Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.
Pinker's academic specializations are visual cognition and psycholinguistics. His experimental subjects include mental imagery, shape recognition, visual attention, children's language development, regular and irregular phenomena in language, the neural bases of words and grammar, and the psychology of cooperation and communication, including euphemism, innuendo, emotional expression, and common knowledge. He has written two technical books that proposed a general theory of language acquisition and applied it to children's learning of verbs. In particular, his work with Alan Prince published in 1989 critiqued the connectionist model of how children acquire the past tense of English verbs, arguing instead that children use default rules such as adding "-ed" to make regular forms, sometimes in error, but are obliged to learn irregular forms one by one.
In his popular books, he has argued that the human faculty for language is an instinct, an innate behavior shaped by natural selection and adapted to our communication needs. He is the author of eight books for a general audience. Five of these, The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Stuff of Thought (2007), describe aspects of the field of psycholinguistics and cognitive science, and include accounts of his own research. In the sixth book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Pinker makes the case that violence in human societies has, in general, steadily declined with time, and identifies six major causes of this decline.
His seventh book, The Sense of Style (2014), is intended as a general style guide that is informed by modern science and psychology, offering advice on how to produce more comprehensible and unambiguous writing in nonfiction contexts and explaining why so much of today's academic and popular writing is difficult for readers to understand. His eighth book, Enlightenment Now (2018), continues the optimistic thesis of The Better Angels of Our Nature by using social science data from various sources to argue for a general improvement of the human condition over recent history.
Pinker has been named as one of the world's most influential intellectuals by various magazines. He has won awards from the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the American Humanist Association. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. He has served on the editorial boards of a variety of journals, and on the advisory boards of several institutions. He has frequently participated in public debates on science and society.
Pinker was born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1954, to a middle-class Jewish family. His parents were Roslyn and Harry Pinker. His grandparents emigrated to Canada from Poland and Romania in 1926, and owned a small necktie factory in Montreal. His father, a lawyer, first worked as a manufacturer's representative, while his mother was first a home-maker then a guidance counselor and high-school vice-principal. He has two younger siblings. His brother Robert is a policy analyst for the Canadian government, while his sister, Susan Pinker, is a psychologist and writer who authored The Sexual Paradox and The Village Effect.
Pinker married Nancy Etcoff in 1980 and they divorced in 1992; he married Ilavenil Subbiah in 1995 and they too divorced. His third wife, whom he married in 2007, is the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein. He has two stepdaughters: the novelist Yael Goldstein Love and the poet Danielle Blau.
Pinker graduated from Dawson College in 1973. He received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from McGill University in 1976, and earned his Doctorate of Philosophy in experimental psychology at Harvard University in 1979 under Stephen Kosslyn. He did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a year, after which he became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford University.
From 1982 until 2003, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, was the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Science (1985-1994), and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (1994-1999), taking a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1995–96. As of 2003, he is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard; from 2008 to 2013 he also held the title of Harvard College Professor in recognition of his dedication to teaching. He currently gives lectures as a visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities, a private college in London.
About his Jewish background Pinker has said, "I was never religious in the theological sense ... I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew." As a teenager, he says he considered himself an anarchist until he witnessed civil unrest following a police strike in 1969, when:
As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike... This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).
Pinker identifies himself as an equity feminist, which he defines as "a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology". He reported the result of a test of his political orientation that characterized him as "neither leftist nor rightist, more libertarian than authoritarian." He describes himself as having "experienced a primitive tribal stirring" after his genes were shown to trace back to the Middle East, noting that he "found it just as thrilling to zoom outward in the diagrams of my genetic lineage and see my place in a family tree that embraces all of humanity".
Pinker also identifies himself as an atheist. In the 2007 interview with the Point of Inquiry podcast, Pinker states that he would "defend atheism as an empirically supported view." He sees theism and atheism as competing empirical hypotheses, and states that "we're learning more and more about what makes us tick, including our moral sense, without needing the assumption of a deity or a soul. It's naturally getting crowded out by the successive naturalistic explanations."
Pinker's research on visual cognition, begun in collaboration with his thesis adviser, Stephen Kosslyn, showed that mental images represent scenes and objects as they appear from a specific vantage point (rather than capturing their intrinsic three-dimensional structure), and thus correspond to the neuroscientist David Marr's theory of a "two-and-a-half-dimensional sketch." He also showed that this level of representation is used in visual attention, and in object recognition (at least for asymmetrical shapes), contrary to Marr's theory that recognition uses viewpoint-independent representations.
In psycholinguistics, Pinker became known early in his career for promoting computational learning theory as a way to understand language acquisition in children. He wrote a tutorial review of the field followed by two books that advanced his own theory of language acquisition, and a series of experiments on how children acquire the passive, dative, and locative constructions. These books were Language Learnability and Language Development (1984), in Pinker's words "outlin[ing] a theory of how children acquire the words and grammatical structures of their mother tongue", and Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure (1989), in Pinker's words "focus[ing] on one aspect of this process, the ability to use different kinds of verbs in appropriate sentences, such as intransitive verbs, transitive verbs, and verbs taking different combinations of complements and indirect objects". He then focused on verbs of two kinds that illustrate what he considers to be the processes required for human language: retrieving whole words from memory, like the past form of the irregular verb "bring", namely "brought"; and using rules to combine (parts of) words, like the past form of the regular verb "walk", namely "walked".
In 1988 Pinker and Alan Prince published an influential critique of a connectionist model of the acquisition of the past tense (a textbook problem in language acquisition), followed by a series of studies of how people use and acquire the past tense. This included a monograph on children's regularization of irregular forms and his popular 1999 book, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. Pinker argued that language depends on two things, the associative remembering of sounds and their meanings in words, and the use of rules to manipulate symbols for grammar. He presented evidence against connectionism, where a child would have to learn all forms of all words and would simply retrieve each needed form from memory, in favour of the older alternative theory, the use of words and rules combined by generative phonology. He showed that mistakes made by children indicate the use of default rules to add suffixes such as "-ed": for instance 'breaked' and 'comed' for 'broke' and 'came'. He argued that this shows that irregular verb-forms in English have to be learnt and retrieved from memory individually, and that the children making these errors were predicting the regular "-ed" ending in an open-ended way by applying a mental rule. This rule for combining verb stems and the usual suffix can be expressed as
Vpast → Vstem + d
where V is a verb and d is the regular ending. Pinker further argued that since the ten most frequently occurring English verbs (be, have, do, say, make ...) are all irregular, while 98.2% of the thousand least common verbs are regular, there is a "massive correlation" of frequency and irregularity. He explains this by arguing that every irregular form, such as 'took', 'came' and 'got', has to be committed to memory by the children in each generation, or else lost, and that the common forms are the most easily memorized. Any irregular verb that falls in popularity past a certain point is lost, and all future generations will treat it as a regular verb instead.
In 1990, Pinker, with Paul Bloom, published the paper "Natural Language and Natural Selection", arguing that the human language faculty must have evolved through natural selection. The article provided arguments for a continuity based view of language evolution, contrary to then current discontinuity based theories that see language as suddenly appearing with the advent of Homo sapiens as a kind of evolutionary accident. This discontinuity based view was prominently argued by two of the main authorities, linguist Noam Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould. The paper became widely cited and created renewed interest in the evolutionary prehistory of language, and has been credited with shifting the central question of the debate from "did language evolve?" to "how did language evolve". The article also presaged Pinker's argument in The Language Instinct.
Pinker's research includes delving into human nature and what science says about it. In his interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast in 2007, he provides the following examples of what he considers defensible conclusions of what science says human nature is:
He informs the listeners that one can read more about human nature in his book, Blank Slate.
Pinker also speaks about evolutionary psychology in the podcast and believes that this area of science is going to pay off. He cites the fact that there are many areas of study, such as beauty, religion, play, and sexuality, that were not studied 15 years ago. It is thanks to evolutionary psychology that these areas are being studied.
Pinker's 1994 The Language Instinct was the first of several books to combine cognitive science with behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology. It introduces the science of language and popularizes Noam Chomsky's theory that language is an innate faculty of mind, with the controversial twist that the faculty for language evolved by natural selection as an adaptation for communication. Pinker criticizes several widely held ideas about language – that it needs to be taught, that people's grammar is poor and getting worse with new ways of speaking, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language limits the kinds of thoughts a person can have, and that other great apes can learn languages. Pinker sees language as unique to humans, evolved to solve the specific problem of communication among social hunter-gatherers. He argues that it is as much an instinct as specialized adaptative behavior in other species, such as a spider's web-weaving or a beaver's dam-building.
Pinker states in his introduction that his ideas are "deeply influenced" by Chomsky; he also lists scientists whom Chomsky influenced to "open up whole new areas of language study, from child development and speech perception to neurology and genetics" — Eric Lenneberg, George Miller, Roger Brown, Morris Halle and Alvin Liberman. Brown mentored Pinker through his thesis; Pinker stated that Brown's "funny and instructive" book Words and Things (1958) was one of the inspirations for The Language Instinct.
The reality of Pinker's proposed language instinct, and the related claim that grammar is innate and genetically based, has been contested by many linguists. One prominent opponent of Pinker's view is Geoffrey Sampson whose 1997 book, Educating Eve: The 'Language Instinct' Debate has been described as the "definitive response" to Pinker's book. Sampson argues that while it may seem attractive to argue the nature side of the 'nature versus nurture' debate, the nurture side may better support the creativity and nobility of the human mind. Sampson denies there is a language instinct, and argues that children can learn language because people can learn anything. Others have sought a middle ground between Pinker's nativism and Sampson's culturalism.
The assumptions underlying the nativist view have also been criticised in Jeffrey Elman's Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development, which defends the connectionist approach that Pinker attacked. In his 1996 book Impossible Minds, the machine intelligence researcher Igor Aleksander calls The Language Instinct excellent, and argues that Pinker presents a relatively soft claim for innatism, accompanied by a strong dislike of the 'Standard Social Sciences Model' or SSSM (Pinker's term), which supposes that development is purely dependent on culture. Further, Aleksander writes that while Pinker criticises some attempts to explain language processing with neural nets, Pinker later makes use of a neural net to create past tense verb forms correctly. Aleksander concludes that while he doesn't support the SSSM, "a cultural repository of language just seems the easy trick for an efficient evolutionary system armed with an iconic state machine to play."
Two other books, How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate (2002), broadly surveyed the mind and defended the idea of a complex human nature with many mental faculties that are adaptive (Pinker is an ally of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in many disputes surrounding adaptationism). Another major theme in Pinker's theories is that human cognition works, in part, by combinatorial symbol-manipulation, not just associations among sensory features, as in many connectionist models. On the debate around The Blank Slate, Pinker called Thomas Sowell's book A Conflict of Visions "wonderful", and explained that "The Tragic Vision" and the "Utopian Vision" are the views of human nature behind right- and left-wing ideologies.
In Words and Rules: the Ingredients of Language (1999), Pinker argues from his own research that regular and irregular phenomena are products of computation and memory lookup, respectively, and that language can be understood as an interaction between the two. "Words and Rules" is also the title of an essay by Pinker outlining many of the topics discussed in the book. Critiqueing the book from the perspective of Generative linguistics Charles Yang, in the London Review of Books, writes that "this book never runs low on hubris or hyperbole". The book's topic, the English past tense, is in Yang's view unglamorous, and Pinker's attempts at compromise risk being in no man's land between rival theories. Giving the example of German, Yang argues that irregular nouns in that language at least all belong to classes, governed by rules, and that things get even worse in languages that attach prefixes and suffixes to make up long 'words': they can't be learnt individually, as there are untold numbers of combinations. "All Pinker (and the connectionists) are doing is turning over the rocks at the base of the intellectual landslide caused by the Chomskian revolution."
In The Stuff of Thought (2007), Pinker looks at a wide range of issues around the way words related to thoughts on the one hand, and to the world outside ourselves on the other. Given his evolutionary perspective, a central question is how an intelligent mind capable of abstract thought evolved: how a mind adapted to Stone Age life could work in the modern world. Many quirks of language are the result.
Pinker is critical of theories about the evolutionary origins of language that argue that linguistic cognition might have evolved from earlier musical cognition. He sees language as being tied primarily to the capacity for logical reasoning, and speculates that human proclivity for music may be a spandrel — a feature not adaptive in its own right, but that has persisted through other traits that are more broadly practical, and thus selected for. In How the Mind Works, Pinker reiterates Immanuel Kant's view that music is not in itself an important cognitive phenomenon, but that it happens to stimulate important auditory and spatio-motor cognitive functions. Pinker compares music to "auditory cheesecake", stating that "As far as biological cause and effect is concerned, music is useless". This argument has been rejected by Daniel Levitin and Joseph Carroll, experts in music cognition, who argue that music has had an important role in the evolution of human cognition. In his book This Is Your Brain On Music, Levitin argues that music could provide adaptive advantage through sexual selection, social bonding, and cognitive development; he questions the assumption that music is the antecedent to language, as opposed to its progenitor, noting that many species display music-like habits that could be seen as precursors to human music.
Pinker has also been critical of "whole language" reading instruction techniques, stating in How the Mind Works, "...the dominant technique, called 'whole language,' the insight that [spoken] language is a naturally developing human instinct has been garbled into the evolutionarily improbable claim that reading is a naturally developing human instinct." In the appendix to the 2007 reprinted edition of The Language Instinct, Pinker cited Why Our Children Can't Read by cognitive psychologist Diane McGuinness as his favorite book on the subject and noted:
One raging public debate involving language went unmentioned in The Language Instinct: the "reading wars," or dispute over whether children should be explicitly taught to read by decoding the sounds of words from their spelling (loosely known as "phonics") or whether they can develop it instinctively by being immersed in a text-rich environment (often called "whole language"). I tipped my hand in the paragraph in [the sixth chapter of the book] which said that language is an instinct but reading is not. Like most psycholinguists (but apparently unlike many school boards), I think it's essential for children to be taught to become aware of speech sounds and how they are coded in strings of letters.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2011, Pinker argues that violence, including tribal warfare, homicide, cruel punishments, child abuse, animal cruelty, domestic violence, lynching, pogroms, and international and civil wars, has decreased over multiple scales of time and magnitude. Pinker considers it unlikely that human nature has changed. In his view, it is more likely that human nature comprises inclinations toward violence and those that counteract them, the "better angels of our nature". He outlines six 'major historical declines of violence' that all have their own socio/cultural/economic causes:
The book was welcomed by many critics and reviewers, who found its arguments convincing and its synthesis of a large volume of historical evidence compelling. It also aroused criticism on a variety of grounds, such as whether deaths per capita was an appropriate metric, Pinker's atheism, lack of moral leadership, excessive focus on Europe (though the book covers other areas), the interpretation of historical data, and its image of indigenous people.
