Steven Pinker on Disgust, Sex, and Happiness

What are we getting ourselves into when we say that we welcome the insights of science as part of our spiritual appreciation of nature? Scientists, evolutionary psychologists in particular, have some unsettling perspectives on our minds. In my last post I wrote about Stephen Pinker’s 1997 book How the Mind Works and focused on what Pinker says about our genes as the “recipe” for our emotions but not their “puppetmaster.” In this post I’ll look at Pinker’s discussions of a few specific emotions and mental phenomena and at how his approach might complicate as well as clarify our understanding of ourselves.

Disgust and Sex Two strong emotional experiences, disgust and sex, have their source in the evolution of humans since, or even before, early humans branched off from chimpanzees about 7 million years ago. “Disgust is a universal human emotion” (Kindle location 7865), a sign of how thoroughly we are programmed to resist eating any animal parts or products that might contain infectious microorganisms or other toxins. Humans are disgusted by the smell, the sight, or the idea of eating most animals and animal parts. “The nondisgusting animal parts are the exception. …Many Americans eat only the skeletal muscle of cattle, chicken, swine, and a few fish” (7903). Every other animal is a source of contamination. We won’t drink a beverage stirred with a flyswatter, even a new one. We “find a sterilized cockroach every bit as revolting as one fresh from the cupboard.…People won’t eat soup if it is served in a brand-new bedpan….You can’t pay most people to eat fudge baked in the shape of dog feces.” Such reactions are irrational. With rare exceptions, food today is safe. But our bad-meat alarm is still set where it was several million years ago.

Changing the locks.  (

Changing the locks.

As for sex, its function would seem to be straightforward. Not so for Pinker.

Why is there sex to begin with?…Why don’t women give virgin birth to daughters who are clones of themselves instead of wasting half their pregnancies on sons who lack the machinery to make grandchildren and are nothing but sperm donors? Why do people and other organisms swap out half their genes for the genes of another member of the species, generating variety in their offspring for variety’s sake? It’s not to evolve faster, because organisms are selected for fitness in the present. It’s not to adapt to environmental change, because a random change in an already adapted organism is more likely to be for the worse than for the better….The best theory…is that sex is a defense against parasites and pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms). …[Your body’s defenses against germs do evolve, but the germ’s tricks for evading those defenses evolve much faster.] Sexual reproduction is a way of changing the locks once a generation. By swapping half the genes out for a different half, an organism gives its offspring a head start in the race against local germs. (9577)

Pinker’s descriptions of the disease-resistant functions of disgust and sex stretch our imaginations. For some readers the functions he explains may seem meaningless, rooted so far in the past and too far from our conscious experience to make much sense. It is difficult to embrace a scientific insight when it seems to make us strangers to ourselves.

Happiness and Religion Two other areas of emotional experience have thin roots in human evolution but have become important through their role in human culture over the last few thousands years. These are happiness and religion.

Happy moment (

Happy moment

Pinker writes that it might seem at first that happiness serves as an incentive to spur us on to enjoy those conditions that have made us biologically fit: being “healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved” (8097). (I admit this has been my amateur’s view of the adaptive function of happiness.) The trouble is that happiness doesn’t actually kick in for the length of time that we are enjoying any of these conditions. In fact, the longer that such conditions or almost any conditions persist without change, whether they are illness or health, modest income or prosperity, celibacy or marriage, the more likely we are to describe our mood as “content” or “satisfied.” In reality, studies show, we usually describe ourselves as “happy” at those times when we succeed in achieving more than we have already had (a professional reward, a hopefully better spouse) or even when we find out that we are a little better off in some way than those around us. Happiness, rooted in comparison and newness, is, for Pinker, a rather dismal treadmill. Its status has soared in the modern era, so much so that the pursuit of it forms part of our national purpose. But for Pinker, this single bubbly emotion is not cut out to serve as the goal for one’s entire life.

The other emotional and social experience that is a mix of evolution and culture is religion. Religion may have remote roots in such puzzling experiences as dreaming, death, our shadow, and our reflection in water, when the self seems to leave the body. But the complex establishment that is religion has coexisted alongside the nation-state as an alternative culture of laws and customs that has produced great art, powerful social institutions and hierarchies, and methods such as prayer by which desperate people try for success when other attempts at courtship, achievement, or recovery from illness have failed (11439).

While other evolutionary psychologists have different theories about happiness and religion, Pinker sees both topics as ones that people expect too much from and about which science cannot give the upbeat answers that many people are looking for.

Self, Consciousness, and Free Will Finally, in the last pages of the book, Pinker writes about some philosophical puzzles that people have never been able to wrap their minds around fully. These are such phenomena as the self (the “I” that we are so aware of), consciousness (our awareness, and our awareness that we are aware) and free will, (no matter what we’re told, we think we make choices). Solving such philosophical enigmas by referring them to God is, for Pinker, no solution at all.

Too much for the computational mind to handle. Edvard Munch's The Scream (

Too much for the computational mind to handle. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”

Instead, the solution that intrigues him is the possibility that “the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. …Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking” (11570). Such mysteries as the self are holistic phenomena of a kind that does not lend itself to being understood by “the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with” (11639), an apparatus that works methodically from parts to the whole, example to category, cause to effect, subject to predicate. Perhaps we can’t wrap this kind of mind around what seems to be the essential us.

In summary, there are for Pinker emotions that are deeply rooted in our early human period, others that are more historical than evolutionary and that elude a satisfying scientific description, and still other experiences of mind that we may not be capable of fully understanding. All of these may challenge as well as reward the non-scientist looking to science for spiritual insight about people themselves.

Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works”: Emotions and Genes

Many people and spiritual groups say that they include science’s understanding of nature as part of their spiritual outlook on the cosmos. But I think a difficulty here that is underestimated is that science has some unsettling ways of analyzing us humans. It is one thing to accept what science, including evolution, tells us about the universe and the planet Earth. It is another to get comfortable with what evolutionary psychologists say about our moods and psyches.

This problem is not new. Any theory of what makes people tick can draw criticism if it threatens the explanations that we like to give ourselves about why we do what we do. Even among religions, dogma about the power of the deity has had to leave room for some version of individual free will so that believers could feel some self-worth. In psychology, Freud’s concepts of infantile sexuality and the unconscious were more than most early readers could see or accept in themselves.

Then in 1997 along came Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. The book re-stirred the pot of the nature-nurture controversy. I think it is a great book. It comes at you with a barrage of insights and connections about humans and evolution that sometimes feels overwhelming. It does not see you as you almost certainly see yourself. And it doesn’t hurt that it is beautifully written and sometimes laughing-out-loud funny. In this post I’ll discuss a couple of general themes in the book regarding emotions and genes. In the next post I’ll discuss what Pinker has to say about some specific emotions.

For despite the book’s title, Pinker talks more about emotions than about the mind itself. He sees them working together. The mind, he says, is computational: it processes information. Much of the information that it processes is from the body’s biological systems. Humans, Pinker says, are not divided into thoughts and feelings that work against each other. Instead, he argues that

The emotions are adaptations, well-engineered software modules that work in harmony with the intellect and are indispensable to the functioning of the whole mind. The problem with the emotions is not that they are untamed forces or vestiges of our animal past; it is that they were designed to propagate copies of the genes that built them rather than to promote happiness, wisdom, or moral values. We often call an act ‘emotional’ when it is harmful to the social group, damaging to the actor’s happiness in the long run, uncontrollable and impervious to persuasion, or a product of self-delusion. Sad to say, these outcomes are not malfunctions but precisely what we would expect from well-engineered emotions. (location in the Kindle edition: 7688)

So here is good news and bad news. The good news is that our perverse, destructive emotions do not mean that something is wrong with us. The bad news is that emotional acts are more deeply engrained in us than our search for happiness, wisdom, and virtue.

But such an observation about emotion raises another question: just what is the relationship between our genes and us? Are we essentially our genes plus some cultural refinement? Or are we greater than the sum of our genes? Pinker addresses this issue often, here in a discussion of love:

The confusion comes from thinking of people’s genes as their true self, and the motives of their genes as their deepest, truest, unconscious motives. From there it’s easy to draw the cynical and incorrect moral that all love is hypocritical. That confuses the real motives of the person with the metaphorical motives of the genes. Genes are not puppetmasters; they acted as the recipe for making the brain and body and then got out of the way. (8342)

I like the recipe metaphor. As I take it, genes are like the list of the ingredients and the steps for making a cake, but the flavor and texture of the cake out of oven is quite a different thing from that sheet of instructions. We come from, but we are not merely, our genes.

A human "cake" in front of his genetic "recipe"  (

A human “cake” in front of his genetic “recipe”

Pinker bolsters this point by adding that emotions are not as rigid and uniform as their genetic basis would suggest.

Might the software for the emotions be burned so deeply into the brain that organisms are condemned to feel as their remote ancestors did? The evidence says no; the emotions are easy to reprogram. Emotional repertoires vary wildly among animals depending on their species, sex, and age. Within the mammals we find the lion and lamb. Even within dogs (a single species) a few millennia of selective breeding have given us pit bulls and Saint Bernards. (7721)

Emotions may sound more narrowly programmed than they are in part because of the language that we, including Pinker, often use to describe them. Pinker often relies on metaphors that are clarifying and misleading at the same time. A reader may easily misconstrue him when he writes that “emotions were designed” or “well-engineered.” Such shorthand phrases highlight his point that emotions were formed through a series of small, tested steps over the long course of natural selection. But the expressions also give the false impression that all emotions, like television sets, were created in advance in order to achieve specific goals.

