Arthur Pinker is a prominent American experimental psychologist,
cognitive scientist, and popular science writer known for his
spirited and wide-ranging defence of evolutionary psychology and
the computational theory of mind.
academic specializations are visual cognition and language development
in children, and he is most famous for popularising the idea that
language is an "instinct" or biological adaption shaped
by natural selection rather than a by-product of general intelligence.
His four books for a general audience – The Language Instinct,
How the Mind Works, Words and Rules and The Blank Slate –
have won numerous awards.
Pinker was born into the English-speaking Jewish community of
Montreal, but became an atheist at age thirteen (although he has
stated that he still identifies with various aspects of Jewish
culture). His father, Harry, a trained lawyer, first worked as
a travelling salesman, while his mother, Roslyn, was first a home-maker
then a guidance counselor and high-school vice-principal. His
sister, Susan, a child psychologist by training, is now a journalist
and columnist, and his brother, Robert, is a policy analyst with
the Canadian government.
married the clinical psychologist Nancy Etcoff in 1980, but divorced
in 1992. In 1995, Pinker married Malaysian-born cognitive psychologist
Ilavenil Subbiah, but they also later divorced. His current girlfriend,
Rebecca Goldstein, is a professor of philosophy at Trinity College
in Hartford, Connecticut. Pinker has no children.
received a first class bachelor's degree in experimental psychology
from McGill University in 1976, then went on to earn his doctorate
in the same discipline at Harvard in 1979. Pinker is currently
the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard having
previously been the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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.
Pinker is most famous for his work - popularised 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. Pinker
goes further than Chomsky, arguing many other human mental faculties
are evolved, and is an ally of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins
in many evolutionary disputes.
Pinker's books How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate are seminal
works of modern evolutionary psychology, which views the mind
as a kind of swiss-army knife equipped by evolution with a set
of specialized tools (or modules) to deal with problems faced
by our Palaeocene ancestors. Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists
believe the human mind evolved by natural selection just like
other body parts. This view, pioneered as a field by E. O. Wilson,
and Leda Cosmides and John Tooby - is pursued under evolutionary
psychology and is a rapidly growing research paradigm, especially
among cognitive psychologists.
Critics allege Pinker's books ignore or dismiss opposing evidence.
In "Words and Rules," for example, he describes cognitive
scientists as having dropped a competing model "like a hot
potato" after his widely cited criticism. If anything, that
opposing view, Connectionism, remains as popular as ever and the
ongoing dispute does not appear to be heading towards any sort
of resolution. Other critics claim that Pinker may be a little
too good a writer in being able to combine several weakly based
hypotheses into a plausible-sounding "evolutionary psychology"
story that in reality may be no more scientific than a Rudyard
Kipling "Just So" story. Pinker has also been criticized
for his cursory readings and straw man arguments against Constructivism
and the Tabula Rasa in The Blank Slate.
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 Newcastle, Surrey, Tel Aviv