|The Third Culture|
| "THE TWO STEVES"- Pinker vs.
Rose - A Debate (Part I) [3.25.98]
On January 21st, Steven Pinker and Steven Rose debated each other in an event chaired by Susan Blackmore and held at London University's Institute of Education under the sponsorship of Dillon's and The London Times. Over a thousand people attended-and the event was sold out within three days of being announced. I wish I had been there.
No two individuals better illustrate my notion of a "third culture" which "consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
In this culture, there is no canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. The strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.
The Two Steves have serious disagreements. But whether it's Steve Pinker weighing forth on the notion that the "problems for our ancestors were subtasks of one big problem for their genes" or Steve Rose asserting that "it is in the nature of living systems to be radically indeterminate, to continually construct their-our-own futures," their debate, their disagreement sharpens and clarifies.
The complex structure of the mind is the subject of this book. Its key idea can be captured in a sentence: The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people. The summary can be unpacked into several claims. The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation. The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one arena of interaction with the world. The modules' basic logic is specified by our genetic program. Their operation was shaped by natural selection to solve the problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in most of our evolutionary history. The various problems for our ancestors were subtasks of one big problem for their genes, maximizing the number of copies that made it into the next generation.
(My task is to) offer an alternative vision of living systems, a vision which recognizes the power and role of genes without subscribing to genetic determinism, and which recaptures an understanding of living organisms and their trajectories through time and space as lying at the centre of biology. It is these trajectories that I call lifelines. Far from being determined, or needing to invoke some non-material concept of free will to help us escape the determinist trap, it is in the nature of living systems to be radically indeterminate, to continually construct their-our-own futures, albeit in circumstances not of our own choosing.
STEVEN PINKER is professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development; Learnability and Cognition; The Language Instinct; and How the Mind Works.
STEVEN ROSE, neurobiologist, is Professor of Biology and Director, Brain and Behaviour Research Group, The Open University; author of Lifelines; The Making Of Memory; coauthor of Not In Our Genes; editor of From Brains To Consciousness.
SUSAN BLACKMORE, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England, Bristol, columnist for the Independent, and author of In Search of the Light and the forthcoming The Meme Machine.
Thanks to Dillon's and the London Times for granted permission for transcribing and publishing the debate.