Steven Pinker

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Department of Psychology
Harvard University
Best American Science and Nature Writing The Blank Slate Words and Rules How the Mind Works The Language Instinct Learnability and Cognition Language Learnability and Language Development Edited Academic Volumes


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Excerpts from reviews

Steven Pinker hasn't explained everything in his compelling new book... But he explains a great deal. ... One must read "How the Mind Works" to feel the full force of the case it makes. As lengthy as it is, it will produce a book in the reader's head that is even longer. For it alters completely the way one thinks about thinking, and its unforeseen consequences probably can't be contained by a book.
—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times, November 24, 1997

Readers of Pinker's earlier book The Language Instinct will be delighted to see that there is "a new Pinker." After that masterpiece, expectations are inevitably high, but I was not disappointed. How the Mind Works is just as literate—witty popular science that you enjoy reading for the writing as well as for the science. Pinker has breathed marvelous life into the computational models, the originals of which are buried in nerdish obscurity. He knows when to hold his readers' attention with an illustration or a joke. No other science writer makes me laugh so much. ... He is a top-rate writer, and deserves the superlatives that are lavished on him.
—Mark Ridley in The New York Times Book Review, October 5, 1997, p. 11

Steven Pinker's new book about the mind is big, brash, and a lot of fun. ... If How the Mind Works offers a smooth and surprisingly pleasant ride over some pretty rugged intellectual terrain, it is because Pinker writes in the same breezy style that brightens his classroom lectures. ... How the Mind Works is stirring up an academic hornet's nest.
—Madeleine Nash in Time, October 20, 1997

[one] of the year's best readable science books. ... an excellent summary of attempts to "reverse-engineer" the mind. Mr. Pinker has a knack for making the profound seem obvious. ... a fascinating bag of evolutionary insights.
The Economist, October 18-24, 1997, p. 9 of Review of Books and Multimedia

...a wild intellectual ride. ...if anyone can tackle a subject as vast as the workings of the mind, it ought to be Pinker. ... Fans know he has a dry wit that leavens explanations of even the deadest material, and his seemingly effortless elegance of style has always made me think of him as the Fred Astaire of science writing. ... "How the Mind Works" is undeniably brilliant. ..
—JoAnn Gutin in Newsday, October 19, 1997

The great nineteenth-century psychologist William James wrote that "it takes a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange so far as to ask for the 'why' of any instinctive act." By this yardstick, Steven Pinker ... has a mind deeply debauched. His latest book, "How the Mind Works", provides not only "why"s but "how"s for all sorts of instinctive acts—from why we grieve to how we recognize objects. It's an authoritative synthesis of cognitive science, which looks at the mind as a sysstem for processing information, and evolutionary psychology, which looks at the mind the way Darwin would. As such, the book marks out the territory on which the coming century's debate about human nature will be held.
—Oliver Morton in The New Yorker, November 3, 1997, p. 102

At some time or another, most of us become puzzled, at least for a while, about the strange workings of the mind. ... [Hundreds of these] conundrums are solved once and for all in this new book from Steven Pinker, the wunderkind from MIT... No one tells this story with greater authority or panache ... OK, I admit that his smarts and knowledge verge on the annoying. One senses a guilty wish for a law against someone knowing this much and passing judgments on intricate problems with such ease. Fortunately Pinker eschews the usual ponderous academic obfuscations, and his light sense of humor makes one almost forgive his intimidation erudition. ... Most of [his conclusions] are like shafts of light illuminating what is usually a dark domain.
—Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi in The Washington Post Book World, November 16, 1997

[Pinker's] new book is large, wide-ranging, attractively written, and generally well-argued. ... What Pinker presents may be the most convincing general theory of mind currently on offer... [He] explains all this with exemplary clarity and breadth, dispelling many misconceptions about the approach and providing a convenient survey of much current thinking about the mind and its place in nature. [He is] commandably clear ... about the logical gulf separating the scientific facts (or theories) from the ethical issues of right and wrong. ... Pinker has given us a fine survey of the state of the art in the science of mind.
—Colin McGinn in The New Republic, February 23, 1998, pp. 34-38

