Lunch with Pinkah, and a preview of his next book

January 17, 2020 • 9:15 am

When I’m in Cambridge visiting old friends, I always try to get together with Dan Dennett and Steve Pinker—separately— for I enjoy the intellectual stimulation this provides (and, in the case of Dan, the inevitable stentorian arguing as well). Dan’s out of town this week, but yesterday I managed to dine with The Pinkah at Legal Seafoods near Harvard Square. (Coincidentally, a reader recommended that restaurant in a comment yesterday).

Pinker had just finished lecturing at the Kennedy School next door, and we had a longish lunch over seafood and brewskis. Since Pinker is wickedly smart, eloquent, and apparently remembers everything he’s ever read, lunch with him is not just a culinary experience, but a bout of cerebral ping-pong. While ingesting the food one must also try to absorb his arguments, which come fast and furious. We talked about determinism, free will, the evolution of music (Steve thinks that there is not an adaptive evolutionary basis for music and musicality, even though music is universal in all cultures), the penal system, evolutionary differences between the sexes, speciation, Sewall Wright’s shifting balance theory of evolution, evolutionary psychology in general, Steve Gould, and other diverse topics.

Below is my lunch: Legal Seafoods’ famous crabcake (sadly, only one in the lunch portion). I also had a Belgian sour ale. Steve had an IPA (as I recall) and salmon cooked as rare as they could. (I told him he should have just asked for lox.) My crabcake, which was fabulous—all crab and no filler—came with a salad that contained walnuts and cranberries:

Here’s Pinkah after lunch, resplendent in his dark suit and elephant cowboy boots (he immediately assured me that the elephant was legally culled to reduce population size, not to harvest its skin).

At some point I asked Steve what his next book will be (there’s always a next book for him). He first referred me to its nucleus, the article in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. below (click on screenshot to see the whole article). I’ve also put up the abstract:

So I told Steve that I wouldn’t reveal the topic of his next book, but he said it was more or less an open secret, and even sent me a summary of its topic, which I have permission to publish. Here’s what he said:

This PNAS paper is a preview of the ideas and the research from my group that will be the core of the new book. Its tentative title will make it sound more controversial than it actually will be:

Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo.

Though I’ll discuss outrage and cancel culture and social media shaming mobs, they won’t be the focus of the book—there is no shortage of articles documenting and deploring them, any day of the week. This one will probe the game theory and psychology behind them, together with other example of coordination like fads, bank runs, political protests, network externalities, moral norms, social conventions, and everyday informal cooperation. I’ll probe at the psychological phenomena beneath them, including the sense that certain things are public (“out there”), emotions such as shame, embarrassment, guilt, and outrage, and nonverbal displays including blushing, cringing, crying, laughter, and eye contact.

So you can look forward to that (as usual, the Pecksniffs will come out in force to criticize it, no matter what he says). Steve said he’ll start writing it in about a year, and I suspect it won’t be long after that until it’s finished (he wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature in only a year and a half).

Finally, before lunch I tarried for a while in the book section of the Harvard Coop, and found that they had moved the biology section down to the first floor, right inside the door—where it deserves to be. There’s even an “evolution” section (which, unaccountably, is missing WEIT). But several copies of Faith Versus Fact reside in the History of Science section, also where they should be. I’ve seen them in “Theology” sections, but they could also be comfortable in “Philosophy of Science” sections. (I have to tout my books because, unlike Steve’s, they’re not self-touting!)

30 thoughts on “Lunch with Pinkah, and a preview of his next book

  1. Nice! Now hungry again!

    But what, I prithee, is the state of play of the book you are writing for sprogs???

    I rather fear, it having been in process for so long, all the wee ones I know will be grown up before it is ready!

  2. I hope you held your own on determinism–against counter-arguments like “Brownian motion,” the unpredictability of chaos, and the like.

  3. The crab cake and salad looked very nice, as does a lot of the stuff on their website.

    It made me think of the place I get my seafood from, hope it is OK to post what is basically advertising something but as they only use local catches from sustainable sources I think they deserve publicity, plus it may be of use to any UK readers of the site.

    Fish for Thought:

    1. Very appetising! But £40 per lobster? My local fishmonger’s are just as sustainable (at least he assures his customers that they are), and he charges little more than half that.

  4. Can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something fishy about Legal Seafoods.

    His new book sounds a bit like a return to his roots, which I look forward to reading.

  5. Good on Pinker for writing about common knowledge – whose importance is not common knowledge! I hope Pinker has heard this one from Scott Aaronson:

    My favorite Soviet joke involves a man standing in the Moscow train station, handing out leaflets to everyone who passes by. Eventually, of course, the KGB arrests him—but they discover to their surprise that the leaflets are just blank pieces of paper. “What’s the meaning of this?” they demand. “What is there to write?” replies the man. “It’s so obvious!” Note that this is precisely a situation where the man is trying to make common knowledge something he assumes his “readers” already know.

    A must-have in any book on the subject.

  6. Ah, Legal Sea Foods! Takes me back to when I lived within a 100 yards of the original restaurant in Inman Sq. Great sea food–and cheap.

    When it suddenly burned down beyond repair in 1980, we residents noticed two things.

    First, that a new Legal Sea Foods was due to open in a couple of weeks with much enhanced prices in a fancy downtown Boston location.

    Second, that the Cambridge Fire Service, which arrived too late to save the building, was also located in Inman Sq–right across the street…

  7. Thanks for the memories. I arrived in Cambridge from Athens, Greece on August 9, 1974 (I can pinpoint the date because it was the day Nixon resigned: I emerged from the subway at Harvard Square to dancing in the streets!) and worked at the Harvard Books Store for the next three years. In 1978 I moved next door to Somerville, where the rents went down and the wallpaper went up, and where I lived at 123 Elm Street (classic address), an easy walk to Steve’s Ice Cream. Those years were the only ones in which I lived the bachelor life, which may account for the nostalgia.

  8. Yeah, I’m sure the elephant to “be legally culled” was just fine with the process.
    I assume that Pinker himself did the “legal culling,” because otherwise, it was just another example of him being an ass-clown to require others to do the killings that support his vaunted and ridiculous self-ennoblement.

  9. Boy, has Legal Sea Foods changed! It used to be a completely no-frills place, where you ordered, paid, then waited for the food, and it was always fried or broiled, because those were the only two ways to cook seafood. The place has gone completely yuppie (or perhaps bougie). Plates drizzled with sauce??— the original Mr. Legal must be turning in his grave!

    1. “Plates drizzled with sauce??”

      Surely a sign.

      I also love it when the waiter (at a Legal competitor) comes out with a bowl containing a dollop of lobster, then at the table, proceeds to pour the rest of the bisque into the bowl. The result is clearly a soup, but the lobster is so little it disappeared.

      I’m convinced customers complained about there being so little lobster, the waiter dies this theater to demonstrate there is in fact lobster in the bisque.

      Sorry to go overboard but that experience was hilarious to me.

  10. Love Pinker’s stuff, and your stuff too. But was this really the title of a Research Article?—“Common Knowledge, coordination, and strategic mentalizing in human social life.” “strategic mentalizing”? Sounds like my prose after one too many mushrooms.

    1. Pinker’s view is, as far as I can determine, that there is no CONVINCING evolutionary explanation for music. And do you really think you’re going to set someone straight with a poster (that’s what’s at the link)?

  11. I just had a thought – based on the notion that music and musicality lacks an adaptive evolutionary basis – is color blindness evidence that color vision also lacks an adaptive evolutionary basis?

    The superficial example might be that we find music and paintings interesting for analogous reasons, but the existence of color blindness suggests that paintings and color artwork is not really playing any role in evolution.

    1. The existence of color blindness suggests that trichromatic color vision has not been under as strong selection pressure in more recent times. However, it is pretty clear that it has an adaptive basis–it developed in primates (most mammals are color blind) presumably to facilitate differentiating. e.g., edible fruit from background. It is interesting that color blindness is more prevalent in men than women–perhaps as a consequence of differentiated roles based on sex, i.e., hunters (color vision less important) vs gatherers (color vision important)?

      1. Sorry, but the higher frequency of color blindness in males than females is due solely to the fact that red-green color blindness is a recessive allele on the X chromosome, and so males that have the gene show the trait, but females, with two Xs, have it at the square of the frequency it appears in males, i.e. much lower.

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