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Steven Pinker
Born Steven Arthur Pinker
September 18, 1954 (1954-09-18) (age 55)
Nationality Canadian-American
Occupation Scientist
Employer Harvard
Religion Atheist

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science, currently employed in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.[1] Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.

Pinker’s academic specializations are visual cognition and language development in children, and he is most famous for popularizing the idea that language is an "instinct" or biological adaptation shaped by natural selection. On this point, he opposes Noam Chomsky and others who regard the human capacity for language to be the by-product of other adaptations. He is the author of five books for a general audience, which include The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Stuff of Thought (2007). Pinker's books have won numerous awards and been New York Times best-sellers.





Pinker was born in Canada and graduated from Montreal's Dawson College in 1973. He received a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology from McGill University in 1976, and then went on to earn his doctorate in the same discipline at Harvard in 1979. He did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a year, then 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. (Except for a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1995-6.) As of 2008, he is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard.[2]

Pinker was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2004[3] and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy's 100 top public intellectuals in 2005.[4] 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 the gender gap in mathematics and science angered much of the faculty.[5]

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.[6]

In 2007, he was invited on The Colbert Report and asked under pressure to sum up how the brain works in five words – Pinker answered "Brain cells fire in patterns."[7]


Pinker was born into the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal. His father, a trained lawyer, first worked as a traveling salesman, 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 school psychologist and writer, author of The Sexual Paradox.[8][9] Pinker married Nancy Etcoff in 1980 and they divorced 1992; he married Ilavenil Subbiah in 1995 and they too divorced.[10] His current wife is the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein.[11] He has no children.[12]

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."[13] As a teenager, he says he considered himself an anarchist until he witnessed civil unrest following a police strike in 1969.[14] More recently, Pinker has expressed contempt for socialism, which he views as "utopian", and has described himself as a "big fan" of capitalism.[15]

Theories of language and mind

Pinker is most famous for his work — popularized in The Language Instinct (1994) — on how children acquire language, and for his popularization of Noam Chomsky's work on language as an innate faculty of mind. Pinker has suggested an evolutionary mental module for language, although this idea remains controversial (see below). Additionally Pinker argues that many other human mental faculties are adaptive (and is an ally of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in many evolutionary disputes).

Written work

Pinker's books, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, are from the evolutionary psychology tradition, which views the mind as a kind of Swiss-army knife equipped with a set of specialized tools (or modules) to deal with problems faced by our Pleistocene ancestors. Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists believe that these tools evolved by natural selection, just like other body parts. The field of evolutionary psychology was pioneered by E. O. Wilson, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. The Language Instinct has been criticized by Geoffrey Sampson in his book, The 'Language Instinct' Debate [2]. 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).

Selected publications


Articles and essays

  • Pinker, S. (1991) Rules of Language. Science, 253, 530–535.
  • Ullman, M., Corkin, S., Coppola, M., Hickok, G., Growdon, J. H., Koroshetz, W. J., & Pinker, S. (1997) A neural dissociation within language: Evidence that the mental dictionary is part of declarative memory, and that grammatical rules are processed by the procedural system. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 9, 289–299.
  • Pinker, S. (2003) Language as an adaptation to the cognitive niche. In M. Christiansen & S. Kirby (Eds.), Language evolution: States of the Art. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pinker, S. (2005) So How Does the Mind Work? Mind and Language, 20(1), 1–24.
  • Jackendoff, R. & Pinker, S. (2005) The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language (Reply to Fitch, Hauser, & Chomsky) Cognition, 97(2), 211–225.
  • S. Pinker (2007), "In Defense of Dangerous Ideas" (Chicago Sun-Times, July 15, 2007,,1449,In-defense-of-dangerous-ideas,Steven-Pinker)
  • a great number of Pinker's articles in


  1. ^ "Steven Pinker - About". Department of Psychology Harvard University. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  2. ^ Official Biography
  3. ^ ""Steven Pinker: How Our Minds Evolved" by Robert Wright, Time Magazine". Retrieved 2006. 
  4. ^ ""The Prospect/FP Top 100 Public Intellectuals," Foreign Policy (free registration required)". Retrieved 2006. 
  5. ^ ""PSYCHOANALYSIS Q-and-A: Steven Pinker," The Harvard Crimson". Retrieved 2006. 
  6. ^ "Steven Pinker Receives Humanist of the Year Award". American Humanist Association. May 12, 2006. 
  7. ^ Press, Michelle (September 2007), "Reviews: Cyclic Universe•World of Words•Nuclear Terror", Scientific American (Scientific American, Inc.) 297 (3): 120,, retrieved 2008-08-03 
  8. ^ Shermer, Michael (2001-03-01), The Pinker Instinct, Altadena, CA: Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine,, retrieved 2007-09-11 
  9. ^ ""Steven Pinker: the mind reader," The Guardian".,4273,3926387,00.html. Retrieved 2006. 
  10. ^ "Biography for Steven Pinker". Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  11. ^ ""How Steven Pinker Works" by Kristin E. Blagg, The Harvard Crimson". Retrieved 2006. 
  12. ^ "Well into my procreating years I am, so far, voluntarily childless, having squandered my biological resources reading and writing[...]" — Pinker, Steven (1999), 'How the Mind Works, page 52, Norton, ISBN 978-0-393-31848-7.
  13. ^ ""Steven Pinker: the mind reader" by Ed Douglas, ‘‘The Guardian’’".,4273,3926387,00.html. Retrieved 2006. 
  14. ^ "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.
  15. ^ [1]

