Steven Pinker

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Pinker (2011)
Pinker at the Göttingen Literature Autumn (2010)

Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954 in Montreal ) is an American - Canadian experimental psychologist , cognitive scientist , linguist and popular science author . He is a professor at Harvard College and holds the Johnstone Family Professorship in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University . He is a representative of the concepts of evolutionary psychology and psychological nativism .

Steven Pinker specializes in visual cognition and psycholinguistics ; his experimental subjects are mental imagination , shape recognition, visual attention, language development of children, regular and irregular phenomena of language, the neural basis of words and grammar, as well as the psychology of euphemisms and allusions .

He published two technical books in which he proposes a general theory of language acquisition and applies it to the learning of verbs by children. In his popular science writings, he takes the view that language is an instinct or a biological adaptation formed by the forces of natural selection .

He is the author of seven books for a general audience: The Language Instinct (1994), How Thought Is Made In The Head (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff Thought Is Made Of (2007), Violence : A New History of Mankind (2011) and Enlightenment Now: For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress . A Defense (2018).


Origin and career

Pinker comes from a middle-class Jewish family in the English-speaking part of Montreal , Canada . His parents were Roslyn and Harry Pinker. He graduated from Dawson College in 1971. He then studied experimental psychology at McGill University , graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and moved to Cambridge (Massachusetts) in 1976 , where he received his PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Experimental Psychology from the 1979 Harvard University. After a one-year research stay at MIT , he became an assistant professor in Stanford , California (1981/82). From 1982 to 2003 he was a professor in the brain and cognitive sciences department at MIT and then returned to Harvard. There he received the Johnstone Family Professorship in the Department of Psychology; from 2008 to 2013 he also held the title of Harvard College Professor in recognition of his commitment to teaching. In 1995/96 he spent a sabbatical at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Pinker was named one of the world's 100 most influential scientists and thinkers by Time magazine in 2004 ; also included by Prospect and Foreign Policy in 2005 and 2006, respectively, after polls of the top 100 public intellectuals.

For his research in the field of cognitive psychology, he received the Early Career Award (1984) and the Boyd McCandless Award (1986) from the American Psychological Association . In 1993 he received the Troland Research Award from the United States National Academy of Sciences , in 2004 the Henry Dale Prize from the Royal Institution of Great Britain , in 2006 the Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association for his contribution to understanding human evolution. The George Miller Prize of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in 2010 and the Human Roots Award in 2018 . In 2004, Steven Pinker received the Eleanor Maccoby Book Award in Developmental Psychology .

Steven Pinker has also received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Newcastle and Surrey in England, Tel Aviv in Israel, McGill in Montreal, Canada, and Tromsø in Norway . He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (1998 and 2003).

In January 2005, Pinker defended Lawrence Summers , President of Harvard University, whose comments on the gender gap in math and science had angered several faculty members. Pinker noted that Summer's comments, understood correctly, were hypotheses about overlapping statistical distributions of male and female talents and tastes; and that in a university such hypotheses should be the subject of empirical testing rather than belief and outrage.

Pinker was on the advisory boards of scientific research institutions (e.g. the Allen Institute for Brain Science ), for free speech (e.g. the Foundation for Individual Rights in .) For the editorial offices of specialist journals such as Cognition , Daedalus and PLoS ONE Education ), for the popularization of the natural sciences (e.g. the World Science Festival and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry ), active for peace (e.g. for the Peace Research Foundation) and secular humanism (e.g. Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Secular Coalition for America ). Since 2008 he has chaired the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Committee and wrote the usage text for the fifth edition of the dictionary, published in 2011. Since 2019 he has been a member of the advisory board of the small German party, the Humanist Party .

Pinker has also served with the American Association for the Advancement of Science , the National Science Foundation , the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , the American Psychological Association, and the Linguistic Society of America . In 2016 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences .

Private life and family

Pinker lives in Boston and Truro, Massachusetts with his wife, author and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein .

His father, a lawyer, was originally a representative, while his mother was a housewife and then worked as a counseling teacher and vice-principal of a school. He has two younger siblings. His brother is a political analyst for the Canadian federal government . His sister, Susan Pinker, has the same job as him, i. h., is a psychologist and popular science writer ( The Gender Paradox ).

Pinker was married to psychologist Nancy Etcoff from 1980 to 1992 and to psychologist Ilavenil Subbiah from 1995 to 2006. He has been married to the writer and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein since 2007. He has two stepdaughters: the writer Yael Goldstein Love and the poet Danielle Blau.

Concerning his religious creed, Pinker said: “I was never religious in the theological sense […]. I never outgrown my conversion to atheism at the age of 13, but at various times I was a serious secular Jew . "For the Guardian, Pinker compiled his list of cultural highlights, which for him include photography (especially astrophotography ), the Iliad by the Greek author Homer, and the scientific work of David Deutsch and Max Roser .

As a teenager he considered himself an anarchist until he witnessed the riots of the Murray Hill riot (police strike 1969 in Montreal).

Pinker calls himself a supporter of individual feminism , which he defines in The Blank Sheet as “a moral doctrine about equal treatment that does not make any stipulations in relation to open empirical questions in psychology or biology”.

He has published the result of a test of his political orientation that characterized him as neither left nor right, more liberal than authoritarian.


Pinker has published over 150 reviewed papers and book chapters. Between 1994 and 2011 Pinker published six popular science books on language, mind and human nature, most recently Violence: A New History of Mankind (2011). His books have been translated into a total of over 20 languages. He also writes regularly for magazines and newspapers such as the New York Times , Time , Newsweek , Forbes Magazine and The New Republic .

Pinker coined the term " euphemism treadmill ".

Pinker's research interests are all aspects of language and mind . He explored mental imagination and language. Pinker's work on mental imagination, begun in collaboration with his PhD supervisor Stephen Kosslyn , showed that mental images represent scenes and objects as they appear from a certain angle (rather than capturing their intrinsic three-dimensional structure). Thus they correspond to the theory of the “two-and-a-half-dimensional sketches” of the neuroscientist David Marr .

In contrast to Marr's theory, he also showed that visual recognition uses representations that are independent of viewpoint, that this level of representation is used in the context of visual attention, and also for object recognition (at least for asymmetrical shapes).

He wrote a book on children's language acquisition and another on the use of verbs . He spent two decades studying the difference between intransitive and transitive verbs. He also examined the language development in twins and language processes using so-called neuroimaging . He became known for his controversial theory of the innate language instinct. Pinker later occupied himself with memory and allusions .

In psycholinguistics, Pinker was best known early in his career for promoting computational learning theory as a way of understanding language acquisition in children. He wrote an overview tutorial on this field of research, followed by two books that continued his own theory of language acquisition, and authored a series of experimental instructions for the acquisition of passive, dative and locative constructions in children.

In 1989, Pinker and Alan Prince published an influential review of the connectionist model of past tense acquisition (a textbook problem in language acquisition), followed by a series of studies of how people acquire and use the past tense. This included a monograph on the regularization of irregular verbs in children, and the popular science book Words and Rules (1999), in which he argues that regular and irregular verb phenomena are products of arithmetic and memory retrieval and that language as an interaction between the two is to be understood.

In his book Violence: A New History of Mankind , Pinker makes a contribution to research into the decline in crime . In it he continues the work of Manuel Eisner and Max Roser through investigations into the past. Eisner published a study in 2003 in which he showed that violence in Europe has decreased massively since the Middle Ages. Pinker supplements this in antiquity and up to hunter-gatherer cultures , where he identifies an even higher level of violence than in the Middle Ages.



Pinker is a representative of nativism , computationalism and the principle of intellectual modularity . His basic theses are presented in several books such as How Thought Is Created in the Head , The Blank Slate , The Language Instinct and Words and Rules .

