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Pinker's Porkies and Views on Human Nature

Not long ago Stephen Pinker, who appeared on Desert Island Disks this week,  published a book to great acclaim called The Better Angels of Our Nature [1]. In this he argued that violent deaths had steadily been decreasing over the last few centuries. His message overall was that things are getting better, and this was a message that has pleased many people, not least those who think that the socio-economic system in which we currently live is as good as it gets.

Pinker presents in a paradoxical way. He talks and writes like a  typical left-leaning liberal but many of his ideas have a somewhat reactionary tinge. In particular his enchantment with the idea that our personalities are primarily formed by our genes has been taken to suggest, as argued  by Judy Rich-Harris [2]  who he greatly admires, that parents make very little difference to  how a child turns out. His book the Blank Slate [3] similarly took huge swipes at the idea that our personalities might be the product of our experiences,  and I think in that he set up various ‘straw men’ to easily knock down. His argument was in too many ways selective, ignoring for example the extraordinary research from epigenetics showing how genes and environment interact powerfully and that genes have different effects depending on the environment that triggers them. More importantly he ignored the massive evidence about the  powerful effect of early experiences on programming our brains and hormonal systems [4], particularly the effects of stress, anxiety, trauma and neglect, and he also ignored  the extraordinary body of research from attachment theory about the impact of early experiences.

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Guest — Liz
It is so important to challenge the notion that aggression and violence are 'natural' and therefore inevitable. So thanks for offe... Read More
Monday, 01 July 2013 10:07
Guest — Simon
Interesting stuff. I don't get the impression that Pinker is suggesting something as simplistic as violence is natural or inevita... Read More
Tuesday, 09 July 2013 11:43
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Violent video games and aggression

In the wake of another unthinkable massacre this week in Aurora Colorado most people will be wondering what motivated James Holmes. So far there are very few facts about him and his life. One thing we do know is that he did play a lot of video games.  It appears that he was particularly hooked on one called guitar heroes. The question of whether video games are harmful has been a controversial one for some time now, with researchers not agreeing. Maybe this is not surprising. Video-games are big business, and it is also true that they alone would not lead to such a shocking act, and presumably their use was as much a symptom as a cause.

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