Steven Pinker

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Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker 2011.jpg
Pinker in 2011
Born Steven Arthur Pinker
(1954-09-18) September 18, 1954 (age 59)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Fields Evolutionary psychology, experimental psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, visual cognition
Alma mater Dawson College,
McGill University,
Harvard University
Known for How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature
Influences Noam Chomsky, Thomas Sowell, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Richard Dawkins, Thomas Schelling[1]
Notable awards Troland Award (1993, National Academy of Sciences),
Henry Dale Prize (2004, Royal Institution),
Walter P. Kistler Book Award (2005),
Humanist of the Year award (2006, issued by the AHA),
George Miller Prize (2010, Cognitive Neuroscience Society)
Spouse Nancy Etcoff (1980–1992; divorced)
Ilavenil Subbiah (1995–2006; divorced)
Rebecca Goldstein (2007-present)
from the BBC programme Desert Island Discs, 30 June 2013[2]

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, and popular science author. He is a Harvard College Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University,[3] 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 innuendo and euphemism. He published two technical books which proposed a general theory of language acquisition and applied it to children's learning of verbs. In his popular books, he has argued that language is an "instinct" or biological adaptation shaped by natural selection. He is the author of six books for a general audience: The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff of Thought (2007), and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).


Early life, education and career[edit]

Pinker was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1954, to a middle-class Jewish family. His parents were Roslyn and Harry Pinker.[4] He graduated from Dawson College in 1971. He received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from McGill University in 1976, and then went on to earn his Doctor of Philosophy in experimental psychology at Harvard University in 1979. 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, and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, 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.[5] In June 2011 it was announced he would give lectures as a visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities, a private college in London.[6]

Pinker was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential scientists and thinkers in the world in 2004[7] and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy's 100 top public intellectuals in both years the poll was carried out, 2005[8] and 2008;[9] in 2010 and 2011 he was named by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of top global thinkers.[10][11] 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, and the University of Tromsø, Norway. He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, in 1998 and in 2003.

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.[12]

On May 13, 2006, Pinker received the American Humanist Association's Humanist of the Year award for his contributions to public understanding of human evolution.[13]

In 2009, Pinker wrote a mixed review of Malcolm Gladwell's essays in The New York Times criticizing his analytical methods.[14] Gladwell published a rebuttal in the Times regarding 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. Pinker then responded to Gladwell's rebuttal.[15] The exchange prompted Advanced NFL Stats to step in and address the issue statistically, siding with Pinker in that draft order is indeed correlated with quarterback performance. The differences in Gladwell and Pinker's respective methodologies caused the disagreement. Gladwell evaluated a performance on a per-play basis, whereas Pinker and Advanced NFL Stats evaluated performance based on total overall productivity based on the assumption that starters were superior players to backups.[16]

Pinker in Göttingen, 2010

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.

Personal life[edit]

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 is a policy analyst for the Canadian government. His sister, Susan Pinker, is a psychologist and writer, author of The Sexual Paradox.[17][18] Pinker married Nancy Etcoff in 1980 and they divorced in 1992; he married Ilavenil Subbiah in 1995 and they too divorced.[19] His current wife, whom he married in 2007, is the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein.[20] He has two stepdaughters: the novelist Yael Goldstein Love and the poet Danielle Blau.

He 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."[21] As a teenager, he says he considered himself an anarchist until he witnessed civil unrest following a police strike in 1969.[22] Pinker identifies himself as a feminist, specifically an equity feminist, and in The Blank Slate defines equity feminism as "a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology".[23] He has reported the result of a test of his political orientation that characterized him as "neither leftist nor rightist, more libertarian than authoritarian."[24] Pinker confesses to having "experienced a primitive tribal stirring" after his genes were shown to trace back to the Middle East.[25]

In June 2013 he was the guest on UK BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. His choices were "Further On Up the Road" by Eric Clapton, "Der Alter Bulgar" by the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra (with Itzhak Perlman), "God’s Comic" by Elvis Costello, "Olé" by John Coltrane, "Yellow Moon" by The Neville Brothers, "I'm Your Man" by Leonard Cohen, "Machine Gun" by Jimi Hendrix and "Lullaby of Birdland" by Sarah Vaughan.[26]

Research and theory[edit]

Pinker in 2005

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.”[27] 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.

In 1989 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 a popular 1999 book, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, in which he argued that regular and irregular phenomena were products of computation and memory lookup, respectively, and that language could be understood as an interaction between the two.

The Language Instinct (1994) was the first of several books that combined cognitive science with behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology. In it he introduced the science of language and popularized Noam Chomsky's theory that language is an innate faculty of mind, with the twist that this faculty evolved by natural selection as a Darwinian adaptation for communication (both ideas remain controversial; see below). 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 which comprises many mental faculties that are adaptive (and 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.

In 2011 Pinker published The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argued that violence has decreased over multiple scales of time and magnitude, including tribal warfare, homicide, cruel punishments, child abuse, animal cruelty, domestic violence, lynching, pogroms, and international and civil wars. In his book Pinker outlines six ‘major historical declines of violence’ which all have their own socio/cultural/economic causes:[28]

  • “Pacification Process” - the rise of organized systems of government has a correlative relationship with the decline in violent deaths. As states expand they prevent tribal feuding, reducing losses.
  • “Civilising Process” – consolidation of centralized states and kingdoms throughout Europe results in the rise of criminal justice and commercial infrastructure, organizing previously chaotic systems which could lead to raiding and mass violence.
  • “Humanitarian Revolution” – The 18th - 20th century abandonment of institutionalized violence by the state (breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake). Suggests this is likely due to the spike in literacy after the invention of the printing press therby allowing the proletariat to question conventional wisdom.
  • “Long Peace” – The powers of 20th Century believed that period of time to be the bloodiest in history. This to a largely peaceful 65 year period post WWI and WW2. Developed countries have stopped warring (against each other and colonially), adopted democracy, and this has led a massive decline (on average) of deaths.
  • “Rights Revolutions” – The reduction of systemic violence at smaller scales against vulnerable populations (racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals, animals).

Pinker considers it unlikely that human nature has changed (many other factors of human existence remain unchanged). More likely that human nature comprises inclinations toward violence and those that counteract them, the “better angels of our nature”.

Pinker's books, The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought combine cognitive science with behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology.

Music and cognition[edit]

A number of theories about the evolutionary origins of language have argued that linguistic cognition might have evolved from earlier musical cognition. Pinker is a critic of this view, as he sees language as being tied primarily to the capacity for logical reasoning. In How the Mind Works (1997) Pinker reiterates an argument from Immanuel Kant positing that music is not in itself an important cognitive phenomenon, but that music simply happens to stimulate important auditory and spatio-motoric cognitive functions. Pinker compares music to "auditory cheesecake", and states that "As far as biological cause and effect is concerned, music is useless". This argument has been rejected by a number of experts in music cognition who argue that music has had an important role in the evolution of human cognition, for example Daniel Levitin and Joseph Carroll.[29][30][31][32][33][34] Levitin argues against Pinker’s view of music and cognition in his book This Is Your Brain On Music.[35]



The Language Instinct has been criticized by Geoffrey Sampson in his book, The 'Language Instinct' Debate.[36] The assumptions underlying the nativist view have also been subject to sustained criticism in Jeffrey Elman's Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development (Neural Networks and Connectionist Modeling), which defends the connectionist approach that Pinker has criticized.

David Shenk has criticized Pinker for an article he wrote in The New York Times which addressed the nature versus nurture debate. He criticized him for siding with the "nature" argument and for "never once acknowledg[ing] gene-environment interaction or epigenetics." Shenk contends that because of these factors the debate over nature versus nurture has been "rendered obsolete."[37] 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.[38]


Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have criticized The Better Angels of Our Nature. In an extensive essay, they accuse Pinker of having ventured outside of his field of expertise, and of cherry-picking historical data to fit his thesis. The main charges are that Pinker apologizes for imperialist expansionism, the geopolitics of capitalism and anti-communism, while manufacturing sources to fit the conclusion he draws.[39]



Articles and essays[edit]


  1. ^ C-SPAN | BookTV "In Depth with Steven Pinker" November 2nd 2008
  2. ^ "Steven Pinker". [[Desert Island Discs|Desert Island Discs]]. 30 June 2013. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 2014-01-18.
  3. ^ Steven Pinker – About. Department of Psychology Harvard University Accessed 2010-02-28
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Steven Pinker. "Official Biography. Harvard University". Retrieved 2012-01-20. 
  6. ^ "The professoriate", New College of the Humanities, accessed June 8, 2011.
  7. ^ "Steven Pinker: How Our Minds Evolved" by Robert Wright Time Magazine Accessed 2006-02-08
  8. ^ "The Prospect/FP Top 100 Public Intellectuals" Foreign Policy (free registration required) Accessed 2006-082-08
  9. ^ "Intellectuals", Prospect, 2009, retrieved 2011-10-21 
  10. ^ "Foreign Policy Magazine". Retrieved 2012-01-20. 
  11. ^ "The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 2012-01-20. 
  12. ^ "PSYCHOANALYSIS Q-and-A: Steven Pinker" The Harvard Crimson Accessed 2006-02-08
  13. ^ "Steven Pinker Receives Humanist of the Year Award". American Humanist Association. May 12, 2006. 
  14. ^ Pinker, Steven (2009-11-15). "Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ "Let's Go to the Tape". The New York Times. 2009-11-29. 
  16. ^ Burke, Brian (2010-04-22). "Steven Pinker vs. Malcolm Gladwell and Drafting QBs". Advanced NFL Stats. Retrieved 2012-01-20. 
  17. ^ Shermer, Michael (2001-03-01). The Pinker Instinct. Altadena, CA: Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine. Retrieved 2007-09-11. 
  18. ^ "Steven Pinker: the mind reader" The Guardian Accessed 2006-11-25
  19. ^ Biography for Steven Pinker at imdb Accessed 2007-09-12
  20. ^ "How Steven Pinker Works" by Kristin E. Blagg The Harvard Crimson Accessed 2006-02-03
  21. ^ "Steven Pinker: the mind reader" by Ed Douglas The Guardian Accessed 2006-02-03
  22. ^ "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, Steven (2002), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin Putnam, ISBN 0-670-03151-8.
  23. ^ Pinker, Steven, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking, 2002), p. 341
  24. ^ "My Genome, My Self" by Steven Pinker The New York Times Sunday Magazine Accessed 2010-04-10
  25. ^ "DNA and You – Personalized Genomics Goes Jewish". The Forward. Issue of 12 August 2011. Retrieved 13 August 2011. 
  26. ^ "Steven Pinker". 30 June 2013. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  27. ^ The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language
  28. ^ Pinker, Steven. "The Decline of Violence". IAI. Retrieved 3 January 2014. 
  29. ^ Levitin, D. J. and Tirovolas, A. K. (2009), Current Advances in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Music. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156: 211–231.
  30. ^ Perlovsky L. Music. Cognitive Function, Origin, And Evolution Of Musical Emotions . WebmedCentral PSYCHOLOGY 2011;2(2):WMC001494
  31. ^ Alison Abbott. 2002. Neurobiology: Music, maestro, please! Nature 416, 12–14 (7 March 2002) | doi:10.1038/416012a
  32. ^ Cross, I. (1999). Is music the most important thing we ever did? Music, development and evolution. [preprint (html)] [preprint (pdf)] In Suk Won Yi (Ed.), Music, mind and science (pp10-39), Seoul: Seoul National University Press.
  33. ^ "Interview with Daniel Levitin". May 20, 2009. Retrieved December 29, 2012. 
  34. ^ Carroll, Joseph (1998). "Steven Pinker’s Cheesecake For The Mind". Retrieved December 29, 2012. 
  35. ^ Levitin, Daniel. 2006. This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, New York: Dutton/Penguin.
  36. ^ "G. R. Sampson's official Website". Retrieved 2012-01-20. 
  37. ^ "Steven Pinker's "probabilistic" genes," David Shenk
  38. ^ "Exchanges At The Frontier 2011", BBC.
  39. ^ "Reality Denial : Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence". ZNET. 2012-07-25. Retrieved 2013-10-08. 

External links[edit]

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