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« Life Can Be Awful | Main | Nietzsche and Pinker »

December 03, 2003

Steven Pinker Interview

Dear Friedrich --

Here's a good Edge q&a with Steven Pinker, the author of the excellent evo-bio survey "The Blank Slate" (buyable here). What a brilliant guy, and how clearly he lays his points and arguments out. I can't resist quoting one arts-centric passage at length.

The blank slate has had an enormous influence in far-flung fields. One example is architecture and urban planning. The 20th century saw the rise of a movement that has been called "authoritarian high modernism," which was contemporaneous with the ascendance of the blank slate. City planners believed that people's taste for green space, for ornament, for people-watching, for cozy places for intimate social gatherings, were just social constructions. They were archaic historical artifacts that were getting in the way of the orderly design of cities, and should be ignored by planners designing optimal cities according to so-called scientific principles.

Le Corbusier was the clearest example. He and other planners had a minimalist conception of human nature. A human being needs so many cubic of air per day, a temperature within a certain range, so many gallons of water, and so many square feet in which to sleep and work. Houses became "machines for living," and cities were designed around the most efficient way to satisfy this short list of needs, namely freeways, huge rectangular concrete housing projects, and open plazas. In extreme cases this led to the wastelands of planned cities like Brasilia; in milder cases it gave us the so-called urban renewal projects in American cities and the dreary highrises in the Soviet Union and English council flats. Ornamentation, human scale, green space, gardens, and comfortable social meeting places were written out of the cities because the planners had a theory of human nature that omitted human esthetic and social needs.

Another example is the arts. In the 20th century, modernism and post-modernism took over, and their practitioners disdained beauty as bourgeois, saccharine, and lightweight. Art was deliberately made incomprehensible or ugly or shocking—again, on the assumption that people's tastes for attractive faces, landscapes, colors, and so on were reversible social constructions. This also led to an exaggeration of the dynamic of social status that has always been part of the arts. The elite arts used to be aligned with the economic and political aristocracy. They involved displays of sumptuosity and the flaunting of rare and precious skills that only the idle rich could cultivate. But now that any now that any schmo can afford a Mozart CD or can go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. And so art became baffling and uninterpretable without acquaintance with arcane theory.

By their own admission, the humanities programs in universities, and institutions that promote new works of elite art, are in crisis. People are staying away in droves. I don't think it takes an Einstein to figure out why. By denying people's sense of visual beauty in painting and sculpture, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, plot and narrative and character in fiction, the elite arts wrote off the vast majority of their audience—the people who approach art in part for pleasure and edification rather than social one-upmanship. Today there are movements in the arts to reintroduce beauty and narrative and melody and other basic human pleasures. And they are considered radical extremists!

Based on my decades of floundering cluelessly (but enthusiastically!) around the arts and media worlds, I'd say that Pinker's absolutely right on every one of those points. How about you?

In a terrific review of "The Blank Slate" here, Nikos Salingaros adds a number of fresh points of his own. "A group of innovative architects and thinkers are beginning to formulate the basis for a new architecture that arises out of human needs, and which is supported by an improved understanding of biological structure," Salingaros writes. "Our cognition makes us human; it is certainly responsible for how we perceive structure."

Best, and feeling very cheery about all this,


posted by Michael at December 3, 2003


Funny, I just now started reading Pinker's Blank Slate and made the very same connection: Maybe we do have built-in preferences for traditonal architectural forms a la Christopher Alexander. James Kunstler should get wind of Pinker, too, because it fits his Geography of Nowhwere thesis to a T.

Posted by: Rob Bracken on December 3, 2003 08:22 PM

We are a product of the world we live in, and the ancestors who came before. A good looking man or woman is a healthy man or woman. A pleasing sound means all is safe. We are neither as bound by our past or as free in our will as some would like to think.

In my considered opinon, our will is free within the constraints laid down by our inheritance.

But to the behavioral extremist this is not permissible. He keeps insisting that we our either automatons or free spirits, depanding on his ideological bent. That there are bounds to our behavior, inside of which we are free to experiment, is a matter not to be given due consideration. He knows what people are like, how dare others contradict him.