External links





Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Steven Pinker

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a prominent Canadian-born American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and popular science writer known for his spirited and wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.



  • Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.
  • The elegant study... is consistent with the themes of modern cognitive neuroscience. Every aspect of thought and emotion is rooted in brain structure and function, including many psychological disorders and, presumably, genius. The study confirms that the brain is a modular system comprising multiple intelligences, mostly nonverbal.
    • "On Einstein's brain," The New York Times (June 24, 1999)

How the Mind Works (1997)

  • Intelligence, then, is the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules. The computer scientists Allen Newell and Herbert Simon fleshed this idea out further by noting that intelligence consists of specifying a goal, assessing the current situation to see how it differs from the goal, and applying a set of operations that reduce the difference. Perhaps reassuringly, by this definition human beings, not just aliens, are intelligent. We have desires, and we pursue them using beliefs, which, when all goes well, are at least approximately or probabilistically true.
    • p. 62
  • Stripped to its essentials, every decision in life amounts to choosing which lottery ticket to buy. . . . Most organisms don't buy lottery tickets, but they all choose between gambles every time their bodies can move in more than one way. They should be willing to 'pay' for information---in tissue, energy, and time---if the cost is lower than the expected payoff in food, safety, mating opportunities, and other resources, all ultimately valuated in the expected number of surviving offspring. In multicellular animals the information is gathered and translated into profitable decisions by the nervous system.
    • p. 175
  • Humans . . . entered the 'cognitive niche.' Remember the definition of intelligence from Chapter 2: using knowledge of how things work to attain goals in the face of obstacles. By learning which manipulations achieve which goals, humans have mastered the art of the surprise attack. They use novel, goal-oriented courses of action to overcome the Maginot Line defenses of other organisms, which can respond only over evolutionary time. The manipulations can be novel because human knowledge is not just couched in concrete instructions like 'how to catch a rabbit.' Humans analyze the world using intuitive theories of objects, forces, paths, places, manners, states, substances, hidden biochemical essences, and, for other animals and people, beliefs and desires. . . . People compose new knowledge and plans by mentally playing out combinatorial interactions among these laws in their mind's eye.
    • p. 188
  • Suppose the reasoning centers of the brain can get their hands on the mechanisms that plop shapes into the array and that read their locations out of it. Those reasoning demons can exploit the geometry of the array as a surrogate for keeping certain logical constraints in mind. Wealth, like location on a line, is transitive: if A is richer than B, and B is richer than C, then A is richer than C. By using location in an image to symbolize wealth, the thinker takes advantage of the transitivity of location built into the array, and does not have to enter it into a chain of deductive steps. The problem becomes a matter of plop down and look up. It is a fine example of how the form of a mental representation determines what is easy or hard to think.
    • p. 291
  • Visual thinking is often driven more strongly by the conceptual knowledge we use to organize our images than by the contents of the images themselves. Chess masters are known for their remarkable memory for the pieces on a chessboard. But it's not because people with photographic memories become chess masters. The masters are no better than beginners when remembering a board of randomly arranged pieces. Their memory captures meaningful relations among the pieces, such as threats and defenses, not just their distribution in space.
    • p. 295
  • Galileo wrote that 'the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics; without its help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it.'
    • p. 359
  • 'The most common of all follies,' wrote H. L. Mencken, 'is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.' In culture after culture, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts, saints . . . and gods.
    • p. 554
  • The problem with the religious solution [to philosophical problems] was stated by Mencken when he wrote, 'Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.' For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones. What gave God a mind, free will, knowledge, certainty about right and wrong? How does he infuse them into a universe that seems to run just fine according to physical laws? How does he get ghostly souls to interact with hard matter? And most perplexing of all, if the world unfolds according to a wise and merciful plan, why does it contain so much suffering? As the Yiddish expression says, If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.
    • p. 560

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (Basic Books, 1999)

  • As an experimental psychologist, I have been trained not to believe anything unless it can be demonstrated in the laboratory on rats or sophomores.
    • p. 84

The Blank Slate (2002)

  • According to a recent study of the brains of identical and fraternal twins, differences in the amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes are not only genetically influenced but are significantly correlated with differences in intelligence.
    • p. 44, emphasis added

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