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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Stephen Pinker

A fascinating discussion of the nature vs. nurture controversy. Read the below chat transcript and then join in on the discussion forum. Comments are always welcomed. Enjoy!

September 02, 2003

Transcript of live chat session

Pinker Hello, everyone.

Monty_Vonn Cool! He's here!

System: You may wish to go thru the actual chat page on BookTalk. You can float and dock this room too.

Jeremy1952 Hi! Welcome

Nostradafemme hi Stephen

Melon it's Steven, not Stephen.

Peterdf hi mermaid

Chris_OConnor Hello Professor Pinker

Kostya Hi Stephen

Pinker Logout

Chris_OConnor Oh lovely

Chris_OConnor We scared him off that fast


Jeremy1952 Ok, what did he say that you booted him Chris?

Pctacitus that's not good

Pinker Login

Smiling cloud Was it something we said?

Tarav hello, prof. pinker!

Melon well, you spelled his name wrong!

Chris_OConnor Well, that’s all folks. Goodnight.

Michaelangelo that was brief

Michaelangelo he seemed nice

Pctacitus welcome professor

Chris_OConnor lol

Pinker Hi, people -- sorry for the delay -- I was following the suggestion to use an alternative page

Chris_OConnor Michael

Pinker I'm here....

Peterdf Hi prof Pinker

Nostradafemme do we need to call him prof. since we aren't certain how his first name in spelled?

Chris_OConnor Professor Pinker - it is helpful. You can scroll down the page to get additional info if you like

Chris_OConnor Lets ask him...

Tarav Steven

Pinker Steve is fine...

Michaelangelo should I make up a "we survived a chat with Stephen Pinker" t-shirt?

Chris_OConnor lol

Smiling cloud He Steve

Jeremy1952 I finished "Blank Slate" right before I joined book talk, so I've just read it for the second time, Steve

Monty_Vonn Mr. Pinker, are you presently working on another book?

Chris_OConnor Blank Slate was excellent

Nostradafemme it certainly was.

Monty_Vonn Same, here, read it for a second time.

Chris_OConnor I believe he is in transition from MIT to Harvard

Jeremy1952 I'd actually been planning to study parts of it... very unusual for me, I generally move on to the next book

Nostradafemme from one end of town to the other.

Pinker Thank you. My next book project is editing "Best Science & Nature Writing 2004", part of a series. Then I will work on a book on language and thought, to be completed in about three years from now.

Zach Hello

Peterdf Prof pinker thanks for writing the Blank slate it is one of the best books of its kind I’ve read

Chris_OConnor Steve - I have that book right here! the 2001 edition

Pinker Thanks, everyone; it's great to hear that you enjoyed it.

Chris_OConnor Steve - one of my favorite essays was the one entitled "Abortion and Brain Waves"

Jeremy1952 I have "words and rules" on my shelf, but I sadly admit that I didn't finish it

Michaelangelo I liked how the mind works

Nostradafemme some of us might have a few questions. Are we able to ask them?

Pctacitus I'm sure we could find someone to blast it if you'd prefer

Smiling cloud Steve, you describe the current climate as being highly centralist. Is that true of the cognitive and neural sciences as well?

Pinker Of course; that's why I'm here.

Chris_OConnor Gerry - go for it

Nostradafemme In Language, Learn ability and Language Development

Nostradafemme you state that language begins with the infant

William_of_Duluth Good Evening Steven. Daniel Dennett admired you with a qualification. In his book, Freedom Evolves, he writes on page 20, "A Less radical, but more frustrating, defection is Steven Pinker (1997), whose dalliance with mysterian doctrines of consciousness

Nostradafemme and proceeds step by step

Pinker well, the cognitive and neural sciences are mixed. There is still a nature-nurture debate. Neural network modelers tend to believe that everything is a result of training a generic network-- a modern equivalent of the blank slate. (This is not true of all of them, just some.) Many developmental psychologists believe in the effects of parenting and ignore heritability entirely. But there are behavioral geneticists, cognitive development researchers, evolutionary psychologists, and many neurobiologists who are prepared to give nature its due. OK, let me try to get to the other questions if I can.

Chris_OConnor We will have to space the question and comments out so Steve doesn't get buried

Michaelangelo you'd think that any "software" pattern that is constant will become drilled into "hardware" to save energy

Peterdf I saw you lecture in Oxford thoroughly enjoyed it. You kindly signed my copy - I don't suppose you'll remember - but I was the balding bloke with the funny accent that asked you whether man might be evolving to be less warlike

Monty_Vonn That may be true of Neanderthals, but not Cro-Magnon.

System: You all can "Float" this window and then maximize it to make the screen not scroll so fast

Jeremy1952 What constant pattern did you have in mind, Michaelangelo?

Michaelangelo genes load the gun; heavy metal satanic music pulls the trigger

Pinker On software turning into hardware: there is an effect in evolutionary biology known as the Baldwin effect by which that can happen. It looks Lamarckian superficially, but is really 100% Darwinian. If there is an advantage to learning something, there will be an even greater advantage to having some (but not all) of the skill built-in, and evolution can push the organism in that direction. I discuss this both in “The language Instinct” and in “How the Mind Works”. Geoff Hinton & Stephen Nowlan did a computer simulation of evolution in neural networks, showing that the Baldwin effect is really feasible.

