Our ancestral primates evolved in Africa about 300,000 years ago. Rising to the top of the evolutionary chain, our species has reshaped nature in its image with divine power and intelligence. Homo sapiens went on to succeed in creating religions, political systems, cities, spectacular works of art, skyscrapers, space rockets, the internet, smartphones and a global economy. But deep down in our being, are we really rational creatures?
Yes, ”says Steven Pinker enthusiastically from his home in Los Angeles, California. The 66-year-old Canadian-American evolutionary psychologist, linguist and popular science bestselling author then pulls out a list. It contains a remarkable set of human achievements of the post-Enlightenment era, from dating the origin of the universe to decoding the secrets of life, to the discovery of DNA, and many more. .
This impressive account of scientific progress is the result of solid and logical reasoning. But the cognitive means to understand the world and bend it to our advantage isn’t a trophy of Western civilization, Pinker insists: it’s something we’ve inherited from our evolutionary history. He then briefly summarizes this story.
Hunter-gatherers didn’t just throw spears at passing animals or grab fruits and nuts from the nearest tree. They reasoned from fragmentary data to distant conclusions with an intuitive understanding of logic, critical thinking, statistical reasoning, correlation and causation, and game theory. Crucially, evolution works on populations rather than individuals, points out Pinker. A rational animal must be part of a community, with all the social ties that push it to cooperate, protect and mate.
“Over the centuries and millennia, we have evolved through a foundation of rationality and developed ways to increase the rationality we were born with,” says Pinker. “Rationality tools should be part of the curriculum in all countries the same way, say, reading and arithmetic are. “
This is the gist of the argument Pinker makes in Rationality: what is it, why it seems rare, why it matters. In fact, he thinks rationality should be the guiding principle of everything we think and do. It is an attractive idea. In theory, at least. But human societies are complex entities, he admits. Irrational chaos, post-truth rhetoric, fake news, quack cures, and conspiracy theories dominate much of our public discourse.
Indeed, the frenetic pace of our subjective, critical, tribal, self-righteous, egocentric, clickbait culture actually rewards notoriety and biased visceral opinions. Fact checking and calm reasoning are hardly taken into account.
“Political ideologies are a major paralyzer of rationality,” says Pinker. He then cites a striking example: the public debates that began when the Covid-19 arrived in the West in February 2020. “The premature dismissal that the [virus] could have emerged from a laboratory accident [in the Chinese city of Wuhan] must now be taken seriously, ”he said. “But until recently, this idea was suppressed as racist alarmism – mainly because Donald Trump supported it.”
Pinker says this kind of prejudice guides the direction most public opinion tends to take, especially on social media. And that mainly comes from “the culture of cancellation on the left,” he says. “Anyone who challenges a certain type of consensus supported by political correctness is no longer evaluated and refuted, but punished and silenced. [instead]. “
Pinker believes that trust in the global scientific community has remained stable over the past decades. The same cannot be said of universities in general, he says. Their reputation in the Western world (especially in humanities faculties) is collapsing because of a “suffocating left-wing monoculture that punishes all students and professors who question [dogmatic creeds] relating to gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation.
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“Universities are turning into a laughing stock and have become arenas of competitive demonization, in a desperate attempt to try and prove that people are racist, bigot, and sexist, often to the point of absurdity,” he says. “They are no longer trustworthy arenas for discussing or evaluating ideas, but madrasas: where dogmas are instilled and heretics are punished. “
Pinker believes that if this current trend continues, Western culture may be heading for an “epistemological crisis.” But as responsible citizens of the world, we have a moral duty to fight against this cynical herd mentality, he says. Getting used to the ways of formal logic is a tool that can help us become more rational thinking creatures – who stand proudly on the side of reason and science, he insists. Ultimately, logic can free us from the innate biases that come with being social and emotional animals. “The tools to think more rationally are quite widespread among researchers in the social sciences and [academics] more generally, ”he says.
“But they are generally not known to the general population, and this book is an attempt to convey the very core of these ideas.”
“Overcoming confirmation bias is key to becoming more rational,” Pinker adds. “Treating a hypothesis like a valuable asset is a guaranteed way to be wrong because no one is infallible.”
Rationality follows Pinker’s bestseller of 2018 Lights now. This was built around four themes: reason, humanism, science and progress. This is what gave the impetus to the secular progressive intellectual movement that began in Western Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment guided European civilization away from dogmatic fundamental Christianity and towards a rational and inquisitive culture instead. The results have been astounding, Pinker insists. These are: vast improvements in human well-being; Medication; democracy; Intellectual curiosity; art; culture; health; happiness and social bond.
Pinker is Professor of Johnstone Family Psychology at Harvard University. His other books include: Blank slate; How the mind works; The instinct of the tongue; and The best angels of our nature. The latter book claimed that violence, on average, has been on the decline in the world since the Enlightenment: because commerce, the rule of law, and global commerce have foiled religious fundamentalism and superstition. This same book (published in 2011) went on to boldly assert that there has never been a safer time to be alive in human history.
A thesis which nevertheless rests on a little more fragile ground today. Especially in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released last month. He issued a stern warning: the reckless damage our species has caused to our ecosystem is radically transforming our planet’s climate in unprecedented and irreversible ways. “There’s no question we’ll have to adapt,” Pinker says cautiously and hesitantly. “But we don’t have [evidence] that there is a point of no return beyond which we have passed.
“A more reasonable estimate is that bad things are going to happen,” Pinker adds. “However, the more we slow down decarbonization, the worse it will get.”
Pinker believes that the most effective climate action is likely to come from two main sources: technological breakthroughs that make clean energy significantly cheaper and investment in nuclear energy.
“We should expect a new generation of nuclear power which will be easier to mass produce and which will produce less radioactive waste,” he said. “Because we cannot achieve a zero emissions global economy without nuclear power. “
Our planet faces enormous problems and challenges in the decades to come, Pinker admits. But solutions exist to resolve them and build a brighter and more prosperous future, he says. Nonetheless, there is an essential difference between a naïve and naive optimism and a thoughtful and rational realism, he emphasizes.
“I’m not deluding myself [human beings] are angels, ”he said. “There may well be a lot of wicked, sadistic, vengeful, irrational components in human nature,” he adds. “But we have the capacity to reflect on our thoughts and express ideas using the resources of language – and by exchanging ideas, we have the capacity for reason and empathy.
“We always risk turning back to the darker side of human nature. We should therefore cherish and savor the small successes that we have achieved so far. “
Steven Pinker’s ‘Rationality: What It is, Why It Seems Rare, Why It Matters’ is posted Tuesday by Allen Lane