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The Better Angels – Pinker at the RI

3 November 2011

Last night I went to see Stephen Pinker talking about his new book, much in the news, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Stephen Pinker at the Royal Institution

I will not write much other than to say it was very interesting. I did not get to ask my questions. Evan Davies of Radio 4’s Today Programme introduced Pinker and asked some pertinent questions at the end. I got my copy signed.

I had two things I wanted to ask about. One was to do with brain size. In most if not all the animals we have domesticated, we see a reduction in brain size. This goes alongside a reduction in  aggressiveness (and perhaps intelligence). You can read about this in the following links among others –

We select for the supine and easily controlled, for example Belyaev and his foxes, and end up with piebald animals with puppy-like characteristics.

What I wonder is, when you consider that human brain size has been decreasing for the last 20,000 years,

is whether we are selecting against aggressiveness. Settled societies require an element of conformity. For all recorded history we have made pariahs of those who do not fit the social norms. Usually this has meant that unofficial aggressive killing has been prohibited, or punished when it occurs with imprisonment or group supported execution. If that eliminates the more aggressive people or prevents them having as many offspring, perhaps we have inadvertanly selected against the violent tendencies in humans.

The second question would have been about how we know now that if children receive poor levels of contact or affection in critical early developmental years, they can endup not having normal brain development, that is  we nurture abnormality by starving some children of the normal nurture process –

So I wonder if the disruption caused to society by wars can lead to generations where there are more psychopathic which can perhaps lead to cycles of violence.

Anyway he was interesting. It is a massive brick of a book!

PS I think he was clear that he dismisses any major change from a biological point of view, i.e. children are as aggressive now as ever he says, but I see everything through Darwinian spectacles!

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