October 7, 2011 10:52 pm

Photography … with the FT: Steven Pinker

The experimental psychologist talks about his fascination with how the brain processes – and chooses – images

I have just about reached Boston harbour where I am planning to take photos with one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, the Harvard University experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. But as soon we get out of the cab, a pelting rain begins. Frustrated, we turn to the US military for protection. After passing through a security checkpoint, we hop aboard the USS Constitution. First launched in 1797, this tourist destination is still a fully commissioned navy vessel. Descending into its bowels for cover, Pinker can’t help but allude to his new book, which challenges the assumption that the past was a less violent place than the present.

“We are standing upon a ship,” says the Montreal native, who has lived in the US since his graduate days at Harvard in the mid-1970s, “which was used to fight the British in Canada during the war of 1812. Today the very idea of the US waging a war against Canada – or England – would be a joke. It’s not a live option.” According to Pinker, in most regions of the world, trade has replaced armed conflict as the centrepiece of foreign policy. “And many countries have come around to resembling Canada,” he says. “We never had any delusions of national grandeur. After all, we started out as a bunch of loyalists seeking refuge during the American revolution. Our violence largely takes the form of ice hockey.” Indeed, Pinker argues in his book that over the past 5,000 years, global trends on most indices – from murder rates to incidents of domestic violence – point more and more in the direction of peace.

Twenty minutes later, the storm subsides, and we head back up to the deck. Whipping out his camera, Pinker starts to examine the Boston skyline. “Photography is a demanding action sport,” he warns. “The light can change so quickly. I often find myself sprinting so that I can catch the perfect light falling on a photogenic subject.” A self-described “equipment geek”, Pinker totes a Canon with a green lens ring, indicating that it makes use of a technology called diffractive optics. More compact than a traditional zoom lens, this pricey new gizmo captures details just as well. “It’s much easier on the back,” notes Pinker. For his wide-angle shots, he uses something basic. “It’s a fast lens, which means that it lets in more light. Fast lenses are also good for flower and wildlife photography where you want the subject to be sharp and the background to be blurry. The art of photography is all about directing the attention of the viewer.”

Pinker’s favourite hobby, which he enjoys with his wife, the philosopher turned novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, is intimately connected to his day job. He bought his first 35mm camera in 1977, just as he was beginning his doctoral dissertation on how the brain processes visual images. In the 1980s, he tinkered in the darkroom installed in his basement, but he wasn’t entirely in his element. “I’m messy,” he admits. “I spill things. And I’m klutzy. That’s also the reason that I decided not to become a neuroscientist who implants electrodes on to brain parts. I didn’t want my career to hinge on my manual dexterity. My research addresses the software of the brain – the mind’s equivalent of text or image files, if you will – rather than the hardware.”

In 1997, he fleshed out his “computational model of the mind” in How the Mind Works. While finishing this during a sabbatical in Santa Barbara, California, Pinker became passionate about pictures. “It was the perfect environment for landscape photography. I also had plenty of opportunities to capture butterflies and bird life.” The book featured a chapter on visual aesthetics, so Pinker the scientist was still at work as he was clicking the shutter. As an evolutionary psychologist who believes that human traits are adaptive, Pinker is convinced that we are naturally drawn to landscape photos that capture safe, inviting and productive environments where we might be inclined to live.

Photography is a kind of virtual reality, and it helps if you can create the illusion of being in an interesting world

After disembarking, we walk around the Charlestown navy yard. Pinker spots a small green plant next to a hull of a ship dripping with rainwater. Suddenly, he lies down on his stomach à la Robert Capa – the Hungarian war photographer who stands atop Pinker’s personal pantheon of greats. “When taking a picture of a baby or a shore bird, there is a natural tendency just to shoot down, but the result is never as compelling. It is important to make eye contact and commune with the subject. Photography is a kind of virtual reality, and it helps if you can create the illusion of being in an interesting world.” Pinker begins to lament that he didn’t bring along his “heavy artillery.” But his “bazooka” of a fast lens weighs about 6lbs and he drags it out of storage only when heading off to places that are flush with wildlife.

Pinker may have left his weapons at home, but a slew of critics has already begun firing in his direction. As he is well aware, his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature , is laced with arguments that may strike some as inflammatory. “When it comes to the decline of violence, many Islamic countries are behind the curve,” he says. “They have more capital punishment for crimes other than murder and fewer democratic institutions; in addition, war hasn’t gone down [declined] there nearly as much as in the rest of the world.” With violence still affecting the lives of many, he has also been accused of insensitivity. He calls 9/11 “a blip”, claiming that terrorism is less of a problem today than it was in the 1970s. When I ask about the recent London riots, he responds with a question, “But how many people died? Angry mobs breaking shop windows and stealing iPhones aren’t anything like the pogroms or murderous ethnic riots of yesteryear.”

Pinker has attacked the conventional wisdom before. His 2002 tome, The Blank Slate, made the case that a biological theory of human behaviour should replace the reigning environmental one. When I bring up this oppositional tendency, he notes, “I do look for openings where I can overturn popular misconceptions, but unlike Christopher Hitchens, I am neither a contrarian nor a lone heretic. I like to have a significant number of academics watching my back.” Acknowledging that he is not certain that violence will continue to decline, Pinker claims to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist. The dimension he seeks to inject into the dialogue is gratitude for what has gone right.

And one of the things that he thinks we all should be grateful for is the invention of photography. “If you examine medieval woodcuts which depict torture, the scenes look almost comical. But the objective documentation of violence – say, that famous 1972 photo of the naked Vietnamese girl running along the road after being burned – has sensitised us to the human costs of war.”

‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes’ by Steven Pinker is published by Penguin.

Joshua Kendall is author of ‘The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus’ (Putnam)

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