At the Bookfest

I went to the Northwest Bookfest yesterday to hear Steven Pinker and William Calvin talk about brains and evolution. Pinker is here on a book tour with his new book The Blank Slate, and I also went to hear him Friday evening. The Bookfest event was particularly interesting, because it was a dialogue and a little bit less planned than a lecture necessarily is. Calvin is a neuroscientist at the University of Washington who, as he pointed out, like Pinker tends to write books for the general public. His latest book, A Mind for all Seasons, is about the likely ways climate change and the evolutionary pressures that go with it shaped the human mind, and he and Pinker discussed the probable ways such pressures work. It was clear that this sort of thing has an element of uncertainty; that it’s plausible, seems to fit, to work, to explain and make sense; but is not proven. I was glad to see the subject presented this way, since the provisional status of much of evolutionary theory can present a gap in the fence for those who dislike evolutionary psychology (and they are legion) to rush through and try to tear the barn down, all the more if it’s not acknowledged.

It’s such an interesting subject. That’s one of the odd things about people who dislike evolutionary theory: they miss out on this compelling line of thought. The possible links between Ice Ages, drought, the opening up of the savannah, abundance of game animals, and the human cerebral cortex, are surely fascinating. It seems a waste to ignore them. Still, there is less hostility than there once was. The water stayed in the pitchers. There was one hostile questioner, whose voice quivered with (I couldn’t help thinking) somewhat histrionic indignation as he asked Pinker what was to prevent some future tyrant from getting eugenic ammunition from The Blank Slate. ‘If such a tyrant actually reads the book,’ Pinker said calmly, ‘then I’m not worried.’ His answer was greeted with applause, and Homo histrionicus shrugged and sat down.

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