The Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker is perhaps one of the most highly regarded academics in the world, with interests ranging from linguistics, experimental psychology and neuroscience, and after the widespread popularity of his numerous books including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate he is widely recognised as one of the most influential thinkers in the world today.
Fifteen members of the Sixth Form had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Professor Pinker about his new book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which is perhaps his most ambitious work to date. It charts the long story of how civilisation developed and how human beings gradually curbed their predisposition towards violence and aggression resulting in a transformation from anarchic lawlessness to prosperous, peaceable societies built on a foundation of human rights, cosmopolitanism and trade.
The first part of the talk was a detailed survey of statistics and factual evidence which debunked various misconceptions about the twentieth century being a time of unparalleled warfare and destruction, demonstrating how despite nostalgic and cosy images of the past we are in fact living in a time of unprecedented low levels of violence. The second half outlined the reasons for this change, and in many ways this was highlight the lecture. Drawing on ideas from the full range of academic disciplines including Political Theory, Literature, Philosophy, Mathematical Game Theory and insights coming from recent advances in brain imaging and cognitive psychology, it provided both a strong case to justify his conclusions and suggested how to ensure that the continuation of this progress.
The trip was organised by the Theory of Knowledge department and this was especially fitting since Steven Pinker’s conclusion was that the rise of civilisation correlates to a move away from superstition and dogma towards empiricism and reason. In many ways the talk was a distillation of the Theory of Knowledge syllabus condensed into an hour. The lecture was greatly enjoyed by all the students who took the opportunity to attend, and they relished the opportunity to discuss and debate the ideas of the talk, both within the halls of the Royal Institution and during an impromptu seminar in the Burger King of Charing Cross Station.
Tuesday 8 November 2011
by Charlotte Hails