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Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954 in Montrealmarker, Quebecmarker) is a Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.

He is the author of five books for a general audience, which include The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Stuff of Thought (2007). Pinker's books have won numerous awards and been New York Times best-sellers.

Early life and education

Pinker was born in Montrealmarker and graduated from Dawson Collegemarker in 1973. He earned a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology from McGill Universitymarker in 1976, and then went on to earn his doctorate in the same discipline at Harvardmarker in 1979. He then did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technologymarker (MIT) for a year.

Career in academia

Pinker became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford Universitymarker. From 1982 until 2003, except for a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbaramarker in 1995-6, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. He became the Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a MacVicar Faculty Fellow.

In September 2003, Pinker returned to Harvard in after 21 years at MIT. As of 2008, he is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

Pinker was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2004 and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy's 100 top public intellectuals in 2005. He has also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Newcastlemarker, Surreymarker, Tel Avivmarker, McGillmarker, and the University of Tromsømarker, Norway. He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, in 1998 and in 2003.

In January 2005, Pinker defended Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, whose comments about the gender gap in mathematics and science angered much of the faculty.

On May 13 2006, Pinker received the American Humanist Association's Humanist of the Year award for his contributions to public understanding of human evolution.

In 2007, he was invited on The Colbert Report and asked under pressure to sum up how the brain works in five words – Pinker answered "Brain cells fire in patterns." Following his 2007 visit to The Colbert Report, Pinker returned in February 2009 to another interview with Stephen in which the two discussed the mapping of the Human Genome, and the now-available means to map an individual's risks and predispositions to certain genetic conditions, diseases, etc. by using modern genetic testing techniques. Pinker also went on to admit that, as one of the "PGP-10" participants in the Personal Genome Project, he had published the results of his own personal genetic tests online.

Theories of language and mind

Pinker’s academic specializations are visual cognition and language development in children, and he is most famous for popularizing the idea that language is an "instinct" or biological adaptation shaped by natural selection. On this point, he partly opposes Noam Chomsky and others who regard the human capacity for language to be the by-product of other adaptations.

Pinker is most famous for his work — popularized in The Language Instinct (1994) — on how children acquire language, and for his popularization of Noam Chomsky's work on language as an innate faculty of mind. Pinker has suggested an evolutionary mental module for language, although this idea remains controversial (see below). In The Language Instinct, Pinker argues that humans are born with an innate capacity for language. In addition, he deals sympathetically with the claim that all human language shows evidence of a universal grammar. Additionally Pinker argues that many other human mental faculties are adaptive (and is an ally of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in many evolutionary disputes).

Written work

Pinker's books, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, are from the evolutionary psychology tradition, which views the mind as a kind of Swiss Army knife equipped with a set of specialized tools (or modules) to deal with problems faced by our Pleistocene ancestors. Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists believe that these tools evolved by natural selection, just like other body parts. The field of evolutionary psychology was pioneered by E. O. Wilson, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. The Language Instinct has been criticized by Geoffrey Sampson in his book, The 'Language Instinct' Debate. The assumptions underlying the nativist view have also been subject to sustained criticism in Jeffrey Elman's Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development (Neural Networks and Connectionist Modeling).


Pinker was born into the English-speaking Jewish community of Montrealmarker. He has said, "I was never religious in the theological sense... I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew." As a teenager, he says he considered himself an anarchist until he witnessed civil unrest following a police strike in 1969. In testing for political orientation, he has been found "neither leftist nor rightist, more libertarian than authoritarian." His father, a trained lawyer, first worked as a traveling salesman, while his mother was first a home-maker, then a guidance counselor and high-school vice-principal. He has two younger siblings. His brother is a policy analyst for the Canadian government. His sister, Susan Pinker, is a school psychologist and writer, author of The Sexual Paradox.

Pinker married Nancy Etcoff in 1980 and they divorced 1992. He then married Ilavenil Subbiah in 1995 and they, too, divorced. He is now married to the American novelist and professor of philosophy, Rebecca Goldstein. He has no children. With regard to his childlessness, he has stated "By Darwinian standards I am a horrible mistake, a pathetic loser, not one iota less than if I were a card-carrying member of Queer Nation. But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake."

In 2001, Steven Pinker became the first member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, "chosen by acclamation" because his hair "has long been the object of admiration, and envy, and intense study."

Selected publications


Reviews of Pinker's books

Articles and essays

  • Pinker, S. (1991) Rules of Language. Science, 253, 530–535.
  • Ullman, M., Corkin, S., Coppola, M., Hickok, G., Growdon, J. H., Koroshetz, W. J., & Pinker, S. (1997) A neural dissociation within language: Evidence that the mental dictionary is part of declarative memory, and that grammatical rules are processed by the procedural system. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 9, 289–299.
  • Pinker, S. (2003) Language as an adaptation to the cognitive niche. In M. Christiansen & S. Kirby (Eds.), Language evolution: States of the Art. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pinker, S. (2005) So How Does the Mind Work? Mind and Language, 20(1), 1–24.
  • Jackendoff, R. & Pinker, S. (2005) The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language (Reply to Fitch, Hauser, & Chomsky) Cognition, 97(2), 211–225.
  • S. Pinker (2007), "In Defense of Dangerous Ideas" (Chicago Sun-Times, July 15, 2007,,1449,In-defense-of-dangerous-ideas,Steven-Pinker)
  • a great number of Pinker's articles in
  • S. Pinker (2008), "Truth in the Balance" (Greater Good Magazine, Fall 2008,


  1. Pinker, Steven. (1997). How the Mind Works. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 52.

External links


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