Providence PCA Mission Church




Inside the Unregenerate Mind:

An Analysis and Critique of the Philosophy of Steven Pinker

By Andrew J. Webb

 On November 2 1997 an editorial entitled "Why They Kill Their Newborns" was published in the New York Times Magazine. It created a swirl of controversy around its author, M.I.T professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, and finally brought his name and some of his philosophy to the attention of the evangelical Christian community.

The subject of Pinker's article was the recent rash of infanticides that had captured the attention of the press and, for a few fleeting weeks, shaken American sensibilities. People had been shocked that supposedly normal suburban teenagers like Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson could kill their own baby shortly after it's birth, or that Melissa Drexler could give birth to a baby in a bathroom during her prom and then nonchalantly return to the dance floor after dumping the infant in the garbage. "What could make 'nice kids' do such awful things?" we wondered. It was the answer that Stephen Pinker gave to that particular question that was to outrage the evangelical scions of public morality.

Genes, answered Pinker, were what prompted these otherwise normal kids to kill their newborns. Apparently "a capacity for neonaticide is built into the biological design of our parental emotions"1 but lest we think that we are entirely controlled by our genetic makeup, Pinker went on to point out that "Natural selection cannot push the buttons of behavior directly; it affects our behavior by endowing us with emotions that coax us toward adaptive choices."2 So, while their genes could not be conceived of as the final actors forcing them to kill their newborns, genes had given these young killers a natural instinct and an emotional drive to do so.

Predictably perhaps, this answer produced a storm of protest from the evangelical media. "Shattered lives and broken hearts are only part of Roe's dreadful legacy", wrote Family Research Council President Gary Bauer, "Because of Roe, we live in a society that no longer protects the inalienable right to life. We see this in the drive to expand not only abortion but also euthanasia. This slippery slope opens the door to radical notions of the very definition of life. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Professor Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology actually suggested that killing a newborn should be treated differently than killing an adult because the infant isn't a full-fledged person."3 While Christian radio host Alan Keyes said "The very week… there appeared an article in the New York Times Magazine by a gentleman named Steven Pinker. It purported to be a piece on why mothers kill their newborns. And when you read it through, it turned out to be a piece on why it is really not possible to justify legal sanctions against mothers who kill their newborns."4

As usual, evangelicals were late in becoming aware of an individual who was already becoming firmly established in both the worlds of science and pop psychology. Once again it was not until a philosophy rapidly growing in popularity began to make an impact in the social arena that evangelicals began to take serious notice. Unfortunately, these evangelical commentators also failed to recognize both the real significance and the roots of Pinker's philosophy. By linking his argument entirely with the abortion debate in which they are passionately embroiled in the public arena, they failed to see his argument as a logical extension of the concepts of Darwinian philosophy, human autonomy, and scientific neutrality he is so devoted to. In fact, in blaming these "radical notions of the very definition of life" on the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, Bauer had exactly reversed the actual process. The Roe v. Wade decision was actually a result of the "radical notions of the very definition of life" caused by the abandonment of the bible as the ultimate criterion of truth. In linking the status of human life to the law of man, and not the Word of God, Bauer was simply harkening back to concepts of deistic natural theology that have been a dominate force in Christian Moral philosophy since Butler, Paley, and Jefferson.

How then should Christians view Pinkers philosophy? In order to begin answering that question, instead of starting with the article he wrote on the subject of infanticide for the New York Times Magazine, we need to examine his fundamental presuppositions regarding the nature of the universe. When we have done that, we will begin to understand how his conclusions regarding issues such as infanticide, rather than being shaped by events in the cultural arena such as Roe v. Wade, have more to do with the fundamental rejection of God as creator and the philosophy that Darwin promoted in place of Christian Theism.

As one commentator put it the year 1997 was a "big one"5 for Steven Pinker, and not just because one of his articles was published in the New York Times Magazine. In 1997 Pinker, the Director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, published his most critically acclaimed and successful book to date entitled, How the Mind Works. While he already had six other books in print, How the Mind Works and its predecessor, the Language Instinct, were breakthrough works in establishing his credentials as both a popularizer of secular science in the tradition of Carl Sagan, and the leading advocate of a fairly unknown discipline called "Evolutionary Psychology".

Evolutionary Psychology seeks to fill a gap in Darwinian Science long exploited by Christian Apologists. It used to be said that while Darwinians could come up with seemingly logical answers for how things like hands and feet evolved, they could never give a cogent explanation for why they felt an emotion called "love" for their wives and children. Darwin's process of natural selection could offer explanations for how humans came to be, but it had yet to bridge the gap in explaining why or how humans felt about being.

Into that gap sallied forth Steven Pinker, following in the train of the "Sociobiologists" who initially made the breach in the wall between evolution and behavior. "Evolutionary psychology", says Pinker, "brings together two scientific revolutions. One is the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, which explains the mechanics of thought and emotion in terms of information and computation. The other is the revolution in evolutionary biology of the 1960s and 1970s, which explains the complex adaptive design of living things in terms of selection among replicators. These two ideas make a powerful combination. Cognitive science helps us to understand how a mind is possible and what kind of mind we have. Evolutionary biology helps us to understand why have the kind of mind we have."6

How devoted is Pinker to Evolutionary Biology and the concept of Natural selection? Well as far as the written record is concerned, it would be hard to think of a more devoted disciple of Darwin and his theories. Pinker makes Natural Selection his principium, elevating it to the status of an essential presupposition from which all of his other thinking devolves. This "presuppositional" thinking on his part is illustrated by an anecdote he relates in How the Mind Works:

"Recently I visited an exhibition on spiders at the Smithsonian. As I marveled at the Swiss-watch precision of the joints, the sewing machine motions by which it drew silk from its spinnerets, the beauty and cunning of the web, I thought to myself, "How could anyone see this and not believe in natural selection!" At that moment a women standing next to me exclaimed, "How could anyone see this and not believe in God!" We agreed a priori on the facts that needed to be explained, though we disagreed on how to explain them." 7

Pinker takes his belief in the idea that Natural Selection is the explanation of the obvious design of the world to heights that even Darwinian paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould described as "Darwinian Fundamentalism" in a two part article explaining why he disagrees with Evolutionary Psychology. Pinker quite simply believes that Natural Selection was the process that produced everything from the human eye to the mind. Implicit in his presumption is the idea of absolute human autonomy. Pinker not only sees no place for God in the universe, his vigorous opposition to religious thinking generally, and Christian thinking in particular, is obvious in his work. In the first chapter of his How the Mind Works Pinker gives us his tellic note explaining what he wants us to believe; "I want to convince you that our minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder principle."8 Pinker in Saganesque fashion is out to convince us of things he takes for granted, namely the non-existence of God9, that the mind is simply what the brain does, and that explanations which do not fit into his Darwinian framework cannot be taken seriously.

But to say that Pinker merely opposes the concept of God in his work, is to eliminate a not-so-subtle trend in his thinking. Pinker not only opposes the concept of God as an explanation of how things like the universe and the human mind came to be, he obviously thinks that believing in God and the soul is dangerous. Christianity, in Steven Pinker's writing, is the root of all kinds of evil. We can see this clearly from his reply to an article written by Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard:

"In place of moral reasoning, Ferguson seems to suggest that moral issues be resolved by appeals to religion. His argument against neonaticide is that "it has been viewed with abhorrence by Christians from the beginning of their era" because they believed that "human beings were persons from the start, endowed with a soul, created by God, and infinitely precious." But Ferguson evades the obvious problems in solving moral dilemmas by asking religious people what they do and don't abhor. That solution has given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, suicide bombers, abortion- clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their children so they can be happily reunited in heaven.

It is Ferguson's mentality, not mine, that threatens the foundations of morality. Secular thinkers are prepared to struggle with difficult moral questions by reasoning them out on moral grounds, while welcoming our increasing knowledge about the brain. Ferguson instead seems to want to root morality on the theory that a deity injects a fertilized ovum with a ghostly substance, which registers the world, pulls the levers of behavior, and leaks out at the moment of death. Unfortunately for that theory, brain science has shown that the mind is what the brain does. The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God."10

