THURSDAY, MARCH 6, 2003
Session 3: Human Nature and Its Future
Steven Pinker, PhD, Peter de Florez Professor,
Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
CHAIRMAN KASS: Well, I think we should
get started. We have a few stragglers who will, I'm sure,
wander in promptly.
The topic this afternoon is for the first time in our meetings
the subject of human nature and human nature in the age of
biotechnology. The subject crops up now and then in our conversations
and is very often just below the surface as one talks about
various kinds of technical innovations which at least some
people claim might produce certain kinds of changes in human
And in these kinds of conversations very quickly one gets
into questions of whether there is such a thing as human nature,
whether there is something fixed and hard wired, or whether
it's primarily plastic, or whether, as is frequently said,
it is the course of the essence of human nature to change
human nature, and on and on and on.
There have also been some conversations here where human
nature has functioned not simply descriptively, but also normatively
as something which is either thought to be sacrosanct and
offering some kind of guidance or, on the contrary, as something
which is so filled with flaws that it needs, in fact, to be
improved, our senescence in mortality being one amongst those
flaws that we discussed improving in the session before lunch.
And it seems to me that we thought it was worthwhile to
actually make this a subject of explicit conversation and
spend some time on it. This is not a public policy question.
There are not going to be recommendations. There are not
even going to be "thou shalts" and "thou shalt
nots" coming out of this, but it does seem to me it's
worth our while to pay some attention to this larger theme
in an explicit way, and especially to think about how to think
about human nature in an age of genomics, in an age of neuroscience,
both how we should understand it, to understand what might
be possible in the way of altering it and ultimately what
those alterations might mean and whether they would be a good
thing, large questions all, and we are very lucky to have
as our special guest someone for whom these large questions
are, to say the least, not daunting because he's willing
to step forward and speak about them, and that's Professor
Steven Pinker, a neuroscientist and evolutionary psychologist
and a very gifted and prolific, popular author about these
He's the Peter D. Florez Professor in the Department
of Brain and Cognitive Science at MIT, the author of recent
books, How the Mind Works, and more recently The
Blank Slate, and he has very kindly agreed to come and
introduce us to this topic with a formal presentation after
which all of us look forward to having conversation with you.
Thank you very much and welcome,
DR. PINKER: Thank you very much. I'd
like to thank Dr. Kass for the opportunity to speak to this
group. It is really an honor and a privilege to share these
ideas with you. Thank you.
I'm going to talk about the modest topic of the past,
present, and future of human nature with an emphasis on the
What about the past? In much of the 20th Century, there
was a widespread denial of the existence of human nature in
Western intellectual life, and I will just present three representative
quotations. "Man has no nature," from the philosopher
Jose Ortega y Gassett. "Man has no instincts,"
from the anthropologist and public intellectual Ashley Montagu.
"The human brain is capable of a full range of behaviors
and predisposed to none," from the evolutionary biologist
Stephen Jay Gould.
I think, however, that in recent times there has been a
rediscovery and a reacknowledgement of the idea that humans
have a nature as well as a history. Partly it's an acknowledgement
of common sense. Anyone who has had more than one child knows
that children are not indistinguishable lumps of putty waiting
to be changed, but come into the world with certain talents
Anyone who has both children and house pets has surely noticed
that the children exposed to language will develop language,
in turn, whereas the house pets will not.
There has also been a reacknowledgement of universals across
human societies, although it's undeniable that human societies
and cultures differ from one another in countless ways. There
is also a large stock of universal behaviors and emotions
that can be found in all of the world's 6,000 cultures.
Here is a list recently compiled by the anthropologist Donald
Brown that goes from aesthetics, affection, and ambivalence
all the way down to fallow contrasts, weaning, weapons, and
attempts to control the weather.
There has also been an increasing body of data from behavioral
genetics and cognitive neuroscience, suggesting that the human
brain has a complex inherent structure. This is a recent
study from Paul Thompson and colleagues based on earlier work
from your own Mike Gazzaniga, which used magnetic resonance
imaging to measure the distribution of gray matter in different
parts of the cerebral cortex and correlated it across a large
sample of pairs of individuals. They coded the correlation
in false color so that zero correlation was represented in
shades of blue and purple, and statistically significant correlation
in shades of green, red, and pink.
Now, by definition if you pick people at random and correlate
the gray matter in different parts of the brain, the correlation
will be zero, and so in unrelated subjects you have view of
the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere, and a top view
that is uniformly zero. This is what happens in pairs of
people who share half their genes, namely fraternal twins.
As you can see, most of the cortex shows statistically significant
correlations in how much gray matter is found in different
This is what happens in people who share all of their genes,
namely, identical or monozygotic twins, and as you can see,
they're even greater extents of cortex that are highly
correlated across pairs of individuals.
Now, these correlations are not just meaningless anatomical
shapes like the shape of your earlobes, but have behavioral
consequences, and studies of twins and adoptees have shown
substantial genetic influences on personality and intellect.
My favorite summary is from the Charles Addams cartoon in
The New Yorker whose caption is "separated at
birth, the Malliefert twins meet accidentally," showing
a pair of inventors with identical contraptions in their laps
in the waiting room of a patent attorney.
The cartoon is not such an exaggeration on the data. Studies
of identical twins who are separated at birth and reunited
in adulthood show that they share astonishing similarities
in their personalities, in their intellects, and even in individual
quirks, like dipping buttered toast in coffee and wearing
rubber bands around their wrists.
Well, that's the past and the present. Given that human
nature exists as common sense and the empirical data tell
us, does that mean that we can change it?
Now, there have been some notorious attempts to change human
nature that we've seen in the 20th Century. There has
been the attempt to socially engineer a new man, in particular,
a new socialist man leading to the totalitarian regimes in
the Marxist dictatorships in Russia, China, and Cambodia.
I think it's fair to say that this is no longer a topic
of debate among decent individuals.
Equally horrific has been the attempt to change human nature
through eugenics both in the case of mandatory of sterilization
that was widespread in many Western countries, including the
United States, until the 1930s, and even more horrifically,
the Nazi genocide, which was predicated on the desirability
of changing human nature through sterilization and mass murder.
I'm going to talk about the ability to change human
nature that's of more direct interest to the members of
this committee, namely, voluntary genetic engineering, popularly
known as designer babies, and that will be the topic of the
rest of my presentation.
I don't have to remind you that this is ethically fraught,
and there are vociferous voices arguing that this would be
a bad thing or that it would be a good thing. I'm going
to address a common assumption both of people who are alarmed
and people who welcome genetic enhancement.
The assumption that this is inevitable, that science has
reached the point where it's only a matter of time before
genetic enhancement is routine and possibly the human species
will change unless we intervene and regulate the science and
I'm going to present a skeptical argument about designer
babies to give you an overview. I'm going to suggest
that genetic enhancement of human nature is not inevitable.
Indeed, I would be willing to venture that it's highly
unlikely in our lifetimes.
Why? First of all, because of the fallibility of predictions
about complex technology in general.
Secondly, impediments to genetic enhancement from what we
know about the human behavioral genetics.
And, third, impediments from human nature itself.
Well, let me begin with the frailty of technological predictions
in general. There's a wonderful book called The Experts
Speak by Victor Navasky and Christopher Cerf which has
some delicious quotations about what is inevitable in our
future, such as the following one. "Fifty years hence
we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in
order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately
under a suitable medium," Winston Churchill in 1932.
That should have happened by 1982, and we're still waiting.
Nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality
within ten years, a prediction made in 1955 by a manufacturer
of vacuum cleaners. A few other predictions that I remember
from my childhood, and in fact, from newspapers of just a
few years ago. Dome cities, jet pack commuting, mile high
buildings, routine artificial organs, routine consumer space
flights, such as the Pan Am shuttle to the moon featured in
2001, interactive television, the paperless office, and the
dot-com revolution and the end of bricks-and-mortar retail.
All of these predictions we know to be false, and a number
of them are not even developments that have not happened yet,
but things that we can say with a fair amount of confidence
never will happen.
We're not going to have domed cities, at least not in
the future that's worth worrying about.
Now, why are technological predictions so often wrong?
First, there's a habit of assuming that technological
progress can be linearly extrapolated. If there's a little
bit of progress now, there will be proportional progress as
we multiply the number of years out.
Engineers sometimes refer to this as the fallacy of thinking
that we can get to the moon by climbing trees. A little bit
of progress now can be extended indefinitely.
Secondly, there's a tendency to underestimate the number
of things that have to go exactly right for a given scenario
to take place. Most technological changes don't depend
on a single discovery, but rather on an enormous number of
factors, scores or even hundreds, all of which have to fall
into place exactly right.
Both technological developments, psychological developments,
namely, whether individual humans will opt for the technology
both in developing it and in adopting it, and sociological
factors, namely, whether there will be a multiplication of
those choices society-wide that will lead to the economies
of scale and the social pressures that would lead to some
technological development becoming ubiquitous.
Third, there's a widespread failure of futurologists
to consider the costs of new technologies, as well as the
benefits, whereas in reality the actual users faced with a
particular technology consider both the benefits and the costs.
Finally, there is an incentive structure to futurology.
Someone who predicts a future that's radically different
from our own, either to hype it or to raise an alarm against
it will get the attention of the press and the public. The
chances are The New York Times won't call you
up if you say either that the future is going to be pretty
similar to the present or we haven't a clue as to what
the future will be.
The second part of my talk, reasons for skepticism about
designer babies is that there's a considerably bracing
splash of cold water on the possibility of designer babies
from what we know about behavioral genetics and neural development
today. There's a widespread assumption that we have discovered
or soon will discover individual genes for talents such as
mathematical giftedness, musical talent, athletic prowess,
and so on.
But the reality is considerably different, and I think an
Achilles heel of genetic enhancement will be the rarity of
single genes with consistent beneficial psychological effects.
I think there's a myth that such genes have been discovered
or inevitably will be discovered, but it isn't necessarily
Indeed, I would say that the science of behavioral genetics
at present faces something of a paradox. We know that tens
of thousands of genes working together have a large effect
on the mind. We know that from twin studies that show that
identical twins are far more similar than fraternal twins
who, in turn, are more similar than unrelated individuals,
and from adoption studies that show that children resemble
their biological parents more than their adopted parents.
But these are effects of sharing an entire genome or half
of a genome or a quarter of a genome. It's very different
from the existence of single genes that have a consistent
effect on the mind, which have been few and far between.
Anyone who has kept up with the literature on behavioral
genetics has noticed that there's been a widespread failure
to find single genes for schizophrenia, autism, obsessive-compulsive
disorder, and so on. And those, by the way, are the areas
where we're most likely to find a single gene simply because
it's easier to disrupt a complex system with a single
defective part than it is to install an entire complex ability
with a single gene. The failure to find a gene with consistent
effect on, say, schizophrenia means that it's even less
likely that we will find a gene for something as complex as
musical talent or likability.
And though there have been highly publicized discoveries
of single genes for syndromes such as bipolar illness, sexual
orientation, or in perhaps the most promising case, a gene
that appeared to correlate with four IQ points in gifted individuals;
all of those discoveries have been withdrawn in recent years,
including the four point IQ gene withdrawn just last month.
Now, it's really not such a paradox when you think about
what we know about biological development in general. The
human brain is not a bag of traits with one gene for each
trait. That's just not the way genetics works.
Neural development is a staggering complex process which
we are only beginning to get the first clues about. It involves
many genes interacting in complex feedback loops.
The effects of genes are often non-additive. The effect
of one gene and the effect of a second gene don't produce
the sum of their effects when they're simultaneously present
The pattern of expression of genes is often as important
as which genes are present, and therefore, it's a good
idea not to hold your breath for the discovery of the musical
talent gene or any other single gene or small number of genes
with a large, consistent effect on cognitive functioning or
As an analogy, we know that the code that comes with a software
package, that is a software package obviously determines the
operation of a computer, and we know that properties of a
computer package, such as how easy it is to use depend intimately,
completely on the sequence of instructions in the software.
That doesn't mean that there is a single instruction
that you can insert into a computer program that will make
it easy to use, nor a single instruction that you can remove
that will automatically make it hard to use.
I think there are other genetic impediments to the possibility
of genetic enhancement. One is that the genes, even acting
across an entire genome, have effects that are, at best, probabilistic.
A sobering discovery is that monozygotic twins reared together
who share all of their genes and most of their environment
are imperfectly correlated. When it comes to personality
measures, such as extroversion or neuroticism, correlations
are in the range of .5.
Now, that's much, much bigger than correlations among
non-identical twins or, let alone, unrelated individuals,
but it's much less than one, and what that tells us is
that there is an enormous and generally unacknowledged role
for chance in the development of a human being.
Secondly, there's a phenomenon of pleiotropy that most
genes have multiple effects, and in general, evolution selects
for the best compromise among the positive and negative effects
that come from an individual gene.
A vivid example of this is aside from the four point IQ
gene, probably the best candidate for a gene with the potential
for enhancement is the knock-in mice reported two years ago
that were given extra MNDA receptors, receptors that are critical
to learning and memory. These were artificially engineered
mice that had an enhanced ability to learn mazes.
On the other hand, it was later discovered that these mice
were hypersensitive to inflammatory pain. So a genetic change
had both a positive and negative effects.
Because of this, it means that there are ethical impediments
to research on human enhancement, namely, how can you get
there from here. Are there experiments that a typical human
subjects committee would approve of, given the likelihood
that any given gene will have negative effects on a child,
in addition to the positive ones.
Finally, most human traits are desirable at intermediate
values. Wallace Simpson famously said that you can't
be too rich or too thin, and it may be true that you can't
be too smart, but for most other traits, you really can have
too much of a good thing.
Most parents don't want their child to be not assertive
enough, to be a punching bag or a door mat. On the other
hand, most parents would also not want their child to be Jack
You want your child to have some degree of risk taking,
not to sit at home cowering out of fear of negative consequences.
On the other hand, you don't want a self-destructive maniac
So if a given gene, even if it did have as its effect an
enhancement, say, of risk taking, put it in a child and you'll
have ten extra points on the risk taking scale; the crucial
question is: what are the other 29,999 genes doing? Would
they be placing your child on the left-hand side of the Bell
curve, in which case an extra dose of assertiveness would
be a good thing, or have they already put your child on the
right-hand side of the Bell curve so that an extra dose of
assertiveness is the last thing that you would want?
The third part of the argument is I think there are impediments
in human nature to enhancing human nature. Now, one feature
of parental psychology that is often invoked in these discussions
is the desire of parents to give their children whatever boost
is possible, and lurking in all of these discussions is the
stereotype of the Yuppie parent who plays Mozart to the mother's
belly while the mother is pregnant, bombards the baby with
flash cards, has them taking violin lessons at the age of
three, and so on. And the assumption is that parents would
stop at nothing to enhance their children's ability, including
Well, that obviously is a feature of parental psychology,
but there's a second feature of parental psychology that
also has to be factored in, namely, the aversion to harm your
children. Most parents know that even if they are not sure
whether playing Mozart to a pregnant woman's belly will
help their child, they have reasonable belief that it couldn't
harm the child. Likewise the flash cards, the violin lessons,
and so on.
If it came to genetic enhancement where this was unknown,
it's not so clear that parents would opt for the risk
of doing their children genuine harm for the promise of a
possibility of doing them good.
Also, one ubiquitous feature of human nature is intuitions
about naturalness and contamination, sometimes referred to
by cognitive psychologists as psychological essentialism,
the folk belief that living things have an essence which can
be contaminated by pollutants from without.
This has been an impediment to the acceptance of other technologies.
Famous examples are nuclear power, which is notoriously aversive
to large segments of the population. As you all know, there
hasn't been a new nuclear power plant built in this country
for several decades, despite the possibility that it could
be an effective solution to global warming.
In Europe and in large segments of this country, there is
a widespread repugnance to genetically modified foods for
reasons that are probably more irrational than rational, but
nonetheless cannot be gainsaid. If people have a horror about
genetically modified soybeans, it's not so clear that
they would rush to welcome genetically modified children.
Finally, anyone who knows someone who has undergone IVF
knows that this is a traumatic, painful, and rather unpleasant
procedure, especially in comparison to sex. While there are
undoubtedly extremists who would use IVF, we know that they
would use IVF for things as trivial as having their child
born under a certain astrological sign; it's certainly
not true that everyone would shun IVF for trivial reasons.
There is reason to believe that this would not necessarily
catch on in the population as a whole.
So the choice that parents would face in a hypothetical
future in which even if genetic enhancement were possible
would not be the one that's popularly portrayed, namely,
would you opt for a procedure that would give you a happier
and more talented child.
When you put it like that, well, who would say no to that
More realistically, the question that parents would face
would be something like this. Would you opt for a traumatic
and expensive procedure that might give you a very slightly
happier and more talented child, might give you a less happy,
less talented child, might give you a deformed child, and
probably would do nothing.
We don't know the probabilities of those four outcomes.
I think this is a more realistic way of thinking about the
choices that parents might face.
For genetic enhancement to change human nature or to lead
to a post human future, not a few, but billions of people
would have to answer yes to this question.
So to sum up, changing human nature by a voluntary genetic
enhancement I would say is not inevitable because the complexity
of neural development and the rarity or absence of single
genes with large, consistent, beneficial effects, and because
of the tradeoff of risks and benefits enhancement that will
inevitably be faced by researchers and by parents.
The conclusions that I would draw are the following. I
am not arguing that genetic enhancement will never happen.
If there's anything more foolish than saying that some
technological development is inevitable, it's saying that
some technological development is impossible.
And corresponding to the silly predictions about the inevitable
future of domed cities and jet packed commuters, one can find
equally silly quotes from people who said things like we will
never reach the moon.
So it's not that I am arguing that genetic enhancement
is impossible. Rather, it's an argument that bioethics
policy should acknowledge the frailty of long-term technological
predictions which have a very spotty track record at best.
The bioethics policy should be based on fact, not fantasy.
Both our positive and our negative fantasies are unlikely
to come true, and that policies predicated on the inevitability
of genetic enhancement should be rethought.
I thank you for the opportunity to present these views to
CHAIRMAN KASS: Thank you very much. A
very crisp, clear and interesting presentation.
The floor is open for discussion. Robby George.
PROF. GEORGE: Yes. Thank you, Dr. Pinker,
for that wonderful presentation.
You mentioned at one point the publicity surrounding claims
that genes had been identified which operating just on their
own have certain determinable effects, like the four IQ points.
You yourself are a person who's very much in the public
One thing that I notice about these sorts of claims is that
when they're made, they get an enormous amount of publicity,
and when they're withdrawn, you hear about it later, if
I didn't know about the four IQ points had been withdrawn.
It seems to me that that's an enormous problem on the
public education side, and it's not one that we don't
face in the bioethics area as well because so much of what
needs to be done really does require the public to have a
realistic picture of what's going on in the sciences.
Do you have any reflections about that? I mean particularly
about the question of communicating scientific information
that's relevant to bioethical decisions in the public
DR. PINKER: Yes. It's something I
have thought about a great deal. There is an inherent, I
think, problem in science journalism, which is that it is
journalism, and science doesn't work on the same timetable.
It doesn't work on the same kind of database.
Editors, not surprisingly, want news. They want to hear
about things that have happened yesterday or this morning,
and many of the scientific journals go along with this mentality
by having embargoes and building suspense on the development,
releasing it at a particular time, knowing that it will appear
in The New York Times the next day.
Science, especially the science of the human mind, which
is a fallible, halting, slow process, depends not on individual
discoveries which seldom have a huge, long-term impact, but
on the accumulation of dozens or hundreds of studies which
all point in a given direction or not.
The way that I think scientists proceed or ought to proceed
is they look at meta- analyses and literature reviews and
assessments of a large literature that begin to emerge years
after the first discovery. The way that journalism works
is reporting individual discoveries, and I think that's
a built in bias in science journalism that inevitably lead
to the kind of misinformation that you've alluded to.
Science journalists are not going to get their stories published
if they simply look at -- in large part. There are exceptions
-- at, say, a review paper in a review journal that looks
at a meta- analysis of ten years of research. I mean, that
does happen, but far more often stories that you read about
are based on one discovery that was published in Science
or Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine
the previous day.
PROF. GEORGE: Can I follow up, Leon?
CHAIRMAN KASS: Go ahead.
PROF. GEORGE: On that, yeah, to what extent
can responsibility be ascribed to research scientists themselves
who are involved in these episodes? Is it simply that they
publish their research and then the journalists get hold of
it and there it goes, or are there incentives for research
scientists to sometimes -- I don't know if perhaps grants
or what -- but are there incentives that would lead people
perhaps to hype discoveries that aren't really verified?
DR. PINKER: No, there is certainly that,
and it would be highly misleading of me to say that this is
a problem that comes from science journalism because clearly
it's also part of the incentive structure among the scientists
themselves. That's absolutely true.
CHAIRMAN KASS: Alfonso.
PROF. BLACKBURN: I just had one word.
It's called "ego," Robby.
PROF. GEORGE: We have that in the humanities
and social sciences as well.
CHAIRMAN KASS: Alfonso Gómez-Lobo,
DR. GÓMEZ-LOBO: This was a very
clear and persuasive presentation. I think I've persuaded
myself that I'm not going to see genetically modified
babies or designer babies at least in my immediate family
in a short time.
But I'm really wondering, what is the notion of human
nature with which you're operating here? Because, of
course, the expression has represented many different concepts
in history, and some of the traits that apparently could be
modified, I mean, if we knew more about genes, et cetera,
would be considered not really essential to human beings.
It would be considered accidental.
You know, human nature would not be changed if we are a
couple of inches taller or something like that. So I'm
curious about that because, of course, in the writings that
you gave us, again, the argument is very convincing, but part
of it it's because at least to me it's unclear exactly
what you mean by human nature as such.
DR. PINKER: Yes, that's a completely
legitimate question. I would characterize human nature as
a set of emotions, motives, and cognitive abilities shared
throughout the species by all neurologically normal individuals
with quantitative variation, but much less qualitative variation
To be concrete, every neurologically normal child learns
a language upon exposure to it, but we also know that vocabulary
size and verbal fluency vary quantitatively along a Bell curve
Also, an important addendum to that is that what is universal
in human nature is certainly not a set of behaviors because
we know from National Geographic and Anthropology 101 that
there's enormous variation from culture to culture in
sexuality, in child rearing and religion and virtually every
other trait. And we know that those differences don't
come from genetic differences among peoples because of the
experiment known as immigration; that a child coming from
one culture to another will pretty much or entirely show no
genetic carryovers from the culture in which his ancestors
So whatever human nature consists of would be abstract abilities
or motives that would translate themselves into actual behavior
in radically different ways depending on the environment and
the social circumstances.
Again, to come back to language as a touchstone, children
clearly aren't born with genes for English or Swahili
or Japanese. They conceivably could be born with genes that
predispose them to acquiring words with a sound meaning pairing,
phrases with subjects and objects and nouns and verbs. The
abstract universal grammar that my colleague Noam Chomsky
made famous, which doesn't correspond to any language
that you actually use.
Similarly, in the domains of the emotions and motives, there
isn't any particular behavior that is universal. It's
not the case that, for example, men are universally polygamous
polygynous or monogamous. That varies among individuals and
Nonetheless, it may be true that the underlying desires
are much more universal than the overt behavior. We all remember
President Carter who committed adultery in he heart many times.
As far as we know, he didn't commit it in reality even
once. This is, I think, a feature of psychology, namely,
fantasy that may be much more uniform that actual behavior.
So human nature can't be equated with human behavior.
It refers to desires, tendencies, abstract abilities rather
than to concrete acts.
CHAIRMAN KASS: Alfonso, please.
DR. GÓMEZ-LOBO: A quick question.
Couldn't we then characterize human nature as a set of
capabilities, abilities, potentialities? Since they can be
realized in such different ways, one could say there's
a potentiality for learning the language and for learning
Now, whether they're expressed in Spanish or in English
would really depend on the culture, but then my question would
be: what stage of development do human beings have that human
DR. PINKER: I'm sorry. At what stage
of development, do you mean in the ontogeny of the individual,
that is, childhood, or do you mean in cultural evolution and
DR. GÓMEZ-LOBO: No, I mean in the
individual because that's what's been and will continue
to be a matter of dispute.
DR. PINKER: Well, the answer will be different
for different aspects of our psychology. Research on the
minds of infants have shown that infants show many more human
specific commutabilities that we formerly appreciated.
The whole idea of babies was that the world of the infant
was a blooming, buzzing confusion, a famous phrase from Williams
James; that a newborn basically saw the world as a kaleidoscope
of fluctuating pixels and had to learn even that there was
such a thing as an object.
More recently clever techniques has shown that there are
some, many abilities that seem to come on line very, very
early in life. Children from the day they're born lock
onto human faces. They recognize the sound of their mother's
voice, the smell of their mother. As soon as their visual
systems are mature, they pay attention to objects, expect
them not to disappear without a trace, pay attention to humans
and their interactions, pay attention to speech, and so on.
So even though there's an enormous amount of learning
that takes place, the learning abilities themselves seem to
be up and running quite early in development.
CHAIRMAN KASS: Gil Meilaender.
PROF. MEILAENDER: Let's say that we're
persuaded that the kind of enhancement that you were talking
about is certainly not inevitable and maybe just not going
to happen because it turns out to be very complicated and
difficult in the variety of ways that you demonstrated.
What do we conclude from that about proceeding with the
project? In other words, is there some reason one ought not
And one possible reason, for instance, would be that maybe
it will just be a lot of wasted effort. On the other hand,
I could just say I see all of the obstacles there, but, boy,
this would be wonderful if we could do it, and I'd like
to, you know, take my shot at it, or is there some other reason?
In other words, what do we conclude from this depiction
of human nature about the project of human enhancement? Is
there any reason not to try it from what you've told us?
DR. PINKER: Certainly there's no reason
not to have a better understanding of the genetics of personality
and intellect and the process of neural development. I consider
that to be possibly the great frontier of science in the 20th
How a one dimensional genome results in an organ like the
brain with the ability to see and think and feel and plan
has got to be the most exciting and the most challenging scientific
question facing us, perhaps the most exciting scientific question
of all time.
We want to learn more about it. There will be practical
applications above and beyond enhancement. For example, if
we knew the genetic basis of disorders like schizophrenia,
we would know more about the actual molecular pathway from
gene to brain to behavior, offering the possibility of non-genetic
enhancement, such as drugs that could interfere with the process
that leads to schizophrenia.
Also, to answer the intellectual puzzle of what makes us
what we are. The more detail in which we know it, I think
the more enriched we will be as a scientific community and
as a species.
In terms of actual enhancement, I think the main ethical
impediment is going to be the possibility of harm to the unborn
child. For as long as that is a considerable possibility,
as long as the chances are well above zero that a child could
be harmed by genetic enhancement, I think most other questions
will remain moot. My hunch is that that's going to be
the biggest impediment to getting there from here.
PROF. MEILAENDER: But assume that the
harm issue were somehow put aside, just for the sake of argument.
Would you then have any hesitation about that kind of endeavor?
DR. PINKER: If it way, say, one of the
you can't be too rich or too thin traits like IQ; I mean,
if there were a magic gene that was guaranteed to have no
side effects, that could make children smarter, then I would
say it's an extreme hypothetical. I would say if that
existed, then I would not have any problems with it, but I
want to make it clear that that ethical sentiment of mine
is separate from the factual arguments that I've been
making so far.
I have not heard any good arguments, arguments that I consider
sound, that this would be a bad thing if we would ever reach
CHAIRMAN KASS: Bill Hurlbut, Rebecca.
DR. HURLBUT: So I welcome your statements
about the difficulty of genetic engineering, but what I want
to ask you is assume that genomics will give us a great deal
of information about the construction of the organism and,
therefore, a lot of power to understand proteomics and, therefore,
to intervene with designer drugs at various states. Is it
your sense that human nature may be amenable to some kind
of improvement by alteration through pharmaceutical agents
which would not be as dangerous?
And specifically, I want to ask you: do you think that
we might make moral improvements? And a corollary question
is: do you think that there are genetic and, therefore, biochemical
differences in human moral nature?
DR. PINKER: Okay. Several questions.
It might be possible to have pharmaceutical interventions
that have a consistent beneficial effect, although, again,
there I would urge people to have a skeptical eye on such
We now know that the effects of Prozac, for example, are
real, but were certainly over- hyped from the way they were
portrayed ten or 12 years ago. Just to give one example of
how most things will have costs as well as benefits, Prozac
in many cases diminishes libido. So should we put it in the
drinking water? Would people take it on, you know, a prophylactic
basis to feel better about themselves if they knew it would
nullify their sex drive?
DR. HURLBUT: Is that a moral improvement,
by the way?
DR. PINKER: Morally, the question of whether
we should eliminate all of the rough spots and pain of the
human condition, the depression, the anxiety and so on, I'll
give you an analogy of physical pain.
There is a syndrome studied by one of my undergraduate teachers,
Ronald Melzack, in which some people are born without the
ability to feel pain, and first you might think, "Wow,
what a great thing. You know, you'd stub your toe and
you'd walk away without, you know, swearing and feeling
the agony and so on."
In fact, this is a bad thing. The people with that syndrome
generally die in their early 20s. The reason is that they
don't have the feedback signals that tell them when they're
damaging their body, and they suffer from massive inflammation
of the joints simply from not shifting their weight when it
gets uncomfortable, something that's second nature to
the rest of us that feel pain.
That is going to be true of many of the negative psychological
emotions that we feel. The ability to feel sad is the other
side of the coin of the ability to feel love and commitment.
If you didn't feel sad when you child died, could you
have really loved your child? If you can't feel anxious,
I'm sure I don't have to remind anyone in this room
that anxiety gets us to do many things that otherwise we would
not have done.
On the other hand, getting back to the touchstone of pain,
it's also not the case that if you have a toothache you
should stay off the aspirin because pain is a good thing.
Pain, like negative psychological emotions is a mechanism
that has a function. On the other hand, it's in many
cases a clumsy, over- reactive mechanism, and once we recognize
what these negative emotions ought to be doing in order for
us to lead better lives, there's no reason, I think, for
people to suffer simply because on average in the species,
the mechanism is there for a purpose.
So I don't think there would be a sound argument for
preventing people who are depressed or anxious or irritable
or hyperactive from doing something that would lead to an
increase in their well-being simply because it's unnatural
or because the mechanism had a function, as long as we realize
that reducing these negative emotions to zero, as with reducing
pain to zero, would not be a good thing either.
DR. HURLBUT: Can I follow up on that?
If there are values to pain, probably there are differences
in pain thresholds between individuals. Now, translate that
into moral instincts, moral awareness, moral sentiments.
Is it in your thought possible that not only do human beings
individually vary one to one, but the different small environments
of evolutionary adaptation that have produced externally evident
morphological differences between human groups' geographic
origins might also correlate with differences in moral understanding?
DR. PINKER: Well, let me first answer a
slightly different question where I think we know more, and
that is differences among individuals within a racial group.
That is, you take two Caucasians. There is good reason to
believe that some moral traits have a partly heritable basis.
There's good reason to believe, for example, that psychopathy,
which comprises callousness to people and inability to empathize,
has a partial genetic basis like all psychological traits.
It's only statistical, not absolute.
So the answer to the question of could there be variation
in moral sentiments, I think the answer is very likely that
there is among individuals within an ethnic or racial group.
Whether ethnic or racial groups on average differ in moral
sentiments is, I don't have to remind you, a politically
fraught question. I would say at present there's no reason
to believe that such differences exist. It doesn't mean
that they can't exist in principle. It means there are
no data at present that would lead one to conclude that they
exist, and it's a separate question from whether individuals
within a group differ.
We know just from genetic variation that there are far more
genetic differences between two individuals within an ethnic
group than there are between the average of one ethnic group
and the average of another ethnic group by a very large factor,
a factor of at least ten.
CHAIRMAN KASS: Rebecca Dresser.
PROF. DRESSER: Two questions. I wonder
if you have the same skepticism about the ability to enhance
physical characteristics in, you know, embryos.
And the other, do you think there's something in human
nature that makes people want to change human nature?
I get very frustrated with this hype because I am somewhat
skeptical, but why do the newspapers carry all of this? And
why is there this ongoing fascination?
DR. PINKER: Yes, yes. Well, for physical
enhancement it will, I think -- it won't be as easy, again,
as many of the pronouncements in the press would lead you
to believe. Remember during the energy crisis in the 1970s
you'd often see the ad for the 200 mile per gallon carburetor
where you just unscrew your old carburetor, put in the new
carburetor, and you would go from 20 miles a gallon to 200
miles per gallon.
Now, there's reason to be skeptical of that invention
simply because a car engine is such a complex system, and
there's such incentives to making it better that if that
were physically possible it would have been thought of a long
Likewise with the human body, natural selection tends towards
optima. We know that there are tradeoffs in the design of
the human body, a simple example being the fact that males
are on average physically stronger and faster than females,
but also die younger, and those are probably related, namely,
that there are different points along a tradeoff.
I suspect there is a possibility, having said that, of many
genes with very small effects that conceivably could add up
to improvement simply because we know that there are differences
I think that it's much more likely for simple one dimensional
traits like height or muscle mass than for a complex system,
such as functioning of the heart, which probably depend on
combinations of hundreds or thousands of genes as opposed
to something like height, which is a one dimensional trait
that could be under the control of a small number of them.
In terms of the second question, I guess I don't know
enough intellectual history to know whether this is really
a feature of human nature or whether it's a sort of post
enlightenment, Western concept and whether fatalism, you know,
there's nothing new under the sun; empires rise, empires
fall; time is a cycle, and so on, which of these is more dominant
in the history of human thought.
It certainly is a feature of our culture to believe that
we can change anything we don't like.
CHAIRMAN KASS: Mike Gazzaniga.
DR. GAZZANIGA: Steve, sometimes there's
the feeling that ethicists are chasing rainbows that are
generated by the popular press, is one way of saying what
you've been saying. If were to just ask you freshly,
with you view of the nature of human nature and with the technological
advances in neuroscience and biology that are now occurring,
what would you see as the great ethical questions of the next
20 or 30 years?
DR. PINKER: I would say that one of them
was just raised, namely, as we know more about effects of
genes on personality and behavior, I think we will have the
possibility to answer questions, such as on average do different
ethnic groups differ in distributions of genes that have effects
on psychology. Should our attitude be don't go there
because no good can come from studying these differences?
The reaction to the book, The Bell Curve, that
came out ten years ago would suggest that by and large we're
not ready for such discoveries.
On the other hand, is more knowledge always a good thing?
And could it be inevitable that such discoveries will arise
as a byproduct of ethnic and racial differences in medical
For example, if there are average racial differences in
the effects of or abundance of testosterone, a fact that we
may need to know in order to study the demographics and treatment
of prostate cancer, for example, well, testosterone also has
an effect on behavior. What will we do with the discovery
of differences if such discoveries are in the cards?
I consider that to be a potentially inflammatory area of
research, certainly ethically fraught, and I can't say
that I'm certain where I stand on that issue.
I think drugs such as Ritalin, which would be given to certain
segments of the population but not others, will certainly
raise issues of equity, who has access to them, and the flip
side of that, the allaying fears that they will be used as
a method of social control of sapping boyhood, of sedating
disaffected inner city youth, all of the issues that have
come up with connection with Ritalin may come up with other
The question of moral responsibility in the criminal justice
system, in general people who commit heinous crimes must have
something different in their brains from people who wouldn't.
Otherwise they wouldn't have committed those crimes.
We're going to be better and better able to discover
them whether there are differences in genes or differences
in cerebral metabolism or brain anatomy. I think we'll
need to have very clear guidelines for insanity defenses,
diminished capacity, and that whole suite of legal issues
as we reach the point where for a large percentage of malefactors
we'll be able to say this is what's different about
them compared to you and me.
So those would be three.
CHAIRMAN KASS: Could I follow up on this
because I was also in the queue?
I mean, the subject on which you were invited to speak is
massive, and you've chosen in the formal part of the presentation
to speak about human nature vis-a-vis possibilities for genetic
alteration of it, and let's set that aside. I, for one,
don't have any reason to dissent from the presentation.
But I guess three things. One has to do with the question
of human self-understanding through the progress of, on the
one hand, genetics and, on the other hand, neuroscience.
In this last remark about moral responsibility and culpability,
would you speculate on how an increasingly biologically based
account of who we are, whether it be in terms of genes or
be in terms of brains, is going to affect how human beings
understand who and what they are, that is to say what their
human nature is?
I think this is partly not unrelated to where Alfonso was
going earlier and where you yourself have also, I think, written.
Let me leave it at that. I've got a couple more, but
let's start with that one.
DR. PINKER: Yeah.
CHAIRMAN KASS: I mean simply on the question
of freedom and responsibility or the character and object
of desire, things of that sort.
DR. PINKER: Yeah. There certainly will
be changes. The idea of humans as possessing some immaterial
essence that categorically distinguishes them from animals,
I think, is going to come under -- is going to become less
and less credible, and there will be, I think, a crisis among
the religious faiths that depend critically on the assumption
that there is some nonmaterial essence.
I mean, this is intellectual development that certainly
began, well, probably began hundreds of years ago, but was
acute, for example, in the writings of Dostoyevsky and other
19th Century authors.
I think there's going to be a rethinking of ethical
issues, such as responsibility and justice and equality, not
that it will evaporate, not that Nietzschean fear that we'll
have a total eclipse of all human values once people realize
that the human mind is a product of the brain, which in turn
is shaped by genetics. It's not that our values will
go out the window.
On the contrary, I think they will focus our ethical discussions
on what we most value, what we want moral guidelines to do.
Let me be concrete because I was very abstract.
In the case of moral responsibility, there is the ancient
antimony between free will and determinism that has kept philosophers
employed for millennia. It keeps college students debating
until the wee hours of the morning in their dorm rooms.
I think there's actually a more useful and practical
way of couching that issue, namely, once we find that the
mass murderer has a defect, we find a red pixel in his brain,
should we get him off the hook?
The practical question is: what are the effects going to
be of our policies for holding people responsible? Holding
people responsible is basically a long-term deterrence policy.
If you hold people responsible, that in itself is an environmental
cause of behavior that we hope and, indeed, diminishes the
probability of harmful behavior occurring.
If someone thinks that they will be thrown in jail for holding
up the liquor store, they'll be less likely to hold up
the liquor store.
The question is: in adopting policies of that sort, which
of those policies will have the predictable effect of reducing
harmful behavior without causing unnecessary, spiteful punishment
of people who could not have been deterred to start with?
The reason we don't throw five year olds in jail is
that we think that a policy of throwing five year olds in
jail will have no effect on the future behavior of five year
olds. That's also why we don't punish animals or
put them in jail or try to shame them. It would be futile
to expect that that will lead to a change in behavior.
Whereas for the vast majority of adults, saying that we
will hold you responsible we expect will decrease the probability
of harmful behavior.
Most questions on insanity defense, diminished capacity,
and so on, I think, are more fruitfully reconceptualized not
in terms of the metaphysical concept of free will, namely,
was the behavior caused or not in some metaphysical sense,
which is probably unanswerable, but rather what are going
to be the effects of those policies.
If we had a schizophrenic with a certain brain condition,
would not have been deterred from committing harmful act regardless
of the punishment that we put into effect, then subjecting
him to criminal punishment would simply be inflicting harm
without satisfying the goal of reducing harmful behavior.
I think that's an example of how a pressing ethical
issue will be reconceptualized by realizing that behavior
is caused by the brain rather than it simply being eliminated
as some people fear.
PROF. MEILAENDER: The most effective way
of stopping certain behavior would be periodically to frame
certain people for having done it and punish them publicly,
if we could somehow satisfy ourselves that that would be the
most effective way of stopping it, would that be the right
thing to do?
DR. PINKER: No, because I think the --
PROF. MEILAENDER: But then you think that
issues of dessert somehow enter in?
DR. PINKER: Yes.
PROF. MEILAENDER: And responsibility?
DR. PINKER: Yes. I think that the policies
in the criminal justice system trade off between having a
deterrent structure that reduces harmful behavior while causing
the least amount of preventable harm or suffering.
PROF. MEILAENDER: But while also punishing
only people who are somehow responsible and guilty?
DR. PINKER: Yes. And I actually think
that the concept of dessert, in addition to the concept of
deterrence, they're not -- I don't think they're
completely independent because if you probe, if you try to
dissect our intuitions about just desserts, they very often,
in fact, perhaps even always, act as a kind of long term deterrent
policy aimed, I think, at preventing people from gaining the
system by acting in just the way that would allow them to
escape the net of criminal punishment.
Let me be concrete. Why do we track down elderly Nazis
in Paraguay even though the chances of them perpetrating another
Holocaust is zero? There's no deterrent effect of that
policy. Nonetheless, most of us believe that this is the
right thing to do, that it's inherently unjust to let
them die in their beds without facing justice.
Well, in part, it's that even if it has no deterrent,
specific deterrent effect on that individual, it would have
a general deterrent effect in that future perpetrators of
atrocities would have to think twice if there was such an
implacable desire for justice, for hunting down malefactors;
that even if it wouldn't be worth the while of a society
to track them down for that particular case, the concept of
just desserts would force potential malefactors from thinking
twice knowing that there is this desire on the part of society
at large to track them down.
And the concept of just desserts, even though there are
thought experiments that one could come up with that would
pit it against deterrence in specific cases, I think, has
the effect of implementing a cheater proof policy of deterrence
in general over the long run.
PROF. MEILAENDER: Once more, but our motive
for tracking them down is in order to deter the future evil
doers. There's a kind of a gap that grows up between
this implacable desire for justice that we want some people
to believe is important and the motivate that spurs us to
track them down, which is not an implacable desire for justice
and the thought that we should catch them and punish them
if we can, but rather simply that if we don't do this,
future generations will not be deterred from similar horrific
Do I have you right?
If so, I think there's a real theoretical problem.
DR. PINKER: I would add the proviso that
there's a bit of a paradox here, but the fact that we
have this almost irreducible, implacable desire for justice
itself serves over the long run as a deterrent, namely, if
we have an implacable desire to bring people to justice no
matter how much it costs, no matter how trivial the gains
in deterrence, that itself makes the credibility of the implicit
deterrent that much stronger.
So there is an autonomous, I think, moral and psychological
imperative to see justice done. I don't believe that
people literally calculate the deterrent value of pursuing
justice, but paradoxically it is that irreducible desire for
justice that over the long run makes it effective for the
same reason that someone who issues any kind of threat is
that much more credible if he has implacable, rational reasons
for carrying out the threat. That makes it much harder to
call his bluff.
And a society or a criminal justice system with the concept
of just desserts is harder to -- it's harder to call its
bluff or to game the system.
PROF. MEILAENDER: Of course, I don't
doubt that they're connected in that way, that a system
in which justice is rendered will have deterrent effects.
The question is: what's first order and second order
The question is: what are motivations for tracking down
that Nazi in Argentina is?
And I would have thought that our motivation for tracking
him down is, our first order of motivation, is that he's
an evildoer and justice requires that we punish him if we
Our first order of motivation is not that we should track
him down so that future generations may be deterred.
DR. PINKER: I think the first makes the
second more likely, that is, it's the very autonomy of
our intuitions of justice that also make it effective as a
So I think I agree that they're conceptually separate,
but I think that they are also ultimately related.
DR. KRAUTHAMMER: But are they fictional?
PROF. SANDEL: They're an illusion,
and in fact, if they heard your analysis, they wouldn't
be so implacable. They'd just be free riders and justice
could fall pray to a collective action problem.
They think they're implacable because they're under
the illusion that they're trying to get this old Nazi
because he ought to be punished because he deserves punishment.
And you then describe, well, that's actually a functional
illusion that gives the implacable character to their pursuit
and that has these desirable things in the long run.
But if they heard and grasped the truth that you're
offering, then they would be rid of their illusion. The guilty
deserve punishment, and therefore, they should go running
after him, right?
DR. PINKER: Well, not necessarily because
the fact that I can explain, say, the ultimate long-term,
perhaps even evolutionary rationale for a deep seated intuition,
namely, bad people must be punished, doesn't mean that
that sentiment is any easier for me to give up.
It may be that here's the reason why.
PROF. SANDEL: But on reflection it should
be given up.
DR. PINKER: Well, even if so --
PROF. SANDEL: But shouldn't it? I
want to know what you think. Never mind about the whole evolutionary
DR. PINKER: Right. On reflection, there
are a lot of things that should be given up that we won't
give up because of the way we're built, and I think the
desire for justice, even if I can tell you why my brain has
this concept of just desserts and I can say that in another
planet, another evolutionary history my brain may not have
had that intuition, the fact is it does have that intuition,
and that intuition is --
PROF. SANDEL: But that intuition is so
biologically brute that even listening to your deconstruction
of it won't disabuse me of it?
DR. PINKER: Yes, I think that's right.
I'll give you an example. In many --
CHAIRMAN KASS: Also, the existence of
your immaterial soul, Michael. Don't worry.
DR. PINKER: Well, among the justifications
for criminal punishment, one -- of course, opinions vary.
Some people do disabuse themselves of intuitions whose rationale
are then laid bare, but my understanding is that many judicial
theorists say that some degree of retribution is a legitimate
function of criminal punishment; that we allow more and more
victims of crimes have a say, and that the widespread intuition
that somehow the universe is knocked out of balance if evil
doers are not punished above and beyond the practical effects
is often recognized as a legitimate function simply because
we think that it is part of human nature, that people will
be enraged, will seek private vengeance unless society satisfies
So I don't think it's that easy to eradicate, and
it's probably a good thing that it isn't that easy
to eradicate, although it is, I think, a good thing to be
aware of it simply because we can then -- to get back to the
question that Professor Meilaender raised, if it was only
deterrence that we wanted criminal justice to accomplish,
then we would do things like frame a few people just to keep
everyone else on their toes or many other things that we would
Realizing what the goals are of a system of deterrence,
we can calibrate the desire for deterrence against the other
desire not to inflict unnecessary harm, and realize what we're
doing when we impose these policies. At least that's
what I would argue.
CHAIRMAN KASS: Dan Foster.
DR. FOSTER: You know, I thought earlier
that you really were holding to the conclusion that, you know,
once we knew the genes and everything would follow. We'd
get to something.
But it sound a lot to me like your deep intuition is very
much like what somebody else might call an essence, that this
desire for justice, let's say, that's so deeply intuitive
in you, that you are not sure where it ever came from.
And I think that maybe some people might be skeptical about
the view that there's really no fundamental difference
in the nature of an animal or of a human, since I don't
know what the exact difference is between the genes in a chimp
and the humans. Maybe five percent. It's pretty low
though as far as we can tell. I mean, it's pretty low.
But one doesn't, I think, normally sense that a chimpanzee
or certainly lower species have an intuitive drive for justice.
I mean, G.K. Chesterton used to always say that there were
certain fundamental differences between animals and humans,
that the human animal, for example, creates. She makes art
and music, not nests to live in, and no other animal species
as far as we know does that.
He said the human animal differs from all other animals
in another respect, that they have a deep, intrinsic sense
of guilt, that we know intuitively the difference between
right and wrong.
Now, one would argue, you know, that my dog knows the difference
between right and wrong because I've got a Pavlovian response,
you know, to him if he doesn't behave. You know, the
human intrinsically knows the sense of joy, in a way. Animals
don't laugh as far as we know.
And finally -- I mean, the hyena might -- but finally,
he said that the human animal is very peculiar in that from
the beginning, even from the earliest graves that we see,
somehow worships, has a sense that there's something that
might be intrinsically different from what genes do.
I mean, it seems like to me that you've shifted a little
bit from your earlier sort of a genetic determinism, if that's
not an old fashioned word, to a description of yourself and
others that says that there is something different about the
essence of this particular species.
I don't know whether that's -- but just listening
I have a friend at my medical school who won a Nobel Prize
in medicine and who happens to be Jewish, and he usually argues
very intensely down to the quarks about determinism. And
so I didn't say, "Well, it's too bad that Hitler
got those bad quarks and genes and so forth and he ought to
go free," because it was all determined along those lines.
And then immediately he usually sort of backs off. "Well,
I didn't really mean it that way."
But it sounded to me, and I'd like for you just to comment
about that, just to focus on the justice issue here, that
you were describing when Michael was pressing you about yourself
and not the literature and so forth, that you were saying
-- I think I heard you say that there's something deeply
intuitive in me that makes me drive for justice, and I want
to know what the difference is between your genes and the
chimp's genes that give you an intrinsic drive for justice
that maybe the chimp has, but I don't know. I mean, I
don't know, but at least the studies haven't shown
that so far.
DR. PINKER: Yeah. Well, the genetic differences
between humans and chimps are small as a proportion of the
genome calculated on, you know, a base pair by base pair basis,
but because DNA is basically a computational system, small
differences in the sheer information content can make a big
difference in the final product.
So just an analogy, if you were to take a text file on your
computer and change one bit in every byte, the result wouldn't
be 12 percent different. The result would be 100 percent
different because a single change can result in a protein
product that has a radically different effect.
So even though genomically we're very similar to chimps
and in terms of the phenotype there are more similarities
perhaps than we'd want, including by the way laughter;
chimps definitely do laugh, but this is not to deny that there
aren't significant differences between humans and chimps,
just as there are significant differences in any pair of species.
So the analogy that I often use is that an elephant has
a trunk which is as far as we know unique among animals.
It's the only animal that has a trunk.
Humans also have a number of unique traits: language, that
is, grammatical combinatorial language; probably moral sentiments,
such as guilt, shame, trust. One can debate whether there
are rudiments of them in chimps, but there's no denying
that what you find in humans is very, very different from
what you see in any other primate.
I don't consider this to be an evolutionary paradox
for the same reason that I don't think that the fact that
the elephant has a trunk and its relatives don't is a
paradox, namely, that evolution creates divergence. It can
lead to the development of traits, including mental traits
that are found in one species but not its relatives, and I
think there are quite intelligible reasons for thinking that
in the case of the evolution of homo sapiens things like language
and the moral sentiments and technological know-how, such
as tool making, developed in the last six to eight million
years in a much greater extent in our branch of the family
tree than in chimps.
And I think that the sense of some kind of primitive sense
of justice, of just desserts, might be something that really
is universal in humans and probably absent or rudimentary
in chimpanzees, as you said.
DR. FOSTER: Thank you very much.
We'll be talking all night if we continue this. So
I yield in response.
CHAIRMAN KASS: He's got the best subject
in the world.
DR. MAY: It may be the same point that
Dan was interested in, but it seems to me finally you have
to say that Eichmann is a victim for the larger social good
served by punishment even though biologically considered he
doesn't deserve it. In that sense we have framed him,
but for a good purpose.
DR. PINKER: Well, there's a lot of
debate on the specifics of the Eichmann case, namely, whether
he really was the faceless bureaucrat that he conveniently
portrayed himself to be.
PROF. SANDEL: That would make no difference
to this question. That would be irrelevant to this question
DR. PINKER: Well, the way I would try to
make that question tractable is if we have consistent policy
for what to do with Eichmanns and we held to it steadfastly
and it was announced beforehand, what would be the effect
on future Eichmanns?
That's not identical to the question that you raised,
but I think it's more tractable than the question that
you raised, and I think my hunch is that if you actually worked
it out, you would end up in a very similar position as the
one that you would arrive at if you reasoned in terms of the
raw intuition of just desserts.
I think that the intuition of just desserts, no matter how
passionately held, can be examined. We can say, "Well,
let's lay out the thought experiments. What would you
And my sense is that it would be a -- in the cases that
I've thought through, such as insanity defense, punishment
of animals and children and the brain damaged and so on, you
end up with very similar answers to the one of what's
the best long-term general deterrence policy balanced against
the moral harm of inflicting suffering that has no beneficial
PROF. SANDEL: Does that mean you agree
with Bill's premise that on your account, every instance
of punishment is a case of framing?
DR. PINKER: No, I don't. No.
PROF. SANDEL: Some are and some aren't?
DR. PINKER: Well, in an ideal system none
of them would be in the sense that we would not inflict punishment
on someone that we had excellent reason to believe did not
commit the act and hence could not have been deterred by such
a policy in the future, namely, innocent people who are frame.
There are other people in those shoes out there, and a policy
that would net them in isn't going to prevent them from
doing evil because they didn't do evil and they never
wanted to do evil, and so that would be a moral harm inflicting
So that's why we --
PROF. SANDEL: That would all depend on
the perceptions and beliefs of the onlookers. It would have
nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the person.
CHAIRMAN KASS: But, Michael, you --
DR. PINKER: I'm not sure I follow that
because if the person didn't commit the harmful act and
would have no impact --
PROF. SANDEL: But everybody else believed
they did, then for long-term deterrence reasons you do want
to punish that person.
DR. PINKER: Well, if long-term deterrence
was your only goal in the criminal justice system. If you
had two goals, namely, long-term deterrence and prevention
of unnecessary suffering, then you have the tradeoff of under
what conditions will you tolerate unnecessary suffering in
order to get an increment in deterrence.
And I believe that in the case of deliberately framing an
innocent suspect we would say that the first outweighs the
PROF. SANDEL: It depends what the consequences
would be. There's the famous hypothetical of a heinous
crime that's been committed. The entire town is outraged.
They're about to go on a rampage against the neighborhood
from where they think the criminal came. The sheriff doesn't
know who committed the crime, but to prevent this terrible
cost and rampage goes and takes the town drunk from jail,
announces that he's the criminal and hangs him.
DR. PINKER: Yes. That would be the utilitarian
calculus of preventing the -- and your question is why?
I mean, I assume that the assumption is that we all consider
that to be a bad thing to do, and the question is why. Is
that what you're asking?
PROF. SANDEL: Yeah.
DR. PINKER: It's a good question.
I would concede that it's the weak point of this analysis,
and I haven't thought that case through in enough detail
to answer you, but I suspect it would be state that as a policy,
and that is not just what does the sheriff do on the spur
of the moment, but you write it down. What should sheriffs
do in general? What should law enforcement officers do in
Look at the policy and see how much unnecessary suffering
does it cause as opposed to the alternatives. I'm not
going to bluff and say that it will come out the same way,
but I have a hunch that it would. But granted it's a
CHAIRMAN KASS: Paul McHugh.
DR. McHUGH: I enjoyed your talk very much,
and the theme of your talk was that things were more complicated
than we thought and interfering with things at the genetic
level and at the neuronal level was going to be less likely
to produce a better world and a better person than we imagined.
This same kind of thing is turning up here. It seems to
me when I hear you discussing with Michael and Dan and others,
you seem to function on the idea that things work in an A
to B position. We do things because we know the consequences,
and that you and our understanding of human nature might be
able to recognize those consequences.
But it seems to leave out what Charles Saunders Peirce used
to talk about thirdness, what the symbol of all of this is,
and that human beings have a capability, therefore, of seeing
something and having it have a deep and penetrating meaning
to them that they ultimately make more and more explicit as
they become more and more developed.
And so, for example, in this area of punishment, you talk
about deterrence and you talk about retribution. I've
always thought about it in reprobative terms rather than
retributive terms, that is, this act we cannot tolerate amongst
human beings, not as to whether there's going to be any
more of them or not, but really because what it means.
And we see that punishment work in a good way and a bad
way in relationship to notorious cases.
I feel that the execution of Eichmann was very just, very
true, and if I could have been one of the guys tracking him
down, I would have loved it. I would carry it as a badge.
But, you know, the execution of the Rosenbergs was thought
in some way to perhaps be going to deter. It didn't deter
anybody, and in fact, we now know that, in fact, there was
a very cruel and vicious element to putting the Rosenbergs
to that test, that the government probably thought that they
would crack them rather than have them die.
So those two things are events in which punishment was delivered.
One of them -- both of them might have been thought of as
having rebributive elements, but reprobatively they are miles
So my question to you fundamentally is this. Do you not
give to human nature the capacity to move from their implicit
things, to make things progressively more explicit, and in
the process progress not simply in the direction of being
more effective, but also to being more good?
DR. PINKER: Oh, absolutely, and if I've
tried in my own writing to change the common conception of
human nature, it would be to emphasize that one of the features
of human nature is a combinatorial apparatus that can generate
new combinations of ideas, and again, I'll use language
as my touchstone.
We're equipped not with a finite list of sentences that
like, you know, a Sesame Street doll where you punch a button
and one of a dozen sentences is selected at random and comes
out verbatim. What we're equipped with is a set of grammatical
rules that are assembled, nouns and verbs in new combinations
that allow us to express new thoughts.
Similarly, in thought, which obviously feeds language, we
have the ability to multiply a fixed stock of ideas to come
up with unlimited combinations. We can have theories of the
origin of the universe. We can have new political theories.
That's why we're in the business that we're in
of exploring ideas and making discoveries.
So they bear the stamp, I would say, of particularly human
ways of thinking. We conceive of things in particular ways
that a Martian might not.
On the other hand, that doesn't mean that there's
a finite number of human-to- think- about thoughts or that
we're doomed by our neurology to recycle the same ideas
over and over again for the same reason we're not doomed
to regurgitate the same sentences over and over again.
DR. McHUGH: So you would, therefore, agree
that there might be determinism, but you don't believe
in fatalism. Would that be a useful way of describing yourself?
DR. PINKER: I don't believe in determinism.
I mean, determinism is a word that has many meanings, and
it's often used more as an epithet, I think, than to --
I mean, I don't know of anyone who claims to be a determinist.
I know a lot of people who are called determinists.
If you use determinism in the mathematician sense of an
event happening with Probability 1, then I am absolutely not
a determinist and not for any philosophical reasons, but for
an empirical reason.
The identical twins raised together correlate only, say,
.4 to .8. That technically refutes determinism in its actual
sense, but I certainly do believe that the genome leads humans
to think and feel in characteristic ways, but because the
brain is so complex, because it has multiple systems and a
number of them have the ability to crank out new combinations,
infinite combinations of ideas, the idea of a fixed human
nature doesn't mean that there's a fixed repertoire
of behavior or thoughts.
And I think we have the ability to, well, I'd like to
think and I think we do have the ability to learn the lessons
of history, to be persuaded by argumentation to see things
in new ways, and in fact, again, this isn't just kind
of a sappy sentiment, but things have changed which would
be impossible if we were genetically fixed.
The rates of violence have gone down in the last couple
of hundred years in the society. Concepts that were thought
to be inevitable, such as slavery, subjugation of women, inevitability
of blood feuds, for example, all have greatly diminished.
So the notion of human nature doesn't mean that society
will never change or ideas will never change.
DR. KRAUTHAMMER: Can I come in here a
CHAIRMAN KASS: Go ahead, Charles.
DR. KRAUTHAMMER: But what I hear is a
critique of determinism on the basis that the old determinism
was very one to one and very unsophisticated. It's interesting
we are not discussing here bioethics but the rather interesting
world of evolutionary psychology, and I think that's what
some of us are rather seized by in this discussion and provoked
You said a little earlier that you thought one of the challenges
or one of the developments in the future is going to be a
decrease in what I believe you called essentialism, a self-perception
by human of their exceptional nature.
If you take away that essentialism, then you end up with
either the theory of justice, for example, that is based entirely
on its evolutionary advantages, meaning deterring bad effects
and bad behavior, and leaves no space for anything else other
So my question is that if you believe in evolutionary psychology,
biology as an explanation for our current human nature and
you believe that it really excludes any essentialism, which
is some sort of archaic, perhaps superstitious notion about
human nature, then what's left?
And what I hear is what's left is a notion of criminal
justice, for example, that leaves no room whatsoever for the
notion of real guilt, of real agency, and that's what
I think we find rather shocking.
Am I correctly explaining your understanding of nonessentialism?
DR. PINKER: Yes and no. This is what
I call the fear of nihilism, that a materialist, Darwinist
view of human mind will expose all of our values to be in
some sense shams, that they are just means to the end of some
practical function, like propagating genes, deterring violence
and so on.
DR. KRAUTHAMMER: Well, you gave us a pretty
good example of that with criminal justice.
DR. PINKER: Yes. Well, let me give two
answers to that. One of them is this is what Daniel Dennett
calls the idea of Darwinism, is universal asset. It just
eats through any possible container and dissolves everything
we hold precious.
First of all, the fact that we can understand our own sentiments
doesn't mean that they're shams simply because they
are our sentiments. So let me give you an example.
There's reason to believe that our aesthetic judgments
are evolutionary adaptations. We like particular landscapes,
particular faces because there are rational reasons why we
should have evolved in that way.
Does that mean that nothing is beautiful and that there's
no point in looking at attractive landscapes or faces? Well,
no, because that is the way we're put together. The fact
that we understand why we're put together that way doesn't
mean that here in our own skin those sentiments are any less
real to us.
If cosmically you can say there's nothing particularly
beautiful about the Rocky Mountains as opposed to a New Jersey
oil refinery, I don't know how to answer that question,
and I don't really care about that question. The mere
fact that I am wired together, wired to like the Rocky Mountains
better is good enough reason to indulge that.
Also, there are some cases in which I think we can actually
step outside our skin and at least entertain the possibility
that some of our perceptions and values do pick up on an external
abstract reality. Again, I'll be concrete and I'll
give an example.
There's good reason to think that our sense of number
is an evolutionary adaptation, that there's good reason
for an organism to be able to tell the difference between
one and two and three and have the elementary concept of addition,
but it doesn't mean that one and one equals two is a hallucination
or a fiction.
It's in the nature of reality that any organism that
can grasp the concept of number is forced to come up with
Likewise there are cases in ethics, at least so some moral
philosophers argue, and I'm not prepared to disagree,
where there is a reality to some moral judgments, and the
fact that our moral sense may be an evolutionary adaptation
of the brain doesn't mean that the things that it thinks
about are figments.
DR. KRAUTHAMMER: All right. Let me test
you on that. If you say evolution urges or -- I'm sorry.
CHAIRMAN KASS: No, go ahead. One last
round because we're well over.
DR. KRAUTHAMMER: I'm sorry.
It's been advantageous for us to understand that one
and one is two, and that is giving us an intuition into a
platonic universe in which one and one, in fact, are two,
and we understand that.
So by analogy, evolution has given us the intuition that
we ought to hunt down a Nazi. Does that give us any intuition
or does it not give us the intuition that there's a platonic
universe in which that Nazi is evil and ought to be hanged
DR. PINKER: Well, let me put it maybe.
Let me put it that way. It's not a question that I can
answer that has, you know, challenged the best minds for millennia.
The way I would put it is there are certain core moral intuitions
that I think could be argued to have a basis in reality, such
as the fact that no particular person can argue that he occupies
a privileged position in the universe whose well-being can
trump the well-being of anyone else simply because that's
a logically untenable argument as soon as one enters into
rational discourse at all.
For the same reason that I can't say that this spot
in the universe is privileged because I happen to be occupying
it, I can't say that my interests are privileged over
yours as long as I'm willing to enter the discussion at
That isn't an arbitrary figment, but it's in the
nature of that kind of discourse in the same way that one
and one equals two is a necessary consequence of thinking
mathematically to begin with, which is a reason that I think
different moral traditions end up with some notion of reciprocity
or golden rule or categorical imperative over and over again.
It's a kind of forced move in perhaps a platonic nature
of relationships among ideas from which one perhaps could
deduce that Nazi war criminals ought to be hanged from a chain
of intermediate steps. Given that I don't want to be
the victim of genocide, how can I tolerate it if other people
are the victims?
Then if I want to reduce it over the long run, given the
presence of other agents trying to gain the system, what is
the most effective way of universalizing my own desires, and
I could imagine a chain of steps that would lead to that
as a theorem from axioms that might have some kind of universal
warrant. So I mean, that's the best that "little
me" could do in grappling with these cosmic questions.
I don't have an answer to them. I think that we can
make progress in scrutinizing them and not prematurely satisfying
ourselves that some intuition simply ought to be accepted
as the nature of things without penetrating that intuition
and asking why might we have it.
I think there's only good that can come from scrutinizing
those intuitions as opposed to taking them as givens, and
the reason that I feel emboldened to say that is that we know
that people can have absolute certainty in certain intuitions,
which upon reflection they can be argued out of or externally
we recognize to be horrendous, such as slavery, ownership
of women, other things that seem self-evident in past centuries,
but where I think as these things get scrutinized they are
revealed to be inconsistent with other beliefs or untenable.
Because we know that that kind of moral progress can take
place when intuitions are scrutinized, it is important to
scrutinize our own intuitions. It doesn't mean that we
will end up in a state of nihilism where all morality is a
fiction, but I think and hope and would argue that it would
lead to a case where our ethical system is more human, more
effective, and more defensible.
CHAIRMAN KASS: There are lots of people
at this table who would be eager to continue this for hours.
We're already 15 minutes over, and since I was next in
line with a long list, I will squelch myself, express my thanks
to you for a very interesting and forthcoming and provocative
We'll have a 15 minute break in which the people who
want to sort out the question of whether the differences between
Dr. Pinker and the rest of us is owing to the fact that we're
just differently wired or he actually has discovered the immaterial
truth on this subject.
But we'll take a break, and let's make it a little
shorter. Five minutes to four so that we won't have to
finish too late.
Thank you very, very much.
(Whereupon, the foregoing matter went
off the record at 3:47 p.m. and went back on the record at