Trouble is, appearance is often a reliable indicator of the contents. Beauty in the classical sense often means health. Good proportions indicates desirability as a mating partner. While this while doubtlessly tick off some, the truth of the matter is that a woman who chooses a handsome, well proportioned, well kept man healthy in body and mind to father her children has a much better chance to have healthy children than someone who mates with a stereotypical nerd. (Speaky of which, have you ever noticed that the 'nerd' in those G.E. beauty and brain ads is a good looking fellow in his own right?)

We like the pleasant, the beautiful. We do best when our surroundings are comfortable. A little bit of excitement, a touch of dissonance can brighten up our day, but a constant diet of the stuff wears us down body, mind, and soul. We need a place where we can relax lest we become wound up tighter than a paranoid schizophrenic after a weekend at Starbucks.

We need pretty girls, puppies, and moonlit strolls, for an aesthetic sense has been bred into us from before our ancestors became human. We need the wondrous and the quietly spectaculary. We need the "Gosh wow!" of the world, for without beauty, wonder, the marvel small or large ours is a badly shrunken realm, and we are badly shrunken along with it.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 3, 2003 11:06 PM

Rob, Alan -- I find it fun to think of traditional art and architecture forms as having their own evolved history. These are forms that arose, evolved, and survived (for one reason or another) through time. They've proved their worth, they're continuing to evolve, the elements work and combine and recombine with other elements to make an open, loose system ...

I don't know, I take it to be like language, a great communal, evolved, organic, cultural creation that, provided you get familiar with it, you can speak and understand. To use the language analogy, I think Pinker's argument is that modernism was an attempt to throw evolved, organic language overboard and replace it with something sleek and overdesigned -- to ditch English and replace it with Esperanto, something like that. Replace the language of classical and colloquial architecture with "forms" and "spaces" -- with abstact geometry and intellectual ideas. Replace narrative with word and linguistic games. And it all does seem to run counter to human nature. Leon Krier does a fab job of making this kind of argument too, although he doesn't do it from the p-o-v of a scientist, he does it from the p-o-v of a kind of classical, urbane aesthete. Salingaros at his website has devoted a couple of pages to Krier, who's a fascinating thinker and writer. And Frederick Turner's "Natural Classicism" is a gem -- he summarizes and extends the thinking of the scientists and anthropologists and consolidates it into a poet's vision. Of course, a few questions arise: how did the Modernist project make such headway and last for so long? And, now that its run is coming to an end, why do the various arts and media worlds still cling to it so maniacally?

And how did you guys come to this kind of thinking?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2003 11:11 PM

To use the language analogy, I think Pinker's argument is that modernism was an attempt to throw evolved, organic language overboard and replace it with something sleek and overdesigned -- to ditch English and replace it with Esperanto, something like that. Replace the language of classical and colloquial architecture with "forms" and "spaces" -- with abstact geometry and intellectual ideas. Replace narrative with word and linguistic games. And it all does seem to run counter to human nature. almost sounds like a great wave of, well, you know, nihilism. (Possibly a wave set loose by the decline of the authority of religion in the late 19th century, taking down with it the authority of tradition in all its forms.)

Ya think?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 4, 2003 01:27 AM

"But now that any now that any schmo can afford a Mozart CD or can go to a free museum, artists had to figure out new ways to differentiate themselves from the rabble. And so art became baffling and uninterpretable without acquaintance with arcane theory." did it continue to sell? How has anyone ever heard of this "art"? Why does anyone continue to commission these buildings? I mean, these buildings are still being built and Esperanto took about three years to be thrown overboard. It seems rather elitist to say people just don't know what to like and let "the arts world" dictate to them. That would seem to defy human history. If the po-mo's were not, in truth, tapping into something people want, then I think they would have gone the way of Esperanto by now. When you say people "need" certain traditional things....I mean, do they?

Posted by: annette on December 4, 2003 02:35 AM

"While this while doubtlessly tick off some, the truth of the matter is that a woman who chooses a handsome, well proportioned, well kept man healthy in body and mind to father her children has a much better chance to have healthy children than someone who mates with a stereotypical nerd."

In defense of the evolutionary usefulness of nerds: To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, natural selection must love nerds because it makes so many of them. Generally speaking, nerds tend to be dads rather than cads, to use the Draper-Harpending terminology. They may father fewer children, at least by fewer women, but they tend to be around to help their children grow up. They tend to be shy, so they don't chase other women once they've got a wife. They tend to be technically adept, so they are decent providers.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 4, 2003 03:10 AM

I think nerds (I prefer "geeks") are critically important to the survival of the human species. If it weren't for geeks, who would invent anything?Computers, medicine, etc. The whole infrastructure of contemporary society which keeps us all from dropping dead was thought up by an invisible army of geeks.

If every male were a smug, comfortable, self-satisfied alpha male we'd still be living in caves.

Posted by: some guy on December 4, 2003 09:06 AM

re Michael's post: I see the evolved history as coming through all phases of art making. Self-criticism in art was first aimed at the imitation of nature. Once that was pretty well-figured out, by the 19th C. or so, self-criticism turned on the act of art-making and gave us Impressionism and modernism. Once that had a good run, self-criticism turned on the surrounding culture of art-making and gave us Pop and pomo. I believe the next logical target of self-criticism is self-criticism - a re-evaluation of what parts of the self-critical enterprise are worth keeping, now that it has been taken to such absurd conclusions.

Posted by: franklin on December 4, 2003 10:34 AM

I mostly agree with your points, but it's possible for people to genuinely like wierd and ugly art--it's not all one-upmanship.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on December 4, 2003 11:28 AM

FvB -- Absolutamente, dude. Come to think of it, did Nietzsche ever talk about how the various "isms" of the nihilistic age (modernism, Freudianism, etc, not that he had any way of knowing these specifically would come along) would take on the characteristics of religion? I mean, did he forsee that new mythologies would rush in to take the place of the discredited old mythologies? And that they were likely to be infinitely less satisfying than the discarded mythologies?

Annette -- I think you've hit on a key point, which I'd love to see the evo-bio brainiacs wrestle with more, which is, If modernism, Marxism, etc were all so opposed to what's naturally preferred by people, how and why did they get to be so successful? I've got a few, probably ill-informed hunches about this. But I think that, as you point out, it first has to be acknowledged that -- purely from an audience standpoint, if you will -- modernist architecture, atonal music, "free verse," etc have all had a surprisingly good run. How? Why? Do they really deliver something? If so, what? Was it all just a plot put over on us by a bunch of scheming intellectuals? If so, how'd they get away with it? And what can we learn about our own vulnerabilities and susceptibilities? What are your hunches?

Steve -- Geek/nerds do seem to be maters and homebodies, don't they. And a fair number of them seem to prosper, moneywise and offspringwise. So why wouldn't women find them attractive prospects? But obviously some do. In which case, what signals are the women finding attactive? How do they know these guys are likely to work out OK as hubbies? It can't be the three-day old sweat socks or the pocket protectors. So are the women just sensible and worldly-wise, and is this a case where that's trumping physical signals? I often wonder similar thoughts about, say, gays, and arty people, and people who choose not to breed. Why would such creatures crop up at all in a species? I can't believe it's just noise, or mistakes. So there must be some advantage to the species generally. Which leads me back to my hunch that the species throws off a certain number of individuals for the sake of R&D and entertainment -- trying out new lifestyles, providing the soundtrack for everyone else, being the kooky uncle who shows that life can be a little different than the same-ol' same-ol'. Maybe the existence of a certain number of wildcards, in other words, makes the game more open and interesting, and confers other advatageous properties too. But I'm severely challenged where science and statistics are concerned and so may just be dreaming up something foolish. But, like I say, if the game of life seems to have a genetically-based architecture, it also seems (for good reason) to have an open, capable-of-evolving architecture. And maybe such people play a role in keeping it open.

Some guy -- I'm with you. Fan though I am of the evo-bio crowd, I'd like to see them think a little more about the roles the many different types of people play in the larger system that is the species. Introverts, for instance: in evo-bio terms, why are there any at all? Yet we keep pumping 'em out.

