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Steven Pinker: the mind reader

He has the looks of a rock star, a fondness for early Woody Allen movies, and a world-class reputation as a scientist and writer. Ed Douglas on the evolutionary psychologist with a popular touch and a mission to explain how the brain works


Saturday November 6, 1999

In room 10-250 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the brightest undergraduates in America are filing in for the start of their Thursday afternoon lecture. These students, taking psychology 101, are drawn from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and all of them, men and women, are dressed in the same baggy, designer-labelled sportswear. They are fresh-faced and polite, chattering about assignments and movies, and seem overwhelmingly confident that life will go well for them. When Labour's education policy-makers dream of the future, they see rooms full of young adults like this speaking Estuary English.

As the students gossip, the slight and compact figure of Steven Pinker arrives at the dais to start the lecture. He is often described as looking like a rock star, and his curly shoulder-length mane and Cuban heels give him the air of a prog rocker on his third comeback tour. He has a superbly defined jaw, glittering blue eyes and a kilowatt smile which he beams at his class as he switches on the microphone. Then he starts talking.

Some of his students have not read their lecturer's books and do not know just how high he flies in the neuroscientific firmament, but they sit in rapt attention. Pinker is a brilliant lecturer, scything through complex ideas and punctuating his remarks with good-natured wisecracks about how dumb Harvard students are and plenty of references to popular culture, although he seems touchingly confident that 19-year-olds are familiar with early Woody Allen. Jay Keyser, vice provost of MIT and an old friend of Pinker's, says "you cannot overestimate the value of a good example and Steve is a master of that. He's got to be one of the best teachers in the country."

Today's lecture includes a generous-spirited skewering of Descartes, and a more directed dissection of the leading behaviourist BF Skinner. It draws Pinker into a deft overview of one of the central psychological debates of the century, that between nature and nurture. He outlines the structure of the brain and argues that it is the interaction of different modules within it, honed by millions of years of evolution, which generates the conscious mind.

Pinker's fields of study have focused on two of these areas, visual cognition and language, and his best-selling analysis of the latter, The Language Instinct, launched him into the lucrative and rarefied orbit of popular writers on science like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. Pinker is also a convert to the controversial theories behind evolutionary psychology, developed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby at the University of California, which have been attacked on several fronts. For Pinker, who took the guiding principle of the pioneer thinker on psychology, Noam Chomsky, that language is an inherited ability, created and refined by natural selection, and made it comprehensible for the masses, the idea that other aspects of human psychology are inherited is self-evidently true.

Pinker used evolutionary psychology as one of the two main planks for his second best-seller, How The Mind Works; the other being the idea that the brain is an organ whose function is computation. For large swathes of intellectual culture, however, the very idea of evolutionary psychology is at best speculative and at worst unholy. Pinker - an atheist - has been condemned by the religious right, but also by feminists who reject the implications of female behaviour being in any way "hard-wired" into women. He claims to support "equity feminism" but is dismissive of "gender feminism" which, he says is "usually associated with media feminists over the age of 40 and study centres in universities who... see all differences between the sexes as socially constructed". That, he says is factually wrong: "It's a logical and tactical mistake." One of his "favourite preposterous arguments," he says, is "that because I believe that the male desire for multiple sexual partners has an evolutionary explanation (as opposed to a cultural explanation), I am excusing or apologising for men who sleep around".

Stephen Jay Gould has been withering in his dismissal of "evo- psych", describing its proponents as holding a "penchant for narrow and often barren speculation" which can be characterised as "pure guess-work in the cocktail-party mode". The two men indulged in a vituperative exchange in the New York Review of Books which generated more heat and, presumably, book sales, than understanding, and which proved, according to New Scientist, "only that Gould had a bigger dictionary than Pinker". The criticism didn' t stop there. Tom Wolfe, articulating the attitude of many writers and artists, said he was depressed by the trend of neuroscience to extinguish the notion of a "soul" and replace it with the function of an organ.

Pinker's arguments about the brain as an organ of computation, in effect a hugely powerful computer, was also savaged by those in arts faculties alarmed at what they perceived as a reductionist argument par excellence. "They attacked the notion that there is such a thing as the mind that can be studied separately from the surrounding culture," Pinker says. "They treat the mind as a temporary repository for the auto-nomous ideas that congregate in a culture, and believe that the proper study of the mind is the study of words and images that float around in society."

At a more fundamental level, perhaps, is the fear that Pinker' s conclusions, like those of his intellectual stablemates Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, are somehow dehumanising, that they undermine our identities as individuals and portray us instead as meat robots or gene machines. It was a fear best articulated by some British reviewers of How The Mind Works. "They absolutely trashed me on that point," Pinker says. "It reminded me of George Bernard Shaw's rejection of Darwinism because natural selection made all human hopes and aspirations a sham. It's a very materialist view of the mind, that sense that we're nothing more than a collection of richocheting molecules in the head. Does this eliminate free will, or deep meaning, or purpose?"

In the Tanner lectures on human values, which Pinker gave at Yale last spring, he described this interpretation of his ideas as seeing life as a "village with only a façade of value and worth. If we love our children, as evolutionary psychology suggests, because the genes for loving children are in the bodies of those children" - as well as in our own bodies - "and the genes are thereby benefiting copies of themselves, wouldn't that undermine the inherent goodness of that love and the value of the self-sacrifice that parenting entails?"

In an illustration more typical of Pinker's cultural taste, he quotes the opening scene of Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, when the young Alvy Singer tells a psychiatrist that he won't do his homework because the universe is expanding. If the universe is going to fall apart, he says, what is the point of human existence? "What has the universe got to do with it?" his mother wails at him. "You' re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!"

"That kind of reductionism is confusing two levels of analysis," Pinker says. "We have meaning and purpose here inside our heads, being the organisms that we are. We have brains that make it impossible for us to live our lives except in terms of meaning and purpose. The fact that you can look at meaning and purpose in one way, as a neuro-psychological phenomenon, doesn' t mean you can' t look at it in another way, in terms of how we live our lives."

The collection of genes known as Steven Pinker made the point most forcibly in How The Mind Works, where he explained his own decision not to have children - which apparently runs counter to the demands of evolution - and says that if his genes don't like it, "they can take a running jump." He was married in 1980 to Nancy Etcoff, the clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, and author of the recent book Survival of the Prettiest. The marriage lasted 12 years. He married his second wife, Ilavenil Subbiah, a Malaysian-born cognitive psychologist turned scientific illustrator and graphic artist, in 1995. She illustrated his two most recent books.

He stands by his earlier decision not to have children: "We still have no children - for the same reason that most people don't have 13 or 14 children, though they could surely afford them, and by a common misreading of Darwin, ought to want that many. We just take that decision to its logical extreme."

For some, evo-psych has disturbing political undertones, and like so-called socio-biology in the 1970s, it is open to abuse by those with an often right-wing political agenda. Morality is just one particularly fraught issue. Pinker cites the growing evidence that a sense of morality has a genetic element. "There is more in the moral faculty than just internalised lessons," he says. "We know some people seem to lack a moral sense almost in the same way that colour-blind people lack a photo-pigment. They seem to be chillingly devoid of this moral faculty, but not stupid, not socially inept and often ingenious in their ability to manipulate emotions."

He argues that an innate sense of justice is another aspect of evolutionary psychology, that an imperative to punish evil, as he terms it, and reward virtue is "likely to be an evolved set of emotions" while acknowledging that there are variations on what is considered evil. "The only tenable [law-enforcement] system is one that treats all intellectually normal people as responsible, if for no other reason than to have incentives in place that even sociopaths will use to control their behaviour." He opposes capital punishment "because of the costs of getting it wrong", and describes himself as "eclectically, non-dogmatically, libertarian".

But for a man who is accused of describing us as biological machines, he holds a very strong line on what makes us human. It has to do with our sense of wider humanity. "Ultimately," he concludes, "the question is: 'How great is the circle?' Does it include the guys in the next village, the guys over the mountain range, children, foetuses, patients in a vegetative state, animals etc? I think a lot of moral debates are not over what is the basis of justice, but who gets a ticket to play in the game."

This powerful streak of individualism runs through all his writing. In the Tanner lecture, he wrote an excoriating passage on how the behaviourism of the 1950s and1960s led to bizarre judicial manoeuverings and cited the Twinkie defence used by Dan White, tried for the murder of San Francisco mayor George Moscone in 1978. White claimed that an addiction to sugary foods had affected his brain chemistry and was sentenced to five years. More recently, other defendants have used genetic defences in an attempt to avoid incarceration.

"The apparent threat to the traditional notion of free will has nothing to do with genetic, neurobiological, or evolutionary explanations of behaviour," Pinker says. "It is raised by any explanation of behaviour. There is nothing specific to brains, genes, or evolutionary history that lends itself to bogus justifications for bad behaviour; any explanation can be abused in that way." In the same way, he dismisses those males who justify promiscuity or adultery by gleefully falling on evolutionary psychology as an excuse by claiming they are only behaving as their genes have programmed them to do. We have an inheritance, he argues, but we also have free will.

His clear thinking on these issues, maintained despite the passionate opposition he meets, is paradoxically life-affirming. Far from our natures - our genetic inheritance - ruling us and undermining our sense of identity, we can, according to Pinker, take refuge in a sense of common identity. "The strongest argument against totalitarianism may be a recognition of a universal human nature; that all humans have innate desires for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The doctrine of the blank slate, which justifies the dismissal of people's stated wants as an artefact of a particular time and place and thereby licences the top-down redesign of society, is a totalitarian's dream."

Pinker was born on September 18, 1954, in Montreal's Anglophone Jewish community. "I was never religious in the theological sense," he says, "I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew. Montreal had a vibrant Jewish community, a generation closer to Europe than the ones in American cities." Jay Keyser has no doubt about the origin of his eclectic wisdom: "It comes from growing up in the same town as Mordecai Richler. There' s something about Montreal that does it to you. It doesn' t surprise me that Steve Pinker started there." His father had graduated in law but worked as "a travelling salesman of ladies clothing" who bought and rented apartments as a sideline.

While the children were small, his mother was "what we would now call a home-maker," Pinker says. Later she took a master's degree and became a guidance counsellor - they called her "Pink the Shrink" - and then a high-school vice-principal. Long after Pinker had gone to college, his father began practising law. His younger sister worked for years as a child psychologist - "she's trained to actually do something" - and now writes as well. His brother, 12 years younger, is a policy analyst for the Canadian government.

Pinker is a private man: Keyser describes him as "surprisingly shy", and when discussion shifts away from his work and ideas to his family, Pinker becomes quite withdrawn. But when asked if his parents generated his interested in psychology, he replies with an even broader grin than usual: "Yes, it comes from my parents. The question is, how it comes from my parents." Of his childhood, all he will say is: "Certainly I had unhappy moments, but no more than any other kid."

When teased about the regular comments journalists make on his rock-star looks and asked if, as an adolescent, he had shared the fantasy of being a musician, his reply almost serves to confirm Keyser' s view: "I have to confess that watching rock'n'roll concerts, I did fantasise about being up on stage," and then he adds quickly: "Not in the lead. I never wanted to be Mick Jagger. Maybe the bass-player or the drummer. But I never, ever played air guitar." He now listens to jazz and blues predominantly and "used to go to the movies until they got so bad." Pinker studied psychology at McGill University in Montreal and moved to Harvard as a post-grad.

He was just a few years too young to be an authentic 1960s radical, but, he says, he experienced it vicariously through the older siblings of friends. "I was a 13-year-old anarchist, and wanted to study human nature, through anthropology, psychoanalysis, and psychology. I was a Rousseauan then; now I'm a Hobbesian. I started out at a two-year college dominated by hippies, Marxists, and US draft dodgers, but when I was elected student rep for psychology, the department head talked me out of psychoanalytic theory and into scientific, laboratory-oriented psychology."

