The Top Linguists

Steven Pinker (1954)

Steven Arthur Pinker

Steven Arthur Pinker He is an experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and Canadian writer. He is a professor at Harvard College and head of the ” Johnstone Family Professorship ” at the Department of Psychology of the University of Harvard . He is known for his energetic and powerful defense of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of the mind. His academic specializations are the perception and development of language in children; He is best known for arguing that language is an “instinct” or a biological adaptation modeled by natural selection

Language as instinct.

He is famous mainly for his work, popularized in “The instinct of language” ( 1994 ), on how children acquire language and for their popularization of the work that Noam Chomsky performed on language as an innate faculty of the mind. He has suggested the existence of an evolutionary mental module for language, although his idea is still controversial. It differs with Chomsky, arguing that many other human mental faculties have evolved. He is an ally of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in many evolutionary disputes.

Theory of mind.

His books: How the mind works and The rasa table are seminal works of modern evolutionary psychology, which sees the mind as a type of Swiss army knife equipped by evolution with a set of specialized tools (or modules) to deal with problems that faced our paleolithic ancestors. He and other evolutionary psychologists believe that the human mind evolved by natural selection just like other parts of the body. This vision, of which EO Wilson , Leda Cosmides and John Tooby pioneered , is based on evolutionary psychology and is rapidly growing as a research paradigm, especially among cognitive psychologists.


He is the author of some of the most lively writings on modern science; However, his critics allege that his books ignore or discard the evidence against. In Words and rules, for example, he describes how cognitive scientists have released the competitive model “like hot potato,” after his extensive criticism. However, connectionism, it remains more popular than ever and the disputes do not seem to be aimed at a speedy resolution. His book Los angeles that we have inside, has received criticism for various reasons, including “per capita deaths” as an adequate metric, focusing too much on Europe (although the book also covers other areas), his interpretation of the historical data and the image it gives of indigenous peoples. Other criticisms (see the external link on Edgard Oakes ) claim that Pinker is perhaps too good a writer, being able to combine several weakly supported hypotheses to sound plausible as evolutionary psychology. Francis J. Beckwith criticizes materialism and the concept of human dignity supported by Pinker

Steven Pinker is the greatest exponent of the idea that it is our genes that determine both adultery and altruism, the use of bad words or fury at the wheel, and that evolution marked them. One might think that, at this point in the advancement of science, this should not be mainly a matter of controversy. Serious mistake: Pinker, a professor at Harvard University – who in 2003 “stole” it from MIT in one of the hottest countries among the universities of the North American Ivy League – revolutionized evolutionary and linguistic psychology with his thinking, and His innovative research sparked a fierce scientific and academic debate.

Pinker, who systematically appears in the list of the one hundred most important people of Time magazine today , or in the main intellectuals of the moment published by Prospect and Foreign Affairs, recovers the idea that there is something like the human nature, that it is innate and that we are not born as a clean slate on which culture will leave its impression, and justifies this idea through advanced scientific research.

Why is this so incendiary? Because for a good part of the American intelligentsia this is not only politically incorrect but also dangerous. If some people are born with certain talents or temperaments, and others are born without them, or with other talents or temperaments, this could lead to discrimination and oppression, and in case there are negative instincts, such as selfishness, this means that theories of social reform could be at risk.

However, for Pinker and his legion of followers, it is time to stop ignoring solid scientific theory based on empirical logic for a respect inherited from the Roussonian concept of the “noble savage”: one who ascribes all the evils of the universe to what permeates the culture about pristine souls. For scientists who follow their line, it is time to move towards a new humanism, but that is realistic and biologically informed.

The human being, as it is

Drug use or global warming – it depends on our understanding of why people do what they do. This requires understanding human beings as they really are, not as we wish them to be. ”

None of this is easy. With Stephen Jay Gould, Pinker maintained a famous and violent exchange of ideas on the pages of the New York Review of Books . And even Tom Wolfe, articulating the position of many writers and artists in this regard, said he was depressed by the tendency in neuroscience that seemed to extinguish the notion of soul and replace it with the function of an organ. But what makes Pinker most desperate, in what he sees as a misunderstanding of his theory, is when, for example, by his opinion that the male desire to have multiple sexual partners has an evolutionary (rather than cultural) explanation, He is somehow excusing or apologizing for men who are unfaithful.

Citing the character of Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen , who says that “nature was put in this world so that we rise above it,” Pinker says that biology – with the bad but also with the good that it brings – is not, neither was nor will never be destiny.

Pinker was born in Montreal in 1954, the son of a lawyer and the deputy director of a school. While he concedes that the complicated relationship between languages ​​in Quebec may have aroused his interest in linguistics, he argues that if he had been adopted and educated within a poorly cultivated working family, today he would probably be doing basically the same thing he does in the field intellectual.

“People often notice that children act in the same way as parents, or in the way parents want, and assume that they are seeing the effects of parents’ education on children. But children inherit genes of their parents, not just a cultural environment, so any similarity can simply reflect the biological inheritance of psychological traits, “he says.

For example, the children of a father who hits often hit. But it may be that they have inherited violence in their genes and that this is not something (or not just something) learned. It is also known that when parents talk a lot to their children, they have good language management, but this can be inherited and not learned as well. The correlation, he says, is not enough to establish causation.

“When experiments are carried out that separate the genetic inheritance from the education of the parents,” he adds, “what is found is that the inheritance has a much greater influence. Separated twins at birth and raised in different adoptive families tend to end lives very similar, adoptive siblings raised in the same household, who share education but not genes, end up as strangers without correlation, this does not mean that the environment is not important in the formation of a person, it only means that the family environment the parents are not important. The important environment is that of the peer group and the general culture, as well as the idiosyncratic events that occur to the child without the parents being able to do anything about it. ”

According to the followers of Pinker, psycho pedagogues and education specialists have systematically ignored this theory, driven not only by the difficulty of facing the relatively scarce power that parents have before the education of their children but, at a more fundamental level, for feeling that Pinker’s conclusions are somehow dehumanizing, that constrain our identity as individuals and that they portray us, instead, as genetic machines.

The one who has definitely never ignored Pinker is the general public. Because beyond his role as a researcher in the academic field (in which, according to Time , he is in “the crest of the wave of advanced”), Pinker is a great popularizer, who has popularized science as few have done . Known as “the rock star of the intellectuals,” no note fails to mention his long, curly gray hair, much like Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, although, humorously, Pinker clarifies that he takes his inspiration from “Bruno “, the pianist of the TV series Fama .

It is also typical of a rocker that a mass audience gathers to see him every time he offers an open conference, and that he raises the rating with each of his appearances on TV. They often ask for autographs on the street. And the Scientific American magazine , even, proposed to put on sale plastic dolls made in the likeness of Steven Pinker, with his emblematic hair and with the Texas boots that, unlike most of Harvard scientists, he usually uses. Mind you, none of your genes

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