"When a gifted scientist and a gifted writer are all in one, you have Steven Pinker," writes fellow cognitive scientist Michael S. Gazzaniga. With his crisp prose style and zany, pop culture-inflected sense of humor, the MIT psychology professor has become famed for his ability to turn something like a discussion of regular and irregular verb forms into a rollicking good read.
As a psychology student at McGill University in Montreal, Pinker was drawn to the emergent field of cognitive science: "I found alluring the combination of psychology, computer science, artificial intelligence, the philosophy of mind, and linguistics," he said in a Scientific American interview. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, where his mentor was the psychology professor Roger Brown, who was a pioneer in the study of language acquisition and one of the first to apply Noam Chomsky's theories of language to field research. After accepting a post at MIT in 1982, Pinker began studying language acquisition in children, amassing enough data to demonstrate that children have an inborn facility for language.
Pinker's academic works on language development were admired by many of his peers, but in 1994 he sought -- and gained -- a broader audience with The Language Instinct, which suggests that human language is a biological adaptation, like web-spinning in spiders, rather than (as it is sometimes seen) a cultural invention, like the wheel. Pinker's lively and engaging treatise held tremendous appeal for a popular audience. Michael Coe, writing in The New York Times, called The Language Instinct "A brilliant, witty and altogether satisfying book."
But if humans have an instinct for language, how was that instinct acquired? That question led Pinker to the field of evolutionary psychology, and to the writing of his next book, How the Mind Works. If a particular behavior is common among humans, evolutionary psychologists reason, that behavior probably contributed to the ability of earlier humans to survive and pass along their genes. How the Mind Works, which uses this approach to examine behaviors from music-making to murder, was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Following its release, Pinker publicly tangled with Stephen Jay Gould over the scientific legitimacy of evolutionary psychology. Although the two scientists clashed on some issues, Pinker admired Gould's ability to write entertaining explications of complex ideas -- "profundity with a light touch," as Pinker wrote in his Time magazine eulogy for Gould.
Pinker's next book, Words and Rules, returned to the subject of language; specifically, it explores the different mechanisms involved in learning regular and irregular verb forms. In his recent book The Blank Slate, Pinker tackled the objections some people have to a biological view of human nature. "There are fears that if you acknowledge that people are born with anything, it implies that some people have more of it than others, and therefore it would open the door to political inequality or oppression, for example," he explained in a New York Times interview. The Blank Slate is Pinker's attempt to demonstrate that there's no inherent contradiction between evolutionary psychology and the concepts of free will and moral behavior. "It's a fallacy to think that hunger and thirst and a sex drive are biological but that reasoning and decision making and learning are something else, something nonbiological," he said. "They're just a different kind of biology."
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Journalists often comment on Pinker's rock-star mane of curls, and indeed Pinker once flirted with the idea of becoming a rock musician: "I have to confess that watching rock 'n' roll concerts, I did fantasize about being up on stage," he told The Guardian. "Not in the lead. I never wanted to be Mick Jagger. Maybe the bass-player or the drummer. But I never, ever played air guitar."
Research at Pinker's lab, in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, focuses on the different mental processes involved in using grammatical rules (e.g., an English plural can be formed by adding –s to the end of a noun) and using exceptions to the rules (e.g., the plural of mouse is not mouses but mice). The lab has undertaken magnetoencephalographic (MEG) studies to identify "the time course of the processing of words and rules in the brain."
Pinker was named among Newsweek's "100 Americans for the Next Century" and included in Esquire's "Register of Outstanding Men and Women."
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In 1997, Steven Pinker answered some of our questions about influences and recommended reads.
You still teach Psych 101 in addition to your graduate classes. Do you enjoy teaching?
Yes. Teaching a large introductory class is a lot like writing a popular science book. You have to weave the facts into a coherent story, present it succinctly, and keep the audience's attention with a well-placed joke or demonstration. Students and readers have little patience for vague ideas masked by a fog of highfalutin verbiage -- they want to know who did what to whom.
Who were some of your scientific and literary influences while growing up in Montreal?
Scientific influences: D. O. Hebb, who was an emeritus professor at McGill when I was a student there; Noam Chomsky and B. F. Skinner, via colleagues of theirs who also taught at McGill; and Al Bregman, my senior research advisor, who studies auditory perception.
Literary influences? Vigorous, clear, witty nonfiction writers: Galileo, George Orwell, David Hume, A. J. Ayer, E. B. White. George Miller and Roger Brown, two of the first psycholinguistists (Brown later became my advisor at Harvard). Style manuals by Strunk and White and Theodore Bernstein (look up the entry for "Topsy"). Encyclopedias (the entry for "snakes" in the Britannica is a literary masterpiece).
What are a couple of your favorite television shows? What about movies? Why?
TV: Lions chasing wildebeests on the Discovery channel, VH-1, Seinfeld, Law and Order, hockey. Why? Because they're all unpredictable.
Movies: The Last Waltz, The Godfather, North by Northwest, Charade, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, The Shop on Main Street, Enemies. They have some combination of crisp dialogue, visual wit, great music, and recurring themes of human conflict.
Have you read anything lately that just blew you away?
Thomas Sowell's Migrations and Cultures, about why ethnic groups migrate and how they affect their adopted homelands; Diane McGuinness's Why Our Children Can't Read, a fascinating story of the history and psychology of written language and how it is being mistaught in American schools; and Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization. Noble savages? Forget it.
What has been your reaction to the list of celebrities whose deviant behavior has been all the news in the past couple of weeks?
That means men foolishly pursuing sex with inappropriate women. It shows that a part of the male mind desires sex with a variety of women as an end in itself, and is willing to incur huge costs for it -- costs to the men's reputations, careers, family life, and overall happiness (to say nothing of the well-being of the women). That supports the sexual-selection theory of male sexuality: that for millennia, men with a wandering eye left more descendants, who inherited those wandering eyes. It refutes the theory that men want sex only as a means of attaining prestige -- a reputation for being a manly stud who can accumulate trophies.
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