August 10, 2017

Harder, Better, Faster, CRISPR

The dawn of a new age flashed across the news this summer – dateline Oregon: scientists from the US, China and South Korea together had tweaked the genes of a living human embryo to correct ...

The dawn of a new age flashed across the news this summer – dateline Oregon: scientists from the US, China and South Korea together had tweaked the genes of a living human embryo to correct an inherited flaw that has caused heart failure and sudden death in a lot of young athletes.  And so, finally, suddenly we enter the CRISPR age in bio-technology, when human science takes charge of the human genetic lifeline, to fix it here, tune it there, perhaps re-tailor it in useful ways.  We could be doing it soon with hundred-dollar DIY kits, at home. The Chinese are doing it, too.

As the pioneer in the CRISPR breakthrough Jennifer Doudna says: we have the ability now to edit the DNA of every living person and future generations, too.  “In essence,” Doudna writes, it means the power “to direct the evolution of our own species.”  “Unprecedented in the history of life on earth,” she adds, “beyond our comprehension,” and raising “impossible but essential” questions for which as individuals and as a species, we are “woefully unprepared.”  Jennifer Doudna’s colleague at UC-Berkeley, Michael Eisen starts off our conversation this week. He’s a genetic biologist — who works mainly on fruit flies — and a member of the Berkeley team that epically battled against the MIT-Harvard-Broad Institute faction, over patent claims on CRISPR and its applications.  Online, Michael Eisen has eloquently argued against the whole idea of patenting a public resource.

Ben Mezrich who dreamed up “The Social Network” about the making of Facebook and the IT billionaire class. He has a new block-buster in book form, soon to be a movie called “Woolly,” about the mammoth last seen as the Ice Age melted down. The human hero of the story is George Church —  the giant Harvard biologist who means to revive the woolly mammoth with its DNA and his own CRISPR tools. Imagine Indiana Jones in Jurassic Park. 

 

Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA: “The Crossroads of the Biotech World”

Antonio Regalado is a key journalist on the CRISPR beat, a minute-to-minute reporter online for the Tech Review, which is owned and managed by MIT.  Among the levels of his CRISPR coverage: the science, the people who do it, the motivations and the money. He tells us:

People are getting rich. In the case of the CRISPR companies, I can see how many shares the scientific founders from around Cambridge have and the amounts are large: eight, nine million, ten million dollars. And yet when I interact with the scientists themselves—George Church, for instance with his sort of lumpy shoes, you know, does money motivate him? He doesn’t act like it. So I think fundamentally I’ve got to believe that people are motivated by the fact that they’re discovering stuff and the glory and that is worth more than the money. But I might be naive.

There are agitated voices inside biology and outside it who want to be heard in the CRISPR conversation, and we invited two of them to speak up. Robert Pogue Harrison is humanities professor, a Dante specialist, at Stanford who podcasts on a great variety of civilized subjects.  Earlier this summer when the Templeton Foundation brought the superstars of CRISPR world to a weekend retreat in California, Robert Harrison was invited to sit in alongside George Church of Harvard and Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley, and speak for the long philosophical and moral view of a scientific revolution. On the phone this week Professor Harrison told us he came away from that meeting more perturbed than he went in. What struck him most was the widespread sanguinity among the scientists.  Under the azure Californian sky, CRISPR-potentiated nightmare scenarios seemed impossible to imagine:

My sense was that most of the people there felt or at least pretended to feel assured that as long as we all remain reasonable as long as we all put our minds together and make informed decisions about CRISPR’s use that everything’s going to be fine. I would have preferred more discussion of the potentially destructive and even catastrophic risks that such a technology introduces into the biosphere.

 

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office

Ting Wu leads a genetic biology lab at the Harvard Medical School. And she’s married to her most famous colleague George Church, with whom she has had running debates morning and night for most of 30 years.  In her office this week we asked her to draw some lines she argues over with her husband. She told us: “I am not a line drawer.”  Rather, she’s more of a potentialist — a firm believer that the happiness of future descendents will be largely determined by our willingness to allow for a panoply of personal genetic expressions.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

Podcast • August 11, 2016

Apocalypse Now?, Part 2: A Remade Man

Our apocalypse series began one week ago with one grim vision of the future. What if our machines managed to take control of their own code? If they began to self-regulate, even self-replicate? It’s an imaginable scenario—but ...

Our apocalypse series began one week ago with one grim vision of the future. What if our machines managed to take control of their own code? If they began to self-regulate, even self-replicate? It’s an imaginable scenario—but one that’s still far off in the future.

But it sounds familiar in the biotech capital of Boston/Cambridge. Messing with our own code: that’s exactly what we human machines are up to, right now and more and more, in labs across this city and around the world. Thanks to a number of scientific breakthroughs—in particular, the editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9—have made possible the manipulation of multiple genetic “sites,” in the service of eliminating genes that harm or hinder—or even to introduce genes that remake, strengthen, and speed up the species, or big parts of it.

The science-minded animators at Kurzgesagt have taken on CRISPR, and why it is being treated as a kind of genetic Holy Grail—or point of no return:

This show is prompted by the incredible pace of progress, and also by some fretting about what the unlocking of the genome might do. We’re inspired to live alongside George Church, the super-confident Harvard scientist behind some of CRISPR’s wildest possibilities: including reprogramming or ridding the world of malarial mosquitoes, reversing aging, and rescuing the woolly mammoth from extinction.

george-church-headshot-copy-1200xx4234-2386-0-0

Church—bearded, striking—knows he’s presiding over a revolution, and speaks, to be fair, in terms of numerous safeguards against the apocalyptic possibilities.

But our guests, writer/physician Siddhartha Mukherjee and the philosopher Michael Sandel, remind us that tomorrow’s biotechnology will have an almost unimaginable capacity to surprise, that there may be Robert Oppenheimers among the genetic Edisons.

Mukherjee refers us to the 1905 prophesy of the Mendelian biologist William Bateson, who said:

“The science of heredity will soon provide power on a stupendous scale; and in some country… that power will be applied to control the composition of a nation.”

That may mean the revival of eugenics on a 21st-century, pay-to-play model. Does that make it OK?

Sabeti_KS_049

We close with Pardis Sabeti, the biologist at the center of the Ebola fight of 2014. That wasn’t an apocalypse, but it was a serious cataclysm: a horrifying, hemorrhagic virus attacking a third-world healthcare system and against, for too long, global sluggishness and indifference. Sabeti says she works by day and worries at night on the prospect of a manmade superbug—Ebola set loose in the air.

Sabeti’s lab at the Broad Institute, like George Church’s, is full of brilliant postdocs pipetting solvents, running centrifuges, all in the service of reading and writing genomes. But in some ways, she’s playing a prudent, even heroic kind of defense to the bioengineers’ offense: trying to make the virus extinct, but without any concept of transhumanism.

Sabeti paid tribute to Dr. Sheikh Humarr Khan, who finally died of Ebola after months of tireless work with more than 80 infected patients at Kenema Government Hospital. If there’s to be hope of global readiness for a biopocalypse—a dreadful attack on human bodies, exploiting weaknesses in our genes or in our governments—it’s going to hang on ordinary human hands and hearts, like Dr. Khan’s.

ebola_doctor-videoSixteenByNine1050

Watch our guest Siddhartha Mukherjeeauthor of The Gene, discuss the genetic theater of the Rio Olympics:

October 8, 2015

Demonic Males

What if Barack Obama — once a troubled young man, by his own admission — came to see the violence problems vexing the end of his administration, as male problems?One week after Christopher Harper Mercer killed nine ...

What if Barack Obama — once a troubled young man, by his own admission — came to see the violence problems vexing the end of his administration, as male problems?

One week after Christopher Harper Mercer killed nine people and himself at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, we’re working toward a different viewpoint on the crisis.

And it is a crisis: a recent CRS report found that between 1999 and 2013 in America, there have been 314 mass shootings that have claimed more than 1,500 lives. As for the killer, there’s a type: 98% of them were committed by men — the average age is 28. And as violent crime drops, this kind of killing is on the rise according to research done at Harvard:

shootingsSince2011-mfms11

When we think about mass killings, we think of Dylann Roof’s massacre in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic killing spree in Santa Barbara. James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theater, and Adam Lanza killed 26 in an elementary school. We call them ‘loners’ living on the internet, amateur extremists. Sometimes they’re mentally ill, sometimes they’re enabled by a promiscuous gun culture akin to idolatry. (Meanwhile, there are Chicago neighborhoods with homicide rates higher than those in Honduras, the murder capital of the world.)

But what if we claimed them as sons, of our families, our country, our sex (for 49% of us), and of our species? That’s where our guest Andrew Solomon, the writer and psychologist, begins in his book, Far From The Tree. He has embedded with several of the families of mass shooters — first with Tom and Sue Klebold, then with Peter Lanza, father to the Newtown killer:

Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia, points out that many young men are asocial and unhappy, spend too much time online, become video-game addicts—but cause no harm. The few dangerous ones are impossible to identify. “Even if we knew who they were or were likely to be, whether they’d actually accept treatment is an open question. Among the hardest people to engage in treatment are young males who may be angry, suspicious, and socially isolated. Coming to a therapist’s office for an hour a week just to pour their heart out doesn’t seem like a particularly attractive opportunity, in general.”

Solomon writes up the element of mystery in the personal decision to commit violence, and still acknowledges the trends. You can hear a longer version of our conversation with him here:

The mass shooting is a distinctly American phenomenon, so much so that The Onion has made a dark, running joke of it. But the male pattern applies elsewhere: Åsne Seierstad once told us the story of Norway’s resident mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, a 33-year-old Warcraft obsessive who became the deadliest of them all one day in 2011.

Meanwhile, the average of the 9/11 hijackers was 26, Latin America is overrun by young men in gangs, and ISIS has welcomed 30,000 new recruits — mostly angry young men drawn down from Europe, Asia, and the countries of the Persian Gulf.

The primatologist Richard Wrangham will take us back to our origins, to the moment in evolutionary history when what he calls “demonic males” emerged in our hominid ancestors. We still see troops of male chimps launch bloody territorial ambushes. What should we see in that other world?

So with Solomon, Wrangham, doctor-anthropologist Melvin Konner and sociologist Michael Kimmel, we’ll ask whether the roots of our violence lie in our genes, our guns, or our guys — and what we can do to pacify the unfair sex.

June 11, 2015

The Pope and the Planet

Habemus problem! In an encyclical letter due next week, Pope Francis himself will intervene in the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face."

A week before the big release, this show had us excited about Pope Francis’s full-throated challenge to the status quo — the text in full of Laudato Si is now available on the Vatican’s website. But what he’s challenging (behavior that turns Creation, more and more, into “an immense pile of filth”) ended up sounding a lot like our guest Sally Weintrobe‘s psychoanalytic scolding of the wasteful parts of humanity:

It doesn’t go deep enough to say that this is a problem with capitalism. It’s a much, much older problem, the problem of the fantasy of the inexhaustible breast: that the earth is really a kind of a breast/toilet that provides endlessly in an ideal way and then receives all our waste. So I think the human race is being encouraged to grow up.

Meanwhile, our guest Naomi Oreskes got the celebrity-lightning-rod treatment in The New York Times — read more here.

16ORESKESCOVER-master675


Habemus problem!

In an encyclical letter, Pope Francis himself will intervene next week on the global story of climate change, bringing scientific and moral authority into alignment. The Pope will argue that human beings and high-tech capitalism have “slapped” nature and all creation “in the face.”

Trade deals and drilling permits are booming while the Kyoto spirit limps along. No wonder world leaders, eco-crusaders, and atheist scientists are all so hungry for some Good News. It’s time to kick the climate problem upstairs, but can a letter from Rome change things?

We’ll be speaking to Naomi Oreskes, who’s advising the Vatican on climate and turning scientific knowledge into a political message. Her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt indicted the tactics that oil companies cribbed from the tobacco titans and became a film phenomenon last year. As with tobacco smoke and acid rain, science isn’t enough to win an argument against opponents with a modest but dangerous specialty: getting people to question certain unpleasant realities.

Sally Weintrobe, our psychoanalyst of climate change, will put late capitalism on the couch and explain why we’re so eager to ignore the real world of droughts, floods, and our own climate change complicity. Dr. Weintrobe says a little more climate guilt is what we need in the global North, and maybe that’s where the church comes in.

