May. 22, 2003
Darwin of the mind
By JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH
Eminent psychologist Steven Pinkers has raised eyebrows - and some ire - with his claim that human intelligence evolves and is entirely mechanical.
How do you define a brilliant mind? It could be described as one that sifts through data and manages to use the facts in unconventional ways to create new connections, thoughts and concepts. By any measure, Prof. Steven Pinker's mind is brilliant; he is a unifier who ties a lot of big ideas together. Few of his colleagues would be surprised if a Nobel Prize is in his future.
This 49-year-old evolutionary psychologist in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - who will soon move to Harvard - has been called many things. He was described as "science's agent provocateur" by The Guardian, an "evolutionary pop star" by Time magazine, a wunderkind by The Washington Post and by The Times of London as a "world-class cognitive psychologist." In 1995, Newsweek put him on its list of One Hundred Americans for the Next Century. But the praise seems not to affect him, like water off a duck's back. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier this week during his first visit to Israel in three decades, the illustrious scientist and thinker seems very modest indeed.
Since Pinker argues in many of his six major published works that the human mind - like the human body - has been designed by natural selection through the process of biological evolution, perhaps he can't really take much credit for his brilliant mind; maybe it's just his Jewish genes or its derivation is long before the first Jew appeared?
A striking looking man with grey-blue eyes and chin-length curly salt-and-pepper hair, he received his BA from McGill University in 1976 and his doctorate in psychology from Harvard in 1979. After serving on the faculties of Harvard and Stanford, he moved to MIT in the early 1980s, where he wrote his major and mostly bestselling books, including How the Mind Works , The Language Instinct and Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. He has been asked to edit the prestigious Best Science and Nature Writing 2004, and plans to complete a book on language and thought in 2006.
Two of Pinker's books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize (the most recent, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, was near the top of the list for 2003), and he has received many honors. The latest, for which he came to an Israel that looks and feels very different from the one he last witnessed in pre-Yom Kippur War 1973, is an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University. He also came to attend the opening on the TAU campus of the Lieselotte Adler Lab for Research in Child Development, headed by Prof. Sidney Strauss, who took Pinker and his Singaporean-born wife Ilavenil on a tour of Jerusalem.
Pinker, a native of Montreal who grew up in a warm Jewish home, said he had wanted to see Israel more recently, but the last time his trip was cancelled due to the Gulf War at the end of 1990. Although some colleagues were surprised that he was coming now - seven Jerusalemites were murdered at the French Hill intersection a few hours before our interview - he was not deterred.
Having long studied the human mind, he still can't really explain in evolutionary terms how over 100 young Palestinians in the past 31 months have buckled explosives to their bodies and gone out to murder people they don't even know.
"They have an ideology and religious belief that they will be reincarnated and be rewarded for such a deed. As a result, you lose deterrent. There is no ordinary way to deter such horrible acts. They don't care if they lose their life," Pinker noted. "They believe the soul is separate from the body. In Judaism, the observant also believe in the soul being separate from the body, and in an afterlife, but not one that can be reached as a kamikaze by committing violence against another."
Pinker attended Hebrew school and Sunday school in Montreal, and even taught at a school in a synagogue, but doesn't remember more than a few words of Hebrew. Nevertheless, he found Hebrew to be a source of inspiration for his scientific studies of language, the use of regular and irregular verbs, and the rules of grammar. Working with Prof. Joseph Shimron of the University of Haifa's School of Education and Israeli-born Iris Berent of the psychology department of Florida Atlantic University, he wrote an 80-page article on "Default Nominal Inflection in Hebrew: Evidence for Mental Variables." In his "inflectional morphology" research on regular (such as walk-walked) and irregular verbs (come-came) to understand language in general, he states that irregular verbs are idiosyncratic and have to be memorized because they are not decided by rules. Regular verbs, he says, can be freely generated even by children, and new words can be created by following these rules, such as "faxed," "spammed" or "googled."
He has examined the ability to derive the regular "walked" from "walk" or the irregular "mice" from "mouse" as a case study of the interaction between memory and rule-processing in language. A key idea, he said, is that "regular forms like 'walked' may be generated by a mental rule, whereas irregular forms like 'mice' must be retrieved from memory. In the past the lab has studied how the system works computationally, how it is learned, how it varies across languages, how it is used in language production and comprehension, and how it is represented in the brain."
He is currently comparing identical and non-identical twins' use of incorrect irregular verbs and corresponding nouns to see whether there is a genetic influence.
His paper on Hebrew shows that Israelis use the regular masculine inflection automatically as a default despite the overlaps in the distribution of regular and (the few) irregular Hebrew masculine nouns. He and his colleague proved that "regular inflection is productively applied to novel nouns regardless of their similarity to existing regular nouns. In contrast, the inflection of irregular-sounding nouns is strongly sensitive to their similarity to stored irregular tokens... Hebrew speakers assign the default regular inflection to borrowings and names that are identical to existing irregular nouns. The convergence of the circumstances triggering default inflection in [Semitic] Hebrew and [Indo-European] German and English suggests that the capacity for default inflection may be general."
Got that straight now?
Although this psycholinguistic subject is certainly esoteric and elusive to the layman, others investigated by Pinker have raised blood pressures around the world. His notions about the biological basis of human nature, while highly praised by many, have aroused much opposition and even savage attacks by both the Left and the Right. Extreme left-wingers have claimed that evolutionary psychology is baseless speculation, while right-wing writers in the US and Europe claim Pinker wants to undermine the religious basis of morality, and oppose his support for evolution.
"Some of the issues I explore are concerns of the Left, which sees evolutionary and genetic approaches to the mind as reactionary. Others annoy the Right, which thinks that a materialist view of the mind that incorporates computation, neuroscience, evolution, and genetics undermines the basis of morality and leaves us with only a dangerous amoralism," Pinker said in a previous interview.
He has his own arguments with the man whom he calls the world's "most famous and active linguistic scientist," his MIT colleague Prof. Noam Chomsky. It was the very left-wing Chomsky - a Jew who is highly critical of Israel - who gave MIT such an illustrious reputation in linguistics.
"He is 74 and very active. He says language is an innate human ability. If so, where does it come from? I say it comes from evolutionary biology, while Chomsky says it's more complicated than Darwin. Chomsky proposed that there's a universal grammar in the world's 6,000 languages. And he is a socialist anarchist, so he thinks man is by nature good and that people can naturally live in harmony and don't need police forces to keep them under control. I am neither a socialist nor an anarchist. I am more pessimistic," Pinker declared.
Pinker, who confides that he preferred Al Gore to George Bush in the US presidential elections, calls himself a "classical liberal, which many today would call a conservative. I am pro-science, pro-reason, moderate in politics." After 21 years at MIT, "the world's best place for linguistics," Pinker said he decided to make the move "a few subway stations away" to Harvard. He was motivated to switch because his interests have ballooned beyond pure linguistics, and Harvard offers a wider range of subjects, he said.
A growing number of experts around the world are beginning to agree with Pinker that "neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life - every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory - can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain. Cognitive science has shown that feats that were formerly thought to be doable by mental stuff alone can be duplicated by machines, that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation. Not computation the way your IBM PC does computation, but computation nonetheless, a kind of fuzzy analog to parallel computation.
"So intelligence, which formerly seemed miraculous - something that mere matter could not possibly accomplish or explain - can now be understood as a kind of computation process."