Lunch with the FT: Steven Pinker
By Ben Schrank
Published: September 12 2002 19:07 | Last Updated: September 12 2002 19:07

Steven PinkerSuppose you were told that most of the tenets of modern thought about human behaviour weren't based in science, but on a 100-year-old mash of politics and philosophy that's utterly muddled and scientifically specious. Probably the only way you'd listen is if the person speaking were a Pulitzer Prize finalist and one of the world's leading experts on language and the mind. Steven Pinker seems made for the job. And he will have his say.

His new book The Blank Slate, the Modern Denial of Human Nature (UK: Penguin £25, US Viking $27.95) says that we've turned our backs on plenty of good scientific theory out of a wrong-headed respect for ideas that are based on Rousseau's concept of the "noble savage". The social sciences, the arts, child-rearing, and most of our ideas about each other have been badly fractured because of our ignorance. We've been wrong for too long. It's time to re-embrace human nature. Pinker is determined to move us forward into a new way of thinking, a "realistic, biologically informed humanism". And he's backed up his claims with the empirical logic that will set us on our way.

I meet Steven Pinker at the Casablanca restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There's a gigantic mural of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and scenes from the eponymous film against one wall. Pinker comes in and greets me with a big smile and a hearty handshake. He's a handsome man with high cheekbones and a shock of blond and grey hair worn in a style that works equally well for Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant. He's dressed in worn cowboy boots and khakis. His shirt is a short-sleeved button-down, of a colour that's arguably lavender. His eyes glitter. We slide into one of several orange booths that line one wall of the restaurant, surrounded by lots of loudly chattering Cambridge types.

Pinker suggests that we order first, and get that out of the way. He chooses the chicken club and an iced tea. Items on the menu are described in excessive detail but he reassures me that things arrive looking better than they sound.

First things first. Pinker wants it known that his day job is language. He's Peter de Florez professor in the Department of Brain Cognitive Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Everything I've done in the last 10 years has to do with regular and irregular verbs," he says. He's just like tons of scientists. He teaches, does his research and enjoys life in Cambridge. Except for a few years on sabbatical, Pinker has lived here since he was an undergraduate at Harvard. He's happily married to a graphic designer and lives in part of a converted Victorian townhouse.

Currently he's making use of the MRI facility at Massachusetts General Hospital to take functional magnetic resonance images of the brain. He's comparing regular and irregular verbs in order to discover if we use a different part of the brain for the regular ones (walk/walked), than the irregular ones, which we've got to memorise (drink/drank). He jokes that he's typically in the academic tradition of "knowing more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing".

Our food is delivered and, apparently, we're both very hungry. My salad is surprisingly good, with plenty of warm bluefish.

Pinker talks about his earlier work, about how he became interested in verbs and tenses and about how he's different to the linguist Noam Chomsky, who seems to be his political opposite. He gestures with half his chicken sandwich and says that, since his first book, he is "not able to avoid controversy - it seems to find me or I find it".

He finishes exactly half of his sandwich and sits back, ready to begin.

He says: "The ability to learn itself is innate, because rocks don't learn."

"Dogs can't speak," I suggest.

"Right," he says. But he's found "resistance" to this point.

"Really?" I ask.

He says: "In psychology and the social sciences, there is a phobia of any possibility that the mind has some degree of innate organisation. And that distorts the science, because certain hypotheses are not even mentioned, let alone tested and proven or disproven."

Here's where it's immediately easy to see Pinker getting into trouble. Even the most conservative Americans rarely - if ever - say what he just said. And he smiles while he says it.

He describes his book's opening salvo: "Take research on parenting, for example. There is an enormous amount of research that measures a correlation between some behaviour of parents and some behaviour of their children - parents who spank have violent children, parents who talk to their children have children with good language skills and so on. The conclusion is always that there is a cause-and-effect relationship - spanking causes a cycle of violence, blabber at your babies if you want them to be good readers . . .

"But of course correlation does not imply causation. Parents give their children genes, not just an environment. Perhaps the same genes that make parents spank or talk a lot also make their children violent or articulate. We don't know whether the correlation comes completely from the effects of parenting, from the effects of the genes, or some mixture. But virtually no psychologists even mention these alternatives; they dogmatically insist that the correlation has to come from parenting.

"In fact, there is a way to find out - measure the correlations between parents and their 'adopted' children, and between parents and the biological children that they gave up for adoption. But few studies are designed this way."

I say that in preparation for this lunch, I've pitched this idea to friends in New York and received rather heated, negative responses. I've learned that upon hearing the above, most people immediately make leaps to some of the great evils of the 20th century. Pinker shrugs and smiles.

In the preface to his book, he quotes Chekhov: "Man will become better when you show him what he is like." Pinker chops his side salad into bite-sized pieces. But what happens when we begin to base all our judgments about people and their actions on their innate human nature?

Pinker nods - it's the inevitable question of the scientific layman. He warns that we mustn't go too far the other way, to respect human nature too much. He quotes Katharine Hepburn, speaking to Bogart in The African Queen, "Nature, Mr Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above."

I nod at Bogart's portrait across from me. Later, I'll go and find what precedes this quote in Pinker's book: "As soon as we recognise that there is nothing morally commendable about the products of evolution, we can describe human psychology honestly, without the fear that identifying a 'natural' trait is the same as condoning it."

"It's supposed to be a relaxed lunch isn't it?" Pinker says. And though my heart is racing from this talk, we both accept a second cup of coffee and the dessert menu. We each choose the blueberry rhubarb crisp with mango sauce and rum custard crème, which arrives speedily and tastes a lot better than it sounds. I can't help but repeat my concerns; that so much of what Pinker says is convincing and provocative, but it seems so. . . politically charged.

Pinker suddenly grows grave. He delivers another concise paragraph in defence of his maverick claims: "Many politically conscious scholars believe that claims about human nature are dangerous, because they feel that they could legitimate discrimination and oppression, or even slavery and genocide. They argue that it's politically preferable to say that all human traits are the product of culture.

"My own view is that this politicisation of science does much more harm than good. You can never predict what tomorrow's science will find, and therefore you shouldn't rest some important moral claim - such as that discrimination and oppression are wrong - on a factual hypothesis that might be refuted tomorrow."

He's aware then, that in exhuming human nature from its century-old burial place and forcing people to reckon with it, he's doing dangerous work. And like all new ideas based in science, it would be best if it didn't get into the hands of those who would use it to terrifying ends. But none of this is really Pinker's problem. He's only written a book. His sixth, in fact. And he has his regular and irregular verbs to study. He manifests the calm of someone who believes that eventually, we'll all come around to his way of thinking.

We walk up the stairs and into the heat and noise of the Harvard students who rush by. We thank each other and Steven Pinker smiles all the while. He disappears around a corner, into an utterly blissful Cambridge day.