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Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.
Pinker’s academic specializations are visual cognition and psycholinguistics. His experimental subjects include mental imagery, shape recognition, visual attention, children’s language development, regular and irregular phenomena in language, the neural bases of words and grammar, and the psychology of cooperation and communication, including euphemism, innuendo, emotional expression, and common knowledge. He has written two technical books that proposed a general theory of language acquisition and applied it to children’s learning of verbs. In particular, his work with Alan Prince published in 1989 critiqued the connectionist model of how children acquire the past tense of English verbs, arguing instead that children use default rules such as adding “-ed” to make regular forms, sometimes in error, but are obliged to learn irregular forms one by one.
Pinker is also the author of eight books for general audiences. His earlier works argue that the human faculty for language is an instinct, an innate behavior shaped by natural selection and adapted to our communication needs. The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Stuff of Thought (2007), describe aspects of [the field of] psycholinguistics and cognitive science, and include accounts of his own research. Pinker’s The Sense of Style (2014), as a general style guide, is another language-oriented work. Informed by modern science and psychology, it offers advice on how to produce more comprehensible and unambiguous writing in nonfiction contexts and explains why so much of today’s academic and popular writing is difficult for readers to understand.
Pinker’s two other books for the public leave behind individual questions of language and learning in favor of broader societal themes. The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) makes the case that violence in human societies has, in general, steadily declined with time, and identifies six major causes of this decline. Enlightenment Now (2018) continues the optimistic thesis of The Better Angels of Our Nature by using social science data from various sources to argue for a general improvement of the human condition over recent history.
Pinker has been named as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals by various magazines. He has won awards from the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the American Humanist Association. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. He has served on the editorial boards of a variety of journals, and on the advisory boards of several institutions. He has frequently participated in public debates on science and society.