The New York Times has launched a series called Profiles in Science. When I was invited to join the undertaking, I proposed writing about the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. I had run into Pinker at the World Science Festival in June, and he had told me about his next book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which was due out in the fall. In the 800+ page tome, Pinker argues that rates of human violence have been crashing for millennia, and he offers psychological explanations for the fall.
I’ve followed Pinker’s work since I first came across his 1994 book, The Language Instinct. In the wake of the book’s success, he quickly became a leading exponent of evolutionary psychology, coming out swinging against its critics such as Stephen Jay Gould. When Pinker described his book to me, I was intrigued. I wondered how someone who argued that human nature was shaped long ago by natural selection would end up arguing that human nature–or at least human experience–is now changing rapidly for the better. But there were other things I was wondering–how, for example, does a writer of massive books about human nature live inside the same body as an expert on irregular verbs?