You made me read it: The Language Instinct

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994

It took me a couple of months, but I did it! In my last Make Me Read It poll, readers chose Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, a complex yet relatively accessible account by a cognitive psychologist, describing his understanding of “how the mind creates language.” I did not always find it easy going, and there are still some bits I know I did not understand and others I would disagree with if I felt more qualified, but overall I think I learned a lot and I’m so glad I did. Pinker was a bit of an iconoclast at the time of publication (1994), and shook up some assumptions which may have changed somewhat since then, but still cling to us today. So I found the book a refreshing and challenging way to exercise my mind in some new directions.

Why is it important to see language as an instinct? Because the dominant paradigm would have it that language is a cultural construct, learned by children through imitation, and differs in extreme ways from culture to culture. This is part of the “Standard Social Science Model,” a behaviorist view that sees people’s minds as basically blank slates that are molded by conditioning. Inspired by Noam Chomsky’s discovery of the underlying structure that all languages share, Pinker would posit that this structure is rooted in evolutionary biology, and that in spite of the surface differences between languages, they are in fact much the same in the ways that really matter — just as human beings are genetically essentially the same beneath the distracting surface appearances that so vex us today. This has huge implications for our understanding of human nature and the mind, as you can imagine.

Pinker explains the basics of “deep structure” in layman’s terms, using lots of humorous examples drawn from pop culture and everyday life, to offset the abstruseness of the topic. We are led to perceive the features all languages share in common, and also the remarkable facility young children have to pick up this structure, which appears to be innate and founded in the structure of the brain. He argues that snobbish insistence on “correct” language or the degeneracy of dialect is a mental construct that has nothing to do with the way languages actually work; many of those despised phraseologies are perfectly in tune with the universal grammar, while our intellectually devised corrections may depart from it.

I have a bone to pick with any theory of evolutionary biology that, like Pinker’s, is combined with materialism, asserting that not only do the forms of living beings evolve through natural selection, but that this disproves the existence of God or spirit and directs us to look for the origin of all human thought and other soul experience in the physical world alone. The validity of natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of God; why should God not create organisms through natural selection as much as by any other means? The most this discovery can do is displace outdated notions about the methods of creation; it has nothing to do with the existence or nonexistence of a creator being or of the role of spirit in the composition of our humanity, which remains an open question.

The materialist-evolutionists show how persistent the image of a creator being is in our minds, though, when repeatedly they reject the idea of divine design with one breath, and with the next talk about natural selection itself as if it were a designer and an engineer, creating and shaping organisms, installing “hardware” and “software,” and so forth. This always gives me an impression of schizophrenic, inconsistent thinking that undermines the logic of its own argument. I wish they would make up their minds and use appropriate metaphors for whatever it is they want to say.

I also think it’s too extreme to say that because language has aspects that developed through natural selection, and features that appear to be innate and universally human, it is in essence “an instinct.” Clearly this is not the case. Language takes off from any instinctual basis it may have to become something far more flexible, open-ended, and even at times inimical to our survival. Language has not just enabled people to group together to defend themselves and find better food sources, it has also fanned the flames of war and conflict, and become a tool of the greedy exploitative drive that has destroyed many lives and now threatens our very survival on earth. How does one account for that in evolutionary terms?

Pinker does not tackle this question, but he has certainly given me lots of food for thought, and though the book is dated in some ways — translation technology and AI in particular have come a long way since 1994 — it still offers a way to dive into the fascinating question of how and why we have come to have this miraculous ability we call language.

Now, what should I read next from the unread books languishing on my shelves? I’ll put a new poll up shortly…

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7 thoughts on “You made me read it: The Language Instinct

  1. Your essay/review reminds me of many of my own reactions when I read this in the 1990s, and especially when atheists (and I count myself as one) use their particular expertise as a hobbyhorse to address religious matters. But the beauty of this post is that it makes me want to revisit the book (I’ve still got my copy!) to get more of a handle of the concepts that were quite obtuse to me then.

    1. I would need another go-around to better understand some bits — this time I just left them and went on in an attempt to get the whole picture. But I will be keeping it on my shelf and maybe revisiting it in a while. Of course I would be delighted if you would read it again and enlighten me with your own insights. 🙂

  2. I read this when it came out and of course it must be rather dated in some aspects now! I’ve also gone off him as he’s got a bit more extreme or muddled in some of his views – his book on the Enlightenment was not received well. But it’s useful for the idea of language being innate and the similarities in the structures and patterns of languages, I think.

    1. Yes, there was some oddly muddled thinking in there along with some brilliant bits. The information about the structures and patterns of languages was fascinating and most valuable to me. I’d be interested in more books about that topic.

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