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Steven Pinker Receives Humanist Award

The Past, Present, and Future of Violence
Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, pictured here in 2015.
Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker received the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism at a ceremony administered by the Humanist Hub and the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics Sunday afternoon.

Over 100 people gathered in the Science Center for the ceremony, which recognized Pinker for his scholarly research and publications around themes of humanism.

Pinker, who recently released a book titled "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress," has worked with HCHAA and the Humanist Hub for years.

Jeyna Doshi ’20, President of HCHAA, said Pinker is a long time friend to both organizations, having introduced the first Cultural Humanism award twelve years ago.

The Harvard Square-based Humanist Hub and the undergraduate organization HCHAA both aim to bring together atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious individuals around the philosophy of Humanism.

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Humanist Chaplain Greg M. Epstein, who hosted the event, defined Humanism similar to the way Pinker defined the philosophy in his recent book.

“The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism,” he said.

Pinker said he drew heavily from enlightenment philosophy for his new book, praising the idea that we can “use knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”

In an hour-long presentation after receiving the award, Pinker outlined four themes of enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Optimism about our time pervaded Pinker’s presentation.

Seeking to combat what he called some of his colleagues’ pessimism, Pinker said, “I have discovered that intellectuals hate progress.”

Pinker presented a few of the 75 graphs in his book, showing what he called an upward trajectory of human progress as measured through various metrics. The graphs showed a consistent uptick in GDP per capita, longevity, and prosperity, as well as a decline in war, infant mortality, and violent crime.

Pinker attributed our society’s “gloomier and gloomier” future projections to the nature of news, which “does not cover graduate developments,” and a negativity bias, which he said results in bad news resonating more than good news does.

Pinker is the author of 16 books and has won a number of awards for his work from various organizations including the American Psychological Association and the National Academy of Sciences.

Though he was unable to attend the ceremony, University president-elect Lawrence S. Bacow sent his praise, which a HCHAA member read aloud to the audience. Bacow wrote he has read almost all of Pinker’s books.

“He is a brilliant writer and scholar,” Bacow wrote.

Previous recipients of the award have included Salman Rushdie and the late actress Carrie Fisher.

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