A wide-ranging interview with Steve Pinker on BBC Radio 4

October 18, 2011 • 5:45 am

This morning on BBC Radio 4,  Jim Al-Khalili conducted a half-hour interview with Steve Pinker in “The Life Scientific” series.  Although Steve is promoting his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, only about six minutes of the interview deals with it.  The rest covers a number of topics, including controversies about his first book, The Language Instinct, and about the more recent The Blank Slate.

You can hear the program archived here, and it will be rebroadcast this evening at 9:30 p.m. London time.

As always, Steve is eloquent: he appears to speak in complete and perfect paragraphs; see if you can spot anything ungrammatical. Eloquence is one thing that unites the Five Horsemen (yes, there are five): Pinker, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens; and I greatly envy that talent. I consider Hitch the most eloquent, but the rest are no slouches.


  • How Steve met his wife Rebecca Goldstein (she saw her name in the index of one of his books and invited him for tea).
  • Audio clips of some of Steve’s critics, and his response. Also, his account of his conflict with Steve Gould over evolutionary psychology.
  • A bit of autobiography
  • Steve’s take on his greater success as a popular writer than as an academic scholar
  • His opinion on the role of genes vs. environments on human behavior
  • A discussion of how much difference good parenting really makes on the behavior of children
  • What he thinks of the “self esteem movement.”

h/t: Matt

50 thoughts on “A wide-ranging interview with Steve Pinker on BBC Radio 4

  1. Could anyone reccomend a good book on the general aspects of life (how the social groups worked, what did they eat, etc.) of the pleistocenic human? Thanks!

  2. For those of us who’d prefer to listen to the interview on-the-go instead of sitting in front of a PC, you can download the MP3 of the programme here.

    1. Amazing indeed! I found his article so. It goes to show what can be achieved by calmly and rationally taking intelligent steps to overcome one’s weaknesses.

    2. We all remember our first encounters with getting up in front of others to make some sort of presentation, whether in class, in an auditorium full of middle school students (now THAT is a tough crowd),playing an instrument or singing, taking part in the junior or senior play . . . the shaking legs, the trembling hands, the sweaty palms, the guivering, twitching corner of the mouth, the flushed cheeks . . . the wish for whatever it was to be over. But one does it and does it and does it, until he has mastered the situation, and can think on his feet, and cannot be distracted.

      As an example of elegant rhetorical efflorescence, recommend listening to some of JFK’s speeches, news conferences, interviews, debates. ‘Twas remarked by wits that, when JFK was wounded, (his “intellectual blood bank”) Ted Sorensen, bled.

  3. The five horsemen: Pinker, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens

    I don’t consider Harris to be in the same league with the others. Harris always has a bug up his butt about religion and suicide bombing.

    While I am no friend of religion, I am a friend of accuracy. Robert Pape has the most comprehensive scientific study of suicide bombing to date.

    Pape finds that the primary dimension of suicide bombing campaigns is nationalist resistance against foreign occupation; religious difference between the occupied and occupier is secondary to the occupation itself, though still critically important in generating suicide bombing campaigns.

    Makes sense. People scream “death to America”, not “death to the Pope”. The 9/11 attack hit the Pentagon, while a short distance away, the National Cathedral (easily recognize from the air by being a tall structure set on a hilltop) was left untouched. For that matter, they could have hit the Vatican if they wished.


    Pape, Robert A., “The Logic of Suicide Terrorism: It’s the Occupation, Not the Fundamentalism,” Interview with Robert Pape, in The American Conservative, July 18, 2005 http://www.amconmag.com/2005_07_18/article.html

    — also —

    Pape, Robert A., Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrrorism, New York: Random House, 2006.

      1. There must have been some anti-westernism, or anti-christianity, already there, or how would the Arab Conquest have got going?

        You meant the Arab invasion and occupation of the middle east, right?

        1. Well, Pape doesn’t explain it, because he never said it. The targeting observation was my own, purely unscientific, observation.

          However, I am not greatly surprised by your figures. The civilians always suffer in any war. In the Vietnam war, for example, there were about two million civilians killed for about 1.1 million Viet Cong. Was the U.S. deliberately targeting civilians? The Iraq ratio given by “The Guardian” is much higher, but keep in mind what is called “asymmetrical warfare”. The military targets are highly protected. The U.S. embassy is a giagantic fortress. Even the outside patrols zoom through the streets at 60 mph. in highly armored trucks. Pretty hard to hit — so the bombers go after “soft” targets, such as Iraqi civilian who co-operate with the U.S. military. You hit what you are ABLE to hit, not what you really WANT to hit. And, of course, many of the civilian were either inadvertent, or thought to be allies of the U.S. military (civilian police were hit in particular).

          Also, please note that my “targeting theory” supports Pape more than Harris: more jahidists travel to bomb military targets in Iraq than travel to bomb churches in the U.S.

      2. I thought the first suicide bombers were Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka – they weren’t in the Middle East and their targets weren’t western.

      3. Al Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood, the real ancestors of groups like Al Qaeda, were Egyptian and determined on replacing the Egyptian rulers, be they Farouk, Nasser, or Sadat, with Islamic rule.

        Ayman al-Zawahiri seems like the one thread through all this, and he’s still alive and nominally incharge of Al Qaeda.

        According to the great oracle, Wikipedia:

        Suicide attacks per organization, 1983 to 2000 (count)
        Tamil Tigers 171
        Hezbollah and Amal 25
        Other Lebanese groups 25
        Hamas 22
        PKK 21
        Islamic Jihad 8
        Chechen separatists 7
        Dawa (Kuwait) 2
        Egyptian Islamic Jihad 1
        al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya 1
        Armed Islamic Group of Algeria 1

        1. Yes, but relate that to the populations of those lands: Sri Lanka 20 million; Lebanon a little under 5 million; Palestine 4 million.

    1. Sir,

      religious difference between the occupied and occupier is secondary to the occupation itself, though still critically important in generating suicide bombing campaigns.

      Hoist on your own petard methinks.

      Seems like reason enough to have bee in bonnet about it.

      1. No one is denying that religion plays a role, but that role is secondary, not primary, as Harris would have it.

        Harris offers anecdotes drawn from speeches by radical clerics that prove nothing.

        I can use the same logic to prove that religion drives U.S. policy. Shall I cite some crack-pot remarks made by General Boykin (United States Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence)? Shall I remind you that Bush referred to the war on terrorism as “a crusade”? Shall I remind you that Obama ends nearly every speech by saying “God bless America”? Shall I give you a list of fanatical, near-lunatic, religious fundamentalists who call Islam a “gutter religion” and are invited to the White House and to exclusive dinners with policy-makers? Shall I speak of the influence of
        religion in the armed forces? This is the type of shovel-ready anecdotal “evidence” that Harris offers. Pape, in contrast, gives hard facts in a scientific study.

    2. Here’s how Harris responded to Pape in a 2005 piece on HuffPo, “Bombing Our Illusions II.”

      2. Sam, suicide bombing is a more general phenomenon than Muslim terrorism. Most of the people who blow themselves up are not Muslim or even religious. Read what Robert Pape has to say about this (you idiot).

      In his influential essay, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” (American Political Science Review 97, no. 3, 2003) and in a subsequent book, Robert Pape has argued that suicidal terrorism is best understood as a strategic means to achieve certain well-defined nationalist goals and should not be considered a consequence of religious ideology. In support of this thesis, he recounts the manner in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad have systematically used suicide bombings to extract concessions from the Israeli government. Like most commentators on this infernal wastage of human life, Pape seems unable to imagine what it would be like to actually believe what millions of Muslims profess to believe. The fact that terrorist groups have demonstrable, short-term goals does not in the least suggest that they are not primarily motivated by their religious dogmas. Pape claims that “the most important goal that a community can have is the independence of its homeland (population, property, and way of life) from foreign influence or control.” But he overlooks the fact that these communities define themselves in religious terms. Pape’s analysis is particularly ill-suited to explaining the actions of Islamists. Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups define their “strategic goals” entirely on the basis of their theology. To attribute “territorial” and “nationalistic” motives to Osama bin Laden seems almost willfully obscurantist, since bin Laden’s only apparent concerns are the spread of Islam and the sanctity of Muslim holy sites. Suicide bombing in the Muslim world tends to be an explicitly religious phenomenon that is inextricable from notions of martyrdom and jihad, predictable on their basis, and sanctified by their logic. It is no more secular an activity than prayer is.