In his seventh popular book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014), Pinker attempts to provide a writing style guide that is informed by modern science and psychology, offering advice on how to produce more comprehensible and unambiguous writing in nonfiction contexts and explaining why so much of today's academic and popular writing is difficult for readers to understand.
In a November 2014 episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast, host Lindsay Beyerstein, asked Pinker how his style guide was different from the many guides that already exist. His answer,
The Thinking Person's Guide because I don't issue dictates from on high as most manuals do but explain why the various guidelines will improve writing, what they do for language, what they do for the reader's experience, in the hope that the users will apply the rules judiciously knowing what they are designed to accomplish, rather than robotically.
Pinker is a frequent participant in public debates surrounding the contributions of science to contemporary society. Social commentators such as Ed West, author of The Diversity Illusion, consider Pinker important and daring in his willingness to confront taboos, as in The Blank Slate. This doctrine (the tabula rasa), writes West, remained accepted "as fact, rather than fantasy" a decade after the book's publication. West describes Pinker as "no polemicist, and he leaves readers to draw their own conclusions".
In January 2005, Pinker defended Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, whose comments about a gender gap in mathematics and science angered much of the faculty. Pinker noted that Summers's remarks, properly understood, were hypotheses about overlapping statistical distributions of men's and women's talents and tastes, and that in a university such hypotheses ought to be the subject of empirical testing rather than dogma and outrage. Edge.org ran a debate between Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke on gender and science.
In 2009, Pinker wrote a mixed review of Malcolm Gladwell's essays in The New York Times criticizing his analytical methods. Gladwell replied, disputing Pinker's comments about the importance of IQ on teaching performance and by analogy, the effect, if any, of draft order on quarterback performance in the National Football League. Advanced NFL Stats addressed the issue statistically, siding with Pinker and showing that differences in methodology could explain the two men's differing opinions.
In 2009, David Shenk criticized Pinker for siding with the "nature" argument and for "never once acknowledg[ing] gene-environment interaction or epigenetics" in an article on nature versus nurture in The New York Times. Pinker responded to a question about epigenetics as a possibility for the decline in violence in a lecture for the BBC World Service. Pinker said it was unlikely since the decline in violence happened too rapidly to be explained by genetic changes. Helga Vierich and Cathryn Townsend wrote a critical review of Pinker’s sweeping "Civilizational” explanations for patterns of human violence and warfare in response to a lecture he gave at Cambridge University in September 2015.
Steven Pinker is also noted for having identified the rename of Phillip Morris to Altria as an "egregious example" of phonesthesia, with the company attempting to "switch its image from bad people who sell addictive carcinogens to a place or state marked by altruism and other lofty values".
Pinker was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world in 2004 and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy's 100 top public intellectuals in both years the poll was carried out, 2005 and 2008; in 2010 and 2011 he was named by Foreign Policy to its list of top global thinkers. In 2016, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
His research in cognitive psychology has won the Early Career Award (1984) and Boyd McCandless Award (1986) from the American Psychological Association, the Troland Research Award (1993) from the National Academy of Sciences, the Henry Dale Prize (2004) from the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the George Miller Prize (2010) from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. He has also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Newcastle, Surrey, Tel Aviv, McGill, Simon Fraser University and the University of Tromsø. He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, in 1998 and in 2003. On May 13, 2006, he received the American Humanist Association's Humanist of the Year award for his contributions to public understanding of human evolution.
Pinker has served on the editorial boards of journals such as Cognition, Daedalus, and PLOS One, and on the advisory boards of institutions for scientific research (e.g., the Allen Institute for Brain Science), free speech (e.g., the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the popularization of science (e.g., the World Science Festival and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), peace (e.g., the Peace Research Endowment), and secular humanism (e.g., the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Secular Coalition for America).
Since 2008, he has chaired the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and wrote the essay on usage for the fifth edition of the Dictionary, which was published in 2011.
In February 2001 Steven Pinker, "whose hair has long been the object of admiration, and envy, and intense study", was nominated by acclamation as the first member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (LFHCfS) organized by the Annals of Improbable Research.
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