Several things about the above statement are worth noting, the first being that while Pinker condemns several different behaviors in his work as "evil" (although he never bothers to explain how he arrives at a foundation for that term), the vehemence with which he attacks Christian theism is singular in its intensity. The way Pinker normally condemns things is to explain how they are motivated by our genetic dispositions, our "selfish genes" if you will, he then goes on to say things like "Incidentally, none of these points "condone" the violence or imply that "it's not the man's fault," as it is sometimes claimed."11 In other words, even though we can see why people are predisposed to do these "evil" things because of their genetic make-up, that doesn't let them off the hook for doing them. Pinker's criticism of Christian theism is different, he sees it as purely a force for evil in the world, the cause of things he obviously deplores such as "stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, suicide bombers, abortion- clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their children so they can be happily reunited in heaven." Faith, in his system, seems not to merit the same kind of explanations Pinker makes for other things he disapproves of. He views Religion as "a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success…"12 It's almost as though Pinker feels we should have already evolved beyond this point, and his frustration that we haven't is palpable. He takes it for granted that science has demonstrated that the Soul doesn't exist, and that God is an equally untenable conjecture. Our salvation in a moral sense lies, therefore, in the hands of "secular thinkers… prepared to struggle with difficult moral questions by reasoning them out on moral grounds" because religious thinkers can only be expected to give us answers founded on murder and mayhem. While one would not expect Pinker to agree, one can see in his thought an element of the answer given by British author Kingsley Amis in response to an inquiry as to whether he was an atheist, "It's more than that. You see I hate Him."

According to Pinker then, the answer to "what makes people tick" doesn't lie in God or a "ghostly substance" that "leaks out at the moment of death" but rather in the way that natural selection has designed the human mind during what Pinker calls the "primate assembly process." The mind, according to Pinker, like any other part of the body, is the product of Millions of years of evolution, all of them directed to the same end: survive and procreate. Since Pinker believes that Homo Sapiens spent the majority of their time in hunter gatherer groups in the Savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, he believes that most of human behavior is geared to life in that environment. Consequently, our inclinations have more to do with surviving in Africa than they do with life in the towns and cities of the twentieth century. Many of the oddities of human behavior can be explained, Pinker tells us, not by the pressure and stresses of modern civilization, but by the fact that our minds have not been designed for the environment in which we live, and instead are forced to adapt to it.

The primary objective of life on the Savannah was not merely staying alive of course, it was staying alive long enough to procreate and pass on our genes, says Pinker. At least that was what the genes were telling us to do. Consequently all of our behavior is in some way related to the desire of our genes to spread themselves around. Humans, Pinker tells us, are "replicators" and the purpose of replicators is to copy themselves. But the copying process is never 100% accurate and sometimes a mutation occurs, these mutations will either assist or hinder the replication process. If the mutation hinders the replication process, then the mutant will usually die out and ensure that the faulty replicator does not continue. But if the mutation assists in the replication process, then the more efficient replicator will become dominant. This, in a nutshell, is the process of natural selection, and to a certain extent this is the way that Darwinian Biologists have always argued, but Pinker and his fellow Evolutionary Psychologists are fairly unique in applying these principles to behavior. The brain, says Pinker is an organ, and organs evolve via the process of natural selection. The mind is nothing less than what the brain does, so as the brain evolved, the mind evolved also. In fact, since the mind is simply the natural function of the brain, the more efficient minds had the better chance of replicating.

Even at this stage in Pinker's thought one might pause to ask oneself how Pinker could possibly know what life on the savanna was like millions of years ago? Just as finding a pair of fossilized angel wings could not possibly tell us anything about Gabriel's conversation with Mary, the tiny scraps of bone that paleontologists identify as our earliest ancestors tell us nothing about their thoughts, feelings, and actions. It's highly debatable if this "evidence" tells us anything at all, in fact. What Pinker is doing is a mixture of conjecture, "reverse engineering" (extrapolating how the mind of early man worked by examining the mind of modern man), and assumptions based on studies of primitive hunter-gatherer groups Pinker feels are similar to early Hominid groups. But even if we grant that his methodology is viable, which people like Steven Jay Gould do not, we are still presented with several problems.

A consistent Christian theist "presupposes the triune God and his redemptive plan for the universe as set forth once and for all in scripture"13 while the non-Christian like Pinker "presupposes a dialectic between "chance" and "regularity," the former accounting for the origin of matter and life, the latter accounting for the current success of the scientific enterprise."14 In essence this "chance" and "regularity" model encapsulated in the term natural selection becomes Pinker's explanation for everything. So while the Christian in the above anecdotal example understands that spiders were created by God because scripture tells them so, the fact that they show obvious evidence of intelligent design does not surprise them. From a Christian point of view, a Spider has been given spinnerets by God to create silk, eyes designed by God to see, legs designed by God to move, etc. For Pinker, the engine in this design is the (chance+regularity) X time model provided by natural selection. So when Pinker sees a spider, and sees elements of design, he immediately begins the process of "reverse engineering" the organism. He notices the spinnerets and seeks to deduce how such an odd organ evolved, and what the factors leading to the evolution of such an odd organ were. When applied to organs such as the spinnerets of a spider this process is already a convoluted process of conjecture, when applied to emotions such as love, however, the process becomes unbelievably Byzantine.

Let us examine then how Pinker accounts for emotions such as love, empathy, jealousy, etc. Obviously these emotions exist in modern human beings, so Pinker must begin the process of accounting for how they came to exist, without recourse to any theistic explanation. He doesn't mind doing this, since this is what evolutionary psychology is all about, explaining why the mind works the way it does without getting bogged down with supernatural mumbo-jumbo, such as the idea that man has emotions precisely because he was created in the image of God. So Pinker takes us back to those "selfish genes" and their desire (which can't be seen under a microscope, but which he feels is empirically provable none-the-less) to spread themselves. "Genes "try" to spread themselves", says Pinker, "by wiring animals' brains so the animals love their kin and try to keep warm, fed, and safe."15 Now Pinker knows that our curious emotional reaction to the above statement is to become indignant. It would seem that Homo Sapiens does not like to be told that they love their children only because their children have the same genes they do. For some reason this offends our genetically programmed sensibilities. In a monumental understatement Pinker admits that "Many people still resist the idea that moral emotions are designed by natural selection to further the long-term interests of individuals and ultimately their genes."16 But hoping no doubt to help us get over it, he soothingly counsels us :

"But I suppose it is only human to feel a frisson when learning about what made us what we are. So I offer a more hopeful way of reflecting on the selfish gene.

The body is the ultimate barrier to empathy. Your toothache simply does not hurt me the way it hurt you. But genes are not imprisoned in bodies; the same gene lives in the bodies of many family members at once. The dispersed copies of a gene call to one another by endowing bodies with emotions. Love, compassion, and empathy are invisible fibers that connect genes in different bodies. They are the closest we will ever come to feeling someone else's toothache. When a parent wishes she could take the place of a child about to undergo surgery, it is not the species or the group or her body that wants her to have that most unselfish emotion; it is her genes."17

All of which is very poetic, no doubt, especially if you happen to be a gene. But somehow, the idea that it is merely her dispersed genes "calling to one another," may not offer much solace to the mother waiting for her child to come out of the operating room. In any event, it is easy to see how this formula of genes looking out for one another can be used for many of the other emotions one might feel for people who share our genes. But there are other emotions that seem to make lease sense, what about grief for instance? Do genes really program us to grieve at the loss of our relatives? Pinker is less sure about this question, but he postulates that grief is a corollary of love. Its purpose is to act as a deterrent. If we feel an awful sense of loss at the death of our child we will obviously work hard to ensure that this eventuality never takes place. It is a powerful reminder "to protect and cherish a loved one in the face of myriad other demands on one's time and thoughts."18

So, by process of reverse engineering, and with his constant focus on genetic programming, Pinker has explained love and grief to us. How then do we explain the love of a parent for an adopted child? Here reverse engineering collides with Pinker's presuppositions, and to a certain extent one senses that Pinker, like most reductionists, desires to mash the facts flat so that they don't interfere with his carefully developed model. First, Pinker works overtime to stress the fact that adoption is unnatural. He pointedly reminds us that the savannas our ancestors scampered about on for "ninety nine percent of human existence", "lacked the institutions that now entice us to nonadaptive choices, such as religious orders, adoption agencies, and pharmaceutical companies."19 His choice of these three institutions is not random, because as a classic Darwinist he must explain human willingness to choose to remain celibate, adopt children, or use birth control which, if your ultimate purpose is to make copies of yourself, he readily admits seems like "Darwinian suicide." He goes on to point out that if "the Pleistocene savanna contained trees bearing birth-control pills, we might have evolved to find them as terrifying as a venomous spider."20 Presumably if those same Savannas had contained social workers seeking to place orphans in loving families we would have evolved to regard them as terrifying as well.

The next step in explaining love for an adopted child is to explain away the love, or at least to say that the love shown to an adopted child is qualitatively different from that shown to a biological child. Obviously being a sensitive individual Pinker does not want to come right out and say parents don't really love their adopted children, but his thesis has committed him to the idea that the bond between parent and child is biological and based on "dispersed copies of genes" that "call out to one another." This kind of relationship simply cannot occur between a parent and an adopted child, so Pinker carefully says, "Of course couples love their adopted children; if they weren't unusually committed to simulating a natural family experience they would not have adopted to start with."21(emphasis mine) So in the case of adoption, our frustrated genes must make do with virtual calls to simulated copies. Immediately after this statement however, Pinker drives a wedge between adopted children and stepchildren, "stepfamilies are different. The stepparent has shopped for a spouse, not a child; the child is a cost that comes as part of the deal."22 Pinker goes on to point out that "Stepparents have a poor reputation" and then buttresses this declaration with the fact that many cultures have stories that make stepparents the villains. He also quotes a study (un-footnoted, like most of his assertions) of "emotionally healthy middle-class families in the United States" that supposedly showed that only half of dads and a quarter of moms had any "parental feelings" towards their step kids. He concludes by saying that it is only the relationship between a biological parent and their offspring that is special, but that we should laud stepparents who are benevolent to their stepkids for doing something so totally unnatural.

So, the facts happily brought into line, we understand how it is possible, but not likely, for people to love children to whom they are not biologically related to. But this still doesn't explain why husbands would love wives given that there are so few societies in which they are likely to have common genetic material. Once again though, selfish genes are the causal agents for the love between husband and wife. Husbands, Pinker tells us, have wives because as replicators they desire to make copies of themselves, and wives are the logical means of procreation. Marriage develops as an institution because husbands desire ownership over their wives. They do not desire this merely because of some sort of social conditioning that leads them to favor patriarchy, but rather because only if they have sole ownership over a woman can they ensure that the child developing in her womb is really theirs and thus bears their own genetic material. Being cuckolded is "always a threat to the man's genetic interests, because it might fool him into working for a competitors genes."23 So we've already been given our explanation for the feeling of jealousy. Our "selfish genes" do not want to be duped into spending our precious commodities of time and effort on another man's child, and a women wants her husbands efforts maximized in providing for the children who bear her own genetic material. The feeling of love is the way natural selection ensures that the process of spreading our genetic material will be optimized.

The insightful reader will already have figured out that if the objective of men is to spread their genetic material by having wives, then the more wives a husband has, the more spread his genetic material enjoys. Pinker quickly affirms this logical principle, and we are told that polygamy not monogamy is the normal state of affairs for human beings. This also brings us to the delicate subject of war, which it would seem is also caused by sex. "In foraging societies, men go to war to get or keep women not necessarily as the conscious goal of the warriors (though often it is exactly that), but as the ultimate payoff that allowed a willingness to fight to evolve."24 Humans are either fighting to gain women, or fighting to gain the things that will allow us to gain women. Pinker goes on to show almost all fights between men are about women using examples as diverse as the bible record and the themes of country music songs, "Do any of them say" Pinker asks, 'Don't take your cow to town'?"

The practice of monogamy then, was a late development and something that, according to Pinker, has historically been for political reasons. Men agree to be monogamous amongst themselves to reduce the level of "cutthroat" competition for the many wives their genes direct them to accumulate. Typically only the most powerful men in these polygamous societies will accumulate many wives, and bereft of the means to do so, many weaker men will fail to accumulate any wives at all. So when leaders "needed their subjects to fight an enemy instead of one another"25 they outlawed Polygamy. This convenient explanation also allows Pinker to suggest a reason for the rise of early Christianity, which is important because the moral dimensions of Christianity would seem to run counter to much of what Pinkers "selfish genes" are telling us to do, namely that it's emphasis on monogamy made it possible for poor men to get married.

So Pinker has established for us why we love, why we get jealous, why we get married, why we go to war, and even why we became Christians. We do all of these things because we are replicators and natural selection has built our behavior with the express aim of enabling us to copy ourselves. But that still leaves us with a curious question, how can the same genes that cause a mother to love her child, even to want to take its place on the operating table, lead her to sometimes kill it just seconds after birth? Surely this act of tearing up the copy seconds after it is run off, militates against Pinkers thesis?

The curious answer Pinker gives us is that by killing the newborn child, mothers are performing a kind of ancient "triage:"

"Parental investment is a limited resource, and mammalian mothers must "decide" whether to allot it to their newborn or to their current and future offspring. If a newborn is sickly, or if its survival is not promising, they may cut their losses and favor the healthiest in the litter or try again later on."26

But the mothers like Melissa Drexler and Amy Grossberg who killed their newborns were in no danger of starving, and apparently the babies in both cases were healthy and entirely normal. Why then did they do it? Well, the answer that Pinker gives us is that their genes lead them to believe that they were in the situations that would have lead them to decide to "sacrifice" their children in hunter-gatherer societies back on the savannas of Africa. We must remember that our genes know nothing of adoption, crisis pregnancy centers, suburbia, or the welfare state:

"Natural selection cannot push the buttons of behavior directly; it affects our behavior by endowing us with emotions that coax us toward adaptive choices. New mothers have always faced a choice between a definite tragedy now and the possibility of an even greater tragedy months or years later, and that choice is not to be taken lightly. Even today, the typical rumination of a depressed new mother -- how will I cope with this burden? -- is a legitimate concern."27

So to quote Pinker, "The laws of biology were not kind to Amy Grossberg and Melissa Drexler," but then he goes on to add "and they are not kind to us as we struggle to make moral sense of the teen-agers' actions." But wait, what can Pinker possibly mean by "moral sense?" If our emotions, our relationships, our families, our social structures, even our religious choices are the result of "adaptive choices" made under the influence of "selfish genes" how on earth can such a thing as morality exist? What is its basis and how will this newfound biological insight into our actions affect it?

In the hopes of trying to understand what on earth Pinker can mean by "Morality," let us examine the two cases of infanticide Pinker writes about in his article. Now for the Christian theist, the case is relatively simple, Melissa Drexler, Amy Grossberg, and Brian Peterson are all guilty of murder. This judgment is not based upon the opinion of the believer, the laws of man, or the nebulous and shifting opinions of society, rather it is based upon the Word of God. As the inerrant testimony of the Creator and supreme moral authority the word of God is not merely an opinion but a statement of fact. "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13) is not merely a suggestion, it is a commandment. To disobey it is to commit murder, to sin, and to do that which is immoral. If, as the cases would suggest, these three individuals killed their newborns minutes after delivering them, they all broke this commandment. As we previously discussed, however, Pinker does not believe in God, and feels that religions are simply an excuse for murderous behavior. So the Bible isn't going to have much weight with Pinker as anything other than a book written by primitive men.

Morality then is going to have to based in Pinker's system on something other than a supreme law given by an almighty creator, and judging from the fact that he is working from a presupposition of man's autonomy, and the existence of "brute facts" we can guess that his concept of morality will have little to do with what the bible says is and is not moral. Still, we can be hopeful that their will be some similarities and indeed Pinker begins his article on an "upbeat" note by asking "Killing your baby. what could be more depraved? For a woman to destroy the fruit of her womb would seem like an ultimate violation of the natural order." Obviously he has already departed from Christian theism by speaking of the brute fact of a "natural order" that can be violated, but the sense of depravity, and the awfulness of the act is still palpable present. Our first warning of a major departure occurs in the next sentence, when Pinker introduces a word that is probably unfamiliar to the average reader "neonaticide." Why, when we are obviously talking about infanticide, would Pinker bother to use such an obscure term? We find the answer to this question further into the article when Pinker tells us "Phillip Resnick, found that mothers who kill their older children are frequently psychotic, depressed or suicidal, but mothers who kill their newborns are usually not. (It was this difference that led Resnick to argue that the category infanticide be split into neonaticide, the killing of a baby on the day of its birth, and filicide, the killing of a child older than one day. )"28

So then Pinker apparently agrees with Resnick's discrimination because he is eager to use the term, but what are the implications of agreeing to make this discrimination other than our conclusions regarding the mental state of the mother and the age of the infant in question? Pinker gives us the answer to that question a little later in the page:

"Several moral philosophers have concluded that neonates are not persons, and thus neonaticide should not be classified as murder. Michael Tooley has gone so far as to say that neonaticide ought to be permitted during an interval after birth. Most philosophers (to say nothing of nonphilosophers) recoil from that last step, but the very fact that there can be a debate about the personhood of neonates, but no debate about the personhood of older children, makes it clearer why we feel more sympathy for an Amy Grossberg than for a Susan Smith."29

Apparently Pinker wants to use the term "Neonaticide," because "several moral philosophers" (again Pinker conveniently omits to name them) "have concluded that neonates are not persons," and by his very use of the term it would seem that Pinker believes that these Moral Philosophers have a point. Pinker confirms this elsewhere in the article; "It seems obvious that we need a clear boundary to confer personhood on a human being and grant it a right to life" he says and then points out that "To a biologist, birth is as arbitrary a milestone as any other. Many mammals bear offspring that see and walk as soon as they hit the ground. But the incomplete 9-month-old human fetus must be evicted from the womb before its outsize head gets too big to fit through its mother's pelvis. The usual primate assembly process spills into the first years in the world. And that complicates our definition of personhood."30 To complicate the already complicated issue further Pinker asks "What makes a living being a person with a right not to be killed?" and then helpfully points out "No, the right to life must come, the moral philosophers say," (again Pinker fails to name these mysterious moral philosophers) "from morally significant traits that we humans happen to possess. One such trait is having a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals and connects us to other people. Other traits include an ability to reflect upon ourselves as a continuous locus of consciousness, to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death and to express the choice not to die. And there's the rub: our immature neonates don't possess these traits any more than mice do."31

