Pre-thinking:

Through much of this unit we have been looking at violence as a problem of social pathology, and many of our speakers have treated it as a growing problem. Pinker takes the opposite view and makes a case for violence as a decreasing issue over time. See if you agree with him.

Linguist Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts — the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others. In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest.

Why you should listen:

Steven Pinker’s books have been like bombs tossed into the eternal nature-versus-nurture debate. Pinker asserts that not only are human minds predisposed to certain kinds of learning, such as language, but that from birth our minds — the patterns in which our brain cells fire — predispose us each to think and behave differently.

His deep studies of language have led him to insights into the way that humans form thoughts and engage our world. He argues that humans have evolved to share a faculty for language, the same way a spider evolved to spin a web. We aren’t born with “blank slates” to be shaped entirely by our parents and environment, he argues in books including The Language Instinct; How the Mind Works; and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Time magazine named Pinker one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004. His book The Stuff of Thought was previewed at TED Global 2005. His recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature looks at our notion of violence

Who is he:

Linguist Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts — the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others. In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest.

Questions:

  1. Pinker compares current and historical rates of violence. What is his overall finding?
  1. What does Pinker’s chart show us about violence?
  1. Why does Pinker think we perceive more violence now?
  1. How does communication affect our sense of safety?
  1. At the end of his talk, does Pinker leave us with a sense of hope or dread?
  1. From what you have seen, how do you perceive your own safety?

The surprising decline in violence with Steven Pinker

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