Who Is Professor Steven Pinker and Why Is He Famous?

Is the mind a blank slate at birth? Professor Steven Pinker certainly doesn't think so.
Christopher McFadden

Steven Pinker is a well-respected, Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science educator. His work on the evolutionary underpinnings on the development of the mind and language has received both intense criticism and praise from his peers and the public at large for many years. 

Here we explore the life and times of Professor Steven Pinker and explore his groundbreaking academic career. 


Who is Steven Pinker?

Steven Pinker, or Professor Steven Arthur Pinker to give his full name, is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science educator. Pinker is best known for his work, and advocacy for, evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of the mind.

The latter is a subfield of psychology that holds that the human mind is an information processing system. In this sense, he argues that the development of the brain, and thus language, can be explained through evolutionary processes. 

facts about Steven Pinker
Source: Harvard University/Wikimedia Commons

"The Computational Theory of Mind (CTM) claims that the mind is a computer, so the theory is also known as computationalism. It is generally assumed that CTM is the main working hypothesis of cognitive science." - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Pinker's academic career has mainly focussed on visual cognition and psycholinguistics. This specialization has focussed his academic work on studying things like:-

  • children's language development,
  • mental imagery,
  • shape recognition,
  • regular and irregular phenomena in language,
  • the neural bases of words and grammar,
  • visual attention, and
  • the psychology of cooperation and communication; including euphemism, innuendo, emotional expression, and common knowledge.

Pinker is also a very popular science author and has, to date, published ten books for general readers. He has also written some other more technical science books.

His most popular books include, but are not limited to: -

  • The Language Instinct
  • How the Mind Works 
  • The Blank Slate 
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature 
  • Enlightenment Now

Pinker earned his B.Sc. in psychology from McGill University in 1976. He later earned his Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Harvard University in 1979. 

He later worked as an assistant professor at Harvard and then jumped ship to Stanford University between 1981 and 1982. After Stanford, Pinker joined the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1989 he was made a full professor and left MIT in 1999.

Pinker has had a very illustrious career and has accumulated numerous awards and distinctions, including, but not limited to, the Troland Award in 1993, the Humanist of the Year award in 2006, and the Richard Dawkins Award in 2013.

Pinker is currently the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and has worked there since 2003.

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How old is Steven Pinker?

Pinker was born in September of 1954. He is currently 65 years old at the time of writing. 

What did Steven Pinker do?

Pinker's earlier studies on the linguistic behavior of children led him to agree with Noam Chomsky's idea that humans possess an innate facility for understanding language. Pinker, using scientific rigor, would later conclude that this arose as an evolutionary adaptation in human beings. 

In this sense, he argues against the notion of tabula rasa ("clean/blank slate") notions of human mental development.

He published his findings in his first popular book "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Languages" which was published in 1994. This book's sequel "How the Mind Works" published in 1997, would earn Pinker the Pulitzer Price for general non-fiction. 

Within this later book, Pinker presented his ideas for a scientific methodology that he termed "reverse engineering". In a nutshell, this method involves analyzing human behavior with an eye to attempting to understand how the brain developed through time. 

This provided Pinker with a way to explain various phenomena, such as logical thought and three-dimensional vision.

In his later works, like "Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language" published in 1999, Pinker proffered an analysis of the cognitive mechanisms that make language possible. 

Written in his own inimitable style, Pinker explained that language depends on two basic mental processes. These were the memorization of words and their manipulation according to grammatical rules. 

For his work, Pinker has received both praise and criticism in equal measures. For his critics, his concentration on a purely biological explanation of the mind is seen as dehumanizing and anti-religious. 

But he has also received criticisms from his peers from a philosophical point of view. 

Notable critics include the famed, and sadly missed, paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould, who felt that "the data on natural selection were as yet insufficient to support all of his claims and that other possible influences on the brain’s development existed." - Encyclopedia Britannica

Pinker would later make connections between how the structure and semantics of language reflect the human perception of reality.

In "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined", Pinker used psychological and historical data to argue that the modern era has been the most peaceful in recorded history.

"In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014), Pinker prescribed effective writing techniques while acknowledging and defending the necessary elasticity of language and grammar." - Encyclopedia Britannica

Where was Steven Pinker born?

Pinker was born in Montreal, Quebec Canada on the 18th of September 1954. He was born and raised in a Jewish neighborhood of Montreal in a "middle-class" Jewish family. 

His grandparents had emigrated to Canada from Poland and Romania in 1926 and opened a small necktie factory in Montreal. Pinker's father was a lawyer and his mother a home-maker, guidance counselor and high-school vice-principal. 

Pinker's brother, Robert Pinker, helps develop and analyze policy for the Canadian government and his sister, Susan Pinker, is a psychologist. She is also an author and is best known for her books "The Sexual Paradox" and "The Village Effect."

Who is Steven Pinker's wife?

Pinker married his first wife, Nancy Etcoff, in 1980. But the couple would later divorce in 1992.

In 1995, Pinker re-married to Ilavenil Subbiah. This marriage also fell apart and they also, sadly divorced.

Pinker has since married again to his third wife, novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein. By virtue of this marriage, Steven has two stepdaughters: the novelist Yael Goldstein Love and the poet Danielle Blau.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2009, Pinker reflects on his past failed marriages with remorse. 

"My divorces loom large in my consciousness when I think back. They were the two most painful times in my life and linger as a source of pain, regret, and remorse.

They changed my sense of empathy. Before, I could appreciate intellectually how much emotional pain people can go through. Having experienced that pain it has made it much more real." - Steven Pinker. 

Takeaway facts about Steven Pinker

1. Pinker was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on the 18th of September 1954.

2. Pinker has been married three times and has two step-daughters through his current wife. 

3. Pinker is a prolific author and has written, to date, more than ten best-selling books. 

4. Professor Pinker received his bachelor’s degree at McGill University in 1976, and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1979.

5. His interests include, but are not limited to, language, communication, history, and psychology of violence.

facts about steven pinker talk
Source: G ambrus/Wikimedia Commons

6. Pinker is currently the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

7. Pinker’s work vision, language, and social relations have earned him many prizes throughout his career. These include, but are not limited to, awards from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, the American Psychological Association, and the Association for Psychological Science.

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