Overview of Steven Pinker's Theories

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17th Apr 2018 Psychology Reference this

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Introduction and brief biography

Steven Pinker is a well-known psychologist who writes, researches and lectures on language and cognition. As well as being an experienced and widely published researcher in the academic field he is also well known to non-scientists for his easily accessible popular science books covering evolutionary psychology and language development. He is arguably responsible for bringing the complex field of cognitive psychology to the layperson and a short analysis of his work and ideas should provide insight into why he is so popular and successful both to academic and lay readers.

Steven Pinker is Canadian American, born in 1954 and educated at McGill University and the Ivy League colleges of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His official biography describes him as an experimental psychologist, currently Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family professor in the Department of Psychology (Pinker 2003). He is a teaching as well as research scientist and writes for the academic press and popular press as well as his own books. He credits his interest in science to a teenage present of science books on the mind (Pinker 2004b).

In interviews Pinker is often self deprecating, indicating that scientists don’t always choose a specific field due to overwhelming interest, rather due to circumstance and being in the right place at the right time (Pinker 2004b). Despite being an immensely successful author with his most recent book being ranked at number 624 in the bestseller list of Amazon.com[1], he does not seek to either overawe or be condescending to the regular lay reader, instead treating them, in his own words, as an “old college room mate” and respecting their intelligence (Pinker 2004b).

Pinker’s ideas and impact

Pinker is often known for his debates with fellow scientists such as Steven Rose in which the nature versus nurture concept is discussed. Pinker is described as the leading spokesman for the view that we are made by nature as well as nurture (Appleyard 2007). Pinker is a firm believer that our genes dictate how we act our lives through the mind being the critical determiner of who survives and passes their genes on to their offspring; whereas Rose believes that all living systems are radically indeterminate and continually construct their own futures (Brockman 1998). One of the reasons for the controversy of Pinker’s ideas is the echoes of Nazism as, by saying that we are a product of our genes, it suggests that some are genetically programmed to be inferior to others.

Pinker addresses the idea that humans develop purely based on their experiences in the book The Blank Slate, thus called because of the common belief that the mind is a blank slate and the way a person develops is purely a product of culture and socialisation (Rakoff 2002). He points out that anyone having children can see that they are born with identities and the fact that children are affected by upbringing is not proof of causation, rather being merely correlation. However he is also able to argue the other side, as it were, when he explains that, whilst genes can have something to do with behaviour, the study of behavioural genetics is, in his words, ‘a paradox’ (Pinker 2003). In particular the influence of culture will affect many lifestyle choices, with serious effects on development. He exhorts everyone to ‘try to reach the best point in the range [of temperament and talent]’ (Pinker 2003). He protests that the biology of consciousness offers a better explanation for how people ‘work’ than the existence of an, un provable in his view, immortal soul (Pinker 2007a). He suggests that we all develop as a product of our brains, and other people have similar brains so all have a similar capacity. He further develops his view by stating that the soul is in fact the information-processing activity of the brain and that all emotion can be tied to specific neural activity (Pinker 2004a). This is a controversial view as many philosophers and sociologists would not like to believe that our freedom of thought is not in fact freedom at all, rather an automatic response from our genes.

One of Pinker’s key ideas is his words / rules account of language in which he suggests that there is a contrast between the regular and irregular inflection of words and this is due to there being 2 distinct computational mechanisms for the processing of these words (Berent, Pinker & Shimron 2002). He set this out in his oft cited[2] piece entitled Rules of Language published in 1991 in the journal Science (Pinker 1991). The language processing of the brain was described as modular and independent of real-world meaning suggesting a genetic basis to the development of language, presumably because logically language would only be processed in connection with the meaning of that language.

Pinker has more recently written about human nature in a wider context than language. One such example is where he explains that romantic love has a paradoxical logic, where in fact there is not a neat matching of mates according to the rules of shopping – eg matching purely on the grounds of features and quality (Pinker 2008). He also commends other people on their influence, with one such account being his 2007 commendation of Paul Allen’s contribution to the scientific world (Pinker 2007b). An individual must be well respected and influential in his own right to be asked to comment upon the influence of others.

However he has been subject to controversy, with people suggesting that his book The Blank Slate denies the existence of sex discrimination. However he defends his position, indicating that he has merely shown empirical evidence about the differences in talents, temperaments and life priorities between men and women (Pinker 2006). He describes how he lost sleep over the gender chapter yet also points out that in the first 2 years post publication no one had any problem with that chapter (Quixote 2006). It was only later that Pinker’s work was used out of context by Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, who said that innate [genetic] differences were the reason why fewer women succeeded in maths and science (Bombardieri 2005). Thus the message of the book reached a greater audience, but the audience misconstrued what had been said originally.

