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Steven Pinker

psychologist, linguist, author
Steven Pinker in 2005

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



  • Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.
  • To a linguist, the phenomenon is familiar: the euphemism treadmill. People invent new "polite" words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations. "Water closet" becomes "toilet" (originally a term for any body care, as in "toilet kit"), which becomes "bathroom," which becomes "rest room," which becomes "lavatory." … The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name. (We will know we have achieved equality and mutual respect when names for minorities stay put.)
  • I predict it will come to be seen as a turning point in the history of psychology.
  • The elegant study... is consistent with the themes of modern cognitive neuroscience. Every aspect of thought and emotion is rooted in brain structure and function, including many psychological disorders and, presumably, genius. The study confirms that the brain is a modular system comprising multiple intelligences, mostly nonverbal.
    • "On Einstein's brain," The New York Times (June 24, 1999)
  • Evolutionary psychology was the organizing framework—the source of “explanatory adequacy” or a “theory of the computation”—that the science of psychology had been missing. Like vision and language, our emotions and cognitive faculties are complex, useful, and nonrandomly organized, which means that they must be a product of the only physical process capable of generating complex, useful, nonrandom organization, namely, natural selection. An appeal to evolution was already implicit in the metatheoretical directives of Marr and Chomsky, with their appeal to the function of a mental faculty, and evolutionary psychology simply shows how to apply that logic to the rest of the mind.
    • Steven Pinker, "Foreword" in: Buss, David M., ed. The handbook of evolutionary psychology. John Wiley & Sons, 2005. p. xiv

How the Mind Works (1997)Edit

  • Intelligence, then, is the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules. The computer scientists Allen Newell and Herbert Simon fleshed this idea out further by noting that intelligence consists of specifying a goal, assessing the current situation to see how it differs from the goal, and applying a set of operations that reduce the difference. Perhaps reassuringly, by this definition human beings, not just aliens, are intelligent. We have desires, and we pursue them using beliefs, which, when all goes well, are at least approximately or probabilistically true.
    • p. 62
  • Stripped to its essentials, every decision in life amounts to choosing which lottery ticket to buy. . . . Most organisms don't buy lottery tickets, but they all choose between gambles every time their bodies can move in more than one way. They should be willing to 'pay' for information---in tissue, energy, and time---if the cost is lower than the expected payoff in food, safety, mating opportunities, and other resources, all ultimately valuated in the expected number of surviving offspring. In multicellular animals the information is gathered and translated into profitable decisions by the nervous system.
    • p. 175
  • Humans . . . entered the 'cognitive niche.' Remember the definition of intelligence from Chapter 2: using knowledge of how things work to attain goals in the face of obstacles. By learning which manipulations achieve which goals, humans have mastered the art of the surprise attack. They use novel, goal-oriented courses of action to overcome the Maginot Line defenses of other organisms, which can respond only over evolutionary time. The manipulations can be novel because human knowledge is not just couched in concrete instructions like 'how to catch a rabbit.' Humans analyze the world using intuitive theories of objects, forces, paths, places, manners, states, substances, hidden biochemical essences, and, for other animals and people, beliefs and desires. . . . People compose new knowledge and plans by mentally playing out combinatorial interactions among these laws in their mind's eye.
    • p. 188
  • Suppose the reasoning centers of the brain can get their hands on the mechanisms that plop shapes into the array and that read their locations out of it. Those reasoning demons can exploit the geometry of the array as a surrogate for keeping certain logical constraints in mind. Wealth, like location on a line, is transitive: if A is richer than B, and B is richer than C, then A is richer than C. By using location in an image to symbolize wealth, the thinker takes advantage of the transitivity of location built into the array, and does not have to enter it into a chain of deductive steps. The problem becomes a matter of plop down and look up. It is a fine example of how the form of a mental representation determines what is easy or hard to think.
    • p. 291
  • Visual thinking is often driven more strongly by the conceptual knowledge we use to organize our images than by the contents of the images themselves. Chess masters are known for their remarkable memory for the pieces on a chessboard. But it's not because people with photographic memories become chess masters. The masters are no better than beginners when remembering a board of randomly arranged pieces. Their memory captures meaningful relations among the pieces, such as threats and defenses, not just their distribution in space.
    • p. 295
  • Galileo wrote that 'the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics; without its help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it.'
    • p. 359
  • Some people think that evolutionary psychology claims to have discovered that human nature is selfish and wicked. But they are flattering the researchers and anyone who would claim to have discovered the opposite. No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it's all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another.”
    • 2009 ed., p. 517
  • 'The most common of all follies,' wrote H. L. Mencken, 'is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.' In culture after culture, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts, saints . . . and gods.
    • p. 554
  • The problem with the religious solution [to philosophical problems] was stated by Mencken when he wrote, 'Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.' For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones. What gave God a mind, free will, knowledge, certainty about right and wrong? How does he infuse them into a universe that seems to run just fine according to physical laws? How does he get ghostly souls to interact with hard matter? And most perplexing of all, if the world unfolds according to a wise and merciful plan, why does it contain so much suffering? As the Yiddish expression says, If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.
    • p. 560
  • Genes are a play within a play, not the interior monologue of the players."
    • p. 44

