Is Language a Window into Human Nature?

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January 04, 2008

Is Language a Window into Human Nature?

Anniehall2_3"I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words."

Woody Allen

Is the gap between objective and inner reality the reason we have difficulty understanding large numbers, the way statistics works, scientific theories like quantum physics or how to navigate the complexities of modern society, which is so different from a small tribe of hunter-gatherers?

Harvard cognitive scientist and experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker's new book, The Stuff of Thought examines what it is we have been able to find out about the mysterious, intuitive ways in which the human mind works using the most unique characteristic of our species, language, as the main source of information.

Deeply ingrained in all the world's languages are conceptions about sex, intimacy, power,fairness--as well as ideas of divinity, degradation, and danger. This intuitive model of reality is a product of natural selection: the way it parses the world around us, the way it uses shortcuts and assumptions would have served our hunter-gatherer ancestors well, but it is less than perfect for dealing with some of the problems we face in the 21st Century.

One of the most compelling chapters is entitled "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television,"  which examines the psychology of taboo, why it would involve concepts centered around sex, bodily secretions, and gods and their trappings and what the "blaspheming brain" is really doing. Pinker suggests that swearing might be our oldest form of language, given that the basal ganglia, a brain structure that is evolutionarily older than the cerebral cortex, seems to be involved, and that many aphasic patients, who cannot make or understand sentences, retain the ability to swear.

"The Games People Play" addresses indirect speech and implied meanings, and what they tell us about our conceptions of social relationships. As one reviewer observed: "If you ever need a game theory matrix to decide whether to attempt bribing a police officer who seems intent on giving you a speeding ticket, or to choose which sexual come-on to employ with a date, don't miss this chapter."

Despite overwhelming evidence that the human mind is an imperfect product of natural selection in an ancestral environment, Pinker is optimistic about human nature and our ability to transcend the limitations of our intuitive models of reality.

In the last chapter, "Escaping the Cave" (referring to Plato's allegory of prisoners in the cave), he points out not only the dangers that our intuitive thinking can pose, but how remarkable human achievements are in light of them.

"Though language exposes the walls of our cave," he says, "it also shows us how we venture out of it, at least partway. People do, after all, catch glimpses of the sunlit world of reality. Even with our infirmities, we have managed to achieve the freedom of a liberal democracy, the wealth of a technological economy, and the truths of modern science."


Steve Pinker "The Stuff of Thought" Video.

Posted by Casey Kazan.


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