Michaelangelo constant patterns like "reward those who reward you"

Jeremy1952 Is Baldwin contemporary?

Pinker No, Baldwin was a late 19th-century psychologist. Let me try to scroll up to the earlier questions....

Peterdf I think Dawkins talked about the Baldwin effect in one of his books

Chris_OConnor Yes, he did.

Monty_Vonn Despite other scientist's disagreement with you and Dawkins, all effects must go through the bottleneck of sex, and it is the genes unchanged since the last combination that get through. No history of the individual gets encoded into those genes.

Smiling cloud Steve, what is your opinion on 'plasticity'? What about studies that show that long-term cortical changes occur after brief interactions with the environment, e.g. viewing and naming an object.

Pinker Yes, Monty's point is valid. The Baldwin effect is driven by mutations that build in some of the neural connections that otherwise would have to be learned.

Nostradafemme smiling, I hear what you're saying. Yet I don't think Steve considers environment that important. Or does he?

Pinker "Plasticity" is just another word from "learning," but seen from the vantage point of neural tissue. If you believe, as I do, that all mental life depends on the physiology of the brain, then the mere fact that we learn implies that there must be plasticity in the brain.

Monty_Vonn Environment has the dominant role AFTER conception, but none of the lessons of the environment are encoded back into the genes.

Jeremy1952 And apologies unnecessary: you were good enough to come to our venue

Pinker No, it's not true that I consider the environment unimportant -- that is a misconception arising from the tendency to treat innate structure and learning as opposites. The environment obviously has an effect -- only a madman could deny it. The question is, what are the innate structures that allow certain aspects of an environment to affect organisms in certain ways, but not others? e.g., human infants exposed to speech learn language; kittens do not, with the same environment.

William_of_Duluth What is Dennett referring to in his reference to your defection to mysterian doctrines of consciousness?

Nostradafemme we await your word....

Chris_OConnor This chat is moving at a very comfortable pace in my opinion. Things seemed chaotic with Dawkins.

Nostradafemme that's because kittens aren't "human".

Pinker Dennett is referring to the ending of How the Mind Works in which I divide the problem of consciousness into two problems (using terminology from David Chalmers). The "easy" problem of consciousness is what processes in the brain give rise to conscious (as opposed to unconscious) processing. "Easy" is a joke, because it's anything but easy, but it's a tractable scientific problem, which I suspect will be solved in this century. The "Hard" problem refers to brainteasers such as whether my red is the same as real conceptual problems, but not ones that our brains are capable of understanding the solutions to. An analogy would be the paradoxes of quantum and relativistic physics, in which our best science presents us with explanations that intuitively are maddening, and the fact that we don't understand them, deep down, is a consequence of a human brain that did not evolve to grasp such abstruse principles.

Jeremy1952 I think a bit that people miss, is that the genes "expect" a certain environment. What was damaging once becomes necessary

Chris_OConnor or is it because it is not a kittens nature

Nostradafemme kittens weren't raised by educated "parents".

Tarav I was an education and psych. major. All emphasis was on environment.

Chris_OConnor Nostradafemme - but what if they were?

Michaelangelo behaviorists gone wild

Epicac Login:

Monty_Vonn that would be wise for education to focus on environment. There's nothing that school can do for genes.

Jeremy1952 It's been tried, nostradafemme; not kittens, but various primates have been raised by human parents many times.

Nostradafemme kitten parents need to have been kittens, correct?

Smiling cloud sorry about the???? My Chinese translator turned on

Tarav Steve- Your book made me modify my thinking on environmental influences.

Rhino Login:

Chris_OConnor Welcome Rhino, Epicac, and WW

WW Steve, do you think Lamarckian objections to acquired characteristics apply to those characteristics acquired over many, many generations?

Michaelangelo is this the most people ever in a booktalk chat?

Chris_OConnor Michael - Howard Bloom had 19

Jeremy1952 Hmm... And there is no survival value, or not sufficient survival value in grasping them, so

Michaelangelo just added a "caffeine is my anti-drug" mug to my product list

Jeremy1952 there is no selective pressure ever to understand them.

Smiling cloud Maybe not understanding itself is an adaptive mechanism. If things were too clear... what would we strive for?

Jeremy1952 Brian Greene approaches quantum "paradoxes" the same way; if we lived in a world where those effects were part of our milieu, then they would "feel' normal and right to us

Pinker re Jeremy: yes, quite right. Re WWW: yes, I think that the objections to Lamarck apply to changes over many generations. That is, Lamarck's mysterious process of characteristics being passed on through the germ line is false; the phenomenon, in which useful traits become innate, has a sound basis in the Baldwin effect, which is conventionally Darwinian.

Monty_Vonn Question. What will be the long term of the human selection process going on in some cultures and intelligent people practicing birth control, and the less enlightened and religiously programmed individual who have lots of children?