Pinker's early chapters may be the best chance non-specialist readers will ever have to understand [the computational theory of mind]. The second half of Pinker's definition [of the mind] invokes Darwinian natural selection, and here, too, the exposition is first rate... But how do we know that the brain is a machine? And what are the moral implications of saying so? Answers to these and dozens of other questions, from "Do we think in words or images?" to "How much is nature and how much is nurture?" to "What is sex appeal?" to "Why is music pleasing?"—along with more laughs than one would have thought possible in so illuminating a book—await readers of "How the Mind Works." ... The vast cooperative intellectual enterprise we come to know by spending [time with this book] is simply thrilling in its intricacy, subtlety, and scope. Whether or not it definitively explains are species, it at least goes a little way toward redeeming us.
—George Scialabba in The Boston Sunday Globe, November 9, 1997, p. L1 & L4

... hugely entertaining ... always sparkling and provoking.
—Jim Holt in The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 1997

Pinker is an entertaining guide to the workings of what he calls the "connectoplasm" that makes us what we are. ... Some is familiar, most not; and all is explained with energy and style. .... On the way through the neural jungle, Pinker comes up with an endless series of extraordinary facts. ... The strength of How the Mind Works is in its deconstruction of the mechanism of the brain from the evidence of what it can and cannot do. Much of it is straight science. The explanation of the mind's eye—three dimensional vision—is the clearest I know... Pinker uses humor (much of it Jewish and all of it funny) to illustrate his more ticklish points. ... a model of scientific writing: erudite, witty, and clear. ... [an] excellent book.
—Steve Jones in The New York Review of Books, November 6, 1997

In his boldly titled new book, MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker sets himself the impossible task of explaining to readers How the Mind Works. Pinker writes clearly, with wit and flair, and he has produced an excellent layperson's introduction to these questions. ... It's a fascinating 660-page expedition into the workings of the human mind; give it someone who likes to think hard about the meaning of life.
—Scott Stossel in The Boston Phoenix, December 4-11, 1997

Pinker is in the tradition of Bertrand Russell as a popularizer of science and a debunker of myths; like Russell, too, he urgently wants the reader to understand that science is not necessarily destructive of ethics, voluntary action, or authentic emotions. How the Mind Works is an ideal introduction to a new view of human nature, one that is likely to gain in influence over time; it's an important book even for those who don't share Pinker's conclusions.
—Adam Kirsch in The Boston Phoenix, Sept. 12, 1997

Pinker's new book is a guided tour of the inner recesses of your psyche, which looks less like the Freudian house of horrors than a house of mirrors. Written with the literary flair to be expected from the author of The Language Instinct.
Discover, October, 1997

With clever examples and buoyant prose, he floats the argument that the mind is a killer collection of "software modules"... A remarkable synthesis whose rhetorical shimmer alone may help transform "evolutionary psychology" ... from a politically and scientifically suspect upstart into a dominant paradigm. ... [Pinker] is a popularizer in the best sesne of the word: He makes complex ideas comprehensible, even compelling, without dumbing them down. And his writerly charm helps to neurtralize the acid that is Darwinism.
—John Horgan in Lingua Franca, November, 1997

With verve and clarity, the author The Language Instinct offers a thought-challenging explanation of why our minds work the way they do. ... What could be heavy going with a less talented guide is an enjoyable expedition with the witty Pinker leading the way. ... Fascinating stuff.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1997

Pinker is distinguished amongst psychologists for his research on vision and imagery, and language and learnability, but he is famous for his last book The Language Instinct, which was a brilliant success and a best-seller. He has a gift for exposition, for witty analogies, for apposite quotation from his vast knowledge of culture, high and low. And he knows when to skip the details of difficult technicalities. He uses all these skills in his current book. It is erudite [and] light in touch ...
—Phillip Johnson-Laird in Nature