Evolutionary psychology holds a new mirror in front of us, with an image made up of modules and systems fine-tuned to an ancient past, an image we may have difficulty recognizing. Our challenge is to understand science’s complex depiction of our minds, emotions and genes at the same time that we continue to ask our uniquely human questions about our lives, deaths, and values.

I’ll look at what Pinker has to say about some specific topics next time.

In the meantime, here is a lively and helpful article about the man, the book, and the debate.

Spiritual Naturalism

The Spiritual Naturalist Society is a young and growing organization with articulate approaches to its religion/philosophy, a broad-minded invitation to reflect on other beliefs and classical philosophies, a network of local chapters, and an effective director in Humanist minister DT Strain. I want to comment on an excerpt from SNS’s thoughtful introduction.

Spiritual Naturalism… is a worldview, value system, and personal life practice. …Spiritual Naturalism sees the universe as one natural and sacred whole .… [It embraces] the rationality and the science through which nature is revealed. It advocates principles and practices that have compassion as their foundation….The focus of Spiritual Naturalism is happiness, contentment, or flourishing in life, and a relief from suffering.



These facets of spiritual naturalism fit together well. They are for the most part consistent with one another and they are an appealing combination. They seem to follow from the starting point that the universe is a natural phenomenon and not a supernatural one. But how they fit together, exactly what the connections are between these values, is not always evident. For me, spirituality calls for an understanding of these connections because they are the building blocks of the larger picture itself that we seek to find our place in.

A physicist (I’m hearing Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory) and many others might find their spiritual connections in the universe as a whole, in the cosmos and its physical foundations. But for the questions I have about life, the entire universe is not a very helpful source. My questions are three: what is my purpose in being alive, what is a moral way to live that suits that purpose, and what consolation is there in the face of death? For those questions the cosmos is too big, I am too small, and, well, the universe is not alive.

What is alive is the evolution and the history of earthly life itself over 3.8 billion years. This is the aspect of nature that resonates most for me, the history of things that twitch and struggle and reproduce and die. So I’ve thought hard about whether and how science’s portrayal of the history of life sheds light on my questions. Could the facts of evolution and biological history tell me anything about my purpose and my values?

The responses that follow are summaries of the topics on this blog. I’ve tried here to highlight the connections between them.

What is the purpose, if there is one, of my being alive? What does the information we have about life on earth tell us about what the purpose and meaning of that life is? Everything follows from this question. If science and nature can not tell us or even suggest anything about the question of human purpose, then there may not be much point in looking to science and nature for inspiration. But if science and nature can give us a clue about our meaning and purpose as humans, then other aspects of a spirituality that is in harmony with science might fall into place. And the clue that I see, right under our noses, is that what every living thing has in common is the effort to stay alive and reproduce. From bacteria to human beings, living things strive non-stop to survive, to thrive, to reproduce, and to avoid suffering—to carry out the continuity that is the essence of being alive. Life’s purpose is being alive and, through biological, societal or creative offspring, remaining “alive” after death. Whether that amounts to a lofty purpose or a disappointing one depends on a person’s viewpoint. But it is valuable to me because, above all, it seems true and because it leads to other observations that are helpful in figuring out how to conduct one’s life.

If the purpose of life is essentially this self-perpetuation, then whether something—an action, a relationship, a goal—is worthy or not depends on how effectively it supports the continuity of lives, our own and others’. Science tells us that organisms survive by pursuing two main strategies. One is competition (including, for humans, envy, greed, and violence), which is necessary at times and tempting much of the time but often leads to suffering and death. The other path is cooperation, pursued by organisms in a variety of ways (including for humans compassion and love) and which, when it is successful, results in survival and flourishing for most of the organisms involved.  Cooperation and its family of positive, harmonious relations with others is on the whole preferable to competition because it leads to less mortality and greater flourishing, the goals of life itself.

The third question is whether there is any consolation to be found for the hard fact that I will die. Here it has not been Darwinian evolution but rather the sheer length of the history of life that has spoken to me. I think often of the “chain of life” made up of one living link interlocked with another over billions of years, the endurance of Dawkins’ selfish genes. I count as my ancestors those who lived not just a few hundred or a few thousand years ago but also those who lived 3.8 billion years ago. That is a stunning heritage for us all. As for near-immortality, the chain of life has not only an incredibly long past but also, one can safely assume, a very long future.

Here then are the connected rungs on my ladder of Spiritual Naturalism, starting from the simple fact of living things, up to the totality and history of life as a something-larger that we can feel a part of, to the drive to stay alive as the purpose that is built in to us, up to the two strategies for survival that form the roots of right and wrong, good and evil. Spiritual Naturalists can embrace nature, rationality, and compassion not only because we value them but because they follow from each other.