Steve Kosslyn, professor of psychology at Harvard, says: "He was officially my student, but almost from the start we were colleagues." When he discovered the field of cognitive science, "partly through the McGill University course catalogue, partly through reading about the Chomskyan revolution in magazines, and was told that people might 'pay' you to study the mind, I knew what I wanted to do with my life." Pinker says it was "a romantic career choice - all the papers were running stories about unemployed PhDs driving taxis, and going to graduate school was considered about as practical as becoming a painter or jazz musician. But that was a pretty tame form of rebellion and I was hardly a hellion - a good student, did fewer drugs than Bill Clinton, never drank in college, not even beer."

His career in visual cognition, effectively working out how the brain processes the information received by the eye, was spent researching how three-dimensional space is represented as visual mental images and on the range of attention the eye holds beyond its focus, both immensely complex. Another area of innovation focused on the psychology of charts and graphs and why the human brain finds them so satisfactory. "His work is virtually unique in the field, and I predict that more than one career will be made in following up his seminal thoughts on the topic," Kosslyn says. "He has an enormous breadth of interests and competences. It is virtually unheard of for someone to have accomplished so much in two such widely disparate areas as he has."

Pinker continued working on visual cognition until the early 1990s alongside his interest in language, but it is the latter which has made him famous, even though he is quick to point out that he is no linguist. "Fundamentally, I am a psychologist and a cognitive scientist. Language is just one branch of cognition." At Harvard, he got to know the psychology professor Roger Brown, who had a profound effect on the young Pinker, not least in the field of language acquisition, where Brown was the first to apply the ideas of Chomsky. Jay Keyser, who brought Pinker to MIT in 1979 when he was director of the centre for cognitive studies, was a linguist and Pinker took the chance Keyser offered to broaden his interests. Keyser says wryly: "He was the duck, I was supplying the water."

"Think about the phrase 'We holded the baby rabbits'," Pinker says. "It' s the perfect example of how children are not just parroting what they hear but are actively combining things according to rules. I chose to study it at the point I realised that we knew next to nothing about why it should be so. We knew that kids made the error, but we didn't know why they start doing it and why they stop. It seemed a great opening to gather lots of interesting data on an issue that had theoretical implications as well."

Had he continued mining those areas where his curiosity led him, Pinker would have had a highly regarded academic career about which the public would have known almost nothing. But with the publication of The Language Instinct in 1994, he took the mass of ideas and research that had been going on into the different branches of language and linguistics and explained them clearly, which was miracle enough, but also with a brilliant and witty eye for illustration. Keyser says "He was a careful worker, obviously a player. Then came The Language Instinct and he suddenly found a voice that may have been buried in his work but which I hadn't seen before. And it was superb. It was the perfect tone about a really complicated field to an intelligent lay audience that had not been adressed."

In the book, Pinker good-naturedly demolished the arguments of those he terms the "language mavens", those guardians of correct speaking, and presented language as vibrant, flexible and constantly evolving. He also gave a transparent explanation of Chomsky's notoriously difficult ideas about the evolutionary development of language and how it is represented in the brain - while remaining level-headed about their usefulness. "I don't think Chomsky's ideas ever won widespread acceptance among psychologists or even linguists," he says. "I support the idea that language has some kind of biological specificity, that our brains are optimised for language."

Did he ever worry that people will be dismantling his work in the same way? He grimaces. "I'd be naive to think that they won't."

Pinker's new book Words And Rules is full of his trademark asides; cartoon strips sit alongside an exegesis on Wittgenstein; he describes those areas of the brain responsible for language as having the appearance of roadkill. You can dismiss such leavening analogies as being glib, or praise Pinker for being accessible, but the underlying strength of his popular science writing is to explain with ease current psychological research in a decade which has seen exponential development in our understanding of how our brains function.

Words And Rules effectively starts out as a book about regular and irregular verbs, which sounds crushingly dull but is, in Pinker's hands, compelling and revelatory in unlocking a crucial area of human psychology. The presence of verbs which form their past tense by adding the suffix "-ed", regular verbs, and verbs which form their past tense in non-regular ways, is shown by Pinker to be an expression of a fundamental dichotomy in the way the brain functions. Language is generated by a combination of memory and generative rules, a process that applies equally to other areas of cognition. So when your three-year-old tells you they "bringed you a cup of tea" they may be technically wrong, but they are performing a mental task of almost bewildering sophistication.

According to Harvard neuropsychologist Alfonso Caramazza, it is for his observations of this duality within the brain that Pinker will be remembered as a scientist: "Steve' s thinking about it is especially clear and because of that he has been able to formulate the questions more clearly than others and what kind of arguments are relevant." Oliver Morton wrote in the New Yorker that How The Mind Works, "marks out the territory on which the coming century's debate about human nature will be held."

Talking to Pinker or listening to his lectures, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by his rangy intelligence, and even more difficult not to like him. But the world is a messier place than a lecture hall in Boston full of bright students, and outside academia the current debate on human nature can seem isolating and overly materialistic - plenty of people are finding the twentieth century a sterile and loveless place. Yet Pinker says: "We're living in primate heaven. We're warm, dry, we're not hungry, we don't have fleas and ticks and infections. So why," he adds with a huge smile, "are we so miserable?"

Of course, by and large, we' re not and there is research to prove it but given the pace of material improvement in our lives, we're not that much happier either. Pinker says: "One of the things that people complain about is loneliness, disconnectedness. If you live in a society where your life is rarely threatened and most of your relationships are more on an economic exchange basis, then this could leave people feeling less connected. It might even create a need for fictive allies, especially in men."

Pinker's relish for ideas and explaining them leaves little room to get the sense that he empathises with the failures and disappointments most of us experience, of feeling anything but curiosity about the stricken man. His world, like that of his students, seems too good to be true - until he discusses his now-dead mentor Roger Brown. Pinker describes Brown as like Cary Grant, tall, debonair, impossibly charming, a brilliant thinker who escaped a poor background in Detroit and went on to make a huge contribution to the understanding of how language is acquired by children. He was also a homosexual - Brown himself said he was "born too early to be gay" - and following the death of his partner in the late 1980s suffered horribly, both psychologcially and physically, and seemed to dismantle his own personality with deliberate care. He published a memoir in which he presented himself as "vain, needy, histrionic, jealous, addicted and downright foolish".

Brown committed suicide in 1997 and Pinker wrote his friend' s obituary, an uncharacteristically sober and sympathetic piece, for a specialist journal. "Roger, a social psychologist," wrote Pinker, "knew more than anyone that one of the strongest human motives is impression management, the desire to look good. And no one would have had an easier time making himself look good than Roger. But he chose not to leave us with that impression. It would be comforting to remember Roger only in his Cary Grant persona, and to write off the last decade as a pathology of grief and ageing. But that would not be true to Roger the real person_ or to Roger the great psychologist and writer, who had so often enlivened his observations about human beings with observations of himself.

"For Roger chose to leave us with one last set of observations of the human species. He reminded us of the fragility of happiness, the inscrutability of our passions, and the elusiveness of the self."

Steven Pinker

Born: September 18, 1954

Montreal, Canada.

Education: Bachelor of arts (psychology), McGill University, Montreal,1976: doctor of philosophy (experimental psychology), Harvard University, 1979.

Academic Positions: Assistant professor, department of psychology, Stanford University 1981-82; assistant professor, department of psychology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1982-85;

co-director, centre for cognitive science, MIT 1985-94; professor, department of brain and cognitive sciences MIT 1994-.

Some publications: Language Learnability And Language Development, 1984; Learnability And Cognition: The Acquisition Of Argument structure ,1989; The Language Instinct ,1994; How The Mind Works, 1997; Words and Rules: The Ingredients Of Language, 1999.



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