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Dig-dug, think-thunk

Charles Yang: Writes about Words and Rules: the Ingredients of Language by Steven Pinker

24 August 2000
Words and Rules: the Ingredients of Language 
by Steven Pinker.
Phoenix, 176 pp., £7.99, October 2000, 0 7538 1025 5
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... The mastery of the English past tense isn’t a glamorous topic, not these days. That, however, is what Words and Rules is about and, as if to sweep any doubts away, StevenPinker assures us of the subject’s importance: the study of the past tense is ‘the only case I know in which two great systems of Western thought may be tested and compared . . . like ordinary ...

Wired for Sound

Daniel Dennett

23 June 1994
The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language 
by Steven Pinker.
Allen Lane, 493 pp., £20, April 1994, 0 7139 9099 6
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Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature 
by Ray Jackendoff.
Harvester, 256 pp., £11.95, October 1993, 9780745009629
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... to be the ultimate fruits of their inquiries. Ray Jackendoff, one of Chomsky’s star pupils but always a brave and independent thinker who never got swept up in the various intrigues and manias, and StevenPinker, one of Chomsky’s star colleagues but also one who has staunchly resisted the local strains of contagious hysteria, have each written an accessible, entertaining, authoritative introduction ...

Short Cuts

Jenny Diski: Google’s Ngram Viewer

20 January 2011
... climb towards the top of the graph while melancholy falls, so that their positions in 1840 and 2000 are almost exactly reversed as medical terms, economic conditions and common sensibilities alter. StevenPinker, who had a hand in the Science paper, is delighted about it all. ‘There is so much ignorance. We’ve had to speculate what might have happened to the language.’ The Google database is ...

Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan: Jeffrey Epstein’s Little Black Book

15 August 2019
... and Prince Andrew’s ex, Sarah Ferguson (who accepted a gift of $15,000 from Epstein when she was skint). The writer Malcolm Gladwell went on the jet, but says he had no idea who Epstein was. Steven Hoffenberg, who cheated investors out of $460 million, claims that Epstein was not just a friend but a co-conspirator in his own crimes. Nobody has ever seen a reliable list of Epstein’s financial ...

Smarter, Happier, More Productive

Jim Holt: ‘The Shallows’

3 March 2011
The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember 
by Nicholas Carr.
Atlantic, 276 pp., £17.99, September 2010, 978 1 84887 225 7
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... CONSEQUENCES,’ Merzenich warns in caps – in a blog post, no less. Many in the neuroscience community scoff at such claims. The brain is not ‘a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience’, StevenPinker has insisted. Its wiring may change a bit when we learn a new fact or skill, but its basic cognitive architecture remains the same. And where is the evidence that using the internet can ...

Short Cuts

Daniel Soar: Sokal 2.0

25 October 2018
... are dangerous and wrong. And, clearly, this is what a lot of influential people believe. By their friends you shall know them. Among those most delighted by this episode have been Niall Ferguson, StevenPinker, David Deutsch and Douglas Murray: weirdly few non-white non-men. I recommend that, on their next visit to Portland, these people spend some time in a dog park or two ...
22 January 1998
How the Mind Works 
by Steven Pinker.
Penguin, 660 pp., £25, January 1998, 0 7139 9130 5
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Evolution in Mind 
by Henry Plotkin.
Allen Lane, 276 pp., £20, October 1997, 0 7139 9138 0
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... science has not been spared this impulse, so here are two books purporting to limn the state of the art. They differ a bit in their intended audience; Plotkin’s is more or less a text, while Pinker hopes for a lay readership. Pinker covers much more ground but he takes an ungainly six hundred pages to do it, compared to Plotkin’s svelte volume. Both authors are unusually good at exposition ...

Let’s eat badly

William Davies: Irrationality and its Other

25 November 2019
Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason 
by Justin E.H. Smith.
Princeton, 344 pp., £25, April, 978 0 691 17867 7
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... than irrational ones. Distinctions between scientific fact and conspiracy theory now have to be explained and justified. These are tasks that many rationalists, in the ‘new atheist’ tradition of StevenPinker and Richard Dawkins, have been happy to pursue. Arguing as much with (what they perceive as) the relativism of the left as with the dogmatism of the right, these bombastic defenders of Western ...

When We Were Nicer

Steven​ Mithen: History Seen as Neurochemistry

24 January 2008
On Deep History and the Brain 
by Daniel Lord Smail.
California, 271 pp., £12.95, December 2007, 978 0 520 25289 9
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... in the art of changing body chemistry.’ What Smail provides is not another version of the crude evolutionary psychology that has become popular in recent years: that of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, StevenPinker and their acolytes, who argue that we still have biologically fixed Stone Age minds constituted by mental models evolved to solve problems of Pleistocene environments, principally those of the ...

The Darwin Show

Steven​ Shapin

7 January 2010
... on ‘the same’ (or ‘nearly the same’) idea at about ‘the same’ time: Galileo, Scheiner and several others on sunspots; Leibniz and Newton on the calculus; Priestley and Scheele on oxygen; Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam on electroweak gauge theory; and, of course, Darwin and the undercelebrated Alfred Russel Wallace on evolution by natural selection. Every instance of what has been called ...

A Knife at the Throat

Christopher Tayler: Meticulously modelled

3 March 2005
Saturday 
by Ian McEwan.
Cape, 280 pp., £17.99, February 2005, 0 224 07299 4
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... middle ground between religious delusion and emotionally inept rationality. McEwan is interested in evolutionary psychology and the materialist theories of consciousness propounded by such writers as StevenPinker and Antonio Damasio. He also has a cautious faith in the ennobling potential of literature and the redemptive capacities of romantic love. Enduring Love sets the two kinds of thinking against ...
6 March 2003
Freedom Evolves 
by Daniel Dennett.
Allen Lane, 347 pp., £20, February 2003, 0 7139 9339 1
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... world? The gist of the story is familiar from Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, earlier work of Dennett’s, and many other current sources. You can even read it in the New York Times, where StevenPinker has recently urged teaching it to innocent children in grade school. O, brave new world! It’s a dubious brew of neo-Darwinism and blatant anthropomorphism, and it indulges talk of ‘selfish ...

Misrepresentations

Dmitri Levitin: The Islamic Enlightenment

22 November 2018
The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment 
by Alexander Bevilacqua.
Harvard, 340 pp., £25.95, February 2018, 978 0 674 97592 7
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The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason 
by Christopher de Bellaigue.
Vintage, 404 pp., £10.99, February 2018, 978 0 09 957870 3
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... Enlightenment was a coherent project of religious secularisation, philosophical and scientific modernisation, and political liberalisation. For some, this metanarrative is a cause for celebration (StevenPinker, for example, in his recent book Enlightenment Now); others – religious opponents of secularisation (Alasdair MacIntyre), or Marxist critics of liberal modernity (Theodor Adorno) – are ...

In the Long Cool Hour

Amia Srinivasan: Pragmatic Naturalism

6 December 2012
The Ethical Project 
by Philip Kitcher.
Harvard, 422 pp., £36.95, November 2011, 978 0 674 06144 6
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... moral standards, practices and policies reside in our neurobiology,’ the ‘neurophilosopher’ Patricia Churchland claims. ‘Our moral nature is what it is because our brains are as they are.’ StevenPinker writes that the ‘human moral sense turns out to be an organ … with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations.’ Thus Daniel Dennett feels able to ...

Get knitting

Ian Hacking: Birth and Death of the Brain

18 August 2005
The 21st-Century Brain: Explaining, Mending and Manipulating the Mind 
by Steven​ Rose.
Cape, 344 pp., £20, March 2005, 0 224 06254 9
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... Steven Rose is a well-known public scientist who has dedicated his career to the study of brains. He has lived through the early days of the technical revolution that has involved increasingly powerful ways ...

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