Steven Pinker follows Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Martha Minow, and E.O. Wilson in the Experience series, interviews with Harvard faculty members covering the reasons they became teachers and scholars, and the personal journeys, missteps included, behind their professional success. Interviews with Melissa Franklin, Stephen Greenblatt, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Helen Vendler, and Walter Willett will appear in coming weeks.
The brain is Steven Pinker’s playground. A cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist, Pinker is fascinated by language, behavior, and the development of human nature. His work has ranged from a detailed analysis of how the mind works to a best-seller about the decline in violence from biblical times to today.
Raised in Montreal, Pinker was drawn early to the mysteries of thought that would drive his career, and shaped in part by coming of age in the ’60s and early ’70s, when “society was up for grabs,” it seemed, and nature vs. nurture debates were becoming more complex and more heated.
His earliest work involved research in both visual imagery and language, but eventually he devoted himself to the study of language development, particularly in children. His groundbreaking 1994 book “The Language Instinct” put him firmly in the sphere of evolutionary psychology, the study of human impulses as genetically programmed and language as an instinct “wired into our brains by evolution.” Pinker, 59, has spent most of his career in Cambridge, and much of that time at Harvard — first for his graduate studies, later as an assistant professor. He is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology.