Adam Gopnik, author of Angels & Ages, A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life and Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate and many other works, discuss a fundamental question: How far can Darwin take us as a guide to why we are the way we are?
Both outspoken appreciators of Darwin, Adam Gopnik and Steven Pinker will compare their visions -- perhaps complementary, perhaps contrasting -- of what Darwin's legacy is on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth.
Adam Gopnik has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. His most recent book is "The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food."
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world's foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received seven honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and The New Republic. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine's "The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals," Foreign Policy's "100 Global Thinkers," and Time magazine's "The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today." His most recent book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. (photo credit: Max Gerber)
Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker relays his favorite bit of "Darwiniana": Darwin's principle of antithesis.
Darwin proposed that both animals and humans alike employ a certain set of biological signals to convey one emotion (like aggression), while using the exact opposite signals to convey the exact opposite emotion (like passivity).
The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik examines Charles Darwin's contentious exploration of race.
Gopnik argues that while Darwin may have been a "civilizationist," he was not inherently racist. The father of evolution believed the key difference among humans was not genetic, but rather based on access to education and cultural acquisitions.
Theory of the evolutionary mechanism proposed by Charles Darwin as an explanation of organic change. It denotes Darwin's specific view of how evolution works. Darwin developed the concept that evolution is brought about by the interplay of three principles: variation (present in all forms of life), heredity (the force that transmits similar organic form from one generation to another), and the struggle for existence (which determines the variations that will be advantageous in a given environment, thus altering the species through selective reproduction). Present knowledge of the genetic basis of inheritance has contributed to scientists' understanding of the mechanisms behind Darwin's ideas, in a theory known as neo-Darwinism.
Theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had proposed for plants and animals in nature. Social Darwinists, such as Herbert Spencer and Walter Bagehot in England and William Graham Sumner in the U.S., held that the life of humans in society was a struggle for existence ruled by survival of the fittest, in Spencer's words. Wealth was said to be a sign of natural superiority, its absence a sign of unfitness. The theory was used from the late 19th century to support laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism. Social Darwinism declined as scientific knowledge expanded.
Half way in I just skipped past all Gopnick chunks.
Pinker drove straight into his verb tornado and stood steadily on his feet staring into the storm's eye, responding calmly: the civilized man of today must always judge the individual on his merits, but accept the that group differences exist. Between men and women, black and white, and on and on. Neuroscience isn't on the Gopnik-leftist's side, and within the next 2 decades it wont be possible to claim that race is a human fabrication. Pinker knows this.
'Survival of the fittest' means the individuals (phenotypes) who 'fit in', i.e. who can cope best with prevailing conditions. It certaily doesn't imply survival of the strongest. We are one of the weakest, slowest animals on earth but we now easily dominate species much stronger and faster.
Another thing to remember is that all species, including homo sapiens, are temporary. Our existence as individuals and as a species is limited. At some time in the future the conditions on the earth will change and we will disappear. In a couple of hundred million years you'll never know we were here.
In Q3, did I correctly infer that Gopnik was mocking Steven when he said that the question is easy, so he'll let Pinker answer It?
And why he always tries to find areas of disagreement with Pinker? Does anyone know what do they disagree on?
"This preservation, during the battle for life, of varieties which possess any advantage in structure, constitution, or instinct, I have called Natural Selection; and Mr. Herbert Spencer has well expressed the same idea by the Survival of the Fittest. The term "natural selection" is in some respects a bad one, as it seems to imply conscious choice; but this will be disregarded after a little familiarity". Darwin