      If it were not for the religious doctrines of martyrdom and jihad, there would be no Al Qaeda; nor would there now be an influx of foreign fighters in Iraq. Nothing explains the behavior of Muslim extremists better than what these men and women believe about God, paradise, and the moral imperative of defending the faith against infidels and apostates. Pape resolutely ignores the fact that we are now confronted by people, on a dozen fronts, who will take to streets and start killing innocent civilians whenever their favorite book gets flushed down the toilet. What, exactly, is “secular” about that?

      Several readers followed Pape’s and put forward the Tamil Tigers as a rebuttal to my claim that suicidal terrorism is a product of religion. But it is misleading to describe the Tamil Tigers as “secular,” as Pape often does. While the motivations of the Tigers are not explicitly religious, they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death. The cult of martyr-worship that they have nurtured for decades has many of the features of religiosity that one would expect in people who give their lives so easily for a cause. Secular Westerners often underestimate the degree to which certain cultures, steeped as they are in otherworldliness, look upon death with less alarm than seems strictly rational. I was once traveling in India when the government rescheduled the exams for students who were preparing to enter the civil service: what appeared to me to be the least of bureaucratic inconveniences precipitated a wave of teenage self-immolations in protest. Hindus, even those whose preoccupations appear to be basically secular, often harbor potent religious beliefs.

      1. “I was once traveling in India when the government rescheduled the exams for students who were preparing to enter the civil service: what appeared to me to be the least of bureaucratic inconveniences precipitated a wave of teenage self-immolations in protest.”

        Their self-immolation was surely at least a self-imposed “inconvenience.”

        1. I do not know the details of this incident, but I would be willing to bet that Harris is mis-representing it. Harris attributes self-immolation to the attitudes certain cultures have towards death. His statement is a border-line racist one, and his analysis does not make any sense from an evolutionary stand-point. Any individuals that had such a casual attitude towards death would have long ago been quickly weeded out of the population and would not have been able to pass on genes to the next generation. A whole culture composed of such people indifferent to death as Harris proposes is simply not sustainable and not plausible.

          I think the more likely explanation is that these were people who were unemployed and desperate for work; that they needed the civil service exam as a pre-requisite for promised government employment, and that the government reneged on the promise by “rescheduling” the exams (and the jobs) into the indefinite future for the fifth time in a row. In such a situation of watching yourself and your family slowly stave to death with no hope, making a political statement by self-immolation could seem to be your best available option. Harris breezily sums this situation up by calling it an “inconvenience”. Suppose a street-vendor had his wares confiscated by police. Would that be “inconvenience” too? Or would it be the last straw in a long series of abuses that pushed one over the edge? (I’m speaking here of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who touched off the “Arab Spring”). This was a totally different culture than India and Bouazizi’s act was followed by six “copy-cat” immolations. Just a coincidence that this culture also defied all evolutionary odds to produce a disregard for death? Or, do the answers lie elsewhere?

          It would be interesting to press Harris for “chapter and verse” details on this and find out how local Indian newspapers on that date explained the reasons for the immolations. I would wager on a totally different account than Harris’s moronic “they were upset at the inconvenience”.

      2. Yes, Harris responds but does not answer.

        For example he says, “The fact that terrorist groups have demonstrable, short-term goals does not in the least suggest that they are not primarily motivated by their religious dogmas.”

        The trouble is, their *actions* with respect to what may be short term goals are subject to scientific analysis (as Pape demonstrates). What may or may not be the primary motivation behind the actions is pure speculation (which Harris loves to do). And Harris’s comments don’t even begin to address what
        JBlilie pointed out: the leading suicide bombers are the Tamil Tigers — a secular group.

        Harris is the mirror image of the religious fanatic that sees the devil in everything from Harry Potter to Scooby-Doo. Harris
        sees religious fanaticism in matters that are primarily political, with some religious window-dressing. His kind of reductive
        (and utterly meaningless) correlations are the worst kind of pseudo-science. In the black-and-white world of Harris, every
        Muslim is evil incarnate with the occupation soldiers from Blackwater and the military playing the role of saints with semi-automatic weapons
        — a view that is arguably more insidious that the ravings of any ayatollah.

        The bottom line is: the numbers support Pape. Pape has done his homework, Harris hasn’t.
        Pape has his data, Harris has his dictums; Pape has his facts, Harris has his factoids; Pape has his work, Harris has his
        words; Pape has his figures, Harris has his figments; Pape has his verity, Harris has his verbosity.

        When you put aside post-9/11 let’s-nuke-the-Muslims emotionalism, you’ll find that Pape has the most meaningful, scientific study
        on the topic of suicide bombing. When Harris starts citing meaningful numbers instead of shovel-ready anecdotes, then maybe I’ll listen.

  4. “Wright traces the origin of terrorism to anti-westernism that long antedates occupation of the Middle East.”

    Does it antedate the Crusades?

    Just kidding, I will check the book out.


    1. That is a good point though Tom. Some who cite the crusades completely ignore the fact that the Arabs were the expansive aggressive religion under and after Mohammed. They invaded and dismembered the old empires of the Western Romans and Persians. In turn they had been the aggressors on the Greek Successor states etc etc, so I think if we really want to get petty we are quickly back in the first empires of the Bronze Age!

        1. Well, the Arabs did also conquer Spain, which had been part of the Western Roman Empire. They also occupied bits of southern France for a short period and their armies got to within 100 miles or so of Paris. So your freudian slip wasn’t entirely wrong!

      1. Well, I made the “crusades” remark tongue-in-cheek.

        Look, I am not claiming the Muslims are angels. They had their expansionist period and can certainly lay claim to their fair share of the mayhem that has gone on in this world.

        But the fact remains that Pape’s study shows that the primary motivation behind suicide bombing is occupation, not religion.

        Looking at the 2005 HuffPo posting, Harris is confronted by Pape’s data on the Tamil Tigers — showing Harris to be flat-wrong. Instead of accepting his error gracefully, Harris responds with the silly notion that LTTE, despite all appearances, is really religious. That proposition is so absurd that even Harris cannot bring himself to say it explicitly. Instead, Harris intimates it by tap-dancing around the issue and making weasel suggestions that LTTE has the “features” of religion, or that LTTE is linked in some unnamed mysterious way to Hinduism (despite LTTE having carried out operations against Hindus), and similar pathetic dodges. Harris is probably in a class of one in believing that the Tamil Tigers are religious.

        To believe Harris rather than Pape you have to believe that a Marxist group that never made any reference to religion, is none-the-less religious — so much so that religion is the prime motivation behind their actions, in contrast to the group’s own explicit statements. That’s plain crazy and practically a text-book case of a non-falsifiable theory. If the largest suicide bomber group turned out to be Atheists United, Harris would probably claim they are religious too, and his theory is once again confirmed.

        If you can swallow Harris on that point, I can only throw my hands up in amazement and say, “good luck believing such garbage”.

