Steven Pinker

Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and author, an advocate of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of the mind

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-born American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and popular science writer known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

Steven Pinker in 2005


  • 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.)
  • 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
  • The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications.
    • p. 57
  • 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
  • Status is the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to.
    • p. 499
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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 psychologist Dedre Gentner and her collaborators have shown that a focus on relationships is the key to the power of analogy as a tool of reasoning. They note that many scientific theories were first stated as analogies, and often are still best explained that way: gravity is like light, heat is like a fluid, evolution is like selective breeding, the atom is like a solar system, genes are like coded messages. For an analogy to be scientifically useful, though, the correspondences can’t apply to a part of one thing that merely resembles a part of the other. They have to apply to the relationships between the parts, and even better, to the relationships between the relationships, and to the relationships between the relationships between the relationships.
    • p. 254. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  • The world has far too much morality.
    • p 474
  • On the contrary, violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived in the minds of the perpetrators.
    • p 139
  • 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
  • A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution - perhaps its biggest breakthrough - was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose. In this primitive but ubiquitous understanding, everything happens for a reason, so when bad things happen - accidents, disease, famine, poverty - some agent must have wanted them to happen.
    • p. 24
  • The moral value of quantification is that it treats all lives as equally valuable, so actions that bring down the highest numbers of homicides prevent the greatest amount of human tragedy.
    • p. 173
  • A list of the ways in which we’re stupid can’t explain why we’re so smart: smart enough to have discovered the laws of nature, transformed the planet, lengthened and enriched our lives, and, not least, articulated the rules of rationality that we so often flout.
    • Preface

Quotes about Steven Pinker

  • Thank you, Steven Pinker, for showing the harm when scientists don’t take enough humanities courses. A humanities education helps provide a deeper grip on one’s experiences and on the world in ways other than through graphs and abstractions. Isn’t it more likely that the very lack of humanities education is what fosters thoughtless about the world and the dangerous sway of science denial today?
  • Pinker is at his best when he analyzes historic trends and uses data to put the past into context. I was already familiar with a lot of the information he shares—especially about health and energy—but he understands each subject so deeply that he’s able to articulate his case in a way that feels fresh and new.
  • Pinker's book contains an overwhelming argument against the theory that the human mind is a social construct. But it is far from being a mere diatribe. It is also a wide-ranging and unfailingly sensible discussion of the ethical and political implications of accepting that we have a common nature. As Pinker points out, nothing of ethical importance follows logically from the truth that human mental capacities are largely hard-wired. Certainly, that humans are born with different talents and abilities does not mean they should be treated as being of unequal worth. Nevertheless, the scientific demonstration of the reality of human nature does have some political implications, and - as Pinker shows very clearly - these are consistently anti-utopian.
  • Judged as a contribution to thought, Enlightenment Now is embarrassingly feeble. With its primitive scientism and manga-style history of ideas, the book is a parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest. A more intellectually inquiring author would have conveyed something of the Enlightenment’s richness and diversity. Yet even if Pinker was capable of providing it, intellectual inquiry is not what his anxious flock demands. Only an anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt.
  • Among the many debates over the origins and evolution of war is whether humans have been getting more violent or less. Steven Pinker and others who think like him, such as the archaeologist Ian Morris, are on the optimistic side and believe there is a clear trend away from violence. Most countries no longer have public executions; they have laws against cruelty to animals or children; and sports such as bear baiting or dog fighting are normally illegal. The optimists go further and attempt to tot up deaths from war in the past – not in itself an easy task – to argue that homicide rates in the past were far higher than they are today and that deaths in war, as a proportion of humans alive at the time, are fewer in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, even allowing for the great bloodlettings of the two world wars, than in earlier wars. Others challenge the figures and also point out that war deaths in the twentieth century may amount to 75 per cent of all war deaths in the last 5,000 years. And if you really want to be depressed about the prospects for humanity, studies using mathematical tools at the University of Florence and the University of Colorado claim to show that the trend is for fewer but more deadly wars. Their argument is that the more interconnected societies become the quicker a conflict can spread along the paths of the network – just as computer viruses or forest fires do. A small squabble in the Balkans in the summer of 1914 grew into the Great War because Europe’s powers were so interlinked by treaties, understandings or plans that tensions spread upwards and outwards from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo until a general war exploded. Even if Pinker is right – and the debate goes on – it somehow does not seem very reassuring. Those of us who have enjoyed the Long Peace since 1945 need to reflect that much of the world, including Indochina, Afghanistan, the Great Lakes district in Africa and large parts of the Middle East, has seen and still sees conflict. A long-running project at Uppsala University in Sweden estimates that between 1989 and 2017 over 2 million people died as a result of war. Since 1945 perhaps 52 million have been forced to flee because of conflict.
  • 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.
  • Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is that guy. He thinks many people are very unreasonable, and makes sweeping claims about their irrationality and moral imbecility, but often doesn’t bother to listen to what they actually say. While insisting for page upon page on the necessity of rationality, he irrationally caricatures and mocks ideas he hasn’t tried to understand. Then, when the people who believe those ideas become upset, he sees this as further proof of their emotion-driven thinking, and becomes even more convinced that he is right.
  • It’s important to see that Pinker is unreliable, and not simply a neutral presenter of The Data, because his books are bestsellers and are widely praised as brilliant. Yet they reinforce many right-wing talking points and accepting some of their conclusions would have extremely destructive political consequences. I actually agree with perhaps 80 percent or more of what is contained in Enlightenment Now, insofar as it is simply presenting statistics showing that crime has dropped and we are not presently in a world war, or making arguments for secular humanism and democracy. But he also (1) staunchly defends the inequality produced by free-market capitalism, (2) is irrationally dismissive of the scale of the risks facing humankind, (3) trivializes present-day human pain and suffering, (4) whitewashes U.S. crimes and minimizes the dangers of U.S. military aggression, (5) repeats right-wing smears about anti-racist and feminist ideas, and (6) has a colossal ignorance about the workings of politics and the struggle necessary to achieve further human progress.
  • Steven Pinker’s works are worth examining for a few reason. For one thing, they show how deeply conservative a “liberal” worldview can be. Pinker is all for Equal Rights, Democracy, Sensible Regulation, Secularism, and the other great Liberal values. And yet like many liberals, he seems to detest the left more than the hard right. […] Pinker doesn’t think he has an ideology. He insists that his conclusions simply follow from data, contrasting his own work with the “statistical obtuseness” common among journalists and humanities professors, who use “Anecdotes, headlines, rhetoric, and the ‘highest-paid person’s opinion.’” If you look through his work though, you’ll find anecdotes, headlines, rhetoric, and appeals to authority abound.
  • 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.
  • Pinker and his ilk don’t acknowledge errors when they make them; they are ideologues rather than truth-seekers, willing to bend the facts, launch personal attacks and censor critics to “win” debates. At exactly the moment in history when we need true intellectual leadership, people who exemplify intellectual honesty and integrity, the most, we get stubborn tribespeople.
  • Pinker’s reasoning on AI was so horrifically bad (as reasoning qua reasoning, not to mention as elementary scholarship; angry and dismissive and failing to consider the opposite or try steeling the imagined argument, as well as ignorant of the Bostrom book that even outsiders who’ve heard of the field have heard is the basic literature), that I’m disinclined to believe anything Pinker says about topics I don’t already know about, lest that just be Gell-Mann Amnesia on my own part. I frankly worry he’s gotten old and run out his supply of precision.
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