The main question is: "Why are empirical questions about how the mind works so weighted down with political and moral and emotional baggage? Why do people believe that there are dangerous implications to the idea that the mind is a product of the brain, that the brain is organized in part by the genome, and that the genome was shaped by natural selection?" This idea has been met with demonstrations, denunciations, picketings, and comparisons to Nazism, both from the right and from the left. And these reactions affect both the day-to-day conduct of science and the public appreciation of the science. By exploring the political and moral colorings of discoveries about what makes uws tick, we can have a more honest science and a less fearful intellectual milieu.
A BIOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE: A TALK WITH STEVEN PINKER [9.9.02]
Every few years a book is published that commands our attention and causes us to consider questions that challenge our basic assumptions about ourselves. This month marks the publication of such a book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by MIT research psychologist Steven Pinker.
Pinker is a unifier, someone who ties a lot of big ideas together. He has studied visual cognition and language acquisition in the laboratory, and was one of the first to develop computational models of how children learn the words and grammar of their first language. He has merged Chomskyan ideas about an innate language faculty with the Darwinian theory of adaptation and natural selection. Pinker also wrote one of the most influential critiques of neural-network models of the mind.
book The Language
all aspects of language
in a unified, Darwinian
framework, and in
How the Mind
Works he did
the same for the
rest of the mind,
the mind is, how
it evolved, and
how it allows us
to see, think, feel,
enjoy the arts,
and ponder the mysteries
These three ideas are increasingly being challenged by the sciences of the mind, brain, genes, and evolution," he says, "but they are held as much for their moral and political uplift as for any empirical rationale. People think that these doctrines are preferable on moral grounds and that the alternative is forbidden territory that we should avoid at all costs".
STEVEN PINKER, research psychologist, is Peter de Florez Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development: Learnability and Cognition; The Language Instinct; How the Mind Works; Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
His research on visual cognition and on the psychology of language has received the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences and two prizes from the American Psychological Association. He has also received awards for his graduate teaching at MIT and for his undergraduate teaching at MIT, two prizes for general achievement, an honorary doctorate, and five awards for his popular science books.
Pinker is a fellow of several scholarly societies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is an associate editor of Cognition and serves on many professional panels, including the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and the Scientific Advisory Panel of an 8-hour NOVA television series on evolution. He also writes frequently in the popular press, including The New York Times, Time, Slate, and The New Yorker.