Harvard’s Pinker explains ‘what makes people tick’



Speaking about “what makes people tick,” renowned Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker explained human nature Wednesday afternoon by invoking the philosophies of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Students and professors packed Davies Auditorium to hear Pinker speak about the role of human nature in intellectual life. Weaving movie quotes and comic strips into his presentation, Pinker outlined the principal theories of human nature developed by philosophers Locke, Rousseau and Renee Descartes. He illustrated the ideas with quotes and song lyrics from Schwarzenegger, Woody Allen, “Calvin and Hobbes” author Bill Watterson and the film version of “West Side Story.” He also promoted his latest book, “Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” during the talk.

“We all need theories about what makes people tick,” Pinker said. “Theories of human nature affect personal lives, education, law and values.”

Pinker said scientific or philosophical attempts to understand human nature construct a fundamental part of living in the modern world.

Arguing against Locke’s notion of “the blank slate,” which dictates that humans are shaped entirely by experience, Pinker said more complicated scientific factors affect development. Pinker cited pop culture references and case studies of identical and fraternal twins to supplement his anecdotal evidence.

“Nothing gives life more meaning than to realize every moment of consciousness is a precious gift,” Pinker said.

But Pinker also said science does not dictate a person’s every move.

“The idea that genes have an effect does not mean we are determined by them,” he said.

For example, he said recent studies show that parenting has little effect on child development. But peers, environment and chance often play a critical role in developing human nature and one’s notions of self.

Nicholaus Noles GRD ’08, who introduced Pinker, praised the cognitive scientist for making his material accessible to the public.

“Generally the lectures are mostly for the Psychology Department, but Dr. Pinker is someone who appeals to a much broader audience and has a lot of multidisciplinary focus. That makes his talk a lot more popular as a colloquium,” Noles said. “The things he writes for a general audience are complicated and important, but in a way that educated people can understand without being an expert in the topic.”

Psychology Department chairman Kelly Brownell said he was impressed with the presentation.

“It was a brilliant talk,” Brownell said. “He’s a remarkably clear and insightful thinker who stimulates issues fundamental to human nature.”

But some students familiar with Pinker’s work said they wished his talk were more focused.

“I thought he was somewhat broad, but he was well-spoken and made his points fairly clearly,” John Murray ’06 said. “I read one of his books. He’s a good writer.”

Pinker ended his talk by emphasizing the way that understanding human nature helps people understand larger problems. He said science alone does not hold the answers to every question.

“The answer ‘to pass on your genes’ is not a sufficient response to the question, ‘Why am I here?'” Pinker said.

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