You could call Steve Pinker, Harvard's star psychology professor, a public intellectual. He made his scholarly reputation with a 1990 article arguing that the human ability to learn language developed via Darwinian natural selection.

For Pinker, this idea, still controversial today, was too important to be confined to academia, so in 1994 he published his lively explanation of The Language Instinct (Morrow), the first book in a series of surprise bestsellers that also includes The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking, 2002).

Throughout his career, Pinker has written articles for general consumption in publications like the New Republic, believing that he has a responsibility to stay in touch with a nonacademic audience. His feeling is that since the public is paying for the research, they have every right to the insight and fun of the discoveries.

Well before Viking's publication of Pinker's new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language As a Window into Human Nature, he arrives at De Roberti's Pasticceria on a lovely spring day during a visit crammed with events. He attended a banquet for the inaugural Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature with his companion, the novelist Rebecca Goldstein, one of the judges. He's speaking to a high-powered book group of investment bankers, hedge fund managers and even a Nobel Prize—winning economist; they want to discuss How the Mind Works (Norton,1997), and Pinker plans to give them a preview of The Stuff of Thought as well.

After all, he says over coffee and a triple-berry tart, language is intimately connected to such real-world activities as investment and economics. “Words are a way of conveying concepts. Our minds are so flexible that we can frame complicated events in different ways. Is abortion a woman controlling her body or terminating a human life? Is the venture in Iraq liberating a country or invading a country? But these are not questions of mere words. Ultimately, it's the ideas you want to evaluate. There's a truth to the matter: if the majority of the population don't want us there, it's an invasion; if the majority prefer us over their former overlords, it's a liberation. You don't just throw up your hands; you find out what people's attitudes are, and that tells you which framing is more accurate.”

At the same time, Pinker's close study of language in The Stuff of Thought reveals some innate tendencies that can hamper informed discussion. According to Pinker, we tend to think of entities holistically, as self-contained “blobs”: the wagon is either completely loaded or not at all loaded. How does that affect our public discourse? If we have a claim that men on average have stronger spatial abilities than women, “people's first instinct is to interpret that as: men are one blob, women another blob, and all men are better than all women.”

On the contrary, says Pinker, who defended former Harvard president Lawrence Summers's controversial comments about a gender gap in math and science, “it's two overlapping bell curves. An educated person has to think statistically.” Harvard is currently overhauling its core curriculum and, if Pinker has his way, he wants one of the requirements for a college education to be a course in probability and statistical reasoning. “I think one of the things education is for is to overcome some of our instinctive ways of construing things that are not up to the demands of modern understanding,” he explains.

Language doesn't just expose the deficiencies in our understanding, Pinker contends in The Stuff of Thought; it gives us the tools to overcome them and to entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs. As an example, he offers the historical decline in violence, the subject of his next book. “The period of the late Enlightenment, when slavery, torture and capital punishment came under attack, also saw the flowering of the novel. Realistic fiction, memoirs, history and journalism all allow you to project yourself into the lives of other people, which makes it less easy to dehumanize them.” Humans will probably always have violent instincts, Pinker acknowledges, but torture and slavery have been pushed to society's margins, and capital punishment is the subject of fierce debate. “By any quantitative measure, we have become a nicer species.” Mind you, he adds with a grin, “I tend to be an optimist.”

Author Information
Wendy Smith is the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931—1940; she reviews frequently for the L.A. Times and the Washington Post.