Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who has argued that human capacities for speech and abstract thought are based on evolved components of our brain that are not shared by other primates, and that much of human behavior results from evolutionary adaptations. Pinker was born in 1954 in Montreal, Canada. He earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1979, and spent most of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently a professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His experimental research has focused on language acquisition by children. He has also succeeded in making psycholinguistics and evolutionary psychology accessible to non-specialists by writing and speaking for general audiences.
In reaction to behaviorists like Burrhus F. Skinner, who insisted that the human mind was “a blank slate” at birth and that psychology was unrelated to biology, evolutionary biologists such as Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins argued that many human behavioral tendencies are a product of natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists subsequently proposed that emotions such as guilt, anger, sympathy, and love all have a biological basis. In 1998, Pinker argued in his book, How the Mind Works, that biology partially explains our moral tendencies. The evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould firmly rejected this approach, calling it “biological determinism,” arguing that selection operates on individuals not genes.
Pinker’s arguments are based on the notion that most human cognitive tasks evolved as distinct modules, especially the components of language. This was based on Noam Chomsky’s view that humans are genetically predisposed to learn language, and thus languages are fundamentally similar. In particular, phonology and syntax are produced by distinctly evolved modules, are similar across cultures, and are missing in other primates. Evidence for modularity includes the innate and rapid acquisition of specific language skills by children, the tendency for brain lesions and genetic mutations to selectively impair cognitive functions, and brain imaging that revealed areas dedicated to specific tasks.
Terrence W. Deacon, Phillip Lieberman, John R. Anderson, and others argue against modularity, claiming there was not enough evolutionary time for individual modular selection, genetic differences between humans and other primates are insufficient for explaining different brain structures, and there is no evidence for a central processor required to coordinate modules. Lieberman, Merlin Donald, Kathleen Gibson, Stephen Jessee, and others argue that brain mechanisms used for speech result from evolutionary changes to preexisting devices. For example, syntax may derive from precise hand gesture and motor control common to higher primates. Pinker’s ideas place him in the larger debate between discontinuous language evolution (language is qualitatively different from other primate abilities and must require special devices) and continuous evolution (humans possess expanded versions of the same devices that other primates have).
Pinker’s contention that language and behavior are mostly genetically controlled contradicts the theory of linguistic relativity proposed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Wharf. His work also impacts philosophical and ethical debates regarding human free will. Future experimental research and rapid advances in brain imaging technologies may help identify unique anatomical structures dedicated to specific cognitive tasks as predicted by Pinker.
- Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: W. Morrow and Company.
- Pinker, S. (1999). How the mind works. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking.