Thinking about thinking: Pinker sets out to focus jointly on language and behavior

Sunday, September 23, 2007
The Oregonian

S teven Pinker's four books for general readers have alternated between a relatively narrow focus on his specialty, the formation of language in children ("The Language Instinct," "Words and Rules"), and broader examinations of the theory of natural selection and human behavior ("How the Mind Works," "The Blank Slate").

The last, "The Blank Slate," was also the most ambitious. It sought to demolish three abiding myths about the human mind: The Blank Slate (that the brain has no inherent structure and is utterly unformed at birth), The Noble Savage (that humans are naturally peaceful), and the Ghost in the Machine (the notion of a dualism between mind and body, matter and soul).

The book was a 2002 best-seller, received a Pulitzer nomination in 2003, and made the Harvard psychology professor a superstar in science writing.

Both varieties of books made for absorbing reading, not only for their fascinating subject matter but also because Pinker is a lucid, literate and engaging writer who quotes not only from scientific studies but from classic literature, poetry, movies, Jewish and science jokes, and pop songs. His books reproduce cartoons from "Calvin and Hobbes," "Zippy the Pinhead," and "Dilbert."

Pinker's new book, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature," claims to synthesize both lines of inquiry; he calls it the third volume of two different trilogies -- one on language and the mind, and the other on human behavior.

But where "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate" tackled everything from how the human eye evolved to the mental proclivity toward religious belief; discussed issues of freedom versus equality; affirmed a genetic basis for violent behavior; and speculated on whether artistic expression through painting and music might not be an evolutionary adaptation . . . "The Stuff of Thought" sticks closer to home.

Past, present and future word tenses, spatial language, common social metaphors, words that don't exist but should, obscenity and taboo words, and the indirect verbal games people play in seduction and power plays are certainly interesting topics, but they're less provocative.

That does not mean the book avoids political and topical controversies entirely. Right away Pinker shows how an issue may be linguistically reframed by describing the court battle between insurance companies about how much they owed for the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. He asks whether President Bush might have been said to have lied when he told Congress that Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium through Niger. ("A strong case could be made that he did," Pinker writes.)

Bill Clinton gets full semantic marks for his much-derided comment in grand jury testimony, "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Pluto fails the planet test.

In a way, Pinker's books are a more indirect, entertaining and wide-ranging counterpart to the linguistics of Noam Chomsky, the sociobiology of E.O. Wilson, the defenses of Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould, and the recent anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

The issues and author's position are often the same, but Pinker serves them much more palatably.

David Loftus recently reviewed "Landsman" by Peter Charles Melman for The Oregonian.

Reading: Pinker discusses "The Stuff of Thought" at 7 p.m. Friday at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. Tickets are $21 and include a copy of the book. Books will be distributed at the event.

2007 The Oregonian