But Francis is expected to take us back to bigger ideas than guilt. Awe of creation and care for “the least of these,” are the old values that welcome (even prefigure) the most complicated climate science. Dorothy Boorse, a biologist who combines love of nature with love of God — and who’s been pitching American evangelicals on climate as a moral issue for years — will let us in on a faith-science alliance that’s well underway and ready to save all of us gas-guzzling sinners.

We hear the most bracing telling, not in the skeptical speeches of Rick Santorum, even, but in the doomsaying of Paul Kingsnorth, a former eco-activist who has lost his faith in the ability of people to change. Here he is on the broken myths of our society too late to change:

Tell us: are you waiting to hear what the pope has to say about the environment and justice next week? And what will it take to move the needle toward real collective action on climate matters?

Podcast • October 4, 2014

Jeremy Grantham: In a Climate of Risk

Jeremy Grantham is a Boston financier who has found himself in the thick of the fight over climate change for more than twenty years. He’s the founder and chief strategist of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo, or GMO, which manages ...

Jeremy Grantham is a Boston financier who has found himself in the thick of the fight over climate change for more than twenty years. He’s the founder and chief strategist of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo, or GMO, which manages $112 billion in assets.

When we spoke to him in his Rowes Wharf office, overlooking Boston Harbor, Grantham calls himself a “scatterbrained” investor working with a third-rate education. If, after raising the alarm loudly and very early about the catastrophic market bubbles of 1999 and 2008, he’s become one of America’s most prominent financial strategists, it’s a tribute to natural patience and a conservatism that he chalks up to a Yorkshire childhood and a Quaker grandfather. But Grantham’s also glad to carry weight in the world of feverish investment. His quarterly letters have become must-reads, offering a warier look, going deeper into the future, than one usually finds on Wall Street. (His latest is here.)

Grantham discovered the fragility and beauty of the natural world on family trips into old and ravaged forests of the Amazon basin and Borneo. Now his family foundation is engaged in a farsighted effort to fight climate-skeptical “propaganda” with propaganda of its own: funding change-now messages from groups like Bill McKibben’s 350.org, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund. It’s the “race of our lives”, he wrote: against short-term psychology and an entrenched fossil-fuel economy. Grantham is troubled by the long odds, but still he’s trying to draw money and mass attention to an existential risk — before it’s too late to do anything about it. Call it the biggest short.

Photo credit: Remco Bohle.

September 30, 2014

Hacking Climate Change

Can we hack our way toward solutions for climate change? While governments dither, Congress negates and the world warms, how about deploying private finance, atmospheric chemistry and every kind of ingenuity to tackle the problem that’s too big to solve?

Can we hack our way toward solutions for climate change? While governments dither, Congress negates and the world warms, how about deploying private finance, atmospheric chemistry and every kind of ingenuity to tackle the problem that’s too big to solve?

Political and economic change has been slow in coming for lots of reasons. ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Shell alone spend tens of millions of dollars per year lobbying to protect oil and gas concerns and to question the climate consensus.  The fault may lie, as Naomi Klein claims in her big new book, with a capitalist economy that favors short-term, non-disruptive fixes and that runs on fossil fuels.  But it may also lie in our brains: we might be hardwired to ignore complicated, slow-moving, author-less threats — and to choose problems like ISIS instead.

But there’s change in the wind. More than 300,000 people marched down 6th Avenue in New York to encourage world leaders to do something. Everyone from the Rockefellers to the World Council of Churches are divesting from fossil fuels (though Harvard President Drew Faust has declined). If we’re coming to realize that climate change is the ultimate big-tent issue, what kind of solutions should we be proposing? What’s the agenda of the new environmental movement?

We’re staying positive and summoning all hands on deck: scientists and engineers, activists and capitalists, pastors and atheists. What will it take to tackle carbon?

Podcast • September 12, 2014

The End of the Lone Genius

Joshua Wolf Shenk's new book, completely fascinating and a safe indoor sport for any number of parlor players, is called Powers of Two. The core idea is that the creative spark that rules our lives — in music, comedy, sports, even scientific discovery — is not a single flame, it’s almost always pair of creators sparking off each other. Whether you’re talking about Watson and Crick, Gilbert and Sullivan, Bird and Magic, or the Wright Brothers—it takes two.


Joshua Wolf Shenk’s new book, completely fascinating and a safe indoor sport for any number of parlor players, is called Powers of Two. The core idea is that the creative spark that rules our lives — in music, comedy, sports, even scientific discovery — is not a single flame, it’s almost always a pair of creators sparking off each other. Whether you’re talking about Watson and Crick, Gilbert and a Sullivan, Bird and Magic, or the Wright Brothers—it takes two.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two

These pairs fall into several archetypes, Shenk says, including “the dreamer and the doer.” Such a pair might be the ideal-driven tech entrepreneur Steve Jobs and the practical-minded engineer Steve Wozniak. Or there’s “the liquid and the container,” typified by John Lennon and Paul McCartney—a boundlessly energetic, Dionysian creator brought down to earth by a more ordered character.

Writers are no exception to the model. Even Emily Dickinson, famously secluded in her later life, found in her sister-in-law a creative influence second only to Shakespeare, she wrote, and named Thomas Wentworth Higginson as her preceptor. Creative pairs are everywhere.

Even so, what Shenk calls “the myth of the lone genius” persists in Western culture.

One reason is that lone heroes tend to make good story subjects; profile writers and biographers can more easily concoct stories around individuals than they can around networks or groups. Also, because of a certain power of two, a reader or listener likes to understand the author as a single entity. “There’s an imagined relationship between an admirer and a hero that is itself a kind of dyad,” Shenk says.

And most importantly, the lone hero is more easily sold. The birth of the lone genius and the rise of capitalism go side by side, Shenk contends. Band members might create a song together, but when the contract comes along, often only one person signs his name as the author.

Shenk attempts to turn the page on the cult of personality. Informed by group psychology and Internet culture, he argues that we must understand creativity as something more than the product of isolated minds. Let’s start by looking at pairs.

This Week's Show • July 31, 2014

The End of Work

The jobless economy: a fully automated, engineered, robotic system that doesn’t need YOU, or me either. Anything we can do, machines can do better - surgery, warfare, farming, finance. What’s to do: shall we smash the machines, or go to the beach, or finally learn to play the piano?

robotic_surgery_table

Guest List:

The jobless economy: a fully automated, engineered, robotic system that doesn’t need YOU, or me either. Anything we can do, machines can do better – surgery, warfare, farming, finance. What’s to do: shall we smash the machines, or go to the beach, or finally learn to play the piano?

First, some numbers.

There’s a trend in the economy that came up big in our show on Thomas Piketty’s inequality tome. Between 2000 and 2014, the median U.S. income has actually dropped: from $55,986 to $51,017. Over the same period corporate profits have more than doubled. The workforce participation rate in May of this year was 62.8%, the lowest since 1978. The level of investment in equipment and software bounced back to 95% of its historical peak just two years after the same recession that trashed all the jobs that have been so slow to come back.

One of the questions of that inequality story — big gains at the top, stagnation (or worse) at the middle and bottom — is how much is owed to the technology part of the capital, and really the automation of jobs formerly held by human beings. We know that the number of American ‘routine jobs’ dropped by 11 percent between 2001 and 2011. And a new study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University suggest that 47% of U.S. jobs might be vulnerable to loss by automation, with telemarketers, sewers, watch repairers, umpires, models, and cooks likeliest to go.

We start the conversation there, at what McAfee and Brynjolfsson call the “Great Decoupling,” the possibility that machines are beginning to destroy more jobs than they can create (in the short term, at least).

A Syllabus

• We’re watching two things this week: “King Joe,” a weird, half-hearted, casually racist cartoon about the dream of a technologized workforce, and the long, terrific Adam Curtis doc All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace… on Ayn Rand and the utopian dream of computers, named for the terrific Brautigan poem.

• The great work theorist Peter Frase has taken on four futures, utopian and dystopian, contained within the move to automation. (He’s turning it into a book!)