... masterful ... clearly written. He has a gift for making enormously complicated mechanisms—and human foibles—accessible, and he offers a truly comprehensive vision of how number crunching allowed the seeing, hearing, and feeling human parts to evolve within a wondrous, modularized, and goal-directed whole.
Publishers Weekly, July 28, 1997, p. 59

... an excellent overview and update ... cannot be recommended too highly. ... The writing and organization are superb, and discussion is lightened by some good jokes.
—Michael Ruse in The Toronto Globe and Mail, October 25, 1997, p. D11

... if [this new work] does not completely answer the question [in the title, it] comes very close to it. There is no one better suited for this task, for Pinker, while a scientist, is also a gifted writer and, even more invitingly, a lover of pop culture.
—Kristina Curkovic in Michigan Review, October 29, 1997, p. 20

His project couldn't be more ambitious. He covers everything from esoterica like Magic Eye autostereograms to passions like mother love, laughter, and the appeal of music with wit and ingenuity.
Discover, gift ideas, December, 1997, p. 74

Pinker's own style is an argument for innate [sex] differences. He doesn't just want to make his point, he wants to beat the competition and disarm his academic opponents. To win, he must court his readers with wit, charm, and a forceful, aggressive style. And, rather promiscuously, he doesn't just marry one point of view—he mates with ideas from a dozen different fields. What a guy. ... Pinker's delight in the mind's trompe l'oiels and his eagerness to entertain readers kept reminding me of the magician Doug Henning. He shows us how the mind sees a lady being sawn in half, when in reality the saw slides between two separate compartments. ... Pinker's best trick is his wit and stylish writing. ... Pinker does a brilliant job of synthesizing insights from a number of fields into a book that is readable and hugely intelligent.
—Marni Jackson in The Ottawa Citizen's Weekly Books, December 21, 1997, p. E3-E4

660 pages, every one of them a treat. ... At the end the reader knows two things with absolute Cartesian certainty: he knows more about optics, reverse engineering, robotics, instinct, and the human mind than he ever thought possible. And he knows that spiritual growth and moral truths are attainable even within the strictness of scientific inquiry. This is the one book to have on a desert island, assuming that How to Build a Boat isn't available. Your stay on the island will be made more enjoyable as Pinker's thinking unfolds in perfect prose and you might just learn enough to figure out a way to get off the island.
—Paul Reid in Palm Beach Post, March 1, 1998

... a highly engaging and passionately argued account of the explanatory potential of evolutionary psychology. ... Pinker's account of the computational requirements involved in visual processing is superb and I know of no better explanation both in terms of accessibility and elegance of exposition. ...the humour, breadth and clarity of thought ... make this work essential reading for anyone curious about the human mind.
—Raymond Dolan in The Observer, January 4, 1988, p. 14

A lucidly argued, highly engaging account of the explanatory potential of evolutionary psychology.
The Observer Review, January 18, 1998, p. 18

Pinker writes wonderfully well. He has the ability to combine informality, clear exposition and wit with an extraordinary breadth of knowledge in dealing with complex concepts of the mind. ... The book is filled with fascinating material.
—Lewis Wolpert in Hampstead and Highgate Express, January 16, 1998, p. 24

An exceptionally ambitious, highly entertaining and argumentative account of the role evolutionary psychology can play in explaining the workings of the brain. As well as offering an effortless mastery of some extremely difficult theoretical writing, Pinker is witty, lucid, and ultimately enthralling. If you're interested in the mind, this is both indispensable and truly authoritative.
—Robert McCrum in The Observer, January 18, 1998

This book will become a landmark in popular science. We are unlikely to get a more readable treatment of such a broad landscape. ... How the Mind Works is a major public asset. Above all, it delineates the most useful way of thinking about the mind.
—Marek Kohn in The Independent Sunday Magazine, January 17, 1998, p. 10

... A witty, erudite, stimulating, and provocative book that throws much new light on the machinery of the mind. ... A brilliant exposition of human vision ... is one of the most elegant pieces of writing I have come across about the mechanics of living processes. How the Mind Works is an important book.
—Kenan Malik in Independent on Sunday, January 18, 1998, p. 26

The genius of Pinker's book lies in his account ... of just how amazing a machine the human mind is. ... He is a clear and witty writer and he explains big theoretical ideas in a way that non-experts can enjoy. Readers of his best-selling, award-winning, extensively grapevine-recommended The Language Instinct know what to expect. How the Mind Works, with its broader scope, deserves to be another smash hit.
—Mark Ridley in The Sunday Telegraph, January 11, 1998

Exceptionally good at exposition ... presents what is probably the best statement you can find in print of a very important contemporary view of mental structure and process.
—Jerry Fodor in The London Review of Books

Being a great unifier would be of little value if Pinker did not have something to say himself, and he has a great deal, much of it groundbreaking, some of it highly controversial. ... As much as anything, How the Mind Works is a primer in remarkable science writing ... His own interpretation of all we take for granted is nothing if not stimulating.
—Simon Garfield in The Mail on Sunday, January 25, 1998

The theory ... is presented with extraordinary lucidity, cogency, and panache. ... This is certainly one of the most impressive works of accessible (as opposed to popular) science even of the present golden age. ... It offers the chance to witness one of the major advances in human thinking, the cognitive revolution, which is offering the possibility of a completely new and enormously more satisfying conception of the complex structures that we are and the forces that drive us. ... Powerful and gripping. ... To have read [the book] is to have consulted a first draft of the structural plan of the human psyche. ... What is most astonishing about this book is not its compendious range and facility in expounding the ideas of others but the extraordinary vigor of its reasoning and its use of telling examples and illustrations. ... A glittering tour de force. ... I predict that historians of the future will conclude that the publication of How the Mind Works was the breakthrough for introducing the cognitive conception of man to the mass audience it so richly deserves.
—Hugh Lawson-Tancred in The Spectator, January 10, 1998, p. 24-25

Beautifully written, engaging at every turn, hilariously funny, and devilishly clever. ... In dispensing with [other people's] positions, Pinker is specific as to why. He doesn't "dis"; he confronts and makes his case clearly and upfront. It is because of this quality, the book is not only lively, it is useful as a text. ... This book is to be read, reread, studied and discussed. The deceptive ease with which it can be enjoyed masks the depths of the message it communicates.
—Michael Gazzaniga in Trends in Cognitive Science, 2, p. 38, May 1998

Pinker's style is both colloquial and elegant. He is a natural communicator, but never condescends. ... He draws on an impressive range of analogies. ... But Pinker is not, like a trendy vicar jazzing up a sermon by mentioning the Spice Girls, making a self-conscious effort to be populist. This is just the way his mind works.
—Nicholas Cree in The Bookseller, November 28, 1997

Steven Pinker's account ... is learned, instructive, clever, and charming, but reading it gives the strange sensation that portions of your brain are being plucked out one by one and rotated in front of your eyes for close inspection. It's not an unpleasant sensation, merely disorienting. ... The book is didactic in the best sense: it gives you all sorts of things to think about. It makes you think about them in ways that would never have occurred to you. And it makes work for the mind feel like play.
—Christoper Dornan in The Montreal Gazette, January 31, 1998, p. J3

A wonderful overview ... Writing with exceptional clarity combined with a healthy dose of humor, he is delightfully provocative.
—Cyrus Taylor in The Plain Dealer, January 25, 1998

