only smart kid in their small town. Their lives had been miserable – a fat smart girl in a Maine mill town where cheerleaders had all the status, or a reflective introverted boy in a town where only the jocks were respected. The other kids ostracized and persecuted them, and often their own families didn’t understand them, thinking that they were “showing off” when they did well in math or read books. Going to MIT meant that for the first time they were valued for what they were. I imagine that at one time Mensa had a similar function. The upshot, though, is that the IQ tests they administer are fairly crude, and far from the state of the art.
I think you’re wrong about IQ tests in general. They’ve been shown to predict (statistically, of course) a vast array of outcomes that one would guess require intelligence, including success at school, choice of intellectually demanding professions, income (in a modern economy), tenure and publications in academia, and other indicators, together with lower crime rates, lower infant mortality, lower rates of divorce, and other measures of well-being. The idea that IQ tests don’t predict anything in the real world is one of the great myths of the intellectuals.
I’m sympathetic to modular theories of the generic human mind like Howard Gardner’s, but they have nothing to do with individual differences in intelligence. For one thing, the inclusion of “musical” and “bodily and kinesthetic” intelligence is mainly a tactic to morally elevate those traits by rebranding them as forms of “intelligence.” But a great athlete or drummer is not necessarily “intelligent” in the sense that people ordinarily mean by the term. Secondly, though modularity may apply to the universal design specs of the human mind, and may help explain pathologies that selectively affect one faculty (such as from brain damage or a genetic deficit), that has nothing to do with quantitative variation among individuals in the normal range. It’s an empirical fact – massively and repeatedly demonstrated – that people who do well on tests of verbal intelligence also do well on tests of spatial and quantitative intelligence, and vice-versa. The correlation is nowhere near perfect (some people really are better at math, others with words), but it is undoubtedly a positive correlation. General intelligence in this sense is a real phenomenon.
DS: And would not the fact that racial or ethnic strengths wax and wane due to non-biological reasons be manifest? Take a look at the most demotic of all sports- boxing. A century ago, Jews and Irishmen dominated. Then, blacks took over. Now it’s Latinos that dominate. Did Jews and Irishmen suddenly turn wimpy? And if one could quantify any groups’ qualities, would they not be in constant flux due to aging, birth, death, and other health conditions? And would not systemic poverty inevitably skew and retard certain groups over others? After all, even in nations less diverse than America, the poorer groups are always at the bottom of the intellectual ladder, even if the same or similar groups dominate in other nations where they are not as impoverished.
SP: Differences between groups may have a different explanation that differences within groups, to be sure. But historical changes of the kind you just mentioned do not show that the relevant ethnic differences are arbitrary. If you exclude blacks from professional basketball, then open the doors and they flood in while the Jews are driven out, that doesn’t mean that on average blacks and Jews are equally good at basketball and that the NBA suddenly became anti-Semitic. Likewise as the media become more global, travel becomes cheaper, and sports become more professional and competitive, the best athletes in a sport will be found in whatever nook or cranny of the planet they inhabit, such as east Africa for marathon running. The fact that an arbitrary exclusion can distort the composition of some set of actors does not imply the converse – that when the exclusions are eliminated, the set will reflect the population in perfect proportion. On the contrary, as the selection becomes fairer and more acute, and the stakes for success in competition become higher, one expects to find that any group with even a slight advantage can crowd out the others.
DS: The Bell Curve leads me into my own ideas on human intellect, from decades of observing the creative an non-creative minds. I first posited this in an essay on the literary critic Harold Bloom: Here is my posit: the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2, or Functionary3.
While I have not, admittedly, ever subjected this idea to rigorous scientific testing (how could one?), I think that, anecdotally, it hold sup. There is simply a difference between Functionary minds and Creationary minds, and an even bigger one between merely Creationary minds (your average artist, leader, or scientist) and those who are truly Visionary. Do you agree with any of this? And is there any squaring of Gardner’s Seven Intelligences with my idea of Three Intellects?
SP: It does seem plausible, but you’re right that psychometrics has little to say about it. There has been some work on distinguishing intelligence from creativity, but much less on visionary genius, and those that exist tend to be more biographical than psychometric. I don’t think they would easily map onto Gardner’s intelligences, since one can be a functionary, creator, or visionary in any of them.
DS: Let’s take a Keatsian leap of illogic and segue back to something that you have expressed an interest in, and take up again in The Stuff Of Thought: epithets, curses, swears. Back in the early 1970s, the comedian George Carlin popularized the seven words that the Federal Communications Commission had put on its banned list for commercial television and radio: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, motherfucker, cocksucker, and tits. There have been claimed variants- such as cock and pussy, and some of the words- like piss and tits, have seemed to cross back over the line to acceptability. Why do all cultures have a prohibition against certain words? And why do Americans obsess over sexual terms more than other cultures? What are some of the equivalents of ‘fuck,’ say, in other languages- not in terms of meaning, but in terms of cultural taboo? And how do curses originate and evolve? Do all such epithets follow similar trajectories?
SP: To make a long and interesting story short: People everywhere tacitly believe in word magic – the idea that words are not arbitrary labels but are part of the referent’s essence, and can therefore, by the fact of being uttered, impinge the referent itself. If you don’t believe it, just say “I hope my child will get cancer” aloud, or say “No one in my family has ever had a serious disease or accident” without feeling a strong urge to follow it with “Thank God” or “knock wood.” Taboo words tend to be ones associated with strong negative emotion – awe of deities, fear of death and disease, disgust at bodily secretions, revulsion at depraved sexual acts, contempt for minorities, enemies, and cripples. The specifics obviously vary from culture to culture and from time to time: just look at the fate of damn and bloody in English-speaking countries during the twentieth century, or at my native Québec, where the two main curses are translated as “Chalice!” and “Tabernacle!” It’s not a coincidence that Québec was, until quite recently, a traditional Catholic society, and that as English-speaking countries became more secular in earlier periods, the religious epithets lost their punch and were replaced by sexual ones. There is a rough correlation between a culture’s values and its profanities, though because taboo words can remain taboo simply because everyone treats them as taboo—that is, people recognize that they are intended as releases, or as offensive, or as a way to show that one means business—a taboo word can remain taboo long after its referent strikes a chord with the speakers.
DS: Curses tend to be words as substitutes for violent actions or thoughts, yet a euphemism is the substitution of a word for another word. Why do people use euphemisms? Is the impulse the same as a curse word? Perhaps the worst sort of euphemisms come in the political sphere, such as pro-choice for pro-abortion, and pro-life for anti-abortion. Yet, many people tend to fall for such nonsense. Wherefore this gullibility? Even more annoying, to me, is how words are twisted upon themselves, such as liberal, conservative, and libertarian. What other areas of human endeavor twist words as much as politics? I’m thinking of the sciences, where minutia, as priority, seems to take the place of common sense- such as the naming rules for fossils, which resulted in the wonderfully evocative name Brontosaurus being replaced by the inapt Apatosaurus, or how a handful of astronomers have suddenly decided to demote Pluto from the ranks of planet, and reclassify it a ‘dwarf planet.’ Yet, a dwarf planet is still a planet, just as a human dwarf is still a human. Any thoughts on these lingual gymnastics?
