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Steven Pinker: A Profile

TUESDAY 24th September 2002
For thousands of years, the fundamental question of why we are who we are has tickled philosophers, theologians and barroom thinkers after a couple of pints.

American psychology professor Dr Steven Pinker thinks he has the answers.

Scientific superstar

Working from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his vision is that our deepest desires and instincts are all products of our evolution, and that our behaviour is a hard-wired legacy of all that has gone before.

With his distinctive curly tresses, wit and good humour, he is a publisher's dream. And the success of his best selling book, How the Mind Works, has elevated him to the rank of scientific superstar.

Born in Montreal in 1954 to Jewish parents, Pinker was an early observer of how our environment influences us. Specialising in linguistics at Harvard, he spotted that mere learning skills were not enough to explain children's ability to acquire language, and began to chart its evolutionary process.

Further explorations of behaviour and reasoning drew Pinker nearer the source of human nature, and he has emerged as a singularly articulate exponent of the Darwinian viewpoint, with its rational explanations for hostility to outsiders and class warfare.

Critics

His critics say that he wraps everything up too neatly, but Pinker is confident his conclusions will stand the test of time.

Undermining the idea of blank slate at birth is a disturbing proposal for those of us, whose religion, politics and morality rely on the idea of all humans' inherent equality. If our genes are more powerful than our more noble social goals, if there is no perfectability to human nature, then our strivings are worth nothing.

Triumphant genes

But Pinker emphasises that to describe and explain the more instinctive sides of our natures and the triumph of our genes, is not to sanction them, nor to surrender to them. Of his own decision not to have children, he says he simply told his own genes to "go jump in the lake".

And of such great world evils as racism and violence, he argues that his vision is not a tragic one at all. If violence is a universal manifestation of enduring conflicts of interest, then he asks, "Not what goes wrong when people kill each other, but what goes right when they don't?"

An almost spiritual question, then, which might comfort those who think Steven Pinker has done away with the magic.