The linguist Geoffrey Sampson criticized Pinker's nativism, which this the only alternative to social- see paradigm, in its opinion, the intellectual life of the Western world have dominated since the 1920s and in particular by researchers such as B. F. Skinner , John B. Watson and Margaret Mead represented will. Sampson describes Pinker's claims about the dominance of this paradigm as completely untenable and sees Pinker's nativism as an extreme alternative to a model that never existed. For example, educational reforms of the 1960s and 1970s assumed the innate talents of children instead of a tabula rasa , which contradicts the alleged dominance of the social constructivist model since the 1920s. Furthermore, according to Sampson, Skinner, Watson and Mead cannot be blamed for the tone of intellectual life since the 1920s. John Dupré complains that Pinker creates an exaggerated picture of extreme environmentalism and opposes this front man with his own research program. According to Dupré, who advocates an interactionist approach and the consideration of biological, cultural and environmental factors, Pinker draws up a simplistic dichotomy between proponents of tabula rasa and proponents of biological determinism .

The British cultural historian Richard Webster , however, considered the argumentation of The Language Instinct to be conclusive to the effect that the human language ability was part of the evolutionary genetic makeup of humans. Pinker's attack on the standard model of cultural determinism was a success. Webster also accepts Pinker's criticism of the social sciences of the 20th century, which would have denied the genetic influence on human nature on ideological grounds.

The psycholinguist Jeffrey Elman presents various research results on neural plasticity as a counter-argument to the nativistic view advocated by Pinker that the brain consists predominantly of innate, specialized cognitive modules . The anthropologist Melvin Konner, on the other hand, thinks that Pinker correctly concludes that the human brain cannot be a general information processing processor , a symmetrically repeating iterator or a comprehensive learning machine. Rather, the mechanisms of evolutionary biology suggest application-specific, functionally limiting neural organs and circuits. It is to be expected that nature will have designed special modules that make it possible, for example, to detect cheating in relationships, provoke anger against sexual rivals, execute a fatal bite precisely in the prey's throat, understand a sentence grammatically and get one Make it easier for the infant to find the milk-filled breast.

Jaak Panksepp criticizes the view of evolutionary psychologists and von Pinker that the information processing of the human brain functions like the data processing of computers. In his book How the mind works Pinker presents his computational theory of the mind using an example. It describes a telephone conversation in which information is transmitted from the speaker to the recipient and remains the same even though it has now taken on different physical forms - e.g. B. Pressure fluctuations, electrical signals in the telephone lines and neural activity in the recipient's brain. According to Pinker, you could just as easily run a program on a computer made up of electron tubes and electromagnetic switches. Panksepp criticizes this view as inadequate. Pinker ignores the fact that the human brain in the example has created meaning from sensory impressions and that it itself synthesizes knowledge from incoming images of the environment. In the book The mind doesn't work that way - a direct reply to Pinker's How the mind works  - Jerry Fodor points out that research results have clearly shown that humans have higher cognitive abilities that cannot be explained by computational models . Fodor, who is considered a co-founder of the field of computationalism, expresses astonishment at Pinker's belief in the explanatory power of computational theories.

He was criticized for insufficient data, on which Pinker bases many statements in Violence: A New History of Humanity . In this book, as well as in Enlightenment now: For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Eine Defense (2018) , and in lectures Pinker disseminated scientific knowledge about a decrease in crime and violence in public. The Polish linguist Anna Wierzbicka criticizes Pinker's book Violence: A New History of Mankind with the objection that it implicitly presupposes that the meaning of the English word "violence" is the same as the meaning of the words used for "violence" in other languages. She gives examples of how the American concept of violence is by no means universal.


Pinker's popular scientific work received considerable attention in the international and German-language media. The British BBC, for example, describes him as a “scientific superstar” and Der Spiegel introduces Pinker as a “world-famous evolutionary psychologist” who “has earned a high reputation for his research on language, consciousness and spirit”.

Pinker's books are often bestsellers in the non-fiction segment and are also received far beyond scientific debates, as illustrated by his regular appearances on the popular television program Colbert Report . At the same time, there are critical voices in the public eye who receive academic reproaches of simplistic reductionism and scientism . For example, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes Pinker's positions as "presumptuous, self-assured, intellectually simplistic and disinterested in the possibilities of rational contradiction between people."

Fonts (selection)

Web links

TED discussions ("Technology, Entertainment, Design")

Articles and essays

Individual evidence

  1. Google books
  2. Steven Pinker - About. ( Memento June 3, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) Department of Psychology, Harvard University. Retrieved February 28, 2010.
  3. Steven Pinker's official biography. Retrieved August 1, 2012.
  4. Steven Pinker - About - Long Biography. ( April 22, 2015 memento in the Internet Archive ) Department of Psychology, Harvard University. Retrieved January 10, 2012.
  5. ^ Robert Wright: Steven Pinker. How Our Minds Evolved. ( Memento from May 11, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) In: Time Magazine . Retrieved February 8, 2006.
  6. ^ The Prospect / FP ( Memento of September 7, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) At: Retrieved February 8, 2006.
  7. Intellectuals. ( Memento of August 7, 2013 in the Internet Archive ) At: Retrieved October 21, 2011.
  8. Steven Pinker Receives Humanist of the Year Award ( June 15, 2006 memento in the Internet Archive ) At: May 12, 2006.
  9. Ebru Esmen: Evolutionary psychologist is awarded the archeology prize. MONREPOS, press release from October 2, 2018 at Informationsdienst Wissenschaft (, accessed on October 20, 2018.
  10. ^ Eleanor Maccoby Book Award in Developmental Psychology. Retrieved December 27, 2018 .
  11. PSYCHOANALYSIS Q-and-A: Steven Pinker. At: Retrieved February 8, 2006.
  12. Michael Shermer: The Pinker Instinct. ( Memento of August 10, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) At: March 1, 2001.
  13. ^ A b Steven Pinker: The Mind Reader. At: Retrieved November 25, 2006.
  14. Steven Pinker Biography., July 20, 2018, accessed October 17, 2018 .
  15. Steven Pinker's cultural highlights. At: Retrieved November 25, 2015.
  16. ^ "As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 am on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. […] This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist). ”In: Steven Pinker: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking, 2002, ISBN 0-670-03151-8 .
  17. Steven Pinker: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking, 2002, p. 341.
  18. Steven Pinker: My Genome, My Self. At: January 7, 2009, accessed April 10, 2010.
  19. Steven Pinker. Selected Articles in Academic Journals and Books. ( Memento of May 18, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) List of Pinker's publications, accessed on August 1, 2012.
  20. The mirror
  21. From Primal Sketch to 2.5D Sketch.
  22. Manuel Eisner : Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime . The University of Chicago, 2003 ( Download [PDF]).
  23. ^ Geoffrey Sampson: The 'Language Instinct' Debate. Revised Edition. Continuum, London 2009, ISBN 978-0-8264-7384-4 , pp. 134 f.
  24. ^ John Dupré: Making Hay with Straw Men . At: January / February 2003.
  25. ^ Richard Webster: Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. The Orwell Press, Oxford 2005, pp. 609-610.
  26. Jeffrey L. Elman: Rethinking innateness: a connectionist perspective on development. MIT Press, London 2001, ISBN 0-262-55030-X , pp. 25 f.
  27. Melvin Konner: A Piece of Your Mind. In: Science. 281 (5377), pp. 653-654, July 31, 1998.
  28. ^ A b c Jaak Panksepp , Jules B. Panksepp: The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology. (PDF; 107 kB). In: Evolution and Cognition. 6, No. 2, 2000, pp. 108-131.
  29. Steven Pinker: How the mind works. P. 24.
  30. Jerry A. Fodor: The Mind Doesn't Work that Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology. MIT Press , Cambridge (Mass.) 2000, ISBN 978-0-262-06212-1 , p. 2 ff.
  31. Herfried Münkler: Steven Pinker: Violence: All curves point to eternal peace . In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , October 18, 2011. Accessed December 29, 2019.
  32. Anna Wierzbicka: Imprisoned in English. The hazards of English as a default language. Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York 2013, ISBN 978-0-19-932150-6 , pp. 55-57.
  33. Steven Pinker. Cognitive Psychologist. At:
  34. Demons and Angels. At: 17th October 2011.
  35. ^ TSA Expansion Program - Steven Pinker. ( Memento of August 16, 2013 in the Internet Archive ) The Colbert Report, August 13, 2013.
  36. Steven Pinker. ( Memento of December 19, 2008 in the Internet Archive ) The Colbert Report, February 7, 2007.
  37. ^ The Scientism of Steven Pinker. At: 7th August 2013.