So it would seem that according to Pinker we have good reason to believe these Neonates, have no more right to be called "persons" than mice do. This is inevitable seeing that, for Pinker, all important distinctions have to have a purely biological basis. While it would appear that nothing is capable of granting us an inherent right not to be killed, or even to be called "persons," other than the successful completion of the "primate assembly process," Pinker still insists on using terms that can't possibly have any meaning in his system, and setting up boundaries that simply appear completely arbitrary. Even in this article he makes the bold declaration "Killing a baby is an immoral act", but the basis for his conclusion is never given and the thrust of the article is to undercut this declaration. Where in human biology do we find a basis for the terms moral and immoral? How does natural selection, apparently the only force capable of designing a human being, provide us with any means of defining these terms?

If we examine the places in Pinker's writing where he specifically addresses ethics we find him moving swiftly from the practice of "Evolutionary Psychology" to pure sophistry.

Pinker obviously understands some of the problems his system creates, he notes that the concept that our genes predispose us to certain actions undercuts any possible basis for "free will and hence moral responsibility"32 In other words, if science certifies that our actions are caused by our "selfish genes" how will we will escape the trap of what Pinker calls "Creeping Exculpation?" This Pinker hopes to do by setting up Science and Morality as "separate spheres of reasoning." But while Science is grounded in Pinker's world on observation, conjecture, and experimentation and is therefore a recapitulation of the "brute facts" of life, ethics is to be grounded on a "idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable."33 This "game" of idealizations includes positing things as truth that Pinker's own theories dismiss as nonsense, namely that people are "free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused." The "game" allows us to come to conclusions that "can be sound even though the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events." Without realizing it, Pinker has reinvented the "double theory of truth" that bedeviled the philosophy and theology of the middle ages. He creates a system of ethics founded on presumptions that his own scientific system says are verifiably false, and then expects people to follow it.

Sadly what Pinker never seems to grasp is that both his ethical and scientific systems are trading entirely on borrowed capital. He frequently uses all manner of phrases in place of the God he seeks to deny, such as "nature", "natural selection" or "Darwinism", all of which he uses as grand forces for producing design. His language is often the language that theists use, but at the critical moment when a theist would invoke the Deity he inserts some neutral force that allows him to maintain his autonomy rather than conceding that the design inherent in the world is a reflection of the fact of the Creator revealed in scripture. It often seems obvious that Pinker sees the prospect of God, made plain by natural revelation, and the gyrations that Pinker goes through to erase him are often baffling. A good example of this occurs in his section on the apparent design inherent in human beings:

"The eye has so many parts, arranged so precisely that it appears to have been designed in advance with the goal of putting together something that sees. The same is true for our other organs. Our joints are lubricated to pivot smoothily, our teeth meet to sheer and grind, our hearts pump blood every organ seems to have been designed with a function in mind. One of the reasons God was invented was to be the mind that formed and executed life's plans. The laws of the world work forward not backwards… What else but the plans of God could effect the teleology (goal-directedness) of life on earth?

Darwin showed what else."34 [emphasis mine]

Pinker's book is brimming with passages like the one above, and each one is a testament to the fact that Pinker presupposes the falsity of Christian theism. He speaks of "laws of the world" and at the same time he denies the only possible giver and foundation for these laws. He admits that there is a "goal directedness" to life on earth and then immediately searches for an alternate solution to the obvious answer that presents itself. The fact of complex design screams at him from every facet of creation, and Pinker sees it as a verification of natural selection, and a proof that God cannot possibly exist. As Andrew Ferguson put it "It is one of the many curiosities of Darwinism that the more the world shows signs of design, the more it disproves a Designer of the world."35

The closing chapter of How the Mind Works is entitled "The Meaning of Life," in it Pinker spends most of his time seeking to remove any lingering doubts the reader might have that there is anything to this Religion business. He has spent his entire book seeing the same things as the Christian theist, and then creating a replacement theology to account for them (I do not say that Pinker sees the "same facts" as he maintains, that the Christian theist sees, because for Pinker all facts are what Van Til called "brute facts"). Pinker's spider is a creature designed by a pagan deity called "natural selection," and as such we may reasonably question if Pinker really understands the spider.