He often has to defend his work, or clarify it to others who misinterpret e.g. (Pinker, Ullman 2003, Pinker, Ullman 2002) and the much longer opinion article (Pinker, Ullman 2002). No doubt, though, if a researcher or author has to defend their work it means that others are noting what they say enough to criticise, and then publishers care enough to seek the rejoinders.

It is possible to obtain impact factor trend graphs for published articles. This provides an indication of the journal’s relative impact, thus the consequent impact that the article within that journal may have. Analysis of the 3 most cited articles from Pinker provides the data for table 1 below. Obviously the most cited articles are older but the journals in which the articles are published have high impact.

Table 1 An analysis of the journal impact and number of times cited for the 3 most popular Pinker articles[3]

Reference

Number of times cited to date

2007 journal impact factor

Journal ranking for impact factor

Pinker, Bloom 1990

343

17.462

1/1865

Tarr, Pinker 1989

352

4.026

39/1865

Pinker, Prince 1988

351

3.831

46/1865

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?

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.

References

Appleyard, B. 2007, Steven Pinker knows what’s going on inside your head, October 14th 2007, The Times, London.

Berent, I., Pinker, S. & Shimron, J. 2002, “The nature of regularity and irregularity: evidence from Hebrew nominal inflection”, Journal of psycholinguistic research, vol. 31, no. 5, pp. 459-502.

Bombardieri, M. 2005, Summers’ remarks on women draw fire, January 17th 2005 edn, Boston Globe, Boston.

Brockman, J. 2006, 01/01/2006-last update, Edge: The World Question Centre 2006 [Homepage of The Edge], [Online]. Available: http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_3.html#pinker [accessed 30/10/2008] .

Brockman, J. 1998, 25/03/1998-last update, Edge: PINKER VS. ROSE-A DEBATE (PART I) [Homepage of The Edge], [Online]. Available: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker_rose/pinker_rose_p1.html [accessed 30/10/2008] .

Pinker, S. 2003, , Steven Pinker – About- long biography [Homepage of Harvard University], [Online]. Available: http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/about/longbio.html [accessed 30/10/2008] .

Pinker, S. 2008, “Crazy love”, Time, vol. 171, no. 4, pp. 82-83.

Pinker, S. 2007a, “The mystery of consciousness”, Time, vol. 169, no. 5, pp. 58-62, 65-6, 69-70.

Pinker, S. 2007b, “Time 100 scientists & thinkers. Paul Allen”, Time, vol. 169, no. 20, pp. 112.

Pinker, S. 2006, “The gender debate: science promises an honest investigation of the world”, Nature, vol. 442, no. 7102, pp. 510.

Pinker, S. 2004a, “How to think about the mind”, Newsweek, vol. 144, no. 13, pp. 78.

Pinker, S. 2004b, “Steven Pinker”, Current biology : CB, vol. 14, no. 21, pp. R909.

Pinker, S. 2003, “Are your genes to blame?”, Time, vol. 161, no. 3, pp. 98-100.

Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. 1990, “Natural-Language and Natural-Selection”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 707-726.

Pinker, S. & Prince, A. 1988, “On Language and Connectionism – Analysis of a Parallel Distributed-Processing Model of Language-Acquisition”, Cognition, vol. 28, no. 1-2, pp. 73-193.

Pinker, S. & Ullman, M. 2002, “Combination and structure, not gradedness, is the issue”, Trends in cognitive sciences, vol. 6, no. 11, pp. 472-474.

Pinker, S. & Ullman, M.T. 2003, “Beyond one model per phenomenon”, Trends in cognitive sciences, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 108-109.

Pinker, S. & Ullman, M.T. 2002, “The past and future of the past tense”, Trends in cognitive sciences, vol. 6, no. 11, pp. 456-463.

Pinker, S. 1991, “Rules of Language”, Science, vol. 253, no. 5019, pp. 530-535.

Quixote, D. 2006, July 4th 2006-last update, 10 questions for Steven Pinker [Homepage of Gene Expression], [Online]. Available: http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2006/07/10-questions-for-steven-pinker.php [accessed 30/10/2008] .

Rakoff, D. 2002, Questions For Steven Pinker, 15th September 2002, The New York Times, Ney York.

Tarr, M.J. & Pinker, S. 1989, “Mental Rotation and Orientation-Dependence in Shape-Recognition”, Cognitive psychology, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 233-282.

1


[1] Data obtained from www.amazon.com at 09:20 on 30/10/2008

[2] 318 citations as at 30/10/2008. Data from ISI Web of Knowledge

[3] Citation information obtain from ISI Web of Knowledge Journal Citation reports for social science journals on 30th October 2008 available at http://admin-apps.isiknowledge.com/JCR/JCR?RQ=HOME.

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