Language, Cognition and Human Nature

Pinker bookSteven Pinker

This not-so-new, new publication by a very popular author is a hard book to recommend. It has all of the characteristics that have made Steven Pinker popular and influential, but will anyone really enjoy all of it?

As the book’s subtitle tells us, this is not new material but rather a collection of Selected Articles. And that’s the problem.

The first half of the book contains some rather scholarly publications focused on language theory in-fighting. It’s a bit of a slog for the non-expert (like me). And while the second half reprints some of Pinker’s better and better-known popular essays, that’s not going to satisfy the hard-core academics who were drawn to the book’s first half.

So what gives? Why publish a book one or the other half of which is very likely to put off half of its readers?

Maybe it was the fault of a publishing contract? “We need a book from you, but you don’t have one ready, so here’s what we’ll do … .” Or of financial need? “I don’t have a new book ready, but I could use a cheque, so here’s what I’ll do … .” We can’t be sure.

Non-linguist that I am, I’m in the second group of readers. I plowed through a lot of the first half of the book, getting a point here and there, half understanding this and that. I enjoyed the recapitulation of Pinker’s analysis of the political-social basis of the fading but still barely breathing assertion that the human mind is a “blank slate.” Pinker has written a whole book on the subject, and I agree with him, so this bit I liked enough to re-cite it here:

Part of its appeal was political and moral. If nothing in the mind is innate, then differences among races, sexes, and classes can never be innate, making the blank slate the ultimate safeguard against racism, sexism, and class prejudice. Also, the doctrine ruled out the possibility that ignoble traits such as greed, prejudice, and aggression spring from human nature, and thus held out the hope of unlimited social progress.

There are fewer of these people around than there used to be, thanks to ongoing brain research. The ones who are left really should read some of that research!

Pinker hits his stride — hits my stride — in the second half. So let’s concentrate on this “good part,” what Pinker calls “The Most Succinct Statement of My Theory of Everything.”

Why do humans have the ability to pursue abstract intellectual feats such as science, mathematics, philosophy, and law, given that opportunities to exercise these talents did not exist in the foraging lifestyle in which humans evolved and would not have parlayed themselves into advantages in survival and reproduction even if they did?

Pinker’s answer is that humans evolved to fill the “cognitive niche,” which he describes as a mode of survival characterized by manipulating the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation.” And the “psychological faculties” that were selected for success in the cognitive niche “can be coopted to abstract domains by processes of metaphorical abstraction and productive combination, both vividly manifested in human language.”

It can come as no surprise that for Pinker, grammatical language is the key to human success. Through language, he writes, we are able to co-operate with non-kin, and to expand and share technology, Thanks to language, human groups dominate their environments thanks to a profound alteration of the usual evolutionary time scale:

Because humans develop offenses in real time that other organisms can defend themselves against only in evolutionary time, humans have a tremendous advantage in evolutionary arms races.

There’s a lot more, but then, all of Pinker’s contentions and explanations here have appeared first somewhere else.

You could buy his earlier books, I guess, but probably the most efficient way to read (or re-read) this material is to find a friend who will be engaged by the opposite half of the book from the part that interests you. Split the cost of the book, then read just the half that appeals to you.


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