  5. The New Yorker, as usual takes apart Pinker’s neo-conservative approach to social issues (Ross Douthat is a fan of Better Angels, except of course the religion part) and his slippery use of examples:

    From the review:

    “The scope of Pinker’s attentions is almost entirely confied to Western Europe. There is little discussion in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ about trends in violence in Asia or Africa or South America. Indeed, even the United States poses difficulties for him. Murder rates in the U.S. are, over all, significantly higher than those in Europe, and in some parts of this country they’re so high as to be positively medievil. The homicide rate in new Orleans last year was forty-nine per hundred thousand, roughly what Amsterdam’s was six hundred years ago. St. Louis’s and Detroit’s murder rates in 2010 were about forty per hundred thousand, around the rate of London in the fourteenth century. (Detroit’s 2010 murder rate, it should be noted, actually represents a big improvement; in the late ninteen-eighties, it was more than sixty per hundred thousand.)

    Do these dities lag behind in “the civilizing process” because they’re poor or educationally disadvantaged? No, Pinker argues; the key factor is that they have large African-American populations. Low-income blacks in the U.S. are “effectively stateless,” living in a sort of Hobbesiean dystopia beyond the reach of law enforcement. It doesn’t help that cities like New Orleans and St. Louis are in the South; according to Pinker, the entire region is several steps behind, as “the civilizing misison of government never penetrated the American South as deeply as it had the Northeast, to say nothing of Europe.

    As Pinker’s views on African-Americans and Southerners probably indicate, there is much in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that is confounding. Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema – a steady rise in the percentage of Britons who identify themselves as vegetarians, for instance – are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over. Pinker is virtually silent about Europe’s bloody colonial adventures. (There’s not even an entry for ‘colonialism’ in the book’s enormous index.) This is a pretty serious omission, both because of the scale of the slaughter and because of the way it troubles the distinction between savage and civilized. What does it reveal about the impulse control of the Spanish that, even as they were learning how to dispose of their body fluids more discreetly, they were systematically butchering the natives on two continents? Or about the humanitarianism of the British that, as they were turning away from such practices as drawing and quartering, they were shipping slaves across the Atlantic?”

    See the October 3 2011 issue of the New Yorker for more details.

    1. I’m not even halfway through the book yet, but I’ve seen each of those issues addressed, or mentioned with a later-chapter pointer to and in-depth discussion. There’s no “colonialism” in the index because discussion of it is woven into every relevant section. An index entry would be a monstrosity.

      It seems your precious review has some credibility problems.

      Anyone interested in what the book actually says should see the book, not a review.

      1. Anyone interested in what the book actually says should see the book, not a review.

        Points duly noted. But then, why read reviews? Why write reviews? Why highlight reviews, as our genial host regularly does on his website, much to our profit and pleasure?

        1. Reviews are not meant to replace the book being reviewed. They should provide a basic summary of ideas contained in the book, along with the review author’s opinion on whether or not the book is worth reading.

          Here you have someone using a review to criticize the book, which is entirely inappropriate. If you’re going to attack a book, read the book. Don’t attack some other author’s filtered synopsis of the book. That’s how straw people are born.

          1. So the algorithm is:

            if review(book) > interest_threshold then

            In an ideal world, agreed.
            In the real world, not the way it’s happening. Including on this website.
            Are you game for an experiment? Should we ask Jerry, when he reviews a book here or even just mentions a book review, to post a sign forbidding any comments from anyone who has not yet read the book in question? Let’s try that. I’m really curious about the outcome and make absolutely no predictions. Hypothetically, this could raise the level of the debate. In a twitter-paced world, this may just as effectively kill it. Let’s see.

  6. One more selection from the New Yorker review…

    “When Pinker does take on aspects of European history that challenge his thesis, the results are, if anything, even more exasperating. Consider his discussion of the war to end war and the war that followed just after. More than fifteen million people were killed in the First World War, and more than fifty million in the Second World War. ‘The 20th centure would seem to be an insult to the very suggestion that violence has declined over the course of history,’ Pinker acknowledges. But here again, it’s all a matter of perspectives… ‘When we are judging the density of killings in different centuries, anyone who doesn’t consult the numbers is apt to overweight the conflicts that are most recent, most studies, or most sermonized,’ Pinker cautions. As a proportion of the global population, the casualties of the Second World Ware, he maintains, are easily outdone by other, less well remembered bloodbaths, including the battles leading up to and following the fall of Rome, the Mongol conquests, and the campaigns of Timur Lenk, otherwise know as Tamerlane. Pinker’s math here is, at best, fishy. According to his own calculations, the Second World Ware was, proportionally speaking, the ninth-deadliest conflict of all time – in absolute terms, it was far and away the deadliest – yet the war lasted just six years. The Arab slave trade, which ranks as No. 3 on Pinker’s hit list, was an atrocity that took more than a millenium to unfold. The Mongol conquests, coming in at No. 2, spanned nearly a century.

