Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct



This part isn't the reading by Pinker. It's by me (Sandy LaFave), to explain to you why I found this excerpt so interesting and relevant.

Pinker begins this excerpt by making reference to the widely-circulated idea (now discredited) that Eskimos have over one hundred words for snow. The interesting philosophical idea here is that one's reality may be determined by one's vocabulary; you may not even experience stuff you can't name. The argument then says that because Eskimos have so many words for snow, they thus have a much more rich and complex experience of snow than people who have fewer words for it. Furthermore, we are all like the Eskimos. When you speak a language, you inhabit a particular "world." Our "realities" are determined and limited by the languages we speak. Because we all live in different linguistic worlds, there's no way we can adjudicate disagreements about reality because there is simply no common frame of reference.

Like many popular ideas, the notion that there is no "pure" perception -- no absolutely "objective" interpersonal, intercultural reality -- is not completely wrong: language, expectations, hopes, desires, neuroses, etc. all DO influence perception. To a very large extent, we perceive only what we are paying attention to, and our attention is very often directed by social and cultural forces. But of course that doesn't mean there's no common world. You can acknowledge that people have different perceptions and interpretations as a fact of psychology. But that doesn't mean there are no facts at all. Rather, it reaffirms that there are facts. There are facts about creatures like us.

Now, some social scientists in the first half of the twentieth century (Ruth Benedict, for example) took things a bit too far: they said that because perception is influenced by language, culture, etc., that the whole idea of a common "human nature" -- a nature that is the same for all cultures -- is meaningless (and thus relativism rules in ethics). But this argument is incoherent on the face of it: these folks are essentially asserting that it's a fact about human beings of all cultures -- i.e., human nature -- that human perception is influenced by language, culture, etc. It does not follow from this that there is no human nature; rather these authors presuppose a common human nature.

In this reading, Pinker describes other current arguments in favor of "human nature" and hence, against cultural relativism.




From Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Harper, 1994. ISBN 0-06-097651-9. Pinker is a well-known cognitive neuroscientist at MIT.

... [o]ne young anthropologist wrote to me [Steven Pinker]:

"The Eskimo vocabulary story will get its own section in a project of mine -- a book whose working title is One Hundred Years of Anthropological Malpractice. I have been collecting instances of gross professional incompetence for years now: all of the anthropological chestnuts that turn out not to be true, but maintain their presence in textbooks anyway as the intellectual commonplaces of the field. Samoran free sex, and the resultant lack of crime and frustration, the sex-reversed cultures like the "gentle" Arapesh (the men are head-hunters), the "stone-age" pristine Tasaday (a fabrication of the corrupt Phillipine Minister of Culture -- nearby villagers, dressed down as matriarchal "primitives"), the ancient matriarchies during the dawn of civilization, the fundamentally different Hopi concept of time, the cultures that everyone knows are out there where everything is the reverse of here, etc., etc.

"One of the unifying threads will be that complete cultural relativism makes anthropologists far more credulous of almost any absurdity (Castaneda's Don Juan novels -- which I really enjoyed by the way -- are in many textbooks as sober fact) than almost any ordinary person would be, equipped only with common sense. In other words, their professional "expertise" has made them complete and total gulls. Just as fundamentalism disposes you to accept accounts of miracles, being of the trained anthropologist faith disposes you to believe in any exotic account from Elsewhere. In fact, a lot of this nonsense is part of the standard intellectual equipment of every educated social scientist, providing a permanent obstacle to balanced reasoning about various psychological and social phenomena. I figure it will make me permanently unemployable, so I am not aiming to finish it any time soon."

The allusion to Samoan free sex pertains to Derek Freeman's 1983 bombshell showing how Margaret Mead got the facts wrong in her classic book, Coming of Age in Samoa. (Among other things, her bored teenage informants enjoyed pulling her leg.) The other accusations are carefully documented in a recent review, Human Universals, written by another anthropologist, Donald E. Brown, who was trained in the standard ethnographic tradition. Brown has noted that behind anthropologists' accounts of the strange behavior of foreign peoples there are clear but abstract universals of human experience, such as rank, politeness, and humor. Indeed, anthropologists could not understand or live within other human groups unless they shared a rich set of common assumptions with them, what Dan Sperber calls a metaculture. Tooby and Cosmides note:

"Like fish unaware of the existence of water, anthropologists swim from culture to culture interpreting through universal human metaculture. Metaculture informs their every thought, but they have not yet noticed its existence...."

Inspired by Chomsky's Universal Grammar (UG), Brown has tried to characterize the Universal People (UP). He has scrutinized archives of ethnography for universal patterns underlying the behavior of all documented human cultures, keeping a skeptical eye out both for claims of the exotic belied by the ethnographers' own reports, and for claims of the universal based on flimsy evidence. The outcome is stunning. Far from finding arbitrary variation, Brown was able to characterize the Universal People in gloriously rich detail. His findings contain something to startle almost anyone, and so I will reproduce the substance of them here. According to Brown, the Universal People have the following:

Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses. Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioral propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at the very least "one," "two," and "more than two"), proper names, possession. Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father, son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including "not," "and," "same," "equivalent," "opposite," general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces).

Nonlinguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behavior. Recognized facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection.

Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behavior, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. "Oedipal" feelings (possessiveness of mother, coolness toward her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in part on signs of health, and, in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, levers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medicinal and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artifacts.

A standard pattern and time for weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialization of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favoring of close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgement of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods, and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts. Social reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always non-dictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape, and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

Etiquette: Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreteness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams.

Obviously, this is not a list of instincts or innate psychological propensities; it is a list of complex interactions between a universal human nature and the conditions of living in a human body on this planet. Nor, I hasten to add, is it a characterization of the inevitable, a demarcation of the possible, or a prescription of the desirable. ....

Like the identical twins reared apart who dipped buttered toast in their coffee, Brown's Universal People jolts our preconceptions about human nature.


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