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Ask Steven Pinker Your Questions

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If Steven Pinker can fend off Stephen Colbert’s questions, he can certainly deal with YOUR questions.

Q: Mark R.

Liked DeMaris question, but mine is the different treatment Marvin Harris and Napoleon Chagnon get from you. (in Better angels, I agree with your defence of N C in Blank slate!) Harris thesis is that the Yamomami et al are “fierce” (and mistreat females) because they are under stress (not enough food) – while Chagnon sees it as a choice/theor nature. When the research of Kenneth Good, a PhD student of him who got to the field to falsify this, proved Harris might have a point, N.C. was not amused. M Harris theory that a lot of warfare/baby-daughter killing stabilise a population on the limit, you reject as “naive” (giving an explanation much less convincing than your others) while quoting Harris later by name, calling him “cynical”.

Dunno, maybe I am into Harris, cause I read him first, but maybe it is also you taking sides with Chagnon knowing his work earlier and better (and seeing him under unfair attack). In Blank slate you gave great insight into academic in-fights – … – was Harris on the “wrong side”?. I do not see a contradiction between Harris work and yours.

Anyway a premature question. I need to do more research when out of Saudi Arabia and finally getting my hands on the full copies of your works, ordered and waiting at my parents home. pdf at pirate-bay have their limits.

A: Steven Pinker

Dear Mark,

I generally like the work of Marvin Harris because he advances clear and testable explanations, and I cite him favorably in several places in How the Mind Works. But his view of human nature is too narrow — everything boils down to calories. People have to eat, but they have to do other things as well, such as winning sexual and parenting partners, and that doesn’t fit into his one-dimensional, quasi-Marxist-materialist view of human nature. If he acknowledged that man does not live by bread alone, he would have contributed even more to anthropology.



Mark R

Deeply awed. (“Elvis kissed my cheeks – will not wash for weeks!” – “Got noticed by Steve – my brain cells keep firing, need no relief.”) Not convinced, though. Will be back a thousand pages from now. Thanks. Deep.

Q: DeMaris

A question for Steven: It certainly seems that you are extremely productive and the fruits of your labor are abundant, but do you ever feel like you aren’t accomplishing enough? Are you satisfied with your work time/hobby time ratio?

A: Steven Pinker

Dear DeMaris,

Though I’m constantly wracked by guilt that I’m neglecting something or someone, professional or personal, I couldn’t legitimately worry about not accomplishing enough professionally. I do sometimes think I’m forgoing both pleasure and enlightenment by not reading more novels, and I’m also a lousy reciprocator of social invitations — nice people have me over for dinners and parties, and I always mean to have them back, but somehow never find the time. I’m feeling guilty about it right now!



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Tom Miller

    Tom Miller is the producer of “Secret Life” and co-editor of the site’s blog. His job involves interviewing scientists and engineers, getting them to tell their amazing stories and occasionally trying to get them to sing. It’s a fantastic gig and Tom is extremely grateful for it.