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

EDGE: Does this portend a more general trend?

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.

EDGE: I asked about the connections to other fields, like history? Science doesn't take place in a vacuum. Didn't historical events of the 20th century have something to do with the popularity of the Blank Slate?

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 scientific—in reality pseudoscientific—principles.

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.

EDGE: Final thoughts?

PINKER: Chekhov once said, "Man will become better when you show him what he is like." I can't do better than that.

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