    But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we accept that the Second World War was *only* the ninth-bloodiest conflict in the history of our species and the First World War the sixteenth. Isn’t this still a problem? The heart of Pinker’s argument is that the trends and historical forces associated with modernity have steadily diminished violence. Though he hesitates to label the Second World War an out-and-out fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count. Accidents happen, and the Nazis’ rise to power was one of them. A series of unfortunate events ensued, but it’s important not to rush to judgement.”

    1. A horrible characterization.

      The fact that you’re quoting a review at length makes it clear that you haven’t read the book itself.

      I guess I shouldn’t expect anything more from someone who makes the laughingly stupid claim that Pinker’s social views are neo-conservative.

  7. While his writings are quite entertaining, Pinker’s reasoning, as pointed out by others above, generally tends to be very wobbly.
    One of the problems here is that he fails to appreciate the effect of size of social groups in relation to the conflict/cooperation ratio.
    Which, of course, impacts upon the pattern as well as the overall level of violence.

    In my writings I argue that the unusually high level of intra-species conflict which is characteristic of humankind may well have been a prime motivator of the evolution of what we generally call intelligence. Furthermore, that in synergy with the two other unique aspects, technology and language, this belligerence has promoted the development of increasingly larger societies. The selection pressure arising from larger groups with greater levels of cooperation (and better technologies) tending to be more successful in combat with other groups.
    The strong group identity which results can be recognized today on a large scale as patriotism and on a small scale as the strong bonding between members of street gangs.

    This is part of the broad evolutionary model which extends beyond biology that is developed in”The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website)

    1. I need to retract the above criticism of Pinker’s latest book, which was based upon reviews, blurbs and other descriptive material.

      Having now read “The Better Angels of Our Nature” in full I have found it to be an outstanding work with excellent reasoning throughout backed up by a considerable body of hard evidence.

      While it does not specifically address the effect of size of social groups in relation to the conflict/cooperation ratio this is tacitly implied by the overall context.

      To my surprise, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is a delight to read.

  8. The idea that everything, including a child’s future behavior, is inherited seems self-evident to me. I reached this conclusion myself after taking a biology/genetics course the summer before I started college. I can’t believe how belligerent the guy is to Pinker because he doesn’t agree with him.

  9. Erm… its kind of impossible to speak ungrammatically, unless you’re learning a second language. Your language is your language and all languages are grammatical.

    1. Maybe you’re confusing “ungrammatically” with “agrammatically”? “Ungrammatically” means only not conforming to the rules or being not well formed, not lacking grammar altogether. All languages has a grammar but it are still to poorly-formed sentences create possible. And as much in speech as in written language, with no question of one being subordinate to the other. (Although clearly speelign and, punctuation are, artefacts of writing only.)


      PS. That you can (should be able to!) parse all that demonstrate that English does have a grammar, it’s just that I flouted the rules to create something ungrammatical! 😉

      1. All true, but unless someone is learning a language or having a stroke, they don’t randomly abandon the structure of the language they’re speaking.

        I assume that Pinker’s spoken language hews close to the arbitrary rules of written standard english, which most have been misled to believe has a more “real” grammar that spoken english dialects “corrupt” to varying degrees.

  10. Tangential observation: has anyone remarked that Steven Pinker’s voice, tone, phrasing and general delivery sound quite similar to those of Glenn Gould? Is that a Canadian thing?
    At any rate, I find listening to Steven Pinker eerily agreeable.

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