Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist, popular science author, and public intellectual. He is an advocate of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.
Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and his academic specializations are visual cognition and developmental linguistics. 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, as well as 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, positing 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.
Pinker is the author of nine books for general audiences. 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 psycholinguistics and cognitive science, and include accounts of his own research, positing that language is an innate behavior shaped by natural selection and adapted to our communication needs. Pinker's The Sense of Style (2014) is a general language-oriented style guide. Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) posits that violence in human societies has generally declined over time, and identifies six major trends and five historical forces of this decline, the most important being the humanitarian revolution brought by the Enlightenment and its associated cultivation of reason. Enlightenment Now (2018) further argues that the human condition has generally improved over recent history because of reason, science, and humanism. The nature and importance of reason is also discussed in his next book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021).
In 2004, Pinker was named in Time's "The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today", and in the years 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2011 in Foreign Policy's list of "Top 100 Global Thinkers". Pinker was also included in Prospect Magazine's top 10 "World Thinkers" in 2013. 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. Pinker was the chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary from 2008 to 2018.
Popularization of science
Human cognition and natural language
Main articles: The Language Instinct, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought
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.
There has been debate about the explanatory adequacy of the theory. By 2015, the nativist views of Pinker and Chomsky had a number of challenges on the grounds that they had incorrect core assumptions and were inconsistent with research evidence from psycholinguistics and child language acquisition. The reality of Pinker's proposed language instinct, and the related claim that grammar is innate and genetically based, has been contested by linguists such as Geoffrey Sampson in his 1997 book, Educating Eve: The 'Language Instinct' Debate. 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 questioned 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 genetically 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.