Rob Riemen: Three years ago we orga­nized a Nexus Conference enti­tled The Triumph of Science.” And we also had peo­ple from the world of a tran­shu­man­ism. And I was fas­ci­nat­ed by the fact that based on a pret­ty pes­simistic view on human nature, they think that due to the tech­nol­o­gy we are hav­ing we should improve human beings with this tech­nol­o­gy because the world is too dan­ger­ous, there are indeed nuclear weapons, and to make sure that the tragedies will not hap­pen we should use new tech­nol­o­gy to improve human nature. What do you think about that?

Steven Pinker: I’m very skep­ti­cal. First of all I’m skep­ti­cal that we need to reengi­neer humans to achieve peace. Canada and the United States have not fought a war since the War of 1812. No one had to reengi­neer Canadians or Americans. The Netherlands and Germany have not fought a war in more than sev­en­ty years. We did not have to genet­i­cal­ly engi­neer the Dutch. There are many changes to our insti­tu­tions and our norms and our ideas that can reduce or elim­i­nate the risks of nuclear war with­out what I con­sid­er a rather quixot­ic attempt to change the course of human evo­lu­tion.

I’m also, on pure­ly sci­en­tif­ic grounds, high­ly skep­ti­cal of the prophe­cy that we will reengi­neer human nature. I think that these pre­dic­tions came dur­ing the brief burst of enthu­si­asm for find­ing the gene for intel­li­gence, the gene for altru­ism, and so on. We now know that there is no such gene.” There are hun­dreds or thou­sands of genes, each of which are incre­ments or decre­ments psy­cho­log­i­cal traits by a tiny amount. To genet­i­cal­ly engi­neer some­one, it’s not a mat­ter of stick­ing in one gene. You’d have to replace thou­sands of genes. We have no idea how to do that. We’re not going to know how to do it any­time soon.

And we also don’t know how many of those genes might lead to an improve­ment in one aspect and a risk in anoth­er aspect. There may be a gene that increas­es your IQ by two-thirds of a point but also increas­es your chances of get­ting brain can­cer or bipo­lar dis­or­der by a third of a point. And it’s going to be a very long time, if ever, until we know how to bal­ance those tiny ben­e­fits and tiny risks mul­ti­plied by hun­dreds or thou­sands of genes. So on pure­ly sci­en­tif­ic grounds I doubt that it’ll hap­pen. And then on his­tor­i­cal grounds I don’t think we need it.

Riemen: What will be your choice, what is it that you think is essen­tial to make sure that, in what­ev­er form, we can save the world?”

Pinker: We have to first of all have an empir­i­cal mind­set. You’re right, there are many hypothe­ses. We have to look to see which ones have made the world bet­ter and which ones have made the world worse. I think the track record of mes­si­ahs is not par­tic­u­lar­ly good. I think there’s an excel­lent rea­son to believe that there’s no such thing as a mes­si­ah and there nev­er will be.

On the oth­er hand, there are some things that do work. International insti­tu­tions like the United Nations has decreased the prob­a­bil­i­ty of war. It has­n’t elim­i­nat­ed war, but it’s made it less like­ly. We have rea­son to believe that trade and cos­mopoli­tanism, the move­ment of peo­ple and ideas, has been a pos­i­tive force. We have rea­son to think that democ­ra­cy has more advan­tages than dis­ad­van­tages. And I think what we have to do is not believe that we can deduce what will make the world bet­ter from first prin­ci­ples and then impose them in full con­fi­dence that we know how the world is going to react. Because we don’t. We’re not that smart. But we real­ly have to look at our past track record, look at the data. What makes peo­ple bet­ter off? What makes peo­ple worse off?

Riemen: Now, the con­fer­ence will be the week­end after the American elec­tions. Will you still say the same things if Mr. Trump will be the next President of America?

Pinker: I think it’s extreme­ly unlike­ly, and all the indi­ca­tors are that he will not be the next pres­i­dent. If he is pres­i­dent, I think that that would be def­i­nite­ly a neg­a­tive devel­op­ment. And there’s no guar­an­tee that all pos­i­tive trends, such as the trend toward tol­er­ance, cos­mopoli­tanism, democ­ra­cy, knowledge-guided decision-making, will con­tin­ue. There are no iron laws that pro­pel the world in a par­tic­u­lar direc­tion. There are con­tin­gent events that are unpre­dictable, so bad things could hap­pen.

How bad could it be? Much depends… That is, if Trump were elect­ed, much depends on how much a sin­gle man can con­trol the entire appa­ra­tus of American gov­ern­ment. Fortunately, American gov­ern­ment has some checks and bal­ances built in. There’s the Supreme Court. There’s the leg­is­la­tures. There’s local gov­ern­ments and state gov­ern­ments. And just the will­ing­ness or reluc­tance of the American peo­ple to go along with par­tic­u­lar poli­cies. So as long as Trump does­n’t become the Führer, or like Mao, with absolute con­trol (and I think that’s that’s unlike­ly), then the worst-case sce­nar­ios prob­a­bly will not hap­pen. But then, Trump being elect­ed is itself a worst-case sce­nario that I think will prob­a­bly not hap­pen.

Riemen: Okay. Thank you very much, Steve Pinker, and we are very much look­ing for­ward to meet you again in Amsterdam.

Further Reference

Nexus Conference 2016, What Will Save the World?”

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.