[The Irish Times]
Saturday, January 3, 1998

Evolutionary Rock Star

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If the brain is the next big thing in scientific publishing, then Stephen Pinker, with his accessible and exuberant writing style, is its ideal populariser. Anna Mundow met him at MIT

Maybe it's the scuffed cowboy boots. Or the shoulder-length curls. But Steven Pinker doesn't look the way you expect the director of the McDonnell-Pew Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts to look.

The diffident 43-year-old seems too young, too funny, too downright nice to have acquired that title. "If you sit here the sun won't be in your eyes," he says, positioning two chairs opposite each other yet close together in his MIT office. No desk in between, no power play. He ignores the messages on his computer screen and the continuous purring of his telephone. Before long he is telling one of his favourite jokes - the one about the similarity between a primitive sea creature that consumes its own brain and a tenured professor.

Steven Pinker doesn't look like a troublemaker either. But his latest book, How The Mind Works, has caused an academic firefight, with some of the heaviest attacks being launched from Harvard University, just a few streets away. "Inconsistent" and "opinionated" are some of the milder accusations from Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould and others, who are suspicious of what Gould has labelled "Darwinian Fundamentalism".

Pinker's book has not just earned him illustrious enemies. It has also turned its author into a celebrity scientist, the Carl Sagan of the human brain. Or, as Time magazine recently christened him, an Evolutionary Pop Star. If the brain is the next big thing in scientific publishing, then Pinker, with his accessible and exuberant writing style, is its ideal populariser.

"No other science writer makes me laugh so much," University of Oxford zoologist, Mark Ridley, wrote in his review of How The Mind Works. Ridley was referring to Pinker's playful use of jokes to illustrate his points - Mae West lines such as "Men like women with a past because they hope history will repeat itself", or one prostitute's observation that men " . . . are not paying you for the sex. They're paying you to go away afterwards."

The first minutes of a lengthy interview, however, reveal Steven Pinker to be far more than a poster boy for cognitive studies. He is, above all, a scientist and teacher who never allows his contagious excitement about the subject to unseat his precision. When asked to define the mind, he politely observes that "Scientists don't define things. My theory is that the mind is the information processing activity of the brain. The mind is what the brain does." And the brain, being an extraordinarily complex kind of computer, "computes what it does because it is the product of the evolutionary process. That's why our computations are about things like how objects fall or how to make people fall in love with us."

To understand why the brain thinks as it does, Pinker believes that you must first understand its structure. How The Mind Works examines computational models of the brain's mechanisms - its circuitry - and goes on to describe the evolution of our reasoning abilities, social and sexual behaviour and emotions. Much of this is straightforward science and Pinker stresses that "most of the things in the book, I didn't discover. I just report them."

If that was all there was to it, How The Mind Works would be just another textbook and Steven Pinker just another psychologist. His emphasis on evolution, however, and his theory that "the mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our ancestors in their foraging way of life", guarantees controversy. He characterises much of the recent criticism as "some people getting things just plain wrong" and defends his position with a series of examples.

Take, for instance, the evolutionary development of the brain as a sophisticated lying machine. "The brain wasn't selected for its ability to register or represent the truth," Pinker explains. "Sometimes truth is handy: you want to know if it's a lion or a rabbit in front of you, for instance."

But selling oneself, attracting mates or allies, is another matter. "All Darwinian creatures are in competition," he says. "Other people will give some credence to how you present yourself and that gives an opening for you to represent yourself as a little more honest, more generous, more virile than you may be." The consequences are obvious and familiar. "Given that people have a tendency to lie about themselves, that puts corresponding pressure on the audience to be lie detectors. The logical conclusion is that you should believe your own lies."

Critics of such evolutionary psychology often accuse its adherents of reversing Charles Darwin's formula that "the present is the key to the past," but Steven Pinker deflects that criticism. "The present may be the key to the past in terms of what we know," he ventures, "but the past may be the key to the present in a causal sense."

For 99 per cent of our evolutionary past we were hunter-gatherers and that, Pinker argues, must be the starting point for decoding the human mind. "We cannot begin later than the hunter-gatherers," he maintains. "Hunting fuelled an expensive brain, put us in an arena where intelligence brought better returns and, by concentrating resources, gave rise to social interaction, between peers and between the sexes."

While he concedes that not every human impulse can be forced through the evolutionary sieve, Pinker insists that human emotions typically categorised as irrational may instead be viewed as "goals of the device" - the device being us - competitive humans. "Different goals are turned on depending on the situation - fear, for example, which is designed to keep our bodies out of harm's way, or disgust which is designed to keep us free of biological contaminants."