Michaelangelo humans evolved to memorize phone numbers, thus proving God exists

Jeremy1952 but how would that benefit the individual, smiling cloud? Remember, selection always comes back to the individual

Tarav good question, Monty

Chris_OConnor Excellent question Monty

Peterdf In the book I am writing I argue that there is a human universal for what I call the "need for speed response" - the fact that humans respond positively to the experience of speed - but it is not included in Browns list...

Lucifer Login:

Pinker Well, Greene's conjecture could be tested (in principle, not in fact) by bringing up babies in a Matrix-like virtual environment in which 4-D effects, time dilation, etc. were simulated. The question is whether they would be intuitive or the baby would be.

Peterdf do you think this is an oversight

Pinker always is conceptually confused.

Chris_OConnor Lucifer = Howard Bloom?

Mermaid Monty, that’s why the Brights have to procreate...


Jeremy1952 I don't think, Steven, he means on an individual basis; he is talking about evolved propensities, much as you do.

Michaelangelo we will need women. Let us raid the fundamentalist camp and take their women.

Smiling cloud Steve, do you have any comment on the recent (or seeming) proliferation of psychological and neurological disorders?

Jeremy1952 I think there is a fallacy in your concern, Monty;

Mermaid hello Lucifer, Rhino, WW

Chris_OConnor Question - Are you aware and in support of the recent move to use the word "Bright" to describe freethinkers, or people who subscribe to a naturalistic worldview?

Jeremy1952 and I think it is the assumption that the deluded are less intelligent

Pctacitus How did the concepts you talk about in your book become so entrenched? Perhaps it was in your book and I've just forgotten.

Jeremy1952 Among a mass of uneducated hillbillies, there is still selective pressure for the most intelligent to prosper

Michaelangelo And so they slew the Pentacostalites and returned with wives, and the Brights became as numerous as the stars in the sky. Humanists 11:38

Pinker Let's see -- on smarter people having fewer babies ... this has been discussed for much of this century and was a prime motive for the eugenics movement until it became tainted by Nazi genocides and involuntary sterilization laws. Putting that aside, the evolutionary question depends on how long this pattern will last (it has only been true for less than a century) and how widespread it is. There are still billions of people (in Africa, India, China, etc.) in which the negative correlation between fecundity and intelligence does not hold. Until the rest of the world makes the "demographic transition" characteristic of Europe and the Americas, it is not something that will play a significant role in human biological evolution.

Chris_OConnor lol Michael

Smiling cloud Chris, What do you mean by naturalistic worldview?

Tarav Steve- you discuss euphemisms in your book. Would you call Brights a euphemism?

Monty_Vonn A rapid selection process is going on with Elephants. If you have nice tusks, you will be dead before procreation. If you don't you will survive. In 50 years, this has transformed the elephant population.

Michaelangelo I don't know if Brights will work as a marketing angle

William_of_Duluth Steven, what do you think about the new meme/appellation, "Brights"?

Michaelangelo Brights Do It With The Lights On

Eg0m0rph Login:

Michaelangelo I think humanists is fine

Chris_OConnor Smiling - naturalistic, as opposed to supernatural. "Brights" are atheists, or people that don't have the belief in a deity or intelligent designer.

Michaelangelo blessed are the humanists

Jeremy1952 I don't know if you saw Michael Shermers comment, but his mail is running 25 to 1 against the term. I vote for "Newtonian"

Michaelangelo it seems like the wrong word to me

Chris_OConnor Jeremy - Good! I don't like the word "Brights"

Michaelangelo in fact, I don't think atheists should separate themselves

Mermaid Mr. Pinker: will you support positive eugenics?

Michaelangelo from moderate religious people

Zach Newton was a devout theist, Jeremy

Michaelangelo how about the Meekers

Michaelangelo or the Heretics

Chris_OConnor Steve - "demographic transition?"

Jeremy1952 Yup, I know that, Zach; but I refer to his scientific contribution, not his personal goofy self

WW there is a selection pressure present nowadays for the gene that causes ADD/ADHD. Any idea what exaptatious dice-roll that clings to?

Monty_Vonn In Israel, the two family modernists who were dominant in the past are loosing out to the fundamentalist Jews who have 6 to 7 children per family and they have gained enormous political power.

Pinker OK, one at a time. "Demographic transition" is the decline in birthrate among affluent populations. I don't support positive eugenics; if that is to mean government incentives for certain people to reproduce, since I don't think that's a legitimate function of government. Regarding "Brights" -- I think it is wonderful. A euphemism, yes, and one that will never catch on as "gay" did (I suspect), but the fact that it has been consciously been proposed (partly tongue-in-cheek) as a euphemism will call attention to the phenomenon that "atheist" has a negative connotation among many. And of course the connection with intelligence is a sly way of saying that it tends to be educated people who decide to be atheists.

Monty_Vonn It appears in less than 12 years, the Fundamentalist will control the Democracy in Israel.

System: Lets try to space the questions out...

Nostradafemme Steve seems pretty sold on the POXP2 gene. Could he offer more explanation?

Michaelangelo it is an issue, even if nurture is dominant, the people producing the most kids are more likely to abuse them and instill bad programming

Jeremy1952 But Monty, those fundamentalists are no stupider than anyone else. Their culture is different, not their biology. So hopefully some of them will wake up....

nostradafemme whoops, it should read FOXP2.

