Steven Pinker & Bencie Woll


BW:     Steve Pinker – you’re an ‘academic superstar’. Your books are best-sellers; you frequently appear in the media (and are profiled in literary journals). In Europe — certainly in Britain — there’s a form of academic snobbery against academics who become media figures. Some people have called this the ‘Desmond Morris Effect’ after the zoologist who wrote The Naked Ape. Do you feel any tensions between maintaining your academic and media status and roles?

SP: In America the standard example is Carl Sagan, the astronomer who tirelessly promoted science on television and in magazines, but who was blackballed from the National Academy of Sciences. I think attitudes are changing, as scientists realize the importance of spreading scientific literacy and combating pseudoscience. I have never experienced hostility from my colleagues (many thank me for writing books that explain to their relatives what they do for a living!) It’s possible that I get it indirectly, in journal peer reviews and the like, but I try not to let my mind go there, because it would be an excuse not to take criticism seriously.

BW: Back in the late nineteenth century, the topic of language evolution became so disreputable that the Cercle Linguistique de Paris banned speculation on the origins of human language. Discussion of language evolution disappeared for most of the twentieth century but has recently had a spectacular revival, with numerous books expounding various theories (among others) relating the evolution of human language to specific genetic mutations, mutual grooming, adornment of the body, and singing. What is your perspective on the evolution of human language?

SP: A fairly conventional one, I would have thought: that language evolved as an adaptation to communication in a knowledge-using, social species. Language coevolved with technological know-how and social cooperation (which, like language, are absent or rudimentary in other animals) because the three abilities reinforce each other. Know-how can be multiplied by accumulating other people’s discoveries; cooperation is enhanced when the parties have commodities that they can share at a low cost to themselves (knowledge is the ultimate shareable commodity); and language itself depends on people being in a cooperative relationship — to be ‘on speaking terms,’ as we say. This triad of lifestyle features may be called ‘the cognitive niche.’ But while I think that this is pretty straightforward, many theoreticians on the evolution of language have opted for more exotic theories, as you have noted.

BW: Michael Tomasello, in his recent book, Why We Cooperate (MIT Press, 2009), regards one of the most striking features of human children in contrast to the young of other species as their urge to be collaborative and helpful. How does such an observation fit in with the relationship between the psychology of the individual and society?

SP: As I mentioned, humans are truly an unusual species in the degree to which we cooperate with nonrelatives — the basis for human society. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists tell us that this activity offers huge payoffs, but a suite of cognitive and emotional abilities are needed to sustain it. These include the ability to offer help to those who need it, recognize other individuals, remember how they treated you in the past, and experience the moral emotions (such as anger, gratitude, guilt, sympathy, and trust) that impel you to reciprocate. It’s not surprising that these abilities are well developed in humans, and emerge early in development.

BW: Psychologists and linguists have for many years created theoretical models of cognition and language. With advances in brain imaging techniques we understand much more about networks in the brain and how the brain functions.  Will neuroscience begin to constrain cognitive and linguistic theories or will there remain a place for abstract models?

SP: Both are true. Neuroscience will certainly constrain theories of language processing. My own recent attempt in this direction is a study (with Ned Sahin, Eric Halgren and colleagues, recently published in Science) in which we collaborated with neurosurgeons who had implanted electrodes in the brains of epileptic patients to locate the origin of their seizures. Some of the electrodes passed through language-related areas of the brain, and we were able to record electrophysiological activity while the patients were producing words or grammatically inflecting them — a kind of recording which ordinarily could only be done in animals. We saw signs of three successive stages of processing — lexical, grammatical, phonological — which supported one of the major theories of speech production. At the same time, there will always be a place for abstract models (in our case, it gave us an idea what to look for!) Just as one cannot analyze a movie by putting a DVD under a microscope, one cannot understand the brain at the physiological level alone; one also has to understand its design.

BW:You’ve taken up a principled position of atheism. Yet you have dedicated The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Penguin Books, 2008) to your wife: ‘Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, my bashert’. Bashert means predestined or predetermined. (It’s the past participle of the verb bashern, related to Middle High German beschern meaning ‘to allot’ or ‘to apportion’). So although I don’t think you use the term because you believe that your wife and you were determined for each other by God, I wonder if you could expand a bit on your views about Judaism and being Jewish (as an individual and as a member of a community and culture).

SP:  Yes, this was a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of our compatibility at every level, from the genetic (we are carriers of a Tay-Sachs-like gene found only in Ashkenazim) — to the occupational (authors) — to the philosophical (pro-science, pro-reason) — to the religious (secular humanists with an affection for Jewish culture and history). Like many modern Jews, my relationship to Judaism is complicated. I don’t think that ancient religious texts are a source of morality (the Torah sanctions genocide, slavery, and rape, and the Talmud is a recipe for insularity and the oppression of women). Yet I admire Judaism’s millennia-long tradition of ethical disputation and debate. I am not a Zionist in the sense of endorsing a mystical connection between a people and a territory, and am uncomfortable with any religious or ethnic definition of a state, together with many of Israel’s policies. Yet I admire many things about the country, and object to the myopic denunciations and illiberal persecution (not least by certain British academics) of Israel and its citizens. I am an atheist who personally finds many Jewish religious observances to be a bit tedious, yet I am glad that others carry on the traditions, and feel solidarity with Jewish humor, culture, and history. Complicated, perhaps even contradictory — but what could be more Jewish than that?

Bencie Woll is a professor in the Research Department of Cognitive Perceptual and Brain Sciences at University College London and Director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre

Steven Pinker is appearing at Jewish Book Week 2010.

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