Debbie talks with Steven Pinker about the miraculous evolution of language, the most arresting question he has ever fielded, and his new book, Enlightenment Now—which breaks down why we actually have good cause to be positive about the state of the world today.
It’s easy to feel dwarfed—or, perhaps more accurately, entirely intimidated, overwhelmed, painfully daunted—by author and experimental psychologist Steven Pinker.
Pinker has written more than 10 books. Time has dubbed him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Prospect and Foreign Policy have featured him on their list of the top 100 public intellectuals working today.
And then there’s the intense output that landed him on such lists: Pinker’s life’s work is the study of the architecture of our minds and world; he explores with great zeal questions such as how language develops in children, what role evolution plays in language, the nature of human nature. Heady subjects he seemingly takes on with ease, and ones that would leave most of us weeping with frustration into the groundswell of jargon-rich research papers documenting them.
Pinker believes humans are “systematically self-deceived; each one of us thinks of ourselves as more competent and benevolent than we are.” We might, perhaps, but in the context of people like Pinker who are wickedly smart, seemingly capable of processing that which 95% of people cannot, it’s easy to feel, well, small.
There’s even the matter of his hair—his trademark plumage that led him to be deemed the first member of The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists. (Seriously.)
How does one acquire such a capable mind, and the locks that adorn it?
Pinker grew up in Montreal, in a community that featured the likes of Saul Bellow, Leonard Cohen and William Shatner. His father was a sales rep, landlord and lawyer, and his mother looked after the home, and later got a master’s degree in counseling, becoming vice principal of a Montreal high school. Growing up in the ’60s, Pinker regarded himself philosophically as a teenage anarchist … until the police went on strike, and looting and riots ensued. It was a formative moment that he has cited as giving him a glimpse into his future as a scientist—“Namely, that cherished beliefs can be cruelly falsified by empirical tests,” he told The Harvard Gazette.
Pinker was a self-described voracious reader, and had a keen interest in the workings of the mind, and as a result, his parents urged him to become a psychiatrist instead of an academic—the scholarly world was in turmoil in the 1970s, and many would-be professors wound up unemployed. But Pinker followed his path, seizing on the expanding field of cognitive psychology, and went from McGill to Harvard to MIT.
The root of his passion: as he told the Gazette, “What could be more interesting than how the mind works?”
In his professional life, Pinker pinged back and forth between teaching at Harvard and MIT. And then, after penning highly technical books intended for his peers, a rather amazing thing happened: Pinker decided to take his knowledge and adapt it for a general audience.
Again, as with many of the guests featured on shows like Design Matters, it’s easy to feel dwarfed by their achievements, dwarfed by their intellects; it’s often all it takes to simply not wonder aloud, What the hell am I doing with my life? But to feel dwarfed is to miss the point.
Why does Steven Pinker choose to focus his considerable brain power on these subjects? And is it all just the Quixotic wanderings of an academic? Why do these things he documents even matter in the first place?
That’s exactly why he is such a key figure to society today: In plain language, he tells us.
In so doing, he lets us in on a conversation we might otherwise miss, and brilliantly expands our minds. When asked by The Times Literary Supplement about the best advice he has ever received, he replied, “When I crossed over from academic to popular writing, a university press editor advised me not to make the common professor’s mistake of talking down to readers, as if they were semi-literate chicken pluckers.” Rather, the editor urged him to think of readers as all sharing the same high intellect—they just happen to not know something that Pinker does. And that’s exactly how his writing comes across; in the process of blowing our minds, he refrains from shoving his IQ, and the jargon that tends to fall like snow from the clouds of scientific journals, down our throats. (In fact, he more or less later penned the book on this approach: The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.)
Pinker breaks the stereotype of the staid intellectual in more ways than one. Rather than vanishing into the weeds of the subjects he is writing about or discussing, he approaches them with wit and flair. He’s personable. He’s funny.
He eschews the quietly bemoaned notion in academia that today’s Millennials are the least intelligent and laziest generation.
He knows and accepts his limits, admitting that any thoughts he might have had about writing a novel to complement his nonfiction went out the door after he married novelist Rebecca Goldstein, and saw the raw talent that truly goes into fiction.
On a wider scale, he puts his superpowers to good use, breaking down the psychology behind phenomena like the “The Dress” for Forbes, which subsequently dubbed him “Rock Star Psychologist Steven Pinker.”
He dabbles in the visual arts. Drop the “n” from “Steven,” and head over to stevepinker.com to discover that he’s a pretty damn good photographer.
His theories have been contested, and he does not shy from engaging with his detractors. As a recent headline for John Gray’s (who Pinker has sparred with before) review of his latest book in the The New Statesman goes, “Unenlightened Thinking: Steven Pinker’s Embarrassing New Book is a Feeble Sermon for Rattled Liberals.” (More on that book in a moment, from perhaps a rattled liberal perspective.)
And finally, we circle back to perhaps the clearest indicator that he doesn’t necessarily walk the line of the expected: his hair. As critic Steven Heller wrote in Design Observer, “Arguably,
how one wears their hair is the most important sign of personal identity. A hairstyle is more than just style; it is a trademark or, if you will, a logo for a personal brand. Hair is a graphic device, every bit as designed and ultimately mnemonic as any other vivid iconography.”
Pinker breaks it down: “First, there’s immaturity. Any boy growing up in the ’60s fought a constant battle with his father about getting a haircut. Now no one can force me to get my hair cut, and I’m still reveling in the freedom. Also, I had a colleague at MIT, the computer scientist Pat Winston, who had a famous annual speech on how to lecture, and one of his tips was that every professor should have an affectation, something to amuse students with.” On a “Colbert Report” appearance, Colbert whipped out a security wand and scanned Pinker’s hair for weapons.
Pinker’s new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. And in it, he reveals—using data and a host of visuals—that the common narrative that the world today is the biggest wreck it has ever been, is egregiously incorrect. Rather, Pinker details, we are thriving. Never before have humanity’s achievements been greater when it comes to health, wealth, peace, democracy, quality of life, happiness and other factors—a perspective that’s easy to overlook in a news cycle focused on the negative, that which today is dubbed newsworthy. (As Tibor Kalman once observed, “We don’t talk about planes flying; we talk about them crashing.”) Pinker also delves into the territory that ruffles the feathers of a loyal Trumpian base today—how a demagogue tends to thrive on the notion that a system, and the world at large, is broken.
All told, Bill Gates liked Enlightenment Now so much he dubbed it his “new favorite book of all time.”
Asked by Rolling Stone if he considers himself an optimist, Pinker said that he probably is—but reminded his interviewer that in this book, as with his others, he’s merely pointing out facts based on data. Facts that he, and he alone, I’d add, was able to obtain, digest and interpret for readers. And that is the power of Pinker—he takes his amazing mind and focus, and offers it to the world, as all those visible and outstanding talents in other fields do, from the virtuoso guitarist to the investigative journalist to the artist. It is reason to not be daunted by the Steven Pinkers of the world, but to realize what they contribute, for they make up the chorus of thought that enlightens the darkness.
In simply doing his work, Pinker gives us perhaps what we need most right now: perspective and, crucially, hope.
A Selection of Books by Steven Pinker: