Mar 30, 2007

steven pinker

Second on my author list this year is Steven Pinker. Extensive bio here. I didn't read all of Pinker's books. I just hit his two most well known - The Language Instinct (hat tip to docrpm) and The Blank Slate (I probably could have included How The Mind Works). Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard and his books reflect his work and interests. I'll say this at the outset; Pinker is an outspoken and controversial writer and I happen to think he knows what he's talking about.

I first read The Language Instinct. Perhaps a less controversial book than The Blank Slate. It's central purpose is to describe modern linguistic theory and how our minds are designed with an innate capability to learn languages. Most of the linguistic theory is based on Noam Chomsky's work. Most people know him more for his radical views on politics.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book because I'm just not that interested in languages or linguistics. But this is a book more about the mind and how it works and that is interesting. Pinker does a good job of laying out Chomsky's theory of Universal Language and an even better job of convincing the reader that humans have an innate capability to learn and understand languages. Something I hadn't really considered before and that is not entirely obvious. The implications of this are interesting; especially for a new parent like myself.

First any time spent teaching your kids words and language is probably not that necessary. Pinker even mentions some cultures where parents don't even both talking to their kids until they have decent comprehension and speaking skills. They pick it up anyway. My two year old daughter who is just learning to speak is already constructing her own words such as gerunds (swimming from swim) without anyone ever telling her that the word exists and also constructing comprehending her own grammatical phrases even though no one has uttered those phrases to her before. This is interesting because seemingly simple concepts like "how many apples are there?" stump her. She can count to 10 but has no comprehension of numbers or math even though I've spent a proportionate amount of time teaching her both. Clearly she has innate aptitude for speech but not for math or reading/writing.

This book will also give you pause if you've ever thrown disdain in the direction of someone who has said something 'ungrammatical' or has a dialect that you consider to not be proper English. The fact of the matter is you probably understood what they were saying and it almost assuredly obeyed the principals of Chomsky's Universal Language. There's nothing better or worse about those dialects. I have to watch my comments now.

After reading this book I will also not pay any attention to reports that primates have learned to 'speak' to their trainers through sign language. Primates brains are close to humans but they just aren't built to learn the intricacies of language development and comprehension.

The Language Instinct was also a nice segue into The Blank Slate because he has already achieved his main purpose of that book; human brains are not a blank slate that are formed purely by our culture. The brain is designed with specific preprogrammed traits. This is the old nature versus nuture debate that most people realize is a poorly formed question. We aren't developed purely by nature or purely by nuture but rather a blend. But Pinker points out that even though most of us believe this there are many modern social theories that lean closely to the nuture side of the question without any proof.

For the first half of The Blank Slate I couldn't help feel that reading it was a waste of time. Pinker spends an inordinate time arguing that those who believe that humans are born as a blank slate and have no predisposition towards things like violence and discrimination and that these qualities are really shaped entirely by culture and are learned, are wrong. It's not that I think Pinker is wrong or that he writes his defense poorly. It's just that I already agreed wholeheartedly with what he has written. It was a little like preaching to the choir.

That changed, however, in the second half. Here Pinker takes time to focus on some specific blank slate theories and dismantles each one carefully. Social topics like rape, parenting, violence, and politics, are all addressed and his views are really enlightening and dare I say brave within the context of the current PC environment. Pinker, make no mistake, is a political liberal. But his view is that in order to remedy social injustices we can't go around sticking our head into the sand when it comes to understanding why social ills exist. That just makes it harder to fix them if we don't understand their root causes. In other words we should let science do its thing and not allow it to be influenced by what we want the answer to be. I couldn't agree more.

I could go into each of these topics but I'll just focus on one that is dear to my heart - parenting. Here's the blow your socks off conclusion Pinker comes to with regard to parenting; It doesn't matter. No matter what theory you subscribe to on how to be a better parent that will increase the chances your child has qualities that are considered advantageous in society (hard working, smart, outgoing, etc.), it will have no effect. There are limits to this. I'm sure if you beat your kid senseless 24x7 then they will have issues. But within the context of a reasonable set of parenting choices, you have no control over how your kids operate. You may be able to enact punishments to stop a particular behavior but you can't change the source of the behavior. All these attempts to make your kids smarter by stimulating them with certain toys or playing classical music have no effect on their IQ for instance.

In summary Pinker associates 50% of a child's behavior to genes. 0% (maybe 10% if you are generous) to shared environment (those things that are constant to a set of siblings such as geography, parents and their parenting actions, etc.) and the rest (40-50%) to the nonshared environment. This could include a sickness one child has but the other doesn't or a set of peers that one child hangs out with but the other hangs out with another set of peers. But ultimately no one knows which parts of the unshared environment really contribute to the child's behavior. Amazing.

To some extent you really can say that what you do as a parent doesn't matter at all. In some ways a nonrational person could argue that you should ignore your children but that faulty logic could easily be applied to your spouse; if you can't change your spouse's behavior would you ignore her? Don't answer that.

In my mind though it's a fairly liberating perspective on parenting. Don't sweat the small stuff. Have fun with your kids and open them up to new opportunities but don't bother fighting something if they don't like it or show no interest. If they suck at math try something else.

And likewise, if you blame your parents for how you turned out you have no leg to stand on. Of course the benefit of that is your kids can't blame you either.

1 comment:

Craig said...

I'd also strongly recommend his book How the Mind Works. I enjoyed it most when he debunked myth after myth with clear prose and overwhelming evidence. Great mental floss.