This is a first for me – to see a popular science writer bringing out a book of what you might call their "selected academic papers". I suppose it speaks to Steven Pinker's (justified) popularity, but even so it's difficult to know exactly who the intended audience is: the stuff in here seems far too advanced for those who merely take a passing interest in linguistic theory or cognitive science, but on the other hand working academics or students in the field presumably already have access to most of these studies via university libraries, academic websites, etc. I suppose there's something to be said for having it all pulled together in a nice bound copy?
Among linguists, Pinker has become just slightly…well, "divisive" and "controversial" are much too strong words, but let's just say that his success with the public has meant that some of his ideas are taken as fact now, when many would say they're still under debate. Notably his championing of Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar
theory, which definitely is
still controversial and divisive. On the other hand, it's also unfair to characterise Pinker as a Chomsky cheerleader – perhaps his most important academic paper (certainly his most-cited) was a 1990 study coauthored with Paul Bloom which went dead against Chomsky's non-Darwinist ideas on language evolution.
Actually, this last paper was almost taboo-busting – the idea of how language evolved is so thorny, and so beset by competing arguments, that the Linguistic Society of Paris famously banned any mention of it back in 1866. I love the paper for its epigraph – a comment contrasting the birth of language with the supposed first spoken words of the infant Thomas Babbington Macaulay:
…once when he was taken out, his hostess accidentally spilled hot tea on him. The little lad first bawled his head off, but when he had calmed he said in answer to his hostess' concern, ‘Thank you Madam, the agony is sensibly abated.’
It was an important paper, and it led to a bit of a renaissance of language evolution studies in the 1990s. On the other hand, this collection is also at times a way for Pinker to promote papers that he feels have received too little attention: ‘As far as I know,’ he says of one study, ‘this article has attracted zero citations (except by me)’.
Of course much of his work is not to do with linguistics at all, or at least not directly – he has had a long involvement with cognitive science generally, though the studies in here that mark this involvement are mostly over my head. For the general reader, perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the thoughtful introduction, in which Pinker considers the value in maintaining an interest in both academic studies and also popular writing.
The demand for clarity [in works aimed at the general public] can expose bad ideas that are obscured by murky academese, and the demand for concrete detail in recounting experiments ("Ernie and Bert puppets" not "stimuli") can uncover flaws in design that would otherwise be overlooked.
Well, quite. Which brings us back to the question of who this book is aimed at exactly. Despite the witty introduction and the perceptive chapter-by-chapter commentaries, I suspect it has rather little general appeal – though that's not to detract from the fact that it's a very rich collection of often brilliant work.