Steven Pinker is a best-selling author and Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, with Time Magazine describing him as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World Today“.
His most popular books include “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, “The Blank Slate”, “How the Mind Works”, and “The Language Instinct”. His most recent book, “Enlightenment Now; The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”, tells the heroic story of human progress, and why we neglect it at our peril.
In this London Real episode, Professor Pinker joins host Brian Rose in the studio to discuss How MIT’s perspective and culture are woven into Steven’s work, How to guard against one’s cognitive biases and his optimism for the future of our species.
Steven Pinker started his academic career by earning his bachelor’s degree from Dawson College in Montreal and pursued graduate studies at Harvard University, where he completed a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. His early research focused on language acquisition, and he quickly gained recognition for his innovative work on the nature of language and the cognitive processes involved in language learning.
In 1994, Steven Pinker published the influential book “The Language Instinct,” which explored the biological foundations of language acquisition. In this seminal work, Pinker argued that language is an innate human ability shaped by evolutionary forces. The book challenged prevailing views on language acquisition and solidified Pinker’s reputation as a leading figure in cognitive science.
Subsequent publications, such as “How the Mind Works” (1997) and “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” (2002), further established Pinker as a key voice in the field. His interdisciplinary approach drew on insights from psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, offering a comprehensive exploration of the human mind and behaviour.
In “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” (2018), Pinker broadens his scope to tackle questions of human progress and societal well-being. Drawing on an extensive array of data, Pinker made a compelling case that, despite contemporary challenges, humanity has experienced significant improvements in health, education, safety, and quality of life. He argued for the enduring impact of Enlightenment values, reason, science, and humanism, in driving progress.
Pinker’s optimistic perspective, both in “Enlightenment Now” and his broader body of work, has drawn both praise and critique. While some applaud his evidence-based optimism and advocacy for a rational, evidence-driven approach to societal issues, others challenge the extent to which progress can address persistent challenges and inequalities.
Beyond academia, Steven Pinker has become a prominent public intellectual and populariser of scientific ideas. His TED Talks, interviews, and public appearances have brought complex scientific concepts to a wider audience, making his insights accessible to those outside academic circles. Pinker’s ability to distil complex research into engaging narratives has contributed to a broader understanding of the mind, language, and human nature.
Pinker has been a vocal critic of linguistic determinism, the idea that language shapes thought in a fundamental way. In “The Stuff of Thought” (2007), he explores how language reflects cognitive processes but rejects the notion that it entirely determines our thinking. This stance has contributed to ongoing debates within the fields of linguistics and cognitive science.
Steven Pinker’s contributions to cognitive science, linguistics, and the popularisation of scientific ideas have left an enduring legacy. His work has not only reshaped how we understand the human mind but has also influenced public discourse on critical issues facing society. As a scholar, communicator, and advocate for reason and progress, Pinker continues to play a crucial role in shaping our collective understanding of what it means to be human.