• George Saunders contributed a story to Chipotle to bring on their bags hoping for an end to work:

Note to future generations: Still have “bosses”? Bosses still intrusive? Still have “offices”? Future offices = high tech? All you have to do to raise temperature is think, “Raise temperature in office,” computer does? People move from place to place on invisible air-cars? People think: “AirCar, take me to Copy Room,” soon are soundlessly proceeding to Copy Room? Except there is no Copy Room, because paper obsolete, all documents projected on to screen inside brain? Sometimes, for prank, future person sends ton of random copies into brain of friend, friend cannot walk/see, has to feel way to AirCar, say: “AirCar, take me to Frank’s cubicle, am going to kill Frank for flooding my brain with random copies.” In your (future) time, boss can just stay in own (plush) office, nosing into what (excellent, responsible) worker might be writing in own spare time? Worker can send boss mental message: If you are so smart, Mr. Kenner, why branch shrinking, why did you have to lay off Jerry Ringer?

Jerry = good guy. Really miss Jerry. Jerry = dear friend. People still get fired in future? Even person with new baby? Hope not. Hope that, in future, all is well, everyone eats free, no one must work, all just sit around feeling love for one another.

• We think we’ve got a problem, but automation trouble looms largest in the developing world. Countries around the world have universally risen through a ‘sweatshop phase,’ a time-delayed industrialization. Foxconn, the famous producer of Apple products, is automating millions of those gateway Chinese jobs. And our guest Andrew McAfee gives the example of Nike:

 Nike’s successive sustainability reports reveals that the company used 106,000 fewer contract employees around the world in 2013 than 2012 (a greater than 9% drop), even as both profits and revenues increased by 16% and 5%, respectively.

What would you do in a world without work? Leave us a message here.

Comp_title

April 17, 2014

What Do We Make of The Big Bang?

In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths to come to grips with the beginning of everything? So we're clearing the deck to listen to wisdom of the physicists: where did we come from, what are we made of, what happens next, and why? And what do we do with what we're learning?

Antarctica: South Pole Telescope

Guest List

Prof. Alan Guth, the theoretical physicist at MIT who predicted cosmic inflation more than thirty years ago;
Prof. Max Tegmark, at MIT, the specialist on the cosmic microwave background;
Prof. Robert Kirshner, the observer-physicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Clowes Professor of Science.

 

In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths, and the matters of the day, to come to grips with the beginning of everything? We’re clearing our heads to listen to the wisdom of the physicists, in their words and images, to get to the bottom of some pretty basic questions.

Our “Top Ten” Questions:

1. Where did it all come from?
2. Where is it going?
3. What is it made of?
4. What is driving it all?
5. How big is it?
6. How will it all end?
7. What is real?
8. How do we know?
9. Where do we come into it?
10. Is there any meaning to it?

guth

A page from Alan Guth’s 1979 notebook, in which he theorizes cosmic inflation

 

From the Archives • March 10, 2014

Steve Pinker’s “Better Angels”: Dodging Our Own Bullet?

Steven Pinker has written a game-changer on the little matter of how quickly humanity is headed for hell or redemption.Better Angels is a tour de force in 700 pages of dense, witty prose, distilling and explaining the ever-steeper downward trends in battle-deaths, state executions, murder, rape, wife-beating and child-spanking, among others things.

 

Steven Pinker has written a game-changer on the little matter of how quickly humanity is headed for hell or redemption. The short form of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is that we’re on the verge of Liebniz‘s (and Candide‘s) “best of all possible worlds.” Much more than that, Better Angels is a tour de force in 700 pages of dense, witty prose, distilling and explaining the ever-steeper downward trends in battle-deaths, state executions, murder, rape, wife-beating and child-spanking, among others things. “Interesting if true” was my instinctive newspaper-guy response. After a month’s immersion, and this conversation, I’m staggered and stunned, avid for the new Enlightenment.

In William James Hall, high above Harvard Yard, Steve Pinker is setting his own conclusions in the context of intellectual forbears and peers in this field of violence and human progress.

Among them:

” …the survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring… Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us.”

William James: Oration at the unveiling of the Robert Gould Shaw memorial in Boston to the all-black 54th Regiment of the Union Army. May 31, 1897.

“History is a bath of blood. The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed… Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen…

Having said thus much in preparation, I will now confess my own utopia. I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity…

William James: The Moral Equivalent of War. 1906

I like to think that William James would appreciate the argument of the book, which is, despite the fact that there is such a thing as human nature, despite the fact that we have plenty of ugly, violent impulses inside us, it is perfectly possible to set up a world in which those impulses don’t actually emerge as violent behavior. This is because human nature is a complex system, it has many parts, and among them are a faculty of empathy, a faculty of reason, a faculty of self-control.

