Satoshi Kanazawa

The Scientific Fundamentalist

How Is Steven Pinker NOT Like Michael Jordan?

Steven Pinker is the Einstein of psycholinguistics

Posted May 01, 2011

I often admire people who are extremely good at what they don't do.

The truly scary thing about Steven Pinker is that evolutionary psychology is not what he does.  He is a psycholinguist.  He studies languages and what they tell us about human nature.  Like Shaffer, Williams, and Barry, Pinker just happens to be extremely good at what he doesn't do, as well as at what he does do.

His latest book, The Stuff of Thought:  Language as a Window into Human Nature, is a marvelously fascinating survey of how our language – and how we speak it – reveal how the mind works.  Here's but one example.  The very first sentence of the book is:  "There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words."  With the 1905 publication of the special theory of relatively, Einstein showed us that space and time are equivalent and that time is just another dimension of space (now known as spacetime).  Pinker shows us that the human mind has always known the equivalence of space and time for hundreds of thousands of years, and that's why our language treats space and time equivalently.

It is physically impossible to cut the end of a tape, because the end of a tape is a one-dimensional edge of the tape.  But we routinely talk about cutting the end of a tape, because, when we do, we are including some two-dimensional space adjacent to the true end of the tape.  Similarly, it is impossible to say something at the end of a lecture, because the end of a lecture is the moment that the lecture ends.  But we routinely talk about events at the end of a lecture, because, when we do, we are including some time adjacent to the true end of the lecture.  It is as if the human mind has always known the equivalence of space and time and our language reveals this knowledge, which we technically did not have until 1905.

Pinker is incredibly deep in his analysis, and he loves language, especially plural nouns.  (Did you know that people who enter "digital cameras" in a Google search are more likely to buy a digital camera subsequently than people who enter "digital camera" in a Google search?)  I'd highly recommend the book to anyone who is also deep and loves language, but not if you are neither.

The Stuff of Thought contains a shitload of information and trivia about language.  (And, if you read the book, you will find out why I was compelled to use the word shitload in the previous sentence.)  Among many other things you will learn, have you ever wondered why you say "Fuck you!" to someone you don't like?  Why would you wish sexual pleasure and gratification on someone at the very moment you are extremely angry with them?  And if I say "Fuck you!" to someone, exactly who is supposed to fuck them?  The surprising answer?  God.

I also learned from this book why I have always been a miserable failure with the ladies my entire life.  Note to self:  Do not email a scanned image of my etchings as a .jpg attachment to the girl before the date!

P.S.  On a personal note, this is the 200th planned post in The Scientific Fundamentalist blog, as well as the second installment of my "personal heroes" series.  On my 100th post, I talked about my personal hero, Aaron Sorkin, and how he is better than Shakespeare.  On this 200th post, I talk about another personal hero of mine, Steven Pinker, and how he's better than Michael Jordan.  On my 300th planned post, in roughly two-years' time, I will talk about Tina Fey and how she's better than Mark Twain.