Franklin -- That's a hilarious idea, and a wonderful picture of how art's evolved. That self-criticism meme ... Any thoughts about how and where and why it cropped up in the first place? Maybe it's one aspect of the response to the collapse in values that Nietzsche wrote about ... Hmm, I'm being slow here, but isn't it interesting that college humanities types are so addicted to something they call "critical thinking," by which they don't mean what you'd think they'd mean (developing the ability to think your way through problems) but instead the usual Marxist-derived one-trick pony-baloney (it all boils down to gender, race, yawn). Ah, the humanities: ever the last holdout, forever clinging to crapola and baseless ways of thinking. I wonder why they're so scared of letting go ... Hmm. I guess letting go of the faith that has sustained you, however badly, is always a frightening thing. They'd wake up into a world without charm and magic and have to face a few facts instead ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 4, 2003 11:41 AM


My views on the subject are the result of long years of observation, bolstered by programs on studies about how we perceive the world.

It also comes from acknowledging that the Comman Man is not as stupid as some would love to believe. As the writer Esther Friesner noted in a story of hers, ignorance does not equal stupidity.

To put it another way, if 9 out of ten people tell you your magnum opus stinks on ice, it might need some revision.

In terms of technique Grandma Moses couldn't draw flies, but there is a life to her work more accomplished artist can't equal. Hitler, in contrast, was an accomplished artist techically, but his work has no life. Life in art takes a knowledge of others, and a willingness to open up to them. Grandma Moses enjoyed life and enjoyed people. Hitler, not hardly.

That is the difference between art with people in mind, and art done for the critic. The former, even the commercial stuff, is vibrant, alive. The latter has no life. That is the difference between spaces popular with people, and spaces done with architecture competitions in mind.

You ever find yourself in a gamestore sometime look in their RPG section for Monty Cook's Arcana Unearth. The wraparound cover features an orerry with images within each of the 5 larger globes (Magister, Oathbound, Sibecci and Verrick, Litorian, and Giant going from largest to smallest.) The cover was designed to intrigue, to draw the attention, to (being crassly commercial here) sell the book. This it does. Along with Monte's reputation as a game writer and designer. At the same time it is a well done piece of work, done by an artist with talent, skill, and a willingness to open himself up to others. To get to know them and understand them. The magister is tired, determined, facing a dilemma that could very well kill him, but dedicated to the goal he has set for himself. Getting that into a picture takes an sympathy for people no amount of technical training can imitate.

(The interior art is a mixed bag. But there is an impressionistic piece in shades of grey on page 91 I kinda like. Gives a better feel for a situation a group of adventurers can find themselves in than more 'accomplished' pieces on the same theme have done.)

So, in short, you could say that in my case it's a matter of what 'feels right'. What feels right, and is appropriate to what is being said. What the creator is trying to say. Picasso's Guernica communicates the artist's feelings about the incident and does it very well. Mark Zug's cover for Arcana Unearthed speaks volumes about the book, and does that well. Both get across what the artist wanted to say, with no need for a third party to 'interpret' what the artist meant.

That's what I'm looking for. Does the work say anything, and does it say it well? Even when the art says nothing overtly, it will still say something covertly. Most often about what the artist thinks of his audience. Even if the opus says nothing more than, "This is beautiful." or, "This is ugly." better that the message be there for all to see, and not hidden away for sussing out by the 'right folks."

Even when it comes to art with hidden messages, for those who take the time to winkle them out. Hiding is one thing, concealing is another. If you must hide the darkness inside a pastoral scene, at least let the viewer find that darkness with a bit of effort, with no need to rely on the expertise of another.

But that's me, and I'm sure I've wondered all over the place. Stream of consciousness is not dead, it shambles on dropping bits of dessicated flesh in crumbling puffs of dust on a barren ground.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 4, 2003 09:29 PM

"While this while doubtlessly tick off some, the truth of the matter is that a woman who chooses a handsome, well proportioned, well kept man healthy in body and mind to father her children has a much better chance to have healthy children than someone who mates with a stereotypical nerd."

