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But it's there in a vaguer way, too, among others who fear that a materialist viewpoint -- the idea that human experience and choice are products of a physical organ called the brain -- is corrosive of morality, meaning, and ultimate purpose.
Reason: Why do you call these ideas myths?
Pinker: Because they're wrong. Let's talk about the blank slate. Just on logical grounds, blank slates don't do anything. They just sit there. Human beings do things. They make sense of their environment, they acquire language, they interact with one another. They use reasoning to bring about things that they want. Even if you acknowledge, as you have to acknowledge, that learning, socialization, and culture are indispensable aspects of human behavior, you have to admit that you can't have culture unless you have some kind of innate circuitry that can invent and acquire culture to begin with.
The noble savage [myth] has been refuted by studies of hunter-gatherers and societies more generally that show how violence and warfare are a human universal. The reports of tribes out there somewhere who never heard of war have turned out to be urban legends. I think many Western intellectuals had always been impressed that in many battles among hunter-gatherers, the battle is called off as soon as the first couple of people are killed. That led to the idea that warfare among pre-state societies was largely ritualistic. But in fact, if you do the numbers and count the bodies, two deaths in a band of 50 people are much bigger than the September 11th casualties in a society our size.
Careful studies show that hunter-gatherers are dead serious about war. They make weapons as destructive as their ingenuity permits. And if they can get away with it, they massacre every man, woman, and child. In our own society, which is far more peaceful than the native groups, if you ask people whether they have ever fantasized about killing someone, anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of the men and about 40 percent to 60 percent of women say that they have.
Reason: And the rest are lying.
Pinker: (laughs) There are also parts of the brain that seem associated with violence and outbursts. We know this partly because of accidents or operations through which certain portions of some people's brains were removed. Some sort of inhibitory brake was removed, and the individuals became more prone to violence.
As a cognitive scientist, I go back to thinking the problem through mechanistically. Just as in the case of the blank slate, you can't have learning without some kind of learning machinery. Human violence is highly nonrandom behavior. It's not the kind of thing that can arise from a simple malfunction. There's a popular notion that violence is a kind of disease or a public health problem; that's what all of the mental health agencies believe.
Reason: You say in The Blank Slate that Hobbes was right and Rousseau was wrong. Is civilization basically the development of institutions designed to rein in male violence?
Pinker: I think that's got a lot of truth to it, absolutely. That's what the rule of law is, and that's what a democracy is for. I don't think it's wiped out these impulses, and our fantasy lives may not be that different from those of the Yanomamo warrior. But we don't actually act on them. We can have lust and mayhem in our hearts, but not necessarily in our actions.
Reason: Why is the ghost in the machine doctrine a myth?
Pinker: Neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life -- every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory -- can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain. Cognitive science has shown that feats that were formerly thought to be doable by mental stuff alone can be duplicated by machines, that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation. Not computation the way your IBM PC does computation, but computation nonetheless -- a kind of fuzzy analog to parallel computation. So intelligence, which formerly seemed miraculous -- something that mere matter could not possibly accomplish or explain -- can now be understood as a kind of computation process.
Reason: Do you feel like we're going through a cycle of anti-science sentiment, of technophobia? Biotechnology, in particular, has raised the ire of both the right and the left.
Pinker: I think part of the fear of biotechnology really comes from a notion of the ghost in the machine. One of the great fears of cloning -- the absurd idea that cloning is going to create an army of mindless drones -- comes from a mental model of cloning that says that it's duplicating the body without a soul. The other fear is that it is some kind Faustian grab at immortality, a hubristic desire to make ourselves immortal. That relies on a mental model of cloning as duplicating the soul together with the body. So if I clone myself, that's actually going to be me. So much of the debate on cloning comes from these misconceptions of what it is. Which I think makes perfect sense, if the mental model that most people have of other humans is a body inhabited by a ghost.
I also think there's a notion of purity vs. contamination at work. It's a kind of noble savage myth. Cognitive psychologists call it "intuitive essentialism" -- that living things have an essence that gives rise to their biological properties. It's easy to think of genetically modified foods as living things whose essences have been contaminated by polluting elements as opposed to the biological view, which is that organisms are bundles of genes which vary continuously over the course of evolution.