We have noted his thoughts on the work of others, including unflattering thoughts, but until now we have not had the opportunity to point our attention to the man himself, so thanks to Harvard magazine for the occasion to do so:
‘What could be more interesting than how the mind works?’
Steven Pinker’s history of thought
Steven Pinker follows Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Martha Minow, and E.O. Wilson in the Experience series, interviews with Harvard faculty members covering the reasons they became teachers and scholars, and the personal journeys, missteps included, behind their professional success. Interviews with Melissa Franklin, Stephen Greenblatt, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Helen Vendler, and Walter Willett will appear in coming weeks.
The brain is Steven Pinker’s playground. A cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist, Pinker is fascinated by language, behavior, and the development of human nature. His work has ranged from a detailed analysis of how the mind works to a best-seller about the decline in violence from biblical times to today.
Raised in Montreal, Pinker was drawn early to the mysteries of thought that would drive his career, and shaped in part by coming of age in the ’60s and early ’70s, when “society was up for grabs,” it seemed, and nature vs. nurture debates were becoming more complex and more heated.
His earliest work involved research in both visual imagery and language, but eventually he devoted himself to the study of language development, particularly in children. His groundbreaking 1994 book “The Language Instinct” put him firmly in the sphere of evolutionary psychology, the study of human impulses as genetically programmed and language as an instinct “wired into our brains by evolution.” Pinker, 59, has spent most of his career in Cambridge, and much of that time at Harvard — first for his graduate studies, later as an assistant professor. He is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology.
Q: Can you tell me about your early life? Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?
A: I grew up in Montreal, as part of the Jewish minority within the English-speaking minority within the French-speaking minority in Canada. This is the community that gave the world Leonard Cohen, who my mother knew, and Mordecai Richler, who my father knew, together with William Shatner, Saul Bellow, and Burt Bacharach. I was born in 1954, the peak year of the baby boom. My grandparents came to Canada from Eastern Europe in the 1920s, I surmise, because in 1924 the United States passed a restrictive immigration law. I can visualize them looking at a map and saying “Damn, what’s the closest that we can get to New York? Oh, there’s this cold place called Canada, let’s try that.” Three were from Poland, one from what is now Moldova. My parents both earned college degrees. My father had a law degree, but for much of his career did not practice law. He worked as a sales representative and a landlord and owned an apartment-motel in Florida. But he reopened his law practice in his 50s, and retired at 75. Like many women of her generation, my mother was a homemaker through the ’50s and ’60s. In the 1970s she got a master’s degree in counseling, then got a job and later became vice principal of a high school in Montreal.
I went to public schools in the suburbs of Montreal, and then to McGill University, which is also where my parents went. I came to Harvard in 1976 for graduate school, got my Ph.D. from this [psychology] department in 1979, went to MIT to do a postdoc, and came back here as an assistant professor in 1980. It was what they called a folding chair, since in those years Harvard did not have a genuine tenure track. I was advised to take the first real tenure-track job that came my way, and that happened within a few months, so I decamped for Stanford after just one year here. Something in me wanted to come back to Boston, so I left Stanford after a year and I was at MIT for 21 years before returning to Harvard ten and a half years ago. This is my third stint at Harvard.
Q: Were your parents instrumental in your choice of a career?
A: Not directly, other than encouraging my intellectual growth and expecting that I would do something that would make use of my strengths.
Q: What were those strengths?
A: My parents wanted me to become a psychiatrist, given my interest in the human mind, and given the assumption that any smart, responsible young person would go into medicine. They figured it was the obvious career for me. The 1970s was a decade in which the academic job market had collapsed. There were stories in The New York Times of Ph.D.s driving taxis and working in sheriff’s offices, and so they thought that a Ph.D. would be a ticket to unemployment — some things don’t change. They tried to reason with me: “If you become a psychiatrist, you get to indulge your interest in the human mind, but you also always have a job. You can always treat patients.” But I had no interest in pursuing a medical degree, nor in treating patients. Psychopathology was not my primary interest within psychology. So I gambled, figuring that if the worst happened and I couldn’t get an academic job I would be 25 years old and could do something else. Also, I chose a field — cognitive psychology — that I knew was expanding. I expected that psychology departments would be converting slots in the experimental analysis of behavior, that is, rats and pigeons being conditioned, to cognitive psychology. And that’s exactly what happened. Fortunately, I got three job offers in three years at three decent places. My parents were relieved, not to mention filled with naches.
‘It is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it.’
Q: I read that an early experience with anarchy got you intrigued about the workings of the mind. Can you tell me more about that?
A: I was too young for ’60s campus activism; I was in high school when all of the excitement happened. But it was very much the world I lived in. The older siblings of my friends were college students, and you couldn’t avoid the controversies of the ’60s if you read the newspaper and watched TV. In the ’60s everyone had to have a political ideology. You couldn’t get a date unless you were a Marxist or an anarchist. Anarchism seemed appealing. I had a friend who had read Kropotkin and Bakunin and he persuaded me that human beings are naturally generous and cooperative and peaceful. That’s just the rational way to be if you didn’t have a state forcing you to delineate your property and separate it from someone else’s. No state, no property, nothing to fight over . . . I’d have arguments over the dinner table with my parents, and they said that if the police ever disappeared, all hell would break loose. Being 14 years old, of course I knew better, until an empirical test presented itself.
Quebec is politically and economically very Gallic: Sooner or later, every public sector goes on strike. One week it’s the garbage collectors, another week the letter carriers. Then one day the police went on strike. They simply did not show up for work one morning. So what happened? Well, within a couple of hours there was widespread looting, rioting, and arson — not one but twopeople were shot to death, until the government called in the Mounties to restore order. This was particularly shocking in Montreal, which had a far lower rate of violent crime than American cities. Canadians felt morally superior to Americans because we didn’t have the riots and the civil unrest of the 1960s. So to see how quickly violent anarchy could break out in the absence of police enforcement was certainly, well, informative. As so often happens, long-suffering mom and dad were right, and their smart-ass teenage son was wrong. That episode also gave me a taste of what it’s like to be a scientist, namely that cherished beliefs can be cruelly falsified by empirical tests.
I wouldn’t say it’s that incident in particular that gave me an interest in human nature. But I do credit growing up in the ’60s, when these ideas trickled down, and the early ’70s, which were an extension of the ’60s. Debates on human nature and its political implications were in the air. Society was up for grabs. There was talk of revolution and rationally reconstructing society, and those discussions naturally boiled down to rival conceptions of human nature. Is the human psyche socially constructed by culture and parenting, or is there even such a thing as human nature? And if there is, what materials do we have to work with in organizing a society? In college I took a number of courses that looked at human nature from different vantage points: anthropology, sociology, psychology, literature, philosophy. But psychology appealed to me because it seemed to ask profound questions about our kind, but it also offered the hope that the questions could be answered in the lab. So it had just the right mixture of depth and tractability.
Q: You started your career interested in the visual realm as well as in language, but eventually you chose to focus your energies on your work with language. Why?
A: Starting from graduate school I pursued both. My Ph.D. thesis was done under the supervision of Stephen Kosslyn, who later became chair of this department, then dean of social science until he left a couple of years ago to become provost of Minerva University. My thesis was on visual imagery, the ability to visualize objects in the mind’s eye. At the same time, I took a course with Roger Brown, the beloved social psychologist who was in this department for many years. In yet another course I wrote a theoretical paper on language acquisition, which took on the question “How could any intelligent agent make the leap from a bunch of words and sentences in its input to the ability to understand and produce an infinite number of sentences in the language from which they were drawn?” That was the problem that Noam Chomsky set out as the core issue in linguistics.
So I came out of graduate school with an interest in both vision and language. When I was hired back at Harvard a year after leaving, I was given responsibility for three courses in language acquisition. In the course of developing the lectures and lab assignments I started my own empirical research program on language acquisition. And I pursued both projects for about 10 years until the world told me that it found my work on language more interesting than my work on visual cognition. I got more speaking invitations, more grants, more commentary. And seeing that other people in visual cognition like Ken Nakayama, my colleague here, were doing dazzling work that I couldn’t match, whereas my work on language seemed to be more distinctive within its field — that is, there weren’t other people doing what I was doing — I decided to concentrate more and more on language, and eventually closed down my lab in visual cognition.
Q: Did you have any doubts when you were starting out in your career?
A: Oh, absolutely. I was terrified of ending up unemployed. When I got to Harvard, the Psychology Department, at least the experimental program in the Psychology Department, was extremely mathematical. It specialized in a sub-sub-discipline called psychophysics, which was the oldest part of psychology, coming out of Germany in the late 19th century. William James, the namesake of this building, said “the study of psychophysics proves that it is impossible to bore a German.” Now, I’m interested in pretty much every part of psychology, including psychophysics. But this was simply not the most exciting frontier in psychology, and even though I was good in math, I didn’t have nearly as much math background as a hardcore psychophysicist, and I wondered whether I had what it took to do the kind of psychology being done here. But it was starting to become clear — even at Harvard — that mathematical psychophysics was becoming increasingly marginalized, and if it wanted to keep up, Harvard had to start hiring in cognitive psychology. They hired Steve Kosslyn, we immediately hit it off, and I felt much more at home.
Q: If you were trying to get someone interested in this field today, what would you say?
A: What could be more interesting than how the mind works? Also, I believe that psychology sits at the center of intellectual life. In one direction, it looks to the biological sciences, to neuroscience, to genetics, to evolution. But in the other, it looks to the social sciences and the humanities. Societies are formed and take their shape from our social instincts, our ability to communicate and cooperate. And the humanities are the study of the products of our human mind, of our works of literature and music and art. So psychology is relevant to pretty much every subject taught at a university.
Psychology is blossoming today, but for much of its history it was dull, dull, dull. Perception was basically psychophysics, the study of the relationship between the physical magnitude of stimulus and of its perceived magnitude — that is, as you make a light brighter and brighter, does its subjective brightness increase at the same rate or not? It also studied illusions, like the ones on the back of the cereal box, but without much in the way of theory. Learning was the study of the rate at which rats press levers when they are rewarded with food pellets. Social psychology was a bunch of laboratory demonstrations showing that people could behave foolishly and be mindless conformists, but also without a trace of theory explaining why. It’s only recently, in dialogue with other disciplines, that psychology has begun to answer the “why” questions. Cognitive science, for example, which connects psychology to linguistics, theoretical computer science, and philosophy of mind, has helped explain intelligence in terms of information, computation, and feedback. Evolutionary thinking is necessary to ask the “why” questions: “Why does the mind work the way it does instead of some other way in which it could have worked?” This crosstalk has made psychology more intellectually satisfying. It’s no longer just one damn phenomenon after another.
Q: Is there a single work that you are most proud of?
A: I am proud of “How the Mind Works” for its sheer audacity in trying to explain exactly that, how the mind works, between one pair of covers. At the other extreme of generality, I’m proud of a research program I did for about 15 years that culminated in “Words and Rules,” a book about, of all things, irregular verbs, which I use as a window onto the workings of cognition. I’m also fulfilled by having written my most recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which is about something completely different: the historical decline of violence and its causes, a phenomenon that most people are not even aware of, let alone have an explanation for. In that book, I first had to convince readers that violence has declined, knowing that the very idea strikes people as preposterous, even outrageous. So I told the story in 100 graphs, each showing a different category of violence: tribal warfare, slavery, homicide, war, civil war, domestic violence, corporal punishment, rape, terrorism. All have been in decline. Having made this case, I returned to being a psychologist, and set myself the task of explaining how that could have happened. And that explanation requires answering two psychological questions: “Why was there so much violence in the past?” and “What drove the violence down?” For me, the pair of phenomena stood as a corroboration of an idea I have long believed; mainly that human nature is complex. There is no single formula that explains what makes people tick, no wonder tissue, no magical all-purpose learning algorithm. The mind is a system of mental organs, if you will, and some of its components can lead us to violence, while others can inhibit us from violence. What changed over the centuries and decades is which parts of human nature are most engaged. I took the title, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural. It’s a poetic allusion to the idea that there are many components to human nature, some of which can lead to cooperation and amity.
Q: I read a newspaper article in which you talked about the worst thing you have ever done. Can you tell me about that?
A: It was as an undergraduate working in a behaviorist lab. I carried out a procedure that turned out to be tantamount to torturing a rat to death. I was asked to do it, and against my better judgment, did it. I knew it had little scientific purpose. It was done in an era in which there was no oversight over the treatment of animals in research, and just a few years later it would have been inconceivable. But this painful episode resonated with me for two reasons. One is that it was a historical change in a particular kind of violence that I lived through, namely the increased concern for the welfare of laboratory animals. This was one of the many developments I talk about in the “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Also, as any psychology student knows, humans sometimes do things against their own conscience under the direction of a responsible authority, even if the authority has no power to enforce the command. This is the famous Milgram experiment, in which people were delivering what they thought were fatal shocks to subjects pretending to be volunteers. I show the film of the Milgram experiment to my class every year. It’s harrowing to watch, but I’ve seen it now 17 times and found it just as gripping the 17th time as the first. There was a lot of skepticism that people could possibly behave that way. Prior to the experiment, a number of experts were polled for their prediction as to what percentage of subjects would administer the most severe shock. The average of the predictions was on the order of one-tenth of one percent. The actual result was 70 percent. Many people think there must be some trick or artifact, but having behaved like Milgram’s 70 percent myself, despite thinking of myself as conscientious and morally concerned, I believe that the Milgram study reveals a profound and disturbing feature of human psychology…
Read the whole article here.