In this animated video Steven Pinker shows us how the mind turns the finite building blocks of language into infinite meanings. Steven Arthur Pinker is a Canadian-born experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author. He is a Harvard College Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.
Pinker’s academic specializations are visual cognition and psycholinguistics. His experimental subjects include mental imagery, shape recognition, visual attention, children’s language development, regular and irregular phenomena in language, the neural bases of words and grammar, and the psychology of innuendo and euphemism.
He published two technical books which proposed a general theory of language acquisition and applied it to children’s learning of verbs. In his popular books, he has argued that language is an “instinct” or biological adaptation shaped by natural selection. He is the author of six books for a general audience: The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff of Thought (2007), and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).
Pinker graduated from Dawson College in 1971. He received a BA degree in psychology at McGill University in 1976, and then went on to earn his PhD degree in experimental psychology at Harvard University in 1979. He did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a year, after which he became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford University. From 1982 until 2003, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, taking a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1995-96. As of 2003, he is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard; from 2008 to 2013 he also held the title of Harvard College Professor in recognition of his dedication to teaching. In June 2011 it was announced he would give lectures as a visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities, a private college in London.
Pinker was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential scientists and thinkers in the world in 2004 and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy’s 100 top public intellectuals in both years the poll was carried out, 2005 and 2008; in 2010 and 2011 he was named by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of top global thinkers. His research in cognitive psychology has won the Early Career Award (1984) and Boyd McCandless Award (1986) from the American Psychological Association, the Troland Research Award (1993) from the National Academy of Sciences, the Henry Dale Prize (2004) from the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the George Miller Prize (2010) from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. He has also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Newcastle, Surrey, Tel Aviv, McGill, and the University of Tromsø, 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 a gender gap in mathematics and science angered much of the faculty. Pinker noted that Summers’s remarks, properly understood, were hypotheses about overlapping statistical distributions of men’s and women’s talents and tastes, and that in a university such hypotheses ought to be the subject of empirical testing rather than dogma and outrage. 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 2009, Pinker wrote a mixed review of Malcolm Gladwell’s essays in The New York Times criticizing his analytical methods. Gladwell published a rebuttal in the Times regarding Pinker’s comments about the importance of IQ on teaching performance and by analogy, the effect, if any, of draft order on quarterback performance in the National Football League. Pinker then responded to Gladwell’s rebuttal.
The exchange prompted Advanced NFL Stats to step in and address the issue statistically, siding with Pinker in that draft order is indeed correlated with quarterback performance. The differences in Gladwell and Pinker’s respective methodologies caused the disagreement. Gladwell evaluated a performance on a per-play basis, whereas Pinker and Advanced NFL Stats evaluated performance based on total overall productivity based on the assumption that starters were superior players to backups.
Pinker has served on the editorial boards of journals such as Cognition, Daedalus, and PLOS One, and on the advisory boards of institutions for scientific research (e.g., the Paul Allen Institute for Brain Science), free speech (e.g., the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the popularization of science (e.g., the World Science Festival and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), peace (e.g., the Peace Research Endowment), and secular humanism (e.g., the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Secular Coalition of America Since 2008, he has chaired the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and wrote the essay on usage for the fifth edition of the Dictionary, which was published in 2011.