Steven Pinker

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Department of Psychology
Harvard University

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Long Biography

Steven Pinker was born in 1954 in the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal, Canada. He earned a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology at McGill University and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976, where he has spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT. He earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1979, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, a one-year stint as an assistant professor at Harvard, and in 1982, a move back to MIT that lasted until 2003, when he returned to Harvard. Currently he is Harvard College Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology. He also has spent two years in California: in 1981-82, when he was an assistant professor at Stanford, and in 1995-96,when he spent a sabbatical year at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Pinker is an experimental psychologist who is interested in all aspects of language and mind. Much of his initial research was in visual cognition, the ability to imagine shapes, recognize faces and objects, and direct attention within the visual field. But beginning in graduate school he cultivated an interest in language, particularly language development in children, and this topic eventually took over his research activities. Aside from his experimental papers in language and visual cognition, he wrote two fairly technical books early in his career. One outlined a theory of how children acquire the words and grammatical structures of their mother tongue. The second focused on one aspect of this process, the ability to use different kinds of verbs in appropriate sentences, such as intransitive verbs, transitive verbs, and verbs taking different combinations of complements and indirect objects. For the next two decades his research focused on the distinction between irregular verbs like bring-brought and regular verbs like walk-walked. The reason is that the two kinds of verbs neatly embody the two processes that make language possible: looking up words in memory, and combining words (or parts of words) according to rules. He has also studied language development in twins and the neuroimaging of language processes in the brain, and has recently begun lines of research on the nature of reminding and on the function of innuendo and other forms of indirect speech.

In 1994 he published the first of five books written for a general audience. The Language Instinct was an introduction to all aspects of language, held together by the idea that language is a biological adaptation. This was followed in 1997 by How the Mind Works, which offered a similar synthesis of the rest of the mind, from vision and reasoning to the emotions, humor, and art. In 1999he published Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which presented his research on regular and irregular verbs as a way of explaining how language works in general. And in 2002 he published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which explored the political, moral, and emotional colorings of the concept of human nature. His latest book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature was published in hardcover in 2007 and paperback in 2008. Pinker frequently writes for The New York Times, Time, The New Republic, and other magazines on subjects such as language and politics,  the neural basis of consciousness, and the genetic enhancement of human beings.

Pinker is the Chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary and has served as editor or advisor for numerous scientific, scholarly, media, and humanist organizations, including the American Association the Advancement of Science, the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the Linguistics Society of America. He has won many prizes for his books (including the William James Book Prize three times, the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, and the Eleanor Maccoby Book Prize), his research (including the Troland Research Prize from the National Academy of Sciences, the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, and the Henry Dale Prize from the Royal Institution of Great Britain), and his graduate and undergraduate teaching. He is also a Humanist Laureate, the 2006 Humanist of the Year, recipient of the 2008 Innovations for Humanity Award from La Ciudad de las Ideas in Mexico, the 2008 Honorary President of the Canadian Psychological Association, and the recipient of six honorary doctorates.

Pinker lives in Boston and in Truro with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The other authors in the family are his sister Susan Pinker and Rebecca’s daughter Yael Goldstein.