Aspects of Life of Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD from Harvard. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his nine books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style.
Steven Pinker is an experimental cognitive psychologist and a popular writer on language, mind, and human nature. A native of Montreal, he earned his bachelor’s degree at McGill University in 1976, his PhD from Harvard in 1979, and taught at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT before returning to Harvard in 2003. Pinker’s research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, the American Psychological Association, and the Association for Psychological Science. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” Prof. Pinker is currently doing research on a diverse array of topics in psychology, including the role of common knowledge (where two or more people know that the others know what they know) in language and other social phenomena; historical and recent trends in violence and their explanation; the psycholinguistics of good writing; the nature of the critical period for acquiring language; the neurobiology and genetics of language; and the nature of regular and irregular phenomena in grammar.
In a profile published last year the Sunday Times refer to Pinker’s ideas as ‘incendiary’ and describe him as a global science celebrity (Appleyard 2007). Despite the possible Nazism connotations that could be attributed to his ideas, there is also a clear logic to the brain containing the blueprint to our development. If there are genes that decide our hair colour and skin colour then why not other features? No one would deny that genetic malfunctions such as occur in Downs Syndrome clearly show the effect that defective genes can have from birth. Why should only defective genes be influential? P Pinker says that it hard to judge his own influence, but that more people of more cultures and races are [now] open to the idea that biology can have some answers to human life and its workings (Quixote 2006). He also suggested the topic for the annual question for The Edge Foundation for 2006 as ‘My Dangerous Idea’. His account of his 2005 includes instances such as the Summers’ speech mentioned above, as well as other research which endeavoured to show that race and intelligence do not exist. The lasting influence of these ideas (and his own work and reputation) is that people perceive Pinker as propounding dangerous ideas that fuel bigotry (Brockman 2006). However bigotry isn’t created by the influence of one scientist. Pinker’s work may be used as evidence to support existing bigotry but support is not the same as initiation.
Given these points, Pinker’s style is relentless friendly persuasion, a kind of indefatigable reasonableness that’s either charming or crazy-making, depending on where you stand. He’s been surprised, at times, by what he calls the “sheer anger” that Enlightenment Now and Better Angels have provoked from critics. One reason for that, he thinks, is simply that it’s more enjoyable to take shots at the guy writing popular books than to praise him, and he cites a study that suggests reviewers who pan books are considered more intelligent.
Appleyard, B. 2007, Steven Pinker knows what’s going on inside your head, October 14th 2007, The Times, London.
Brockman, J. 2006, 01/01/2006-last update, Edge: The World Question Centre 2006 [Homepage of The Edge], [Online].
Quixote, D. 2006, July 4th 2006-last update, 10 questions for Steven Pinker [Homepage of Gene Expression], [Online].