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Harvard raids MIT for eminent professor

By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 4/4/2003

Harvard University's psychology department has scored an unusual hiring coup, wooing the eminent cognitive scientist Steven Pinker from the faculty of its cross-town rival, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The recruitment of Pinker not only adds one of the nation's best-known brain specialists to Harvard's ranks, but also reflects the university's determination to become a more serious player in science research outside of its medical school. It also marks an end of sorts to a gentleman's agreement among various departments at the two Cambridge schools not to raid each other's high-profile professors.

Harvard officials, led by President Lawrence H. Summers, have recently pledged to recruit more top scholars in the sciences, as well as young stars such as Pinker. The 48-year-old best-selling author is well-known for his assault on the ''blank slate'' theory of human nature, building a scientific case that genetics largely predetermines behavior.

Pinker, who came to MIT in 1982 and teaches the highly popular Introduction to Psychology course there, said yesterday that Harvard was a better fit for his evolving intellectual interests beyond linguistics and psychocognitive science to evolutionary science and biology.

''In 1988 I was writing a book about verbs and what they mean, and my most recent book today is on human nature - you can see a pretty big difference in how broad those topics are,'' Pinker said in an interview. ''For verbs, MIT is the best place; but for human nature and its implications, Harvard is the most important place.''

Pinker, who will assume an endowed professorship of psychology at Harvard in July, said he plans to teach a core curriculum class in human nature and also contribute to Harvard's Mind, Brain, and Behavior program, and span disciplines such as biology, English, and law. He said that neuroscience is an increasingly important discipline among Harvard officials and researchers, because of its potential for ''new knowledge'' as well as major gifts and grants.

MIT has sought to enhance its international reputation in the cognitive sciences by attracting scholars such as Pinker, author of ''The Language Instinct'' and ''How the Mind Works'' - two best-selling and prize-winning examinations of the life of the mind and its impacts on human behavior - and, most recently, ''The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. '' This last book, which landed on several best-of-the-year lists, argued that genetics has largely predetermined human nature over time.

An MIT official said yesterday that the school did ''everything we could'' to keep Pinker, and said the parting was amicable.

At Harvard, William C. Kirby, dean of faculty of arts and sciences, said of Pinker: ''His is a keen and capacious intellect, seasoned with wit, shot through with verve, capable of the most extraordinary connections between cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, moral and political thought, and popular culture. ...''

Harvard leaders have also sounded a note about challenging the supremacy of Stanford, the University of Chicago, and MIT in various scientific disciplines.

Patrick Healy can be reached

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 4/4/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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