SP: Taboo words are often dysphemisms—words deliberately intended to make listeners think about the disagreeable or emotionally fraught aspect of their referents, as with shit, fuck, and piss. An irate gardener might shout, “Stop your dog from pissing on my roses!”, but a nurse would be unlikely to say “Mrs. Jones, you’ll need to give us a sample of your piss.” Euphemisms do the opposite—they are a way to refer to a fraught entity (which we all must do from time to time, because we are incarnate beings, who get sick, copulate, die, produce waste, and engage in other messy activities) while making it clear to the listener that one has no desire to offend him by making him think that unpleasant thought.
As for the other questions – we’re barely half way through, and I’m in danger of retyping my entire book into this interview, so let me just say that these are topics that are covered The Stuff of Thought, in particular in the chapters on metaphor and on naming.
DS: Of course, the worst offense against writing is censorship. Where does this impulse come from? Yet, all sides do it- be it the Christian Right or Feminist and PC Left. What are your views on both these extremes? And what drives folks to such extremes. Should not moderation be more attractive? And why and how has the Internet- chatrooms and blogs, accelerated this trend toward extremism? Is it the anonymity that the Internet provides?
SP: The primary urge to censor content comes from the desire not to allow people to know arguments or facts that could compromise one’s own claim to expertise or authority. This is further inflamed by the psychology of taboo – the mindset we all are vulnerable to, in which certain ideas are considered not just illogical or false but sinful to think and worthy of punishment. (The psychologist Philip Tetlock has done many experiments showing how prone people are to this mindset – I discuss his work in Slate and in Stuff.)
With taboo words (as opposed to taboo ideas), there’s also a concern about the presuppositions and attitudes that a listener has to entertain just to understand the word or expression. To understand an epithet like nigger or fucking Jew or cunt (as a misogynistic term for a woman) is to be complicit, if only for a moment, in an implied community of speakers who codified the contemptuous attitude into a word or expression. It feels morally corrosive even to hear the word and understand how it is intended. Hence the desire not hear them, to prevent people from hearing them.
Of course it’s the very essence of democracy that words and ideas cannot be stifled by force except under very narrowly defined circumstances. And academia can only justify its existence if it is an open forum for ideas, including those that are heterodox at any moment. So wide latitude must be given to the expression of ideas. Still, the policy depends on the context – there’s a difference between privately owned media enforcing a house style (which is not unreasonable) and government censorship (which almost always is).
DS: Let me return to the idea of how words and ideas spread, or as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the idea of memes. Some memes- such as curse words, tend to spread, while others tend to die. Why do you think some terms prosper and others fail? One of the examples of a failed- or wannabe, meme, is the term ‘bright’, for an atheist. Philosopher Daniel Dennett- an atheist, has embraced the term, while you- also an atheist, seem less comfortable with it. Is this so? And why? I believe ‘Bright’ is a weak neologism, and sounds like a bunch of smarty-pants kids wearing beanies with propellers on top, and out of touch with reality. It is a contrived and puerile term. Neologisms like bright tend to succeed only when there is a void to fill, not when they are given Madison Avenue-like deliberation. Sans the void, and with plenty of better and more specific options, neologisms die. Bright is a bad term, ill-defined, inappropriate, and superfluous. Even Political Correctness, at least, has some worth in its reality as Left Wing Fascism, rather than what it purports to be. Also, it’s part of the American movement of dishonestly labeling things- be it pro-abortionists and anti-abortionists who call themselves pro-choice and pro-life, or creationists who call themselves Intelligent Designers. Thoughts on the merits of ‘Bright’? And, is Intelligent Design a pseudoscience like that practiced by Nazi and Soviet scientists?
SP: I’ll note that the question of which neologisms succeed and which ones fail is the topic of one of the chapters in The Stuff of Thought. In these examples, I think you may be missing a layer of irony. Political correctness is a sarcastic term, so its purported use and its use in reality are in fact the same. The term bright, which is self-consciously coined and introduced (unlike most successful words, as you note), is intended to call attention to itself and the circumstances under which it was coined, rather than as a serious attempt to infiltrate the language. We live in an age in which belief in God is considered the default, reasonable state of opinion, and in which most people equate the term atheist with amoral (polls consistently show that Americans are less likely to vote for an “atheist” as president than any other disfavored category). By announcing that the concept of atheist needs positive rebranding, and that it’s a position that intelligent people are likely to arrive at through reasoning, the movement to introduce the term is making a meta-statement, a kind of lexicographic guerilla theater. Whether the word itself catches on as a neutral descriptor is irrelevant.
DS: Here is another thing I have noticed. While the meme of ‘meme’ has been very successful in proliferating, the fact is that most time that I see someone use the term they speak of a meme as if it was a material thing, rather than being merely a metaphor. The meme’s meme, in other words, has been dumbed down to a memetic dead end. Do you see irony in this?
SP: I don’t really understand this – it hasn’t been my experience.
DS: I mentioned that you are an atheist, so let me ask you this: a few months ago, the ABC television network aired, on Nightline, a ‘debate’ on God between a former sitcom star, Kirk Cameron, and his vapid guru, and two almost equally dumb atheists who offer a ‘Blasphemy Challenge’ online. These nitwits are associated with a bad video called The God Who Wasn’t There, made by a recovering religion addict. I reviewed the film, and these folks are as dogmatic as the religiots. Why is it that whenever I’ve seen videos of you or other intellectuals debating on a topic such as this, you are usually pitted against the Lowest Common Denominator representative of dissenting opinion, rather than a serious theologian?
SP: I did have a friendly exchange with the Chief Rabbi of England, as well as a four-way micro-debate in Time magazine with Francis Collins (the head of Human Genome Project, and an apologist for Christian theology), Michael Behe (the patron saint of Intelligent Design), and a Christian fundamentalist preacher. Dawkins has debated Collins in Time, and Harris has debated the talk-show host Dennis Praeger, who’s no dummy, as well as a major Christian religious leader whose name I forget. So it isn’t all farce. Also, while I respect theologians who are students of religious philosophy and history (which is undoubtedly an important field of scholarship), the idea of debating a “serious theologian” about the existence of God is, for me, like debating a “serious astrologer” about the validity of astrology.
DS: Good point. Religion always seemed designed to be just beyond scientific purview, so that there is an Oz-like curtain to cover up the homunculus. Do religions rely on such trickery because they know, in daylight, their claims are essentially silly? And, despite claims of a worldwide religious revival, I see the opposite, especially since Y2K. I see 9/11 as an example of radical religion starting its death throes. It’s so ineffectual for so many that it has to try to grab attention any way possible. And, I believe there are far more Homer Simpsons sleeping in the pews than Ned Flanderses marching onward, like Good Christian Soldiers. Is this disconnect between the reality of a growing irreligiosity in the world and the alarums about Fundamentalist Islam and Christianity due to media outlets, like the ABC network, constantly pushing religion into the mainstream?
SP: I agree. Natalie Angier, in her American Scholar article of a few years ago, pointed to data showing that religious belief in America is soft. People tell pollsters they believe in God because they equate the question with “Do you believe in morality and values?” but it doesn’t play much of a role in their lives or beliefs. Greg Paul and Philip Zuckerman make the case even more strongly on Edge.org. In Europe, Canada, Australia/NZ, Japan, and other postindustrial countries, the trend is even stronger. People don’t care about God, and are staying away from churches in droves – especially Catholic churches, which have been decimated by the pedophile priest scandals.
DS: Why is the mainstream media so hostile to rational thought? In the last half a decade, or so, ABC- as example, has aired a steady stream of Christian propaganda, on the so-called life of Jesus, the reality of God, yet only throwaway moments are devoted to rational responses. Jesus Christ, as example, is a figure with ZERO basis in historical reality. There are no contemporaneous mentions of him, despite his living in perhaps the most litigious and recorded area of the word, at the time. It’s decades later when a Josephus interpolates some mention of the man from Nazareth. Even the Roswell Incident has far more historical reality than Jesus Christ. Yet, corporations like ABC persist in upholding the mythos; ABC because its then anchorman, Peter Jennings (it is rumored), became a Born Again Christian in the final years of his life. Why is there such anti-intellectualism in this country? There seems to be, not only in religion, a desire to damn any real cogitation on issues. Is this the ignorant hand of Postmodernism come to cover all subjects, or is it remanent Puritanism?
SP: Religion sells – a Newsweek editor once told me that they cynically put Jesus or Mary on a cover twice a year because it always gooses up readership. (For confirmation, see the hilarious Mother Jones feature Jesus, What A Cover! Clearly there’s a taboo about discussing the factual basis of religious history in American public forums. I tend to think that the no-nonsense rhetorical tactics of a Sam Harris (like those of David Hume, Bertrand Russell, H. L. Mencken, and others before him) are necessary to bring these issues into the realm of rational discussion.
DS: And what of PoMo? As you have with religion, you have been very critical of Postmodernism. Why? I always laugh when I get emails from deliterate folk who rail against some essay I’ve written on bad writers who hide behind the PoMo cloak- such as David Foster Wallace, claiming I a) don’t understand Postmodernism, or b) the writer (in this case, Wallace) is not a PoMO writer, but a Post-Postmodernist writer. Yet, what could be more PoMo than Po-PoMo? I even recall a Yoko Ono ‘Art’ Show at the Walker Center in Minneapolis, where they displayed such Onovian art as a pencil dot on a blank sheet of paper, and a real green apple on a stand. I knew a singer who actually thought that ‘Ono is deep and ahead of her time.’ To what do you ascribe such gullibility?
SP: Part of it is the feeling of superiority at getting a joke that goes over the heads of the rubes from Peoria. This is of a piece with everyone’s rediscovery of relativism at some point in their intellectual development – the epiphany that other cultures or periods see things differently than the way we do, therefore the world view we take for granted is a parochial and arbitrary prejudice which the enlightened can transcend. It’s basically a confusion between cosmopolitanism, which is good, and relativism, which is bad – bad because it’s self-refuting (if relativism itself is true, and believing it is good, then truth and goodness must exist), and because it’s belied by the success of science.
I must add, though, that to my surprise I really enjoyed a retrospective of Yoko Ono’s art from the 1960s which was featured at the List Gallery at MIT a few years ago. If one projects oneself back to 1966, her art is fresh and witty and thoroughly original. I even understood for the first time how John Lennon, a smart and creative kid who barely escaped the slums of Liverpool, could become infatuated with her. The problem is that there is just enough potential in minimalist conceptual art to support approximately one artist, and the time window in which it was fresh and original lasted for just a couple of years in the early-to-mid-1960s. Since then there have been far too many Yoko Onos, n including Yoko Ono herself.
DS: Let’s move on to another subject that has been misconstrued: human violence. I grew up in Queens, New York, in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was in a bad neighborhood, and I saw much wanton violence. Yet, in the last few decades, violence in large cities, and nationwide, has decreased dramatically, yet with the increase in media coverage, one might assume the opposite is true. Is violence just a manifestation of ‘the beast’ in us? And what is the price of denying that reality? As example, I loved boxing, as a child, and one of my favorite all-time sports moments came in the early 1980s, during a Monday Night Football Game between my beloved New York Giants and the damnable Washington Redskins. Two of my guys- Lawrence Taylor and Leonard Marshall, sacked the arrogant and detestable Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, and snapped his leg in half. One could hear the snap over the television. While one might ponder why such a thing is memorable to me- and fondly memorable, the fact is that I’ve known many people whose fond memories consist of violent things. Why is this common? Do men feel such things more, because of testosterone? Yet, I overcame my natural inclination to violence, while many others never do. Can you speculate on why some people can and others cannot overcome certain things, such as this?
SP: I had a chapter on violence in The Blank Slate, and the decline of violence over the millennia will be the topic of my next book (2010 or 2011) – an extension of the New Republic article you mention below.
DS: You seem to agree with my earlier posit on how the media misconstrues violence. Do you feel this is deliberate? If not, what could account for it? Is it just corporate greed, to fan the Lowest Common Denominator flames?
SP: “If it bleeds, it leads,” say the producers of news shows. As you note, we are all fascinated by witnessing staged and simulated violence, even if we abjure it in our behavior. Violence in movies has become more graphic (in the old movies, the bad guys never even bled when they got shot); violent video games have skyrocketed; and we continue to enjoy boxing, hockey, Shakespearean tragedies, and Mel Gibson movies – all during a period in which rates of violence have plummeted. This is one piece of evidence for the main intellectual theme of my career– that there is a timeless and universal human nature, but it is to be found in thought and emotion, not in behavior.
DS: In an essay called A History Of Violence, you state, ‘The decline of killing and cruelty poses several challenges to our ability to make sense of the world. To begin with, how could so many people be so wrong about something so important? Partly, it’s because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. Partly, it's an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society. Partly, it's the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better. And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.
The other major challenge posed by the decline of violence is how to explain it. A force that pushes in the same direction across many epochs, continents, and scales of social organization mocks our standard tools of causal explanation. The usual suspects—guns, drugs, the press, American culture—aren't nearly up to the job. Nor could it possibly be explained by evolution in the biologist’s sense: Even if the meek could inherit the earth, natural selection could not favor the genes for meekness quickly enough. In any case, human nature has not changed so much as to have lost its taste for violence. Social psychologists find that at least 80 percent of people have fantasized about killing someone they don't like. And modern humans still take pleasure in viewing violence, if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, Shakespearean dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games, and hockey.
What has changed, of course, is people’s willingness to act on these fantasies….Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, ‘Why is there war?’ we might ask, ‘Why is there peace?’ From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way that people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.’
I agree with your second query being the more perplexing. Do you have an answer? Is there really any answer?
SP: In the article, I offer four hypotheses: (1) an effective democratic police and court system deter violence; (2) the ease of trade, travel, and communication have put us in positive-sum games in which other people are more valuable alive than dead; (3) the circle of empathy has expanded because of journalism, history, realistic fiction, and cosmopolitanism; and (4) life has become more pleasant and predictable, leading us to value it for ourselves and others. All could be true, and they could all be manifestations of some general trend toward moral progress that stems from the moral logic of sociality. But I’ll leave an exposition of these ideas to the next book, tentatively entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature.
DS: You have also graphically stated that, on a per capita basis, so-called ‘higher societies,’ i.e.- the First World, Western World, Liberal Democracies, etc., have a far lower rate of violence and murder than tribal societies, even including the last century of the Two World Wars and the ‘Hot Flashes’ of the Cold War- Korea, Vietnam. You use this to debunk the Rousseauvian ideal of the Noble Savage, even claiming that his antithesis, Thomas Hobbes, was right and Jean-Jacques Rousseau was wrong.
Claims such as this have gotten you labeled a Right Wing apologist, a Fascist, etc. Yet, this claim seems to not be so ludicrous, especially when one looks at the Middle East, where most people still live in tribal societies, where a sense of commonweal is peregrine. Why has the Noble Savage perdured, when evidence, especially in the New World, contradicts such? Of course, I refer to growing evidence of cannibalism in the tribes of the American Southwest, evidence for mass hunting kills of Stone Age large mammals and deforestation in the American West, and the odd case of the Kennewick Man.
SP: I keep an eye, probably foolishly, on things people say about me, but as far as I know I’ve never been labeled a Fascist. Even overt accusations of right-wing apologetics are pretty uncommon, given my views on evolution, secularism, humanism, etc. But you’re right that belief in the Noble Savage dies hard. A large reason is that it is a reaction to the demonization of nonwestern peoples in the past and the free pass given to Europeans – the whitewashing of genocides by the conquistadors and other American colonists. It’s also part of the general romanticism that has characterized post-1960s ideology and culture.
DS: Re: the ‘Fascist’ remark, it’s a common term I see tossed about for all atheists or secular humanist in threads, so not specific to you; albeit people such as you, Dawkins, Dennett, et al. are routinely called that. Speaking of the Kennewick Man, if claims about it hold up, could this mean that the Americas were far more integrated in the world culture than thought previously? Specifically, could there have been Caucasian Americans that predated the Mongoloid ancestral Indians? Also, since there seem to be many legends (and tantalizing hints of fact) of pre-Columbian contact with the Americas- by Phoenicians, Chinese, the Vikings, and even the Welsh, is there linguistic evidence (if not DNA evidence) for such intermingling. I refer to claims of the similarities between Welsh and the language of the Mandan Indians, or the claims of some Central American tribes looking ‘Oriental,’ i.e.- having epicanthic folds.
SP: The linguistic evidence is marginal – without a statistical correction for the number of similarities you would be expected to find by chance when cherry-picking words post hoc, one shouldn’t take claims of connections between remote languages seriously. As for physiognomy, I would think that any Asian features of Native Americans can readily be explained by the fact that they are Asians under the conventional theory – i.e., descendants of Siberians who crossed the Bering isthmus 13,000 years ago. It’s certainly possible that there were pre-Clovis contacts between the New and Old Worlds, but I had better leave this issue to the archeologists, and increasingly in the future, to the geneticists.
DS: Let me opine on some of the things in perhaps your most famed and controversial book, to date. In a review of The Blank Slate I wrote, ‘SP later opines that people fear that if genes have some influence on people, that influence is conflated with total influence. This is easily disproved, & SP does so at some length & with great clarity. But why do people conflate some with total? Probably because of innate human laziness, & the distortions that pervade the media- especially in soundbiting ideas that need speechifying to elucidate thoroughly.’
Is my reason too facile? Is there a more pervasive or deeper reason as to why people always seem to think in such black and white terms?
SP: In The Stuff of Thought, I note that all-or-none thinking is embedded in language. When we use a noun as a subject or an object, the natural interpretation is that the referent is affected or located in toto. For example, John drank the glass of beer suggests he drank all of it (compare John drank from the glass of beer), and The garden is swarming with bees suggests that all parts of it contain bees (compare Bees are swarming in the garden). This is common across languages (possibly universal), and probably reflects the way thoughts are constructed, with pointlike or bloblike symbols standing for complex entities. I suspect that this habit makes statistical comparisons (such as apportioning variance, or analyzing overlapping bell curves) highly unintuitive.
The phenomenon you mention also reflects the mental anchor points that people begin with, which in the case of 20th-century intuitive psychology, was the blank slate. If that’s your starting point, then any deviation from 0 – 1% to 100% -- becomes an equivalent heresy.
DS: Later, I write: ‘Then again, it may not be so curious since I see 2 modern parallels to twin studies in other endeavors. The 1st is in the relatively hard sciences of cosmology & cosmogony, where the Big Bang theory has held sway despite mounting evidence that does not support many of its conclusions- mainly 1) the conundrum that has bedeviled religiots for eons (updated to): If the Big Bang was the beginning, what came before the Big Bang? & 2) The fundamental absence of alot of supporting evidence that would be predicted by Big Bang physics- from strings & superstrings to dark matter & dark energy….The 2nd area that much of the twin studies seems to find parallels with is in the belief in Near Death Experiences (NDEs). Let me state that I do not believe NDEs are truly NDEs, but rather the last second panic-modes of a dying brain that are remembered upon improbable revival. & believe me, I’ve had a NDE & believe the latter to be true. That said, there is the classic NDE of a weightless incorporeal essence of you floating toward some bright light where you encounter a Jesus/Buddha/deity & look back on your life surrounded by loved 1s who have dies. Unfortunately, this is just not the majority of NDEs. Most NDEs are far more prosaic & range from typical dream-like experiences (such as I had- however bizarre), to downright Hellish nightmares. But only the ‘float to the light’ NDEs are propagated by believers- convenient ‘proof’ of an afterdeath. In this way, NDEs also resemble claims of alien abduction, in that those ‘abductions’ which have occurred in the USA over the last 30 years or so are done by perverse bug-eyed gray dwarves, whereas other cultures report a wild menagerie of extraterrestrial kidnappers.’
Let me work backwards from this: what are your opinions on things such as NDEs, or OBEs (Out Of Body Experiences)? No one has ever produced information gained in OBEs, or past life regressions, that could not have been obtained by ordinary means elsewhere. What of people who have visions of Jesus Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs)? In 1917, there was the infamous Our Lady Of Fatima mass delusion, where some claimed the sun stopped, some claimed a UFO was seen, and others saw Mother Mary. How can so many people be so off-kilter? And what of people who claim to be abducted by aliens and sexually abused and/or experimented upon? Is this Freudianism crawling out of the grave? Has Occam’s Razor- the maxim that the simplest explanation that best fits the known facts is usually correct, fallen to desuetude? It seems that brain studies of recent years are obviating the preternatural claims of all these visions. Similarly, there is not a single case of a supposedly reincarnated person who (via Past Life Regression) has obtained information that could be verified nor that could not be obtained by diurnal means. Also, while it’s true that someone like Uri Geller might be able to bend spoons via mind power alone, since even tyro magicians (much less old pros like James Randi) can do the same, Geller is likely a charlatan (and, indeed, has been proved such on more than one occasion). Why has common sense fallen out of favor?
SP: I don’t understand your criticism of the Big Bang theory. The question of what came before the Big Bang is not “mounting evidence” against it but a permanent conceptual puzzle, whose solution surely is that our folk concept of “before” (and other common-sense notions of time and space) breaks down at boundary and extreme conditions such as the birth of the universe, where we have no right to expect them to apply in the first place. Also, I’m no physicist, but my understanding is that the existence of dark matter and energy does not challenge the idea of the Big Bang (as opposed to the steady-state alternative), nor is the empirical difficulty of validating string theory.
As for near-death experiences – I completely agree. I don’t think common sense has fallen out of favor. On the contrary, as my former collaborator Paul Bloom argues in his book Descartes’ Baby, common sense is fundamentally dualist: we naturally think that people have minds that can part company with their bodies. Recall our discussion of dreaming above, not to mention the deeply unintuitive nature of death – it’s hard to imagine a person, especially the self, simply ceasing to exist. It’s the materialist view that is unintuitive, and that constantly needs to be reinforced by skeptical science.
DS: Still working backwards, let’s turn to Twin Studies. I am adopted, and in my mid-20s, found my natural father and brother. Yet, I sense that I am different from most people in such studies. While I am not a twin, my natural brother and I have little in common, and after a decade of trying to foster a relationship they just drifted out of my life. But, both my natural father and brother share only a tendency to be able to shuck off adversity. In terms of politics, social views, finances, etc., we are worlds apart. By contrast, my adopted dad was a trade unionist, blue collar man with a 5th grade education, and yet his ethos seems to have slipped into me osmotically. I share much of his view on life, and empathy for working class, minority, and poor people. Were it not for his presence I’d likely be in prison. My adopted mom also resonated with me in encouraging my quests for answers. Even my adopted sister (no blood relation) shares a far greater sense of the world (although not nearly as intellectual) with me than any of my blood relatives did. Perhaps, the fact that I am creative has something to do with skewing the norms in such situations, but I am a bit more skeptical of twin studies. To me, it seems that most of the similarities are trivial matters. As in the underreporting of non-float toward the light NDEs, or the skewed IQ questions, I suspect that much of the claimed similarities arise from an expectation of such on the part of those conducting the experiments, with inconvenient discrepancies overlooked. Not that the idea that identical twins raised apart won’t have obvious similarities. I just find much of it likely overstated. Have there been dissenting studies?
SP: See our discussion of statistical thinking above – as with all large-scale generalizations, “your mileage may vary.” Also, I wonder how many of your beliefs and values were shared with your peers and other kids in your neighborhood, as well as with your parents. As I point out in the “Children” chapter in The Blank Slate (based largely on Judith Rich Harris’s work), there is a huge three-way confound in most people’s experience between genes, parenting, and peer culture. Your being adopted severs the confound with genes, but unless your family was unusual in your neighborhood (e.g., migrants from another country or culture or class) it’s hard to disentangle parents from peers, and when they do dissociate (as in generational changes like the 1960s, or with immigrants), usually the peer values predominate.
As for twin studies – these are truly robust effects, repeatedly replicated with multiple converging methods (twins, non-twin siblings, other relatives, and adoptees), often in massive samples from data-hoarding Scandinavian countries. They also jibe with many people’s everyday experience. I’ve received many emails from people with opposite stories to yours, in which they feel an instant affinity with suddenly discovered biological relatives. And the correlations not just in amusing but trivial traits like flushing the toilet before you use it, or keeping rubber bands around your wrist – they are found in consequential life outcomes like college attendance and success, income level, vulnerability to addiction and psychiatric disorders, and likelihood of getting divorced or of getting into trouble with the law.
DS: Let me skip about a bit, and ask some queries based upon things I’ve gleaned from doing research online about you. In an online video interview you quote philosopher Colin McGinn, who claims that philosophy is the study of things the human mind is incapable of understanding. Do you agree? And are there limits to human knowledge- certainly individually, but as a species? Could other sentient beings know the cosmos and its ‘truths’ differently from the way we do?
SP: Yes, I expanded McGinn’s argument in the closing discussion of How the Mind Works. Certainly qualia, or the “hard problem” of consciousness (why first-person subjective experience exists), is a good candidate for a problem that we can pose for ourselves but for which we can’t even imagine a satisfying answer. (This is why Dennett can coherently argue that it’s a pseudo-problem, while courting the incredulity of every sentient agent who, like Descartes, cannot doubt the fact of his own subjective awareness). By the way, it’s crucial to distinguish the hard problem from the so-called “easy problem,” namely the cognitive, neural, and evolutionary basis of the conscious/unconscious distinction. Most people, including scientists, confuse them.) The implication is that other species, if they had brains that were not confined to discrete combinatorial reasoning like ours is, might indeed find it child’s play to explain how neural firings observed from the outside could feel like something from the inside.
DS: And what of non-human terrestrial intelligences? Could the oft-touted less than 2% genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees be merely an insignificant difference in the grand scheme, no matter how much we see it as ennobling us above all other creatures? And whales seem to have quite a complex ‘vocabulary’- even beyond the great apes? Elephants, in recent years, have shown surprising complexity in their social structures, and individuation- unlike social insects, where complexity arises only en masse, not individually. Could you ever foresee a Planet Of the Apes scenario, where some ‘lesser’ species supplants man as the dominant force on the planet?
SP: It’s a mistake to think that there must be a dominant group of animals “ruling the earth,” as the old museum exhibits used to say. As E. O. Wilson has pointed out if any group of animals is the dominant force on the planet today, it’s the insects. Intelligence is a gadget that is selected when its benefits (in particular, outsmarting the defenses of other plants and animals) outweigh the costs (a big, injury-prone, birth-complicating, metabolically expensive organ bobbling on top of your neck). And that probably happens only for certain kinds of organisms in certain ecologically circumstances. It isn’t a general goal of evolution, or else we’d see humanlike intelligence repeatedly evolving. Since elephants and humans have not been primary ecological competitors for most of the evolutionary history of the elephant, it’s unlikely that they’ve been waiting for humans to get out of the way before getting smarter. It’s more likely that they are at an adaptive plateau in which still-better brains aren’t worth the cost.
DS: What is the difference between consciousness and sentience?
SP: In How the Mind Works, I used “sentience” as a more reader-friendly synonym of “qualia” and “the hard problem of consciousness” – see above.
DS: How much of a role does celebrity play in science- i.e.- how much of Stephen Hawking is his ALS? And to what degree is your fame- outside of science, dependent upon your moptop?
SP: Certainly Hawking is a brilliant physicist whose standing within physics had nothing to do with his illness. As for me – yes, it’s the hair.
DS: As a psychologist, are you ever embarrassed by the Lowest Common Denominator Dr. Phil types in the media?
SP: I’m not familiar enough with Dr. Phil, unfortunately.
DS: Have you ever watched Michael Apted’s The Up Series documentaries? What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’?
SP: Yes, I enjoyed one of the programs very much. It vividly shows the continuity of personality over the lifespan – and also some of the contingent unpredictability. I wouldn’t agree with the epigraph for at least two reasons. One is that it ignores the roles of genes and chance. The other is that it assumes a critical period for the development of personality and character (up to age seven), whereas development continues well beyond that age (just think of kids who immigrate after the age of seven and assimilate fully), and adolescence is surely a critical stage in that development.
DS: On May 9th, 1961, FCC Chairman Newt Minnow famously derided television as a ‘vast wasteland.’ Manifestly, with hundreds of channels now, this is even more true, and the Internet only magnifies that verity, with all its demagoguery and wrong information, Nigerian scams, Viagra and penis enlargement ads, porno, political hate blogs, scams, online gambling, anonymous defamations, bile, trolls, etc. Are all knowledge-potential technologies doomed to the lowest common denominator? If not, are there steps to ameliorate it, or will time just have to do what it does, level the garbage to dust?
SP: I don’t agree – the Internet is like the printing press or movie cameras in that it doesn’t care what kind of content it disseminates. There is a lot of dreck on the internet because human beings produce and consume a lot of dreck. Remember that half the population is below average in intelligence; ditto for taste and judgment. But the internet is creating a mind-boggling advance in human knowledge and discourse. Not only does it provide instant, searchable access to past issues of journals and magazines, searchable texts of all the great classics, instant access to much of the world’s art and music, and countless quantitative databases, but it provides a forum for the expression of a much wider range of informed opinion than were served by the oligopoly of print-based media with “New York” in their titles. The range of intelligent opinion that you can get on www.artsandlettersdaily.com, www.edge.org, www.slate.com, www.3quarksdaily.com, and so on simply dwarfs what you find on the New York Times op-ed page.
DS: You are, indeed, associated with Edge.org, and last year suggested that the query they pose to some of the leading thinkers in the world be, ‘What’s your dangerous idea?’ I found it interesting that so many of the ideas that some considered dangerous were in direct opposition to each other. As example, one person might claim that God exists and another that there is no God. Or that we are alone in the universe as a planet that supports life, while another claims life is everywhere. But, I got the biggest laugh from the fact that one of those queried was ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith, and his almost comical response about the nature of time and reality was so ignorant and ballocksed I had to believe someone slipped his answer in there as a joke. Why did you suggest that query? And were there any answers, aside from Nesmith’s, that left you just shaking your head, saying, ‘What in the blue hell is wrong with so and so?’ If so, which one(s)?
SP: I proposed the question because science is increasingly turning up heterodox ideas and the internet is increasingly blowing their cover. Whether or not we end up giving an open forum to all ideas, we need to think about the issue of when and how to discuss them. This was the subject of a course I taught with Alan Dershowitz at Harvard last semester (“Morality and Taboo”), and of the essay I wrote in connection with that feature that was printed as a preface to the resulting book and in the Chicago Sun-Times.
DS: Your reply to your query was, ‘Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.’ Can you expound on this? And why do so many see this as being a racist sentiment? At the extremes, one would not expect short, squat Eskimos to be able to run as fast as certain lean and lanky Africans nor Andean Indians who were born and raised in higher altitudes. Duh!
SP: Rather than expounding on this, I’ll take advantage of the internet and point to my past exposition.
DS: My wife said that her dangerous idea was ‘Why?’ I.e.- why all and not none? The idea of first causes. If you are familiar with the great old British television show from the 1960s, The Prisoner, written and starring Patrick McGoohan, you’ll recall an episode titled The General, wherein McGoohan’s character, #6, defeats the titular room-sized supercomputer by asking the unanswerable Möbian question, ‘Why?’ Nowadays there is talk of quantum computing, and even the idea that the cosmos is a giant quantum computer. But, is that simple question McGoohan asked an intellectual quale? Is ‘first cause’ not simply a theological conundrum? Why this? Why that? Why time? And is the answer likely what Woody Allen suggests at the end of his great film, Crimes And Misdemeanors? That the search for reason and meaning will always be fruitless as long as we look out there, that it is we who invest things with meaning, so we should be careful what we grant? I.e.- it is the engagement of the mind with the real that is the source of wonder.
SP: We don’t have a right to expect that there will be an answer to all the “why” questions we can pose. Anyone who remembers their three-year-old’s “why” stage, in which every answer was followed reflexively by another “why?”, can appreciate that not all “why” questions have answers. Some – like “why is the sky blue?” – only have “how” answers; we can explain how the fact came about, but not what purpose it serves, since it serves no purpose at all. (Purpose exists only in the realm of intelligent agents like humans, and perhaps certain feedback-driven cybernetic processes like human-made machines and natural selection.) Ultimate “why” questions (why was there a big bang? why is there something rather than nothing?) are unanswerable by definition, since regardless of the answer you propose, our inner-three-year-old can always follow up with yet another “why”?
79. DS: To finish up on this question, my ‘dangerous idea’ is that there are no truly dangerous ideas, only dangerous actions, and that the placing of blame on mere ideation removes culpability from the individual and actions- something the Nuremburg Trials should have obviated. Any thoughts?
SP: In my essay, I follow the great talmudic tradition of arguing a position as forcefully as possible and then switching sides. That is, I consider the best arguments for discouraging (though of course not prohibiting) the airing of certain ideas. For example, people are responsible for the consequences of their actions, including their public statements, and publicizing a scientifically unproven idea that is guaranteed to increase racism in an inflammatory time and place (e.g., a biological basis for increased ambition among Jews in the Nazi era in Germany, or for black-white IQ differences in the early civil rights era) is not morally unproblematic. Also, there are numerous circumstances in which as individuals we rationally choose to be ignorant. We may choose not to know the outcome of a football game we have recorded and hope to watch later, or who got the placebo and who got the drug in a controlled clinical trial, or some sensitive information that could make us vulnerable to kidnapping or extortion, or a threat – the proverbial “offer we can’t refuse.” Perhaps the same is true for collective intellectual discourse.
DS: Let’s turn to social engineering. You’ve been critical of the attempts of social engineers to micro-manage society, and blame this on the baleful influence of The Blank Slate ideologues, such as the architect Le Corbusier, who wanted to level and rebuild Paris, France. Growing up in New York City, we had our own such ideologue- Robert Moses, who destroyed neighborhoods, contributed to the government’s redlining and de facto theft of property wealth from black and minority communities. What are your thoughts on such macro-attempts to control the populace? Have they all fallen to the dustbin of history? Or, are their Brasilias still on drafting tables?
SP: Yes, and also Boston’s West End (now home to a high-rise desert) and Scollay Square (now the brutalist City Hall and “Government Center”). Thankfully, the “new urbanism” seems to have slowed this kind of thing down, thanks to its acknowledgment of human needs like green space, intimate places for social interaction, human scale, and resilient, bottom-up social organization.
DS: I have always felt there is a difference between secular ethics (which are immanent) and religious morals (which are imposed from on high). What are your thoughts on the difference? Is there a deeper human set of values that all share? Also, do humans need to be tricked into acting altruistically? If so, is a theoretically altruistic political system like Communism possible? Was it flawed because it did not acknowledge altruism needs to be the medicine slipped into a piece of candy, and cannot be forced?
SP: I don’t think people literally have to be tricked into altruism, but it’s clear that some kinds of altruism are more natural than others. People are more likely to sacrifice for their family and friends than for strangers, and they are more likely to sacrifice for people they perceive as part of their clan or extended kin (which is how ethnic groups are perceived, even if genetically there’s not much basis for the perception) than for an abstraction like “society.” It’s probably not a coincidence that successful welfare states tend to take root in ethnically homogeneous societies, and that widespread immigration tends to threaten their popularity. It’s also not so clear that Communist collectivization was, either in perception or reality, a kind of altruism. The inefficiencies of massive central planning, the aggrandizement of leaders in the cults of personality, the pursuit of ideological dogmas in place of feedback-guided adaptive policies, the ethnic favoritism, and the massive corruption of those entrusted with overseeing the collectivization, meant that even the kernel of altruism that theoretically characterized Marxist social planning was not feasibly implementable by state force.
DS: How about materialism, and relativism? As example, if I kill you, does it matter if I kill you because I’m an anti-Semite, I hate atheists, I hate your hair while I’m bald, I’m a sexual deviant, a terrorist, a druggy looking to mug you, a hitman assigned to ‘take you out’ because you trespassed against a Don, or because you stole a girlfriend from me years ago, and I never got over it? The net result is you’re still dead. Does not this make ‘hate crimes’ silly, since it punishes perceived/subjective motive rather than material/objective action?
SP: I’m not sure what this has to do with materialism or relativism, but I do think it’s legitimate to consider a perpetrator’s motives when determining criminal punishment. The reason is that the ultimate goal of criminal punishment is deterrence, which very much depends on who is tempted to commit a crime and under what circumstances. That’s why we already have an insanity defense, and already distinguish cold-blooded premeditated murder from manslaughter committed in the heat of passion and involuntary manslaughter that results from a fight or from irresponsible conduct. In The Blank Slate, I suggest that it’s not a coincidence that that we assign the most responsibility to those people who would most easily be deterred by a policy of holding such people responsible. Though I share your distaste for laws that would implicitly make a black or a gay or female life more worthy of protection than a white or a straight or a male one, conceivably one could justify a law that sought to deter a category of crimes that might otherwise have been left too tempting by the rest of the criminal justice system, like picking out a gay person at random for a beating.
DS: How about an afterdeath? Is there a material possibility for consciousness outside of physical means? Whether of not we speak of ‘ghosts,’ or possible alien life forms?
SP: No, the evidence points to death after life, not life after death. As far as we can tell, our own consciousness depends entirely on physiological processes taking place in our brains. Whether a robot or computer or alien made from silicon could be conscious in the hard-problem sense is one of those imponderables we discussed earlier.
DS: Let me pepper you with some questions from observations I’ve had over the years, and see what your opinions are, and whether any of these things have ever been studied or documented. In all my years in the arts, I’ve found that men still dominate, in terms of quality. Even in artistic lean times, like these. Even my wife agrees. I believe that this is because men take risks, so there is a higher possible payoff. Women with talent, that I’ve known, tend to be too emotionally attached to their art, whereas men can objectify it, and say, ‘That sucks,’ and start again. Yet, when I think of great female artists- such as painter Georgia O’Keeffe or poet Sylvia Plath, they exhibited definite masculate tendencies- riskiness, aggressiveness, a lack of demureness. Any thoughts? And outside of the arts, just how much of gender is actually sex related?
SP: I’ve ceded the family franchise on the psychology of sex differences to my sister Susan Pinker, the Globe and Mail columnist, whose book on the topic will be published early in 2008.
DS: Earlier I mentioned the idea of the ‘gay brain’ or ‘gay gene,’ and it seems like people always want easy solutions. Yet, people are always obfuscating terminology. Re: homosexuality, why is it the term ‘homophobia’ is used to describe people who are not keen on gays. Literally, it means to be fearful of homosexuals, yet I’ve never met an anti-gay bigot who was afraid of homosexuals (although I know gays are trying to back-smear those bigots with being closet cases, and ‘fearing’ their own sexuality). Rather, almost all people with an anti-gay view have a disgust, queasiness, or ‘yuck’ factor when thinking of homosexual acts. I think a term like ‘homotaedium’ or ‘homotaediot’ would therefore be more accurate. So why has such an inapt term as homophobia taken off?
SP: Actually, homophobia literally means “fear of the same.” The sex part got omitted, presumably because homosexualphobia is too long and clumsy. This happens all the time – fax for facsimile telegraphy, British telly for television, and so on. The phobic suffix can be used to refer to mere avoidance, as in the chemistry term hydrophobic, “repelled by water.” As I discuss in Stuff, there is a lot of caprice in which neologism takes off. Homophobia is more-or-less transparent, which helps, whereas homotaedium would be opaque to most English speakers (a feeling of tedium when watching reruns of Will and Grace?) In general, erudite analyses about what term ought to be used by the public go nowhere. When I was a child I remember some guy arguing that automobile should be dropped in favor of autokineton because auto is Greek and mobile is Latin. We’re still waiting.
DS: Of course, there can be political reasons that poor word choices are used. In the mid-1980s, boiled cocaine became known as ‘crack’ and was posited as a new drug threat, when it had really been around since the 1960s, known as ‘pop.’ It was just that it needed a scarier name since white suburban kids were now dying from it. Then there are words like liberal, conservative, and libertarian, although people with those claimed political views rarely embody them. I.e.- what liberal would ban books, what conservative would ban abortion, and what libertarian would shill for corporations? Even in the arts, the bastardization of words goes on. People cannot distinguish between a good or bad review and a positive or negative one. A good review can be positive or negative, if it makes its points well, and accurately displays an artwork’s flaws or strengths without bias. Even in criticism, critics often mistake subjective like or dislike of a work for objective excellence. Why is this?
SP: Good and bad, like most common words, are polysemous – they have many meanings, when you stop and think carefully about them. So I don’t think it’s correct to say that a good review must mean a well-crafted one as opposed to a favorable one. Adjectives like good tend to modify the aspect of a noun whose variation is most relevant to the context. As I note in the book:
Polysemy is everywhere. A sad movie makes you sad, but a sad person already is sad. When you begin a meal, you eat it (or, if you’re a cook, prepare it), but when you begin a book, you read it (or, if you’re an author, write it). What makes something a good car is different from what makes it a good steak, a good husband, or a good kiss. A fast car moves quickly, but a fast book needn’t move at all (it just can be read in a short time), and a fast driver, a fast highway, a fast decision, a fast typist, and a fast date are all fast in still different ways.
DS: In my review of The Stuff Of Thought, I went out of my way not to simply focus on your ideas, and whether I thought them right or wrong, since I- while an expert at the application of words, am not trained in the scientific basis of language formation in the individual, nor culturally. So, why are so many science, political, or history books reviewed by people who are not trained literary critics, but ideologues in whatever field? As an example of a really bad review (and a negative one) I cite Richard Dawkins’ 7/1/07 New York Times review of Michael J. Behe’s The Edge Of Evolution: The Search For The Limits Of Darwinism. Now, people with even a lay knowledge of the current field of evolutionary science know Behe’s an ID apologist- and guilty of Christian Von Dänikenism. And I think Dawkins is one of the heroes of rationalism- the closest thing to T.H. Huxley (aka Darwin’s Bulldog) today, but the review is poorly written, a mere screed, and has only one passage that deals with Behe’s writing: The crucial passage in ‘The Edge of Evolution’ is this: ‘By far the most critical aspect of Darwin’s multifaceted theory is the role of random mutation. Almost all of what is novel and important in Darwinian thought is concentrated in this third concept.’
What a bizarre thing to say! Leave aside the history: unacquainted with genetics, Darwin set no store by randomness. New variants might arise at random, or they might be acquired characteristics induced by food, for all Darwin knew. Far more important for Darwin was the nonrandom process whereby some survived but others perished. Natural selection is arguably the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind, because it- alone as far as we know- explains the elegant illusion of design that pervades the living kingdoms and explains, in passing, us. Whatever else it is, natural selection is not a ‘modest’ idea, nor is descent with modification.
Simply put, the quote gives no idea to the reader what is being referenced, and then Dawkins foams. Is it too much to ask a book review to let the reader sample a bit of the writing, and whether or not the man can craft words?
SP: I’m not sure that a caste of trained literary critics would be a solution to the very uneven quality of reviewing, especially the grinding of hobbyhorses (if you’ll permit me to combine the relevant clichés). I suspect that the problem is that any sphere of human behavior that is exempt from feedback and review will become corrupted, and that is the situation with book reviewing: the reviewers too often review with impunity. Occasionally a magazine will publish a reply from an aggrieved author, but space is limited, and often the reviewer is given the last word, unchecked. This is an egregious failing of the New York Review of Books, which limits the author to a few words in self-defense (if that) and then invites the reviewer to dispense an unlimited stream of trash talk in response. The feature on amazon and many blogs in which readers can rate and comment upon reviews is one step in the right direction.
