‘Noble Savage’ Philosophy Disputed

Contact: Dan Adkins

Photo of Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker prepares his Power Point presentation prior to his ideaFestival lecture

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Pinker’s lecture was one of nearly two dozen events featured this week in the 2004 ideaFestival, an event co-sponsored by UK, the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., Georgetown College, and several area businesses. The ideaFestival continues today with several events in downtown Lexington. At 5 p.m. Friday, the festival returns to the UK Worsham Theatre with a lecture on East Asia experiments in architecture and urbanism by Akbar Abbas of the University of Hong Kong.

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 23, 2004) -- Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker argued that human beings’ minds are not “blank slates” but reflect darker aspects of human nature in a lecture at the University of Kentucky Wednesday that was part of Lexington’s ideaFestival.

“Grounding values in a blank slate is a mistake … that makes values hostage to fortune … (and) conceals the downside of denying human nature,” said Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard and author of four books on the human mind.

In his lecture at the UK Student Center’s Worsham Theatre, Pinker said the experience of the 20th century provides evidence challenging French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view that human beings are “noble savages” at birth and that the influences of society generate evil and selfish traits in them.

Pinker noted that during the last 100 years, isolated tribes in South America, Africa and other areas – peoples who fit Rousseau’s vision of those unshaped by corrupting Western influences of government and commerce – recorded much higher percentages of their male populations killed in tribal warfare, compared to the percentages of American and European men lost in two world wars.

Pinker described Rousseau’s vision as considering the minds of children as a “blank slate,” a term he used for his most recent book, The Blank Slate.

He also said Rousseau’s belief – which has had a profound effect on thinkers for two centuries – is disputed by the need for government. He cited the views of English philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, particularly Hobbes’ view of human beings as basically selfish creatures who tend to act on evil impulses.

“When it comes to life in a state of nature, Hobbes was right and Rousseau was wrong,” Pinker said.

He also said many aspects of individuals’ lives are determined not by parenting techniques but by genetics.

“Most studies of parenting are useless. They (researchers) don’t control for heritability. They don’t even test for the possibility that parents and children share genes,” he said.

The evidence supporting the impact of genetics on behavior is demonstrated by similarities in personality traits found among identical twins who were separated at birth or young ages and reunited later in life, Pinker said.

“Children are shaped not by parents” but by genes, culture, their peers, and chance events in their lives, Pinker argued.

Pinker’s views on the human mind were highlighted in this week’s issue of Newsweek magazine.

Pinker’s lecture was one of nearly two dozen events featured this week in the 2004 ideaFestival, an event co-sponsored by UK, the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., Georgetown College, and several area businesses. The ideaFestival continues today with several events in downtown Lexington. At 5 p.m. Friday, the festival returns to the UK Worsham Theatre with a lecture on East Asia experiments in architecture and urbanism by Akbar Abbas of the University of Hong Kong.

The ideaFestival concludes Saturday with a presentation by Sir George Martin, producer for The Beatles, who will discuss the making of the 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”


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