Michaelangelo the only real solution is to find some way to teach ways for "non-Brights" to raise their children more humanely

System: ** Lets try to space the questions out ***

Mermaid definition: positive eugenics is a method of increasing the frequency of desirable traits by encouraging reproduction in individuals with these traits.

Jeremy1952 Unnecessary Mermaid, and the law of unintended consequences will bite us verily in the ass if we try

Chris_OConnor Steve - I agree that it will probably not catch on, but anything that draws attention to the fact that there are indeed people that don't adhere to religious dogma is a good thing

Peterdf I have to say "humanist" fits in better with the way I see things

Michaelangelo I like humanists, heretics or freethinkers

Tarav Steve, what do you think about the Deists?

Pinker Regarding selection for ADHD, fundamentalist beliefs, etc..... biologically speaking, these are such local phenomena (in time and space) that they won't change the composition of the species in the way Darwinian evolution does, most likely they could have an effect on democratic election patterns, alas, as the Israel example makes clear.

Jeremy1952 When I say I'm a Stochastic Newtonian Godless Jew, I'm perfectly serious; but it's a little long to be really catchy.

Ozod Disagree with Steve & Chris: the term "Brights" will only serve to alienate possible allies (like Dawkins' sarcasm).

Mermaid Jeremy: elaborate?

Chris_OConnor Steve - I think there is a direct correlation between ones "science" education and their lack of belief in a deity

Pctacitus heretic, originally an ancient Greek word for a member of a faction

Mermaid heh

Monty_Vonn Steve, someone has your picture on a "Deist" web site with your endorsement of that movement. Is it true? Are you Deist or Atheist?

Jeremy1952 Sorry Mermaid, on which?

Chris_OConnor Monty - good question.

Smiling cloud Evidence shows that religion is a cross-cultural phenomenon dating far back. Is there a gene for believing in the gods?

Mermaid Jeremy: never mind...sorry

Michaelangelo the only solution for Israel is to install a dictator. Someone fatherly, who knows best. He can't be an ordinary man, so he'll have to come from some other dimension.

Chris_OConnor A study showing that 93% of NAS scientists polled claim to not believe in a personal deity, or label themselves as agnostics.

Tarav yeah, Monty good question even if I asked it first!

NaddiaAoC Login:

Tarav haha

Jeremy1952 Naddia!

Chris_OConnor Hello Cheryl

Michaelangelo agnosticism is the logical position; I wouldn't equate it with "mushy-headedness"

NaddiaAoC Hi folks! Sorry I'm late.

Michaelangelo hi naddia

Pinker hmmm, I vaguely remember saying something encouraging to someone who called himself a deist -- the referent of "deism" (i.e., something that isn't "theism") that it would be hard to object to explicitly. But I certainly don't believe there is some mysterious godlike presence everywhere, if that is what "deism" is taken to be.

Monty_Vonn So Steve, what do you think is the demise of Democracy, Theocracy, and the Human Race passing through the environmental and energy shortage crisis in this century?

Tarav Steve - you need to check out their site. Your picture is there.

Chris_OConnor Steve - people are quick to claim you endorse their ideas. Throughout history great minds are misquoted and their words taken out of context.

Jeremy1952 Lol, good point Chris...

Smiling cloud Nothing can be perfectly replicated.

Chris_OConnor Tara - can you provide the link?

Jeremy1952 How many years did Einstein spend trying to convince people that his purported "belief in god" was misquoted and misinterpreted?

Tarav is it udcdeists? …Or something like that.

Pinker Will do. Regarding the NAS statistic, I believe it applies to biologists. Physicists on average tend to be softer on this, and engineers are even more likely to be believers. After all, they are the most susceptible to the Argument from Design -- a watch implies a watchmaker (as engineers know all too well), so an eye implies an eye maker. The biologists, conversely, are the ones most likely to see through this illusion, because they know that Darwinian natural selection can mimic design without a designer.

Tarav maybe Monty knows

Chris_OConnor I can email it to Professor Pinker later so that he can decide if he is comfortable with being called an endorser

William_of_Duluth Steven, How are you and your views accepted on your campus?

Michaelangelo birth defects are too finely sculpted and designed to be accidental

Chris_OConnor I have found it and will post a link

Ozod Stephen Jay Gould is VERY often quoted in support of anti-Evolution arguments.

Jeremy1952 The watchmaker is also a marvelous argument against theism: where did the god thingy come from?

Michaelangelo from his parents, duh

Peterdf good point Steve - I think Dawkins has made an excellent contribution to popularizing that message

Chris_OConnor Steve - here it is

Pinker re W of Duluth: Well, I've just switched campuses, from MIT to Harvard. Certainly I did not get any flack at MIT -- the administration, and my department, was highly supportive of my writing and speaking. This is not to say that everyone agreed with everything, just that I cannot complain of any kind of hassles, and indeed got a lot of support. So far Harvard has been just as receptive.

Jeremy1952 Poor Paley. He must be squirming in heaven over it all....

Chris_OConnor "I endorse Deus Project ideals fully, I encourage you in the Project and I wish it great success."

NaddiaAoC LOL Jeremy

Smiling cloud Steve, religion is one of the core cross-cultural themes as identified by archaeologist Bruce Trigger in his cross-cultural study of early civilizations? This trend continues today. Is there a gene for believing in the gods?

Michaelangelo maybe there's a gene for projecting human images onto anything unknown

Jeremy1952 Interestingly, smiling cloud, I learned that fact from Steve's book...

Michaelangelo or uncontrollable

Chris_OConnor Smiling - ahhh...good question.

Monty_Vonn Question: What are your thoughts on the bottleneck of environmental degradation, energy shortage, and other disasters of "Tragedy of the Commons" and the demise of Democracy exposed to Theocracies and cultures that practice large families?

Michaelangelo after all, using your body/mind as a blueprint for anything unknown might offer a good variety of adaptations

Pinker I don't believe that there is a gene for religion -- not just because there isn't a single gene for complex faculties (i.e., there's no single gene for language, or depth perception, or thirst), but also because religion might well be a by-product of a number of other faculties. It's only recently that "religion" was even a separate category, thanks to rivals such as science and the state. In traditional societies, you can't peel off religion from the rest of life. So it's possible that what we call

WW birth defects are the "happiest" accidents of all. Problem is they don't drive evolution in Homo sapiens any longer as surgeons hack 'em off or isolate them and their consequences are never known

Chris_OConnor Maybe there is a gene that opens up our minds to the possibility of the supernatural

Michaelangelo birth defects, their delicate beauty, surely have a designer

Nostradafemme Or a gene that makes us not so receptive.

William_of_Duluth Many view religion as a now toxic feature of culture. Is religion a meme gone amok or a spandrel or something else?

Michaelangelo without religion you'd still have pseudo-religions

Pinker "religious belief" comes from a variety of traits that serve people well in traditional societies: division of labor and expertise; ability to conceptualize minds as separate from bodies; sensitivity to signs of design and an ability to see the work of designers; desire to achieve goals by placating the powerful, etc. I make this argument in the last chapter of How the Mind works, based in large part on the excellent work of Pascal Boyer, such as his book "Religion explained," which I recommend to you all.

Michaelangelo like soviet communism, it didn't need a god

Pctacitus communism has been described as the god that failed

Jeremy1952 I think the adaptive substrate of religion is our "desire to know". Until recently we didn't have the tools to find the real answers,

Chris_OConnor Julian Jaynes had a theory that says belief in deities is biological in origin and was a survival mechanism

Nostradafemme Communism in itself was the god.

Michaelangelo not the ONLY god that failed

Peterdf But surely Steve you could substitute "spiritualism" for "religion" and this would qualify for a human universal?

Jeremy1952 but a burning desire to know is adaptive: thus, we (our forbears) made up answers

Smiling cloud thanks

Nostradafemme Julian Jaynes also claims that mankind had a bicameral mind not that long ago.

William_of_Duluth Temporal lobe epilepsy gives religious sensation so the genetic/evolutionary structure exists in the brain, a spandrel?

Jeremy1952 I dunno, peterdf; how universal does something need to be, to be a universal?

Michaelangelo religion could just be runaway social glue

Tarav Steve- Thanks for the recommendation. Any others?

Jeremy1952 Because I know plenty of individuals with no religion at all

Chris_OConnor Gerry - True, but I think Jaynes failed to understand the immense time scale of evolutionary change. To claim Homo sapiens lacked consciousness only 3000 years ago...

Monty_Vonn Seeing the trends in history, what do you venture civilization will look like at the end of this century? Do you believe that humanity will pass through a "bottleneck at mid century with overpopulation, environmental degradation, and energy shortage?

Smiling cloud Yes, I know an epileptic who occasionally thought he was an apostle.

Pinker Spiritualism, and a set of associated beliefs, are indeed universal, or close to universal: the belief that one can divine the future from physical signs; belief in minds that can exist apart from bodies; the tendency to strive to achieve important ends such as health, and success in mating and the battlefield, by placating invisible powerful entities, and some others (again, see HTMW). But the fact that these beliefs are universal does not prove that they are biological adaptations. The by-products of adaptive cognitive systems could be universal as well.

Smiling cloud Until he started taking meds.

Michaelangelo is religion the entrainment of limbic systems under a totem-organizing archetype?

Chris_OConnor Gerry - consciousness could not evolve in 5000 years (I meant 5000 years in my above post)

Nostradafemme don't forget Pharaoh and his group. That fits into the timeline, Chris.

Peterdf To be a universal a trait does not have to be possessed by every individual - but it does have to find some expression in every society

William_of_Duluth Sorry to mention Gould's spandrel term but it seems one of his better ideas.

Jeremy1952 Under that definition, peterdf, I'm pretty sure religion is a universal.

Michaelangelo maybe placating invisible entities is practice for placating visible ones

Jeremy1952 I'm trying to wrap my mind around your last statement, Chris. If consciousness is an on/off proposition, then it would evolve in an instant. But Jayne's approach denies consciousness to other animals... totally unwarranted, imho.

Susan_van Login:

Pinker Re Monty: I hesitate to make predictions that far out into the future. You may be right. On the other hand, many disasters failed to happen because of self-negating prophesies: people adjust to the threat of them, and prevent them from happening.