In the case of Dawkins’ review, I don’t see a problem in the passage that you reproduce. But if he had asked me, I would have suggested that he modify a later passage in which he asks the reader who should be trusted, Behe or list of famous mathematical biologists. This reads like an appeal to authority, which is unfortunate because the great advantage of science is that one can always give reasons for one’s beliefs.
DS: Cannot one disagree with an opponent without constant screeding? In my interview with Daniel Dennett, as example, I was a bit taken aback at the vitriol he still held for the long dead Stephen Jay Gould, basically accusing him of being a ‘useful idiot’ for anti-evolutionists. When you attack opponents, you seem to use humor, or do so more gently. Is this just your temperament or a strategic decision to not alienate potential students of your subject matter?
SP: Well, I certainly ought to do that; whether I succeed is for others to judge. Clearly one should attack the idea, not the person, both as a matter of principle and for tactical reasons, to convince the reader that the facts and logic are on one’s side rather than that one is engaged in a urination competition with the author. As the Godfather advised, “Never hate your enemies. It clouds your judgment.” As with all cases of aggression, though, it’s easiest to appeal to reason rather than dirty tactics when the other guy feels the same way.
DS: How can scientists do a better job of educating the masses? Sometimes, layfolk tend to feel that, on a given subject, scientists often come across as lion keepers, safely ensconced at a zoo, rather than lion hunters, or lions themselves. There’s not a great vitality that comes across to the masses, whereas religion seems more passionate, even if science comes across more honestly, not feigning to know everything, like religion. Do you see a disconnect between science and the masses? Do you diagnose it my way? And what is your cure? Do we simply need to bring back updated book series (in print or online) like the old How, Why, And Wonder Books of the 1960s and 1970s?
SP: I certainly like the Wonder and Time-Life books and agree that we need more child- and adolescent- and nonspecialist-friendly sources like them. More generally, I see science as just the honest effort to figure out the way things work, taking special care to determine whether the things you say are objectively true. Science, in this vision, is just a passionate application of human curiosity, common sense, and the attempt to minimize self-deception and other sources of fallacy. Seen in that light, science is self-evidently worthy, and continuous with rigorous journalism, philosophy, history, and other truth-seeking pursuits. I think scientists make a big mistake when they cast science as a distinct form of human activity with special rules and privileges and perquisites.
DS: I want to end this interview going back to where we started, your latest book, and how humans mangle and misunderstand language. Often in my own writing, I have my own quirks and preferences- as an Emily Dickinson may have had. I prefer a four to three dot ellipsis, and I prefer to use the word alot as one word, not two. I see that- as with former singular words that were two words (another, already, altogether), and are now readily accepted as one, as well as other words that are slowly gaining acceptance as one (alright vs. all right), that alot, as one word, make more sense. Yet, I recently got an email from a woman who claimed to be a high school English teacher, and want to sample some of the exchange we had:
Teacher: I just read your review of The Life of Pi and while not entirely disagreeing with it I was appalled with your spelling of the word a lot. You are so self-righteous you should at least use correct spelling. A lot are two words not one!
Me: As for alot, many words start out as two, but merge into one. Alot will be one of them- it's called vision. A lot makes no sense. What is a lot? Lots? But alot makes sense, meaning many. Language is not static, but internal consistency is a virtue. Great writers know when to improve the lingo, and MLS rules are often nonsensical to begin with. Didacticism is antipodal to creativity, that's why few teachers succeed in the arts.
She then mentions that one cannot singlehandedly change language, even after correctly claiming that Shakespeare did. I countered by stating, who but great writers, ever change the language?
Teacher: Shakespeare was able to change the language and spellings due to the fact that there was no dictionary or stardard (sic) spelling at the time.
Me: For a teacher, you have a poor reading comprehension….You stated 'However, one cannot singlehandedly change the English language.' below, in an earlier email. Then you state, right above that, 'I mentioned Shakespeare because he changed a great deal of our language.' That is a logical contradiction….After all, even dictionaries contradict one another over preferred spellings and pronunciations. Unlike the legal world, there is no 'legal' nor set in stone way a word is spelt (or spelled) or pronounced- and this is without even going into accents nor dialects.
Teacher: You clearly cannot see anyone's point of view other that your own. Students in my class will the use of they're to be spelled there - but it is not so.
Me: That's because it is two different words. Alot and a lot are variants of the same word- not to, too, and two. And you've not even acknowledged the fact that alot is plural, while a single lot is singular. There is no single alot (or a lot). The a- prefix pluralizes the word. Also, a student is not an artist that is changing an art form.
And on it went. Yes, emailers are often lonely and disgruntled people, but if high school teachers are this bad and unable to grasp the power of language and ideas, does that make freaks out of researchers like you and writers like me? Is emailese fated to displace good writing and readers of depth, thus robbing folks of inflection and emotions which can defuse the rampant online anger? I also notice how people like this teacher, are the first to point to older examples of things that were criticized in their day, yet ignore their contemporary equivalents. I.e.- those critics who damned Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, or the Impressionists, are laughed at by the very people who, in earlier times, would have been condemning the aforementioned. This reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Do you agree? And what are your views on Kuhn’s posits?
SP: Attempts to make spelling and grammar more “logical” tend to ignore a basic design feature of language (and all other communication systems): there is always a tradeoff between standardization (an entire community abiding by a single protocol) and logic. Sure, Betamax was technically better than VHS, the Dvorak keyboard better than QWERTY, OS/1 better than MS-DOS, and so on, but there’s also an advantage in using the same code that everyone else is using, even if it is suboptimal.
In the case of language, this tradeoff is amplified by the fact that no one gets to design the code from scratch or dictate who uses it. The standardization arises from countless lateral interactions, like the synchrony in a school of fish, or the way that young people all decided to wear their baseball caps backwards in the 1990s. A single influential writer like Shakespeare is, to put it mildly, exceptional.
Also, there are numerous criteria for “logic” or “good design” in language, and they conflict with one another. Should we aim for maximum transparency, where every syllable stands for a single concept and people can coin neologisms at will? But this would require six- and seven-syllable words – would it be better to aim for brevity and efficiency? Should a language have redundancy, so that a mumbled consonant doesn’t lead to comical misunderstandings? Or no redundancy, so as to maximize brevity and transparency? It’s because of these numerous tradeoffs that none of the “perfect languages” of the Enlightenment (discussed in Umberto Eco’s marvelous book The Search for the Perfect Language) caught on. A major theme of my own book Words and Rules, as well as The Stuff of Thought and The Language Instinct, is that all human languages are shaped by these tradeoffs.
In the case you discuss, I’m not sure I see the rationale behind spelling a lot as alot. I suppose one could argue that the a is a clitic that is pronounced as a unit with the following noun and therefore should be joined to it in spelling (the fact that it has the phonologically conditioned variant an would support the clitic analysis). But of course that would mean a loss in transparency, as readers would no longer see the a and lot as separate units – the same a as in a dog, and the same lot as in lots and a whole lot. The argument could go either way, if there ever was deliberation over which system to adopt. But the point is that there never was such a deliberation, and never will be. English has just evolved that way, with morphological rather than phonological spelling. It’s hard enough when a cadre of copy-editors, English teachers, and usage mavens try to enforce a standard that people en masse tend to flout, but a single person trying to do it, no matter how much logic is behind him, is like ordering the tide back.
DS: Thanks for doing this interview, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like. Hopefully there may be some seeds you can use here for your next project.
SP: Thanks for your rich and insightful questions. No closing statement – I’ve said enough.
(originally posted 8/25/07)