Steven Pinker is one of the best known experimental psychologists. His research career has primarily focused on language, but he is best known for his popular books that most recently have nothing to do with language. For example, in Angels of our Better Nature (2011), he tries to explain why human-on-human violence has declined in recent years. His new book, Enlightenment Now (2018), argues that prosperity across the globe has been generally increasing due to enlightenment values.
I read Pinker’s The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and some of his original research articles in graduate school. He is a very talented writer. However, he deliberately oversimplifies issues, sometimes omits well known contrary evidence, and typically provides overly confident “just so” explanations for complex phenomena that we’ll probably never understand mechanistically (e.g., what causes human-on-human violence). This is beautifully illustrated by Jeremy Ahouse and Robert Berwick’s 1998 review of Pinker’s How the Mind Works in the Boston Review. In the book, Pinker claims to explain how the mind works according to ‘two wonder principles: “the mind is a system of organs of computation” . . . “designed by natural selection.”‘ The book’s arguments were not very successful, given that experimental psychologists have continued to try to figure out how the mind works in growing numbers since its publication. Ahouse and Berwick wittily explain the book’s failings in their review. Here’s a choice excerpt:
Amidst all these unknowns, How the Mind Works offers none of the cold skeptical eye that readers deserve. These still-contentious fields-and the still-more tendentious details sketched above-do not provide the confident prediction and understanding that we find in modern physics, chemistry, or even molecular biology. Indeed, How the Mind Works goes the “just so” stories one better, transforming them into what might be dubbed “just say” stories. Pinker “just says” that suburban lawns serve as evocative evolutionary memories, like Proust’s madeleines reminding us of our distant past. How the Mind Works “just says” that 99 percent of our evolution took place on the savanna. It should be unnecessary to point out that savannas with five- to fifteen-foot-tall grasses and one-foot-short grasses punctuated by acacia trees do not quite look like suburban lawns. One might just as well say that our love for hot-tubs follows from what is really true, that over 99 percent of our evolutionary history was spent in (and most of our genes arose in) a warm, salty, sea.
I have not read any of Pinker’s more recent book, but given the complexity of the issues he’s dealing with, I can’t imagine he is doing anything more than spinning more “just so” explanations for popular consumption that have little scientific substance. If you’re thinking of investing the time in reading one of his books, read the brief Ahouse and Berwick review first. It will likely help you find a better way of spending your time.