Pctacitus sorry, it's been fun, but I have to go, I have 4 classes tomorrow, bye all

Nostradafemme Isn't that what Pinker thinks?

Pctacitus Logout: _

Chris_OConnor Jeremy - all I mean is that Julian Jaynes didn't have an appropriate time line. Of course consciousness could have evolved...but not in 5000 years. He claims Homers Iliad showed lack of consciousness

Pinker Oh, no, I don't deny consciousness to animals, not at all.

Chris_OConnor Steve - but would you say they possess the degree of consciousness of a human?

Michaelangelo what does neuroscience say about eschatological dualism?

Nostradafemme Sure. In the Iliad, only gods spoke to gods.

Lucifer Are all animals conscious? If not, what is the simplest conscious animal?

Chris_OConnor Lucifer - good question. Where do we draw the line?

Nostradafemme cyanobacteria?

Pinker re Chris: it depends on the animal. I think if you step on a dog's paw, it feels something quite similar to what we feel when someone steps on our foot. On the other hand, I doubt a dog has any experience like our enjoyment of music, and conversely, I don't think we can truly experience what a dog goes through when it smells the sidewalk, or other dogs' nether parts. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously noted, we can't really know what it is like to be a bat.

Jeremy1952 Consciousness either did evolve, or else it didn't. If it did, then there is no clear line - which the bicameral line hypothesis implies that there is

William_of_Duluth Specific religious thoughts can't be genetic but the substrate responsive to them must be. I feel that paranoia and jealousy are strong genetic emplacements. Any comment?

Peterdf I think that this is a moot question because there are probably degrees of consciousness

Zach Logout:_

Chris_OConnor Steve - but a dog obviously feels emotions such as love or affection...correct?

Smiling cloud My cat is stirred by music - but not in the sense of beauty, but in the sense of heightened awareness.

Pinker Religiosity is quite heritable, though not, of course, the content of any specific religion.

Zach Login:

Chris_OConnor So true

Chris_OConnor What makes faith so irrational for one person and such an easy choice for the next?

Jeremy1952 I'm going to have to go back and read the explanation of heritability one more time. Every time Steven or Matt Ridley explains it

Chris_OConnor This is what bothers me.

Pinker Re smiling cloud: Again, the claim is that our consciousness *overlaps* that of other animals, not that it's identical, nor completely different in every respect. Just like other aspects of our biology.

Jeremy1952 I think I understand it.... and then I don’t.

Susan_van I am an English teacher who is wondering how much GOOD literature you think is scientifically sound? I am having second thoughts about my "profession."

Lucifer Does that mean that religiosity conferred an evolutionary advantage onto our ancestors?

Monty_Vonn I am struggling with the moral questions of our environment and human desecration of our natural world through human overpopulation and exploitation. In your own life, how do you respond to them, or do you choose to ignore them and live on with life?

Pinker I present a fairly explicit discussion of what heritability is and is not in the chapter called "Children" in The Blank Slate.

Michaelangelo by "religiosity" do we mean the ability to fall into certain kinds of trances, or a kind of aggressiveness in drawing people into a central idea?

Jeremy1952 I know... I've read the book twice, that chapter probably five times.

Smiling cloud Or the need to follow?

Chris_OConnor Jeremy is a reading fool. Reads more than anyone I know.

Pinker My own attitude toward the environment is that it is a good -- one of many goods -- that humans try to maximize. I like clean air, but not to the point of giving up heat in the winter, or for that matter my car. On the other hand, I belong to a society that is wealthy enough that I (and many others) are willing to pay for cleaner air, lakes, open space, and so on. I think the critical step in protecting the environment is making the costs of pollution and naturalness more transparent. If I'm causing global warming by turning up my thermostat or driving to Cape Cod on weekends, that should be reflected in the price I have to pay, i.e., some kind of carbon tax. By putting true environmental costs into prices (which now don't reflect them enough -- we are polluting too much for free -- people will be better able to weigh the costs and benefits of alternative measures. This is a different approach from that of some environmentalists, who believe that the earth is sacred and must be protected at any price, but I think it is a more viable way of protecting the environment in the long run.

Ozod Jeremy, you have company! Heritability, esp. heredity-environment interactions, is tough to grasp.

Michaelangelo I hate clean air.

Susan_van Login:

Chris_OConnor Susan - your second thoughts stem from the feeling that what kids are reading is not scientifically sound? ..And you feel like you are contributing to their lack of science education?

Jeremy1952 ty Ozod.

Peterdf Steve just to help me with a question I have in relation to my book : do you think that the propensity for people to enjoy speed could be a human universal

Michaelangelo I think television is the problem. People don't see things as real until they see them on TV.

William_of_Duluth What is regarded, as good literature and literary criticism are too often foolish representations of human reality.

Michaelangelo the readers can't keep up with the TV audience vote

Susan_van Yes, Chris, novelists pose fun ideas, but usually the results are not true human nature, but drama. Drama is fun, but not realistic.

Michaelangelo elections aren't decided by intellectuals, the people who watch TV for all their info about the world decide them

Monty_Vonn I agree with carbon tax (sin tax?) or energy tax that will make other options more affordable in comparison.