I call William James the first evolutionary psychologist. He was indebted to Darwin and he made no bones about the fact that we come from ancestors who had to prevail in constant contests of bloodshed, and so we have violent urges. Nonetheless, James was certainly an optimist in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” arguing that it is certainly possible to set up institutions that would minimize war. And I like to think that a hundred years after his death he is being vindicated. Now of course, if he had lived ten years longer, if he had lived 35 years longer, he would have found this hard to believe, because the two world wars are a rude interruption in humanity’s movement towards non-violence. But if he had held on just a little bit longer, he would see that we are living through an era now in which it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that war is going out of style.

Steven Pinker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 2, 2011

“… the ultimate symbols of the [20th] Century are not space probes and computers but gas chambers and Hiroshima. The slaughter in the two world wars, the pogroms, the various holocausts starting with the Armenian and Jewish ones and ending with the Cambodian and the Rwandan, the Stalinist terror, the carpet bombings and the fire bombings in various wars — they all constitute a rather impressive performance. Twentieth-century science may have produced many wonderful discoveries and miracles, but the gas chambers and the mushroom clouds remain its most resilient symbols.”

“… change is now infecting the cultures of societies eager to mimic the societies they consider more wealthy, powerful and successful, possessing the ‘normal’ pathologies that go with success, including high levels of everyday violence. The rise in violence in a number of Indian cities has in recent years been spectacular. The South Asian euphoria over the nuclear tests, however short-lived and however limited in geographical spread, can also be read as an example of the same story of brutalisation and necrophilia. It reflects not merely deep feelings of inferiority, masculinity-striving and parity-seeking, but also a certain nihilism and vague, almost free-floating genocidal rage.”

Ashis Nandy, “Violence and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Time Warps, 2002.

Among my questions here: How are we to categorize the violence of poverty in a half-hungry world? How do we calculate the risk of a single nuclear attack that could smash the conceit of better living through science? In American popular culture, what does Steve Pinker make of the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and the decline of boxing? In George Carlin’s sainted name, what about the rise of TV football and the decline of daylight baseball — where the object of the game is to “be safe, at home!”?

Has Steve Pinker been watching the Republican presidential debates — the whooping and hollering for the death penalty, Texas-style, and the Get Your War On rhetoric pointed at Iran, the Arab world, even Hugo Chavez and Venezuela? Of course he’s been watching — “I share the revulsion” — because he watches everything. “The crazies have all crashed and burned and probably the survivor, Mitt Romney, hell, he was our governor in Massachusetts. A lot of the sound and the fury coming out of the right, I think, is in part a reaction to the fact that they keep losing. Go back to the sixties; what the liberals were in favor of then, the conservatives take for granted now: racial integration, women in the workforce, women in the military, no spanking of children, toleration of gay people.”

Does robot warfare by predator drones fit a pattern of progress? “It’s a great advance. I can’t say I’m a fan exactly, but compared to carpet bombing, it’s a fraction of the deaths, a great advance.”

How, on this steep downward slope of human violence, do we explain that the United States — in one of those imperial fits of absent-mindedness — slipped into an immeasurably destructive $5-trillion war in Iraq, then Afghanistan and — who knows? — maybe tomorrow Pakistan?

By a lot of these measures, the United States is not at the vanguard of enlightenment. The United States is a bit of a laggard, and of course the Iraq war was famously opposed by France and Germany, some of our closest allies, and there was some considerable opposition in this country. It’s a little misleading to concentrate on the United States, because the United States is a bit in the rearguard of this.

Even then, the actual Iraq war itself, was by historical standards a far less destructive war than earlier wars — like Vietnam, Korea, Iran/Iraq, Russians in Afghanistan — in terms of the number of people that it killed. Interestingly, it’s now been eight-and-a-half years, and it might be the last of the old-fashioned wars, where two national armies fight each other on the battlefield. There’s a sense in which it didn’t lead to permanent war; this may have been the last gasp.

Steven Pinker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 2, 2011

It’s a main premise of Steve Pinker’s science that, as he says, “You have to have a quantitative mindset to understand history.” My last question: what if not all our critical measures are quantitative?