Will certainly [be] one of the most influential works on the human mind in this decade. ... He obviously writes well and with real flair (this must surely be the only book in cognitive psychology to become a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club). Clever without being mannered, he has, what is more, a mind like grandmother's attic: his mental gallery, much like a storage room in the Smithsonian Institution, is filled with factoidal bric-a-brac that he can call up at will and that, unlike the factoids flashed on the screen by CNN before a commercial break, he makes directly relevant to his point.
—Edward T. Oakes in First Things, March, 1998

Pinker has a remarkable capacity to explain difficult ideas and he writes the comic verve of Martin Amis or Woody Allen. ... Indeed, How the Mind Works is so entertaining a sentence or paragraph at a time that you can be well into the book before you realise how complex, counterintuitive, and radical a theory of mental activity he is proposing, and how much the pleasure of reading Pinker has to be earned by attention and hard intellectual work. Happily, and investment in the first half othe book pays off for the second half; once the reader grasps Pinker's core ideas from neuroscience and biology—the computational theory of mind and the importance of natural selection—his specific applications come more rapidly, and inspire a conceptual breakthrough as unsettling and exciting as seeing the figures in an autosterogram. ... How the Mind Works will change the way your mind works, and provide both tools for survival and a lot of mental cheesecake.
—Elaine Showalter in The Times, January 15, 1998, p. 36

The kind of research he reports here may in due course enable someone ... to get a Nobel Peace prize and really deserve it.
—Samuel Brittan in The Financial Times , February 2, 1998

A thoroughly readable, informative, and provocative account. ... His argument is convincing it its own terms and perhaps all the more so because he does not side-step the fascinating, if as yet unresolved, questions posed by the emergent properties of unexpected super-smartness ... Pinker seeks to convince us that natural selection designed the mind to be an information processor, which now perceives, imagines, simulates, and plans, and on the whole he succeeds. ... A rich and thrilling romp ... How the Mind Works is a big and important book ... Of the rash of such titles that have appeared in the last year this is the best but do not expect an easy ride.
—Bruce Avery in Scotland on Sunday, January 18, 1998

If a criterion of intelligence is respect for one's subject, Steven Pinker's awe-filled new book about mentality shows that he is very smart. He entirely avoids the smugness that afflicts many psychologists as they tell us how they duped their subjects, often by mispresentations, into revealing yet another dumb human habit that smacks all too often of moral weakness. ... Pinker's wit and eloquence are reminiscent of Lewis Thomas crossed with Paul Fussell or Tom Wolfe, and his style provides memorable apothegms on every page.
—David Forrest in American Journal of Psychiatry, 155:6, June 1998

Let me suggest that those of you who lived through the sociobiological wars and came out on the negative side, or those of you who have heard about the wars and suspect that with all that fire there must have been smoke of a particularly offensive ideological kind, read Pinker's book and ask yourselves whether things really have stood still. Are we really back on square one with the biology of human social behaviour or have we started slowly to move forward? If nothing else, the book is fun to read.
—Michael Ruse in Biology and Philosophy: 13, 301-307, 1998

How does the mind work? In his latest popular book, Steven Pinker offers more plausible answers to this fundamental question than have ever appeared in a single-authored volume. This is in part because Pinker is an eclectic and insightful scientist, but also because he explicity develops both proximate and ultimate approaches to the problem, attacking from the bottom up and from the top down. ... Pinker is a thoughtful and engagingly witty scientist. At its best, his writing equals Richard Dawkins' illuminating prose in books like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. ... In How the Mind Works, Pinker has tackled a larger and presently more diffuse problem, one that bridges traditional disciplines in an unconventional, challenging, and important way. Those who take the challenge seriously will find stimulating insights throughout the book.
—Steven Gaulin in Evolution and Human Behavior: 19, 137-138, 1998

Pinker's objective in this erudite account is to explore the nature and history of the human mind. It is a daunting task, but one that he handles with enormous energy and wit. ... Think about it, then pack it!
—Cheryl Younson in London Sunday Times Book Section, 6 June 27, 1999