But how are selfless emotions such as generosity explained? As paradoxical tactics, says Pinker. Generosity may have originated in the hunter's observation that sharing his kill with allies ensured that they would share their next meal with him. Even the most irrational state of all - romantic infatuation - is cunningly reassessed by Pinker as a tactic. "Romantic love is a promise operating with the same logic as a threat," he contends. "To make that promise credible it is useful to make yourself appear less likely to talk yourself out of a state over which you have no control, to appear helpless."

Recently married for the second time and evidently for love, Pinker adds that "love and generosity can be sincere in the individual, even if they are cynical in evolutionary terms. They can be heartfelt in the organism."

Even some of Pinker's admirers are, nevertheless, dubious about the breadth of his conclusions. Writing in the New York Review Of Books, Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at the University of London, commented wryly: "In its early days `psychology' was intrigued by the idea - ludricous in retrospect - that human society arose from the unconscious desire of sons to sleep with their mothers. Now there is a more subtle temptation; that the mind works the way it does because their great grandmothers gathered berries."

Steven Pinker is unperturbed by the criticism which he regards as a misinterpretation of his modest theories. "There is no single theory of how the mind works, no big theory of everything," he says. "But clearly the mind is a system, as the body is a system. And natural selection played a key role in forming that system."

We are, according to Pinker, chiefly theorists and liars. Theorists in our social interaction, in our desire to know "what that person is thinking about what I'm thinking." And liars because we are "not necessarily in dispassionate pursuit of the truth, but of whatever version of the truth advances our individual interests".

Truth in the cosmic sense is, of course, a different matter and one that Pinker wisely leaves to philosophers. But his scientific view is that "our human bent for theorising is taken to extremes in religious and magical beliefs. Those beliefs are, in a way, instances of going beyond the data and explaining physical events in terms of theoretical constructs that we now realise don't exist. At least those of us who are scientists see it that way."

If all this makes the most ardent romantic or beatific mystic seem like Mister Spock on a bad day, that is because most people mistakenly see evolution's role in the development of the human mind as crude programming, Pinker insists. "But we are not VCRs," he quips, "We react to each other not as hunks of matter but as interacting humans who observe things like death, dreams and trances."

Given that the tools we have are inadequate - that "we are still going to die, and that not everyone we love will love us in return" - we are left with perplexity. It is hardly surprising, after all, that a mind astonishingly good at one thing - making sense of the physical world and of the other minds around it - is ill-equipped to solve larger problems. "Perhaps our mental equipment forces us to conceive of a problem in ways that will never offer a solution," Pinker suggests a little apologetically, knowing that many people find the notion bleak. "I don't," he says, smiling.

Pinker's theories are not at all the equivalent of a moral shrug. "There has been a traditional equation of biological explanations with a dissolving of moral responsibility," he says. "But is and ought are separate worlds. Free will can survive in moral reasoning even if it has no scientific meaning."

Suddenly he is trying to recall Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story. " `My mother was a junkie. My father wore a dress. Goodness, gracious, that's why I'm a mess.' Is that it?" We both hum the tune for a moment but cannot be sure that we've got it right. Pinker moves on to another fallacy: that intelligence is the aim of evolution.

"You hear this constantly taken for granted in statements like `I don't want to go out with him. He's not very evolved.' I even saw a bumper sticker the other day that read `Oh, Evolve!' But intelligence is just one option with costs as well as benefits."

In a recent letter to the New York Review Of Books, Pinker also refuted the notion that "big" is synonymous with "better" when it comes to the brain, pointing out that the human brain "guzzles nutrients, makes us vulnerable to blows and falls . . . and makes childbirth dangerous."

How The Mind Works repeatedly quotes Star Trek, The Twilight Zone and Doctor Strangelove. But Steven Pinker declines to commit himself on the subject of extraterrestrial intelligence. "I can see it in a headline - Pinker Says No Alien Intelligence. Then the next day - Alien Intelligence Discovered. No thanks," he laughs. He will speculate that human beings are currently in a state of biological stasis. We are unlikely, in other words, to be developing new mental equipment. Perhaps, as Andy Clark, director of the Centre for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in Boston, recently wrote: in Kinds Of Minds "We use intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence. Our brains make the world smart so we can be dumb in peace."

Steven Pinker appears intent on destroying such peace. His next book ("just a small one") will be on language. Then "another big book" titled The Blank Slate will take him into the next millennium. "It will examine how two largely false ideas - the blank slate and the noble savage - have saturated our intellectual life," Pinker explains. For pleasure he reads "mostly magazines and non-fiction, maybe one novel a year." Is he too disciplined to read fiction? "Not at all," he replies, "I'm probably just too nerdy."

Steven Pinker will give a lecture on the subject of his book How The Mind Works in The Old Physics Theatre, Department of Engineering, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, at 3 p.m. on January 17th. Admission is free and tickets will be available from the Institute for Advanced Studies, 10 Burlington Road, Dublin, from January 12th (phone 6140100).

Copyright: The Irish Times