Mermaid Mr. pinker: pollution and environmental disasters in third world country is a whole different animal...

Michaelangelo Stephen, do you think we need a rational way of valuing natural systems, instead of just not putting a value on it in calculations about risk and reward?

Mermaid countries even

William_of_Duluth Cute, Pinker switched to pink type for a moment.

Zach not to mention the effects more extreme environmental groups can have

Michaelangelo I think the anti-environmental movement is more frightening

Zach such as the thousand-mink fiasco recently

Mermaid Michaelangelo: why? Because they are passionate about something doesn’t mean they are nuts.. A few idiots burning down an SUV lot doesn't scare me the way massive amounts of money poured into keeping people from seeing the damage they are doing collectively does. Passion isn't the problem; it's when people do stupid things just to be unlike some other people doing stupid things. "Environmentalists are crazy, so let's drive really fuel inefficient cars to get back at them!"

Pinker On speed (distance per time, not amphetamines): yes, I think the enjoyment is innate, and adaptive. The benefits are obvious: getting to prey, or away from danger, in time. We see the inherent pleasure in speed in virtually every sport and form of

Mermaid well...I’ll take environmentalists any day over an idiot who says 'you ride with Osama if you use gas'

Jeremy1952 Well, the Bush administration offers a tax break for businesses buying pickups and SUVs OVER a certain size: is that nuts?

Monty_Vonn Steve, what great mystery do you wish to solve by the end of your tenure?

Michaelangelo actually the oil-terrorism link is more solid than the drugs-terrorism link

Pinker recreation, in which people pay large prices, and take enormous risks, for nothing other than the pleasure of moving fast.

Susan_van Everyone knows and admires Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird, but in real life Bob Ewell would have killed the kids and Atticus would not inspire people. I feel guilty teaching kids to admire him.

Michaelangelo there is a childlike defiance that says, "Environmentalists want to be my mommy, so I will disobey my mommy and use all the gas I want to!"

Mermaid Michaelangelo: I suspect that the automobile industry is capable of making very fuel efficient cars...I doubt if we'll see them so long as the automobile lobby and the oil lobby go about doing what they do best

Jeremy1952 So I guess the proposal that going 60 miles an hour will kill us turns out to be wrong?

Michaelangelo mermaid--I agree, but consumers are part of that loop too

Smiling cloud Steve, I imagine moving fast originated with the domestication of horses.

Michaelangelo we need to ASK for fuel-efficient cars

Mermaid well. Good luck

Mermaid when was the last time you asked something and actually received it

William_of_Duluth Is the literature of the noble savage is a good example of what Susan van is referring to?

Michaelangelo mermaid--if enough consumers are willing to pay money for something, it WILL get made…at least if the potential consumers can communicate that to potential producers.

Nostradafemme Smiling, check out the cave art from that period and you might see an indication of fast movement.

Peterdf thanks Steve that is help - next question is could there be selection against the speed response this in the Western civilization given the number of youngsters killed in car accidents?

Pinker On the mystery I would like to see solved: one is the basic question of how neural circuitry can represent basic human thoughts, such as a subject-predicate relationship (who did what to whom). Another would be a good map of how the different aspects of language are distributed across the brain. A third would be a good characterization of "universal grammar" -- what is truly universal across the world's languages.

Jeremy1952 Unfortunately, Michaelangelo, that's exactly why the world is filling up with SUVs

Smiling cloud With speed, the environment must have looked different. More abstract.

Monty_Vonn I drive a Geo Metro that gets anywhere dry and warm as any monster SUV will, get 40 mpg in town and 50 on the highway.

William_of_Duluth Make that noble savage.

Michaelangelo We're still in an "anti-liberal" mass mood swing, it will start swinging back as soon as the anti-liberals are seen as less honest than liberals.

Nostradafemme agreed about the abstraction to the environment.

Monty_Vonn And there hasn't been a snowstorm or logging road I couldn't get up with that car. I go up to mountains with my telescope.

Jeremy1952 The aliens help you, Monty, because they want you to find them.

Pinker Selection against speed -- once again, the key question is how widespread and for how long that selection pressure lasts. A phenomenon of the last 50 years in a few industrialized countries will not affect the species, especially if the total number killed is relatively small -- e.g., 40,000 deaths a year in the US, which has something like 300 million people.

Michaelangelo the guy who speeds might also take out someone who is slower

Smiling cloud Look at the number of deaths in Delhi related to the number of people.

Chris_OConnor Steve - does your fascination with linguistics extend beyond our species? I know of a primatologist that studies Bonobo linguistics and recently she has discovered what might be a new species of primate

Susan_van Steve, have you thought of donating sperm?

Mermaid Susan: amazing! I was thinking of asking the same question!

Pinker I believe that the new book on the love of speed is called "Falling." On religion, see also the book by Scott Atran called "In gods we trust."

Peterdf Susan that's a bit personal

Mermaid you must be a girl..:P

Monty_Vonn It does sound like you are continuing the good work of Noam Chomsky.

Pinker On Susan's question.. I think for once I am speechless.

Chris_OConnor Susan

Jeremy1952 Lol!

Chris_OConnor lol

Susan_van I thought I was being altruistic...

Chris_OConnor I am dying laughing

Chris_OConnor LOL

Pinker LOL too

Michaelangelo if you take out a loan at a sperm bank do you have to pay interest?

Chris_OConnor I can't believe she just asked that

Chris_OConnor lol

Michaelangelo did she mean to a sperm bank, or to her personally?

Jeremy1952 Hmm that would make a difference...

Smiling cloud Or donating your brain??

Chris_OConnor :O

Susan_van I am 43; it won't take. I meant bank.

Mermaid I’d like a lock of that hair though

Smiling cloud I am fascinated by the differences between English and Chinese. The differences in language influence the way of thinking about things. I find it much easier, for example, to read a Chinese computer manual as translated into English. It seems clearer..

Michaelangelo laughing all the way to the sperm bank...

Michaelangelo I'd like to learn Chinese

WW Logout:_

Pinker Susan, I take that as the ultimate compliment. I would consider donating by brain, except that it would seem rather egotistical rather than altruistic, which would be the real intent. In the 19th century many scientists donated their brains, hoping to outdo each other in volume.. Many would have been posthumously disappointed.

Ozod Didn’t Steve write about his childlessness, that if his selfish genes don't like that, they can go jump in a lake?

Smiling cloud hahaha

Mermaid Ozod: peter mentioned that in his post..

Zach who'd be the unlucky body donator?

Mermaid but seriously though, why do you choose to be childfree?

Michaelangelo children take a lot of time

Mermaid children are a good investment

LanDroid Login:

Susan_van It was altruistic of me to suggest it, but--sure--egotistical of you to agree to it.

Chris_OConnor LanDroid - you're late

Mermaid the only way one can hope to be immortal

Nostradafemme yes, children certainly are.

Smiling cloud But you can contribute in other ways too.

Monty_Vonn I still think there is a serious consequence to this birth control thing!

Pinker Dear folks; my hour is up. I thank you for your questions, and interest. Here's to the success of Freethinkers, and of Thanks, Chris, for hosting this, and for inviting me in. Good evening to all of you. Best wishes,

Tarav Michaelangelo- That's the main reason I chose to be childfree!

Pinker Steve

Peterdf There was a great quote - Dennet I think - who said it is the only transplant where it is better to be the donor than the recipient

Smiling cloud Many Thanks, Steve. And thanks all.

Pinker Logout

Jeremy1952 Thanks so much for your time, Steve! It is re....

Zach Thank you for coming, Dr. Pinker

Jeremy1952 oh never mind

Monty_Vonn By the way, I stopped at two children. Tried to stop at one, but my first wife said I promised her two.

System: Thank you very much for coming everyone

Michaelangelo bye Stephen

Mermaid you made a promise?

Chris_OConnor He leaves almost as fast as Jeremy

Nostradafemme Thanks Chris for an enjoyable eve.

Jeremy1952 Lol Chris

Zach hehe

Chris_OConnor Yes, it was fun.

Chris_OConnor I will post this transcript immediately

Jeremy1952 I can think of worse things than being compared to Seven Pinker

Chris_OConnor And I had a statement

Smiling cloud That was a good chat.

Chris_OConnor Any of you that are not regulars on the BookTalk forums I sure hope you consider getting involved…its totally free.

Chris_OConnor We will be asking Matt Ridley to join us this week...for a chat in early November

Nostradafemme what's the next book for discussion, Chris?

Mermaid Chris: I signed up recently and I want to complement you on this project of yours

Chris_OConnor Who knows

Jeremy1952 Ridley! Wow

Chris_OConnor Mermaid - I appreciate that

Smiling cloud That was much fun - I never thought I would be involved in a virtual collective non-linear conversation with Steven Pinker! Thanks.

Mermaid truly most sincere appreciation

Chris_OConnor Yes, Matt Ridley’s book is hard to put down

Mermaid I can’t get Matt Ridley's “The Red Queen” at my library

Chris_OConnor If you like to chat, but don't find writing on forums fun...still get involved.

William_of_Duluth Well, Susan V, are you now satisfied and informed?

Chris_OConnor Mermaid - excellent

Nostradafemme Ridley is an astute thinker IMO.

Jeremy1952 I think she said, "Can't", Chris

Chris_OConnor Susan - that was a good question

Peterdf Well it is 3.05 am here so I'm going to bed - thanks for a great chat Chris

Smiling cloud Chris, will this be posted on the BookTalk site?

Michaelangelo Thank you all for coming, I invite you to visit my gift shop and buy a "Prevent Holy War: Practice Safe Sects" t-shirt:

Ozod Mermaid: Try & eBay.

Jeremy1952 Parapraxis

Michaelangelo hehe

Chris_OConnor Peter - Good night

Mermaid Ozod: ok

Mermaid thanks

Tarav bye, peter

Smiling cloud ciao, all.

Chris_OConnor Smiling - it will be on the "Blank Slate" forum, but very soon we will have actual chat transcript pages

Jeremy1952 ciao cloud

Mermaid bye be well

Peterdf bye all

Nostradafemme ciao all.

Chris_OConnor If you are new and want me to send you some info email me at

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