Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Book: The language instinct

Author: Steven Pinker

Details: (c) Steven Pinker 1994; Pub Penguin Books 1995; ISBN 0-14-017529-6

Verdict: The language instinct is justifiably a classic of popular science writing.

Reasons for reading it: It was somewhat ridiculous that I hadn't read this, since it discusses biology and linguistics together and since I've read so much that refers to it.

How it came into my hands: pseudomonas lent it to me.

I've read so many summaries of The Language Instinct that a lot of the material seemed familiar, but that wasn't a problem as it's an extremely engaging read. Essentially Pinker explains how humans deal with language by discussing why different kinds of verbal jokes are funny, (incidentally giving the answer to the question posed in the Asimov short story Jokester (yay for Wikipedia knowing the title, and also for pointing out that Asimov was notorious for writing brilliant stories with forgettable titles...)) It's full of memorable anecdotes and examples which are funny without being wacky for the sake of it. And it does a very good job of explaining the major concepts, with just enough repetition to reinforce the key ideas but not so much that it gets repetitive.

Pinker certainly has some strong opinions, but most of the time he's careful to distinguish when he's talking about his own views from summarising the general scientfic consensus. He does sometimes present opposing views as ridiculous, though. And he is really quite vicious about the experiments to teach primates sign language. I wasn't terribly convinced by his final chapter where he appears to be arguing that evolutionary psychology is vastly superior to all of social science, which seems rather a daft opposition to be setting up in the first place and not really relevant to the book.

The major criticism I have is that, let's put this charitably: Pinker oversimplifies evolutionary biology to the point where his explanation is actually misleading. This can often be a problem reading a pop science book that covers a very general overview of several disparate areas of science, and one of them happens to be my own field. And it's certainly hard to summarize the theory of evolution in a single short chapter. But the thirteenth strike principle makes me just that bit less likely to accept his main argument about language.

Even with that quibble, I would definitely recommend The Language Instinct. (It's probably not a good idea to take it in isolation if you've never read anything on modern views of evolution, something like The Selfish Gene or anything expanding on that theme.) But it's both extremely interesting and a highly enjoyable read. And it diverges in rather important ways from the views that ignorant people in online debates tend to ascribe to both Pinker and Chomsky, so it's worth getting the information from the horse's mouth, I think.
Tags: book

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