In his final chapter he quotes with approval the words of famous atheist H.L. Mencken, "The Most Common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind." and then goes on to observe that "in culture after culture, people believe that the soul lives on after death…"36 as but one of many examples including the resurrection, and the existence of God of the willingness of people to find comfort in things they "can plainly see are false." His use of this example is especially odd, considering that Pinker had earlier used the universality of fairy tales about evil stepparents as proof that stepparents don't really love their kids. Apparently, the universality of belief in various cultures is only valid if it supports Pinker's own presuppositions.

But Pinker doesn't stop there, he goes on to tell us plainly that "Religion cannot be equated with our higher, spiritual, humane, ethical yearnings (although it sometimes overlaps with them.)"37 Why is this the case? Because, "The Bible contains instructions for genocide, rape, and the destruction of families, and even the Ten Commandments, read in context, prohibit murder, lying, and theft only within the tribe, not against outsiders."38 He then goes on to repeat his mantra about Religions giving us "stonings, witch burnings," etc. and then he quotes Blaise Pascal saying that "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."39

Pinker's answer to why "Religion cannot be equated with our higher, spiritual, humane, ethical yearnings" sounds like a ghostly visit of the Spirit of Atheism Past. It reads like vintage Bertrand Russell, and even suffers from the same fundamental problem as older works such as Russell's "Why I am not a Christian", namely that in condemning the bible for containing "instructions" for things that Pinker supposes are morally reprehensible, he is assuming a system of ethics that can only come from the Bible!

While Pinker claims to be opposed to all religions, his vitriol is reserved almost exclusively for Christianity. Animism he dismisses as silly, but Christian theism he obviously regards as evil. Part of this doubtless springs from a faulty understanding of the bible. Without exception, every time Pinker uses scripture in support of his theories his exegesis of the verse in question is shockingly naďve and often quite simply wrong. As an example of this tendency, witness Pinker's exegesis of Matthew 19:14:

"When Jesus said "Suffer the little children to come unto me," he was saying that they should not go unto their parents."40

One must sadly conclude that Paul's appraisal of the unregenerate mind in Romans 1:18-32 is sadly fitting when applied to the work of Steven Pinker. To paraphrase Paul, one senses from Pinkers writing that he clearly senses God, but he is resolute in his determination to neither glorify him as God nor gives thanks to him. As a result, Pinker's work tells us far less about "How the Mind Works" than it does "How the unregenerate mind of Steven Pinker works."



1      Steven Pinker, “Why They Kill Their Newborns” New York Times Magazine, November 2, 1997
2      Ibid.
3      Gary Bauer, Washington Watch, Vol. 9, Number 3, January 1998
4      Alan Keyes, Focus on the Family, Thursday, November 20, 1997
5      Andrew Ferguson, “How Steven Pinker's Mind Works.” The Weekly Standard, January 12, 1998
6      Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997) 23
7      Ibid.,173
8      Ibid., 4
9      Except perhaps as an idea we create
10    Steven Pinker , “A Matter Of The Soul”  The Weekly Standard, correspondance,  February 2, 1998
11    Pinker, How the Mind Works, 490
12    Ibid., 556
13    Cornelius Van Til, My Creedo, in Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E.R. Geehan (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980) 19
14    Ibid.
15    Pinker, How the Mind Works, 401
16    Ibid., 406
17    Ibid., 401-402
18    Ibid., 421
19    Ibid., 41
20    Ibid., 42
21    Ibid.,433
22    Ibid.
23    Ibid., 488
24    Ibid., 510
25    Ibid., 478
26    Pinker, Why They Kill Their Newborns
27    Ibid.
28    Ibid.
29    Ibid.
30    Ibid.
31    Ibid.
32    Pinker, How the Mind Works, 54
33    Ibid., 55
34    Ibid., 156
35    Ferguson, How Steven Pinker’s Mind Works
36    Pinker, How the Mind Works, 554
37    Ibid., 555
38    Ibid.
39    Ibid.
40    Ibid., 439



 Bauer, Gary. Washington Watch, Vol. 9, Number 3, January 1998
Ferguson, Andrew. "How Steven Pinker's Mind Works." The Weekly Standard, January 12, 1998
Keyes, Alan. Focus on the Family, Thursday, November 20, 1997
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.1997
-----------------. "Why They Kill Their Newborns" New York Times Magazine, November 2, 1997
-----------------. "A Matter Of The Soul" The Weekly Standard, correspondence, February 2, 1998
Van Til, Cornelius. My Creedo, in Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E.R. Geehan. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing co., 1980


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