To be fair, there are other strands of the arts and humanities, sometimes brushed aside in the 20th century, that resonate quite well with the arguments that I've been making. Many artists and scholars have pointed out that ultimately art depends on human nature. The aesthetic and emotional reactions that we have to works of art depend on how our brain is put together. Art works because it appeals to certain faculties of the mind. Music depends on details of the auditory system, painting and sculpture on the visual system. Poetry and literature depend on language. And the insights we hope to take away from great works of art depend on their ability to explore the eternal conflicts in the human condition, like those between men and women, self and society, parent and child, sibling and sibling, and friend and friend. Some theoreticians of literature have suggested that we appreciate tragedy and great works of fiction because they explore the permutations and combinations of human conflict—and these are just the themes that scientific fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and social psychology try to illuminate.
EDGE: So what do you see as the appropriate role for art?
PINKER: Good heavens, that's not for me to weigh in on! The most I can do is suggest ways in which the sciences of mind might pipe in with insights that could complement those of scholars in the humanities. Linguistics can help poetics and rhetoric; perception science can be useful for the analysis of music and the visual arts; cognitive science has a role to play in the analysis of literature and cinema; evolutionary psychology can shed light on esthetics. And more generally, the sciences of mind can reinforce the idea that there really is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.
EDGE: Who are some of the people exploring the convergence of art and science?
PINKER: Among novelists, Ian McEwan, David
Lodge, A. S. Byatt, John Updike, Iris Murdoch,
Tom Wolfe, and George Orwell are a few that
I am familiar with who have invoked notions
of human nature, sometimes traditional ones,
sometimes ones from scientific psychology,
in their work or their explanations. Among
scholars and critics, the list is growing;
here are some who pop into mind. George Steiner
on biological conflict and drama. Ernest Gombrich
on perception and art. Joseph Carroll, Frederick
Turner, Mark Turner, Brian Boyd, Patrick Hogan,
on literature. Elaine Scarry on mental imagery
and fiction. Denis Dutton has been a catalyst
for this convergence through his journal Philosophy
and Literature and his web site www.ArtsandLettersDaily.com.
PINKER: We may be seeing a coming together
of the humanities and the science of human
nature. They've been long separated because
of post-modernism and modernism. But now graduate
students are grumbling in emails and in conference
hallways about being locked out of the job
market unless they perpetuate postmodernist
gobbledygook, and how they're eager for new
ideas from the sciences that could invigorate
the humanities within universities, which
are, by anyone's account, in trouble. Also
connoisseurs and appreciators of art are getting
sick of the umpteenth exhibit on the female
body featuring mangled body parts, or ironic
allusions to commercial culture that are supposed
to shake people out of their bourgeois complacency
but that are really no more insightful than
an ad parody in Mad magazine or on
Saturday Night Live.
PINKER: Intellectual life was enormously affected by an understandable revulsion to Nazism, with its pseudoscientific theories of race, and its equally nonsensical glorification of conflict as part of the evolutionary wisdom of nature. It was natural to reject anything that smacked of a genetic approach to human affairs. But historians of ideas have begun to fill in another side of the picture. During the twentieth century, equally horrific genocides were carried out in the name of Marxism, such as in the mass purges and manmade famines of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, and the madness in Kampuchea. The remarkable fact is that the two great ideologically driven genocides of the 20th century came from theories of human nature that were diametrically opposed. The Marxists had no use for the concept of race, didn't believe in genes, and denied Darwin's theory of natural selection as the mechanism of evolutionary adaptation. This shows is that it's not a biological approach to human nature that is uniquely sinister. There must be common threads to Nazism and totalitarian Marxism that cut across a belief in the importance of evolution or genetics. One common thread was a desire to reshape humanity. In the Marxists' case it was through social engineering; in the Nazis' case it was eugenics. Neither of them were satisfied with human beings as we find them, with all their flaws and weaknesses. Rather than building a social order around enduring human, traits they had the conceit that they could re-engineer human traits using scientificin reality pseudoscientificprinciples.
In Martin Amis's new book about Stalinism,
he argues that intellectuals have not yet
come to grips with the lessons of Marxist
totalitarianism in the way that they did with
Nazi totalitarianism many decades ago. A number
of historians and political philosophers have
made the same point. This blind spot has distorted
the intellectual landscape, including the
implications and non-implications of genetics
and evolution for understanding ourselves.
PINKER: Chekhov once said, "Man will become better when you show him what he is like." I can't do better than that.