What even is the statistical basis for this?

"Speaky of which, have you ever noticed that the 'nerd' in those G.E. beauty and brain ads is a good looking fellow in his own right?)."

No, I hadn't. But this may be part of the explanation---one woman's nerd is another man's goodlooking guy.

Posted by: annette on December 5, 2003 12:04 AM

Annette, how many stereotypical nerds have you known? The breed is a piece of work, believe me.

Ill kempt, ill dressed, unhealthy, mis-socialized. Slime mold has more charm and personality. Have I mentioned how unhealthy they look, and are?

Where the guy in the GE commercial is concerned, he is a goodlooking fellow. Don't let his designation as 'nerd' fool you.

Neither should you let a description of good looking, athletic, and well proportioned fool you. Even jocks can have brains.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on December 5, 2003 08:56 AM

Michael - I believe that self-criticism got its start as a problem-solving mechanism in early human consciousness and is far brom being a modern idea. To be able to change what you're doing to be more effective (make fire, kill bison) you have to have a feedback loop and the will to use it (cold and hunger are powerful motivators). The imitation of nature, being so difficult to do and providing such stirring results when it is acheived, drove art towards increasing realism from Sumerian aminal style to Roman portraiture and again from Medieval sculpture to 18th C. French tenebrism. You'll remember that the Impressionists wanted to be called Realists, and there was even an effort at one point to hang the Realist label on pure abstraction, since it was only concerned with the reality of the materials from which it was composed. Pomo has a streak of this as well, insofar as it strips down cultural assumptions in an attempt to find what's *really* happening when we look at and make art (although its conclusions, when it reaches them, are often mistaken or beside the point.) Througout all this is a drive to find the truth, the essence, the reality. If I'm right in thinking that the next target of self-criticism is self-criticism, the next phase of art is going to be characterized by less doubt and more faith.

Posted by: franklin on December 5, 2003 09:52 AM

I'm taking another crack at the answer I was giving to Alan--people make pretty things, but they also make gargoyles and Medusas. Even in visual art, the European tradition of beauty is just one part of the story--I don't think African art is/was trying to do quite the same thing.

In stories, people want "something to happen"--that is to say, something bad for somebody.

I agree that people have natures and strong default preferences, but it's not as simple as always liking what's pleasant.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on December 8, 2003 07:19 PM

Micheal, regarding your comments about natural selection producing people who don't seem to fit the template, nerds introverts etc. There is a pretty standard confusion here that ought to have been thouroughly debunked by Pinker's book. It is quite difficult to talk about natural selection without personifying it, but rather like society, the market and other things it is merely a generalisation for a complex series of processes, which as Pinker points out are entirely blind in the case of evolution.

Once you get away from the idea that evolution is a sentient being hand-crafting each of us according to the appropriate template it should be obvious that life can support quite a large variation in all characteristics, adaptive or otherwise. When it comes to reproductive traits humans have incredible equipment for distinguishing the most minute of differences between prospective mates, these judgements are relative and so are amplified. Consider how big someone's nose has to be before it's considered hideously ugly, really not that much bigger than the average at all. The theory of natural selection explains why almost everyone has a nose, it does not predict that everyone's nose should be exactly the same size or look cute. The point is that the theory is needed to explain why we are so remarkably similiar, no theory is needed to explain the small variations.

I remember reading an article by Oliver James, one of the jouranlists I think is denounced by Pinker as making a living out of attacking every evo-bio book that comes out. He said one of the things evolution could not explain was the existence of the stupidity trait. How a grown adult could write such garbage is beyond me, how can anyone not see that the stupidest human alive is an unmatched miracle of complexity?

With regard to the math geek phenomenon, I remember reading about some study that suggested a negative correlation between systematising intelligence and social intelligence. One of the points of the book was that women probabilistically are likely to
have more of the later and men more of the former. This might explain the existence of the math geek as a stereotype. As for extreme examples, smell unhealthy socially retarded geniuses, they are pretty much as rare as you would expect them to be.

Posted by: Steve Jordan on March 4, 2004 01:52 PM


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