Dr. Michael Lowe, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, studies the psychobiology of eating and weight regulation, eating disorders and social cognition—the empirical study of conscious and unconscious cognitive processing. Lowe’s interest in science extends beyond his research; even if he’s not studying journals, he’s still reading about human nature. DrexelNow spoke twith Lowe about his current reading selection, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.
Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
[The book] is about two things: one is overwhelming evidence that from a deep, historical perspective, the rate of violence in humans has gone down dramatically over the eons. And that’s certainly of interest because most people who are bombarded by the latest reports of violence, atrocities, genocide, etc. would probably assume the opposite.
The second part of the book is about what this might say about human nature and the pacifying influence of civilization. Steven Pinker has written other books about what modern science tells us about human nature and I think he’s using this evidence to counteract any notion of our evolution or genes necessarily predetermining what human societies are capable of. It’s actually a sort of endorsement of the very significant role of nurture.
What made you decide to read this book?
I read Pinker’s previous book, The Blank Slate, which in some ways is a critique of our assumptions about nurture. The most widespread assumption that the public generally has about human nature is some version of the “blank slate”—that we’re born with a blank slate and our experiences then determine what and who we become. In some ways, The Better Angels of our Nature takes violence—a specific topic of huge importance to human civilization—and then illustrates how incredibly important nurture is, especially in relation to what particular kinds of civilizations or political systems we live in.
[Nurture] apparently is the explanation for a dramatic drop in violence. In a way you can see the two books as “book ends” that encapsulate how both nature and nurture are important and how they interact. To say that nurture is important for violence is not to deny that every species brings with it some different degrees of the capacity for violence; he does compare our species with other species, such as chimpanzees, which [can be] quite violent in the wild. But, there are other closely related species (bonobos, for example) that are rarely violent. It is obvious evolutionary background and genetic makeup are also important, but it’s a very nice illustration. You almost need to talk about this in terms of everyday life and everyday examples to fully comprehend it.
So far, has the selection lived up to your expectations? Why or why not?
Yes. I totally admire Pinker. He’s a very careful scholar and one of the relatively rare public intellectuals. He often writes for more popular media—he’s been in Time Magazine, etc.—so he’s both a highly respected scientist but also quite accessible. If there’s one thing our civilization needs, its more knowledge of and understanding of science.