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Scientists' Nightstand: Steven Pinker

Greg Ross

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard and the author of The Blank Slate (Viking, 2002), The Language Instinct (W. Morrow and Co., 1994) and How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997). He has won numerous prizes for his teaching, research and books.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Steven PinkerClick to Enlarge Image

I'm an experimental psychologist who is interested in every aspect of the human mind, though my research concentrates on language—how it works, how children acquire it, how it evolved, where it is computed in the brain. I was born in Montreal and studied at McGill, and have spent most of my life since then shuttling between MIT and Harvard, where I rejoined the psychology department a year ago. I teach a big course called "The Human Mind" and have written a number of books for a general audience, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules (Basic, 1999) and The Blank Slate. My most recent book is an edited collection, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004 (Houghton Mifflin).

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

A History of Force, by James Payne (Lytton, 2003), an obscure but fascinating book which documents how—contrary to popular opinion—violence has steadily declined in the West over the past few centuries. Torture, genocide, murders, deadly riots and slavery used to be the rule, not the exception. If we could identify and bottle the causes of this massive trend, we could live in an even less violent world. The Last Word, by Thomas Nagel (Oxford University Press, 1997), which defends the objective reality of reason and ethics by noting that any defense of relativism refutes itself by the very act of saying that relativism is correct or good. Brazzaville Beach, by William Boyd (W. Morrow, 1990), a clever novel about a primatologist who observes deadly violence in her chimpanzees and has to deal with the wrath of the project leader, who has just published a book called The Peaceful Primate. It's an example of one of my favorite genres—novels in which one character is a cognitive scientist caught up in great themes of literature that are also themes of the sciences of mind, such as reason, emotion, free will, consciousness and memory. Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem (Random House, 1983) features a witty young philosopher who grapples with that problem both as a research topic and in her own attractions to the cerebral and the carnal. David Lodge's Thinks ... (Viking, 2001) explores the different ways that consciousness is understood in art and science through an affair between an English professor and a cognitive scientist. Other examples are Richard Dooling's Brain Storm (Random House, 1998), Carole Cadwalladr's forthcoming The Family Tree (Dutton, 2005), Ian McEwan's Enduring Love (Thorndike Press, 1998), Michael Frayn's The Tin Men (Little, Brown, 1965) and Ann Bernays's Professor Romeo (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989).

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I read tedious or stressful professional material in situations where I'm already not having a good time, like airplanes or in my office between meetings during a hectic day. I read for pleasure over lunch and before bed.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Contemporary fiction: Rebecca Goldstein, Ian McEwan, Alison Lurie, David Lodge, Norman Rush, Tom Wolfe. Nonfiction: Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Wright, Adam Gopnik, Matt Ridley, Virginia Postrel, Thomas Sowell. Their writing exemplifies a love of my two professional interests: language and human nature.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

I couldn't honestly pick three, but here are the ones that I cited at the end of The Blank Slate as exploring some of the major themes about human nature that I discussed in that book: Huckleberry Finn (1884), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972).

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

There are too many to mention, but I'd include Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (Norton, 1986), for defending the centrality of evolution in understanding life and behavior; Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption (Free Press, 1998), for showing how to think about genes, environments and chance in the shaping of children; and Colin McGinn's Problems in Philosophy (Blackwell, 1993), for suggesting that there may be conceptual puzzles that the human mind is biologically incapable of solving.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Two magisterial histories: Richard Dawkins's The Ancestor's Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), on the history of life, and David Crystal's The Stories of English (Overlook Press, 2004), on our language.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

I think smart teenagers can read the same kinds of books that adults do. Certainly any of the ones I've mentioned here. As a teenager I particularly liked George Gamow's One, Two, Three ... Infinity (Viking, 1947).

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Just about anything by Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, John Allen Paulos, Dan Dennett, Jared Diamond, Robert Sapolsky or William Poundstone.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

I'd have to recommend my own How the Mind Works, because its subject matter is how the mind works.

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