Steven Pinker is not only a leading cognitive scientist but also a brilliant explainer. He made his name in 1994 with The Language Instinct, a lucid, pacey work of popular science covering both theoretical linguistics and the empirical psychology of language, and he has maintained the same high standard in several subsequent books. Feminists and antiracists have sometimes taken exception to his emphasis on biological determinants of human behaviour, but he has responded by claiming that he too is committed to equality, democracy and human rights, and that his commitment is based on science rather than sentiment. In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and Enlightenment Now (2018), for example, he combined neuropsychology with historical statistics to argue that there really is such a thing as innate human nature, and that it has a tendency, over time, to make us into better people – healthier from one generation to the next, