The Psychology of Communication


5.4 Language And Human Nature - Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker grew up in Montreal, graduated from McGill University, went to MIT to study with Noam Chomsky, and is now a professor at Harvard University. According to Time Magazine, he was one of the 100 most important people in the world in 2006. He has no doubt retained his place with the publication of The Stuff of Thought in 2007. The titles of five of his recent books are listed in Figure 5-2. As you can see he has been alternating between books on language and books on human nature. The fifth book - The Stuff of Thought - could be considered as the conclusion of a trilogy on both his language and human nature series, in which he argues, as the subtitle tells us, that Language is a Window into Human Nature.

First, a word about How The Mind Works [PINKER 1997]. Such a title may be premature and presumptuous but it is no longer preposterous. Evolutionary psychologists, like Pinker, are transforming many mysteries of mind into mere problems. As a child, I was addicted to jigsaw puzzles. I would start with the outer edge and work inward frame by frame. According to Pinker, the outer border of the jigsaw puzzle of mind is the principle of natural selection and the next border is the concept of the nervous system as a tool for processing information to enable us to survive (see Figure 5-3).

In Chapter 10, I will present the theory of Marshall McLuhan that media may best be considered as extensions of the nervous system. This provides a third border to our jigsaw puzzle. In a previous book - A History of Media [GARDINER 2002] - I argue that the Big Story of historical time is the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions of the nervous system. We are born with a means of storing information (memory) and a means of transmitting information (speech). This first generation of media was adequate for a hunter-gatherer society. However our inventions of an agricultural society, an industrial society, and now an information society, required correlated inventions of media to extend our nervous systems. We had to store information outside our bodies (Print and Film - second generation), transmit information outside our bodies (Telephone and Television - third generation) and both store and transmit information outside our bodies (Multimedia and Internet - fourth generation). If I may be so immodest as to place myself in the distinguished company of Darwin, Pinker, and McLuhan, this provides a fourth frame in the jig-saw puzzle presented in Figure 5-3. This is at least part of the answer to the Wallace Paradox described above. The transition to those more complex societies was enabled by using media to extend our nervous systems.

Second, a word about The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [PINKER 2002]. This devastating critique of the argument that the mind can be usefully considered as a blank slate destroys the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which has dominated the Social Sciences till recently. This model assumes that the mind at birth is a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which culture writes. Pinker argues convincingly that your tabula was far from rasa, and documents in detail the process by which your mind is a medium shaped by the past experience of our species and it in turn shapes the content assimilated from your culture.

Third, a word about The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature [PINKER 2007]. Having destroyed the SSSM, Pinker is obliged to provide his concept of human nature as a basis for an alternative Social Science Model. Having geared up with two previous books on language - The Language Instinct [PINKER 1994] and Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language [PINKER 1999], he is now ready to look through the window of language into human nature. What does he see? In Section 2.1, we learned that the nervous system mediates between the internal and external environments to enable us to survive by approaching things which are good for us and avoiding things which are bad for us. However language serves as a mediator between our internal and external environments to not merely survive but to thrive. We are thus able to satisfy not only our biological needs, as argued by behaviorists, but also our sociological and psychological needs, as argued by humanists.

We are natural-born scientists. Science involves observation and reason. Every language contains the concepts of time and space, cause and effect, as the basis for observation. "The mind isn't a blank slate, but it isn't an overstuffed filing cabinet either" (Jonah Lehrer). It does not contain innate ideas of Hula Hoops and iPhones, but of time and space, cause and effect since those are the basic dimensions of the physical world. In Chapter 6, we will discover that every language has all the logical operators - if -then, either - or, etc. - required for logic. That is, language contains the means for reason.

Language links our outer world (objective world) and our inner world (subjective map). Since the brain is part of the objective world, it is not surprising then that it has the same basic structure as the objective world and that the mind, which emerges from the brain, produces a subjective map that is isomorphic with that objective world, and thus enables us potentially to create an accurate subjective map of it. We are not surprised that our perception enables us to perceive the world as it is. Pinker's surprise is that our conception enables us to conceive the world as it is. The potential to know and understand the world, through observation and reason, is innate.