Psychology Wiki

Steven Pinker

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18 1954, in Montreal, Canada) is a prominent American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and popular science writer known for his spirited and wide-ranging defence 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 popularising the idea that language is an "instinct" or biological adaption shaped by natural selection rather than a by-product of general intelligence. His books for a general audience – The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate,The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style – have won numerous awards.

Biography and career

Pinker was born into the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal, but became an atheist at 13, although at times he was a serious cultural Jew.[1] His father, Harry, a trained lawyer, first worked as a travelling salesman, whilst his mother, Roslyn, was first a home-maker then a guidance counselor and high-school vice-principal. His sister, Susan, a child psychologist by training, is now a journalist and columnist, and his brother, Robert, is a policy analyst with the Canadian government.

He married the clinical psychologist Nancy Etcoff in 1980, but divorced in 1992. In 1995, Pinker married Malaysian-born cognitive psychologist Ilavenil Subbiah, but they also later divorced. His current wife, Rebecca Goldstein, is an author and a philosopher.[2] Pinker has no children.

Pinker received a first class bachelor's degree in experimental psychology from McGill University in 1976, then went on to earn his doctorate in the same discipline at Harvard in 1979. Pinker is currently the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard having previously been the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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.[3]

Language as instinct

Pinker is most famous for his work - popularised 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. Pinker goes further than Chomsky, arguing many other human mental faculties are evolved, and is an ally of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in many evolutionary disputes.

Theory of mind

Pinker's books How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate are seminal works of modern evolutionary psychology, which views the mind as a kind of swiss-army knife equipped by evolution with a set of specialized tools (or modules) to deal with problems faced by our Palaeocene ancestors. Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists believe the human mind evolved by natural selection just like other body parts. This view, pioneered as a field by E. O. Wilson, and Leda Cosmides and John Tooby - is pursued under evolutionary psychology and is a rapidly growing research paradigm, especially among cognitive psychologists.


Critics allege Pinker's books ignore or dismiss opposing evidence. In "Words and Rules," for example, he describes cognitive scientists as having dropped a competing model "like a hot potato" after his widely cited criticism.[How to reference and link to summary or text] If anything, that opposing view, Connectionism, remains as popular as ever and the ongoing dispute does not appear to be heading towards any sort of resolution.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Other critics (see Edward Oakes's review in the External links) claim that Pinker may be a little too good a writer in being able to combine several weakly based hypotheses into a plausible-sounding "evolutionary psychology" story that in reality may be no more scientific than a Rudyard Kipling "Just So" story.

Awards and recognition

Pinker was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2004[4] and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy's 100 top public intellectuals in 2005.[5] He has also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Newcastle, Surrey, Tel Aviv and McGill.

Selected publications


  • Language Learnability and Language Development (1984)
  • Visual Cognition (1985)
  • Connections and Symbols (1988)
  • Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure (1989)
  • Lexical and Conceptual Semantics (1992)
  • The Language Instinct (1994)
  • How the Mind Works (1997)
  • Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999)
  • The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002)
  • The Best American Science and Nature Writing (editor and introduction author, 2004)
  • Hotheads (2005)

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.


External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Steven Pinker
The Language Instinct - How the Mind Works - Words and Rules - The Blank Slate
See also: Evolutionary psychology - Cognitive science - Leda Cosmides - John Tooby

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).