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (Basic Books, 1999)Edit

  • As an experimental psychologist, I have been trained not to believe anything unless it can be demonstrated in the laboratory on rats or sophomores.
    • p. 84

The Blank Slate (2002)Edit

  • According to a recent study of the brains of identical and fraternal twins, differences in the amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes are not only genetically influenced but are significantly correlated with differences in intelligence.
    • p. 44, emphasis added
  • [I]n the past two decades anthropologists have gathered data on life and death in pre-state societies rather than accepting the warm and fuzzy stereotypes. What did they find? In a nutshell: Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong.
  • [E]quality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group. … If we recognize this principle, no one has to spin myths about the indistinguishability of the sexes to justify equality.
  • But among many professional women the existence of sex differences is still a source of discomfort. As one colleague said to me, "Look, I know that males and females are not identical. I see it in my kids, I see it in myself, I know about the research. I can't explain it, but when I read claims of sex differences, steam comes out of my ears."
    • Kindle location 7549, emphasis in original.
  • The three laws of behavioral genetics may be the most important discoveries in the history of psychology. Yet most psychologists have not come to grips with them, and most intellectuals do not understand them … . Here are the three laws:
    • The First Law. All human behavioral traits are heritable.
    • The Second Law. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of genes.
    • The Third Law. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
      • Kindle locations 8005, 8010.

The Better Angels of our Nature (2011)Edit

  • The world has far too much morality.
    • p 474

The Sense of Style (2014)Edit

  • As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline—the illusion of the good old days.
    • p 4

Quotes about Steven PinkerEdit

  • While Pinker elects himself the heir of Enlightenment, his whole approach betrays Enlightenment principles. The very past authorities Pinker invokes did not want to hawk psychic uppers for those in doubt and far more openly advertised the ambivalence of their own belief in progress. They neither claimed that progress was universal nor insisted so monotonously on its indefinite continuation.
  • In this piece, Pinker appears to me to change sides almsot completely, from pessimist to optimist and from genetic determinist to social improver. Not only does he present evidence that war and violence are declining in relative importance, his explanation for this seems to be entirely consistent with the Standard Social Science Model he caricatured and debunked in The Blank Slate. He’s still got a sort of rational self-interest model in there, but now Hobbes is invoked, not for his ‘nasty, brutish and short’ state of nature, but for his argument that the Leviathan of social order will suppress violence to the benefit of all.
  • There’s a noble kernel to Pinker’s project. He wants to discourage the kind of fatalism that leads people to think the only way forward is to tear everything down. But he seems surprisingly blind to how he fuels such fatalism by playing to the worst stereotype of the enlightened cosmopolitan: disdainful and condescending — sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.

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