Steven Pinker, fully Steven Arthur Pinker

Pinker, fully Steven Arthur Pinker

Canadian-born U.S. Experimental Psychologist, Cognitive Scientist, Linguist, and Popular Science Author, Psychology Professor at Harvard University

Author Quotes

The essentialist notion of bad blood is one of several biological metaphors inspired by a fear of the revenge of the cradle. People anticipate that if they leave even a few of a defeated enemy alive, the remnants will multiply and cause trouble down the line. Human cognition often works by analogy, and the concept of an irksome collection of procreating beings repeatedly calls to mind the concept of vermin. Perpetrators of genocide the world over keep rediscovering the same metaphors to the point of clich‚. Despised people are rats, snakes, maggots, lice, flies, parasites, cockroaches, or (in parts of the world where they are pests) monkeys, baboons, and dogs. Kill the nits and you will have no lice, wrote an English commander in Ireland in 1641, justifying an order to kill thousands of Irish Catholics. A nit would make a louse, recalled a Californian settler leader in 1856 before slaying 240 Yuki in revenge for their killing of a horse. Nits make lice, said Colonel John Chivington before the Sand Creek Massacre, which killed hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864. Cankers, cancers, bacilli, and viruses are other insidious biological agents that lend themselves as figures of speech in the poetics of genocide. When it came to the Jews, Hitler mixed his metaphors, but they were always biological: Jews were viruses; Jews were bloodsucking parasites; Jews were a mongrel race; Jews had poisonous blood.

The European wars of religion were more deadly than the First World War, proportionally speaking, and in the range of the Second World War in Europe. The Inquisition, the persecution of heretics and infidels and witches, they racked up pretty high death tolls.

The fact that people can forget these simple truths when intellectualizing about children shows how far modern doctrines have taken us. They make it easy to think of children as lumps of putty to be shaped instead of partners in a human relationship.

The fashion accessories of Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice, express the logic succinctly: (1) scales; (2) blindfold; (3) sword.

The fear, of course, is that different implies unequal?that is the sexes differed in any way, then men would have to be better, or more dominant, or have all the fun. Nothing could be farther from biological thinking.

The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. The advice in this and other stylebooks is not so much on how to write as on how to revise.

The foundation of individual rights is the assumption that people have wants and needs and are authorities on what those wants and needs are. If people's stated desires were just some kind of erasable inscription or reprogrammable brainwashing, any atrocity could be justified.

The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. We can add that nothing in culture makes sense except in the light of psychology. Evolution created psychology, and that is how it explains culture.

The connections I draw between human nature and political systems in my new book, for example, were prefigured in the debates during the Enlightenment and during the framing of the American Constitution.

The conscious mind?the self or soul?is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.

The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades and over years.

The decline of violence isn't a steady inclined plane from an original state of maximal and universal bloodshed. Technology, ideology, and social and cultural changes periodically throw out new forms of violence for humanity to contend with.

the difficulty of a sentence depends not just on its word count but on its geometry. Good writers often use very long sentences, and they garnish them with words that are, strictly speaking, needless. But they get away with it by arranging the words so that a reader can absorb them a phrase at a time, each phrase conveying a chunk of conceptual structure.

The doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on this earth.

The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Death becomes a mere rite of passage, like puberty or a midlife crisis.

The art of photography is all about directing the attention of the viewer.

The authors of Merriam-Webster?s Dictionary of English Usage, having surveyed the uses of the two forms over six hundred years, conclude, The traditional rules about shall and will do not appear to have described real usage of these words precisely at any time, although there is no question that they do describe the usage of some people some of the time and that they are more applicable in England than elsewhere.

The authors of recent histories of mass killing are adamant that the idea of an unprecedented century of genocide (the 20th) is a myth. On their first page Chalk and Jonassohn write, Genocide has been practiced in all regions of the world and during all periods in history, and add that their eleven case studies of pre-20th-century genocides are not intended to be either exhaustive or representative.

The behavior of people is freely chosen. With choice comes freedom, and therefore optimism about our possibilities for the future.

The best words not only pinpoint an idea better than any alternative but echo it in their sound and articulation, a phenomenon called phonesthetics, the feeling of sound.10 It?s no coincidence that haunting means haunting and tart means tart, rather than the other way around; just listen to your voice and sense your muscles as you articulate them. Voluptuous has a voluptuous give-and-take between the lips and the tongue, and titillating also gives the tongue a workout while titillating the ear with a coincidental but unignorable overlap with a naughty word. These associations make a sea of voluptuous models and titillating cover lines more lively than a sea of sexy models and provocative cover lines. And a sea of pulchritudinous models would have served as a lesson on how not to choose words: the ugly pulchritude sounds like the opposite of what it means, and it is one of those words that no one ever uses unless they are trying to show off.

The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.

The brain is not a bag of traits. It's startlingly complex. There are few or no single genes with a consistent effect on the mind.

The case against bigotry is not a factual claim that humans are biologically indistinguishable. It is a moral stance that condemns judging an individual according to the average traits of certain groups to which the individual belongs.

The cognitive difference between believing that a proposition is true (which requires no work beyond understanding it) and believing that it is false (which requires adding and remembering a mental tag) has enormous implications for a writer. The most obvious is that a negative statement such as The king is not dead is harder on the reader than an affirmative one like The king is alive.20 Every negation requires mental homework, and when a sentence contains many of them the reader can be overwhelmed. Even worse, a sentence can have more negations than you think it does.

Suppose the reasoning centers of the brain can get their hands on the mechanisms that plop shapes into the array and that read their locations out of it. Those reasoning demons can exploit the geometry of the array as a surrogate for keeping certain logical constraints in mind. Wealth, like location on a line, is transitive: if A is richer than B, and B is richer than C, then A is richer than C. By using location in an image to symbolize wealth, the thinker takes advantage of the transitivity of location built into the array, and does not have to enter it into a chain of deductive steps. The problem becomes a matter of plop down and look up. It is a fine example of how the form of a mental representation determines what is easy or hard to think.

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Canadian-born U.S. Experimental Psychologist, Cognitive Scientist, Linguist, and Popular Science Author, Psychology Professor at Harvard University