New Mexico State University’s annual Speakers Series will feature Steven Pinker, one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists and a psychology professor at Harvard University at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 7, at the Music Center’s Atkinson Recital Hall, 1075 N. Horseshoe Drive. Admission is free.
In his talk, “A History of Violence,” Pinker will discuss his latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which explores the decline of violence over the course of human history. Pinker attributes the declining trend to a change in the balance between aggressive motives like revenge, greed and dominance and those motives that inhibit aggression, such as empathy, self-control and reason.
In a recent phone interview, Pinker acknowledge that many people are skeptical of the premise that the world is less violent – and convincing them that violence is in decline is his first challenge.
“The very idea strikes people as preposterous,” Pinker said, “but there’s a reason for that; namely, that people get their information from the news, and news is about things that happen – it’s not about things that don’t happen. When was the last time you read a news story about a city that didn’t have a terrorist attack yesterday, or a country that has not been at war for the 37th year in a row? Those are not in the news, and it’s only when you look at the statistics of violence that you can appreciate how far it has declined.”
The second challenge, he said, is trying to explain it.
“How is it that we’ve enjoyed declines in war, in homicide, in rape, in spousal abuse, in spanking children, in treatment of animals?” he said. “Given that human nature hasn’t changed, how has our behavior changed?”
Pinker said that change in the balance of behavioral motivations has been driven by changes in our social institutions, and several broad trends in particular have contributed to a growing peacefulness between nations and between individuals.
“I think trade, exchange and commerce is one of them – countries that are involved in economic relationships are less likely to go to war,” Pinker said. “Democracy is a force that is, in general, conducive to peace. And education is another general pacifying force.”
Though news media images of violence seem to contradict the premise, Pinker said the data clearly shows that violence is in decline, and there’s reason to be optimistic that we’ll continue on that trajectory.
“While there will always be war and crime, there can be a lot less of it than there is now,” he said. “Given that there is less now than there was in the past, it shows that it can change based on our actions.”
Pinker acknowledged that this research on violence seems like a departure from his other work on the psychology of language and visual cognition, but it’s all part of the same fascination for him.
“I’m a cognitive scientist who’s studied vision and language and all aspects of mental life,” he said. “I come to this topic as someone interested in all aspects of what makes us tick – and violence is one of them.”
In addition to “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which garnered a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year award, Pinker is the author of “The Blank Slate” and “How The Mind Works,” both bestsellers, and both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. His acclaimed language series includes “The Language Instinct,” “Words and Rules” and “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.”
A native of Montreal, Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard and has also taught at Stanford and at MIT. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has won a number of teaching prizes, and was named among Newsweek’s “100 Americans for the Next Century.” His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has received numerous awards, including the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences.
The University Speakers Series is sponsored by the Honors College, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, and the Associated Students of New Mexico State University. Each year, the series brings to Las Cruces speakers of international acclaim to present, free of charge, a lecture of interest to the entire community. Now in its 22nd year, the Speakers Series has played host to such distinguished guests as Jane Goodall, F.W. de Klerk, Gloria Steinem, Edward James Olmos, Robert F. Kennedy and Salman Rushdie.