As I noted yesterday, Steve Pinker was here on campus giving a talk on his new book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. It was the George and Marie Andros Lecture, a fancy endowed gig, and the Adroses (Androsi?) were both in attendance; George is a cardiovascular surgeon who was once here but retired and moved to Los Angeles.
When I noted that I was going to pah-tee with Pinkah, some of you petulant and skeptical readers responded, “Pictures or it didn’t happen!”. But would I lie to you? Well, if you want proof, here are the pictures—and a bit of commentary. There’s a nice surprise at the end.
I went early, for I knew it would be crowded, as it indeed was: standing room only, so people (contra fire regulations) were sitting in the aisles. On my way to the venue—the room where I taught introductory evolution—I saw this figure from behind. It could be only one person. The hair! The hair!
He spent about 10 minutes looking over his slides, very intently, as people filed in. I went about 25 minutes early to get a good seat.
The lecture was, as we’ve come to expect from Steve, superb. Wonderfully organized, with slides that were concise and not busy, and a comprehensive presentation of the data on violence, the explanations for why it’s declined, both proximal and “ultimate”, and the lessons one can draw from the decline. I was amazed he could do this in an hour. Of course he spoke in full paragraphs, with no “umms” or “errs.”
There was time for only three questions at the end, which is sad because Steve excels at Q&A. The first one was good: if violence has declined, why are we more worried about it these days? (Two examples are how parents won’t let their kids play outside anymore, and the universal fear of flying induced by terrorism.) His response was good: although violence has declined, it’s broadcast more widely due to social media, and so we’re more aware of it. Too, the news doesn’t play up the decline in violence. As Steve said, “No reporter is shown standing in Belgium and saying, ‘Well, we haven’t had any wars here for 70 years.” Also, he argued, humans tend to be risk-averse, so that, when they are thinking about, say, their kids, they concentrate on the numerator in the “violent incidents/all opportunities” fraction. When taking a car rather than a plane, they think about a plane crash that killed 300 people, but cars are far more dangerous; it’s just that no car crash kills 300 people.
I have to say that I am appalled at how closely parents monitor their kids these days. When I was a kid I’d just get on my bike and ride away from home for hours, or go long distances to play and meet friends. That doesn’t happen any more, and yet the incidence of violence to children, and kidnapping, is much lower now than when I was young. I would have greatly chafed at not being allowed to roam freely as a child.
After the talk we repaired for dinner to the Smart Museum, the University of Chicago’s art museum, which had some new exhibits, including a whole series of salacious photographs (I declined to photograph Steve in front of a giant penis photo). Steve, like Andros and me, is an avid photographer, and you can find a selection of his photos on his website.
On arriving at the Museum, we found a lovely table set for the small group of us. I quickly downed two glasses of Pouilly-Fuisse and toured the galleries, but not before photographing the table.
Before dinner, we took a tour of the museum. There were lots of pictures of naked people, including a nude woman with vegetables all over her body, and a movie of a man fondling his paternal apparatus, but I found this falcon sculpture, from Egypt (made shortly before the Christian era) far more inspiring:
Time for dinner! We all had placecards and a menu; I was seated at the end of the table so I had a good view, as well as amiable dinner companions. Here’s the list of upcoming noms and my placecard (click to enlarge):
The first course was butternut squash soup with Granny Smith apples and snipped chives. It was superb, especially with the Pouilly-Fuisse (I later moved on to the Bordeaux, though I prefer white with fish):
Next: A large chunk of beautifully cooked Alaskan halibut served with green peppercorn sauce, wild mushrooms, and what they called “sea beans,” which I gather is some kind of seaweed (it was delicious). Does anybody know what that is?:
Dessert: a poached pear with strawberries and dark chocolate sauce, served with one of those chocolate-filled stick thingies. By this time I’d had quite a bit of wine and was feeling expansive:
The dinner in full swing. I didn’t get to meet everyone, so I can’t give all names. To Steve’s right is Mrs. Andros, one of the donors of the lecture series, and to her right is Conrad Gilliam, the Dean for Research at the University of Chicago and one of the committee who, under the Andros’s advisement, selected Steve as this year’s lecturer.
After dinner Steve and I repaired to my office for a bit more libation. As real guys, we decided to eschew wine and have a few brewskis. And, as real guys tend to do when they get together and let their hair down (the latter task impossible for Pinker), we talked about free will, multiverses, theology—you know, the stuff guys always talk about over a few beers—and boots!
For Steve has taken to wearing cowboy boots, which he quite likes for their looks and the way they change your gait. (The cowboy boot expert Jennifer June says they make you “walk like you mean it”.) I was, of course, enormously pleased to see this, and showed Steve my own ostrich-belly boots, which he admired.
Steve was wearing a pair of caiman boots that he acquired in Texas, and I made him pose with them in my office. He’s a neophyte with boots (I think he has only a handful of pairs), so, as owner of more than 100, I gave him some tips.
Talking to Steve, particularly when you’re tired and a bit tipsy, is an intense experience. He, too, was tired, but his brain was fully engaged. It’s like having a conversation with two people at once: that’s how fast you have to think. Pinker has two conversational characteristics that I much admire: he seems to retain everything he’s ever learned or written, and he is fast on his feet, able to recall relevant data or references on the spot. His fund of knowledge seems inexhaustible, and if you want to feel intellectually slow, have a chat with him! But it was great fun.
I now proffer the suggestion that atheists adopt cowboy boots as their official footwear. It’s time to reclaim this unique American dress item from the rednecks, Republicans, goddies, and evolution-deniers who have monopolized them!
As Steve’s limo was late, we spent another 20 minutes sitting on the curb waiting for the car. There I found that he’s on sabbatical, finishing his next book, which will be on writing and appear next year. He and Rebecca Goldstein are at Dartmouth, where Rebecca has a visiting faculty position for a year. I expressed amazement that Steve could turn out books so fast (apparently he doesn’t revise as anally as I do, as my prose for books and article isn’t readable until after a dozen revisions, whereas he seems to write nearly first draft), and Steve claimed, in return, that he could never write stuff on a website as fast as I do (this is always first draft with just a tad of revision thereafter).
I took the opportunity to ask Steve what book he was proudest of. His answer was immediate: How the Mind Works (1997), as he said that it contained a lot of his thinking about the brain, and ideas that he considered novel. He was only 43 when he wrote it.
It was a lovely evening, and I’m grateful to not only Steve, but the Andros family, the organizing committee, and the woman (whose name, unfortunately, I can’t remember) who organized the logistics, including the wonderful dinner. The quality of food was much higher than one usually gets at a University event, and of course the company was first rate.
And—how often do I get to combine secularism, boots, and food in one post?
I asked Steve to sign my copy of WEIT that’s already been signed by everyone at the Moving Naturalism Forward conference, as well as Kelly Houle, who illuminated some of the book with her art, and Ben Goren, who added a genuine pawprint from his cat Baihu. Everyone has said a few words about naturalism in their autograph, and here’s Steve’s. He says it’s a bit of linguistic fun, and I guess he’s showing the phylogeny of his names. I’m surprised that “Pinker” groups with “Arthur,” but what do I know:
And an example of some of the illustration added to the book by Kelly Houle. We’ll auction off the book on eBay soon; all proceeds will go to Doctors without Borders.