Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Steven Pinker, especially his book The Blank Slate. He has generally steered clear of the new atheist controversy, preferring positive advocacy of his own ideas rather than attacking others. Of course, there has never been any doubt about where he stood on the question of religion, but he has tended to keep his language temperate. More importantly, he has played ideas and not the man. Sadly, all that changed last week, as fellow clerk Humphrey of St Andrews has noted over in the discussion forum. Pinker launched an unprovoked and, to my mind, unacceptable attack on the geneticist Francis Collins. As well as being a renowned scientist, Collins is an evangelical Christian and author of the book The Language of God (which probably did much better in the US than it has done over here in Britain). It's this public advocacy of Christianity that Pinker seems to find so offensive. But demanding that people should keep their religious beliefs, political views (Pinker and Collins are both outspoken Democrats) or even their sexual orientation in the closet amounts to discrimination. Furthermore, Pinker's use of the usual new atheist boo-words (superstitious, iron age and medieval dogmas) demeans him and lowers him to the level of Dawkins and Grayling. That is not where I want to see one of the world's most important scientific thinkers.
As if to cheer me up, Good Pinker was also in evidence this week. We've known from some time that his next book would be on violence. He probably knew that the chapter on this subject in the Blank Slate was one of the weakest (together with his treatment of art). So it is great to see that he has revisited it for a book length treatment. On the basis of this teaser article in a magazine called Greater Good (spotted by Daniel Finkelstein) the new book should be an interesting read. The central fact that Pinker identifies about violence is that it has been declining throughout history. The twentieth century, even allowing for both world wars, was far less violent than those that proceeding it. There are inevitable upticks from time to time, but the trend is clear. The question is what has caused it? Read Pinker's article for some clues. Finkelstein highlights one aspect of modern life that might make us less violent – television. Because this brings the world into our living room, it makes the alien seem familiar. This makes it less frightening and so might reduce the chances of our reacting violently when we come across it in real life.
Let's hope that Bad Pinker is put back in his box so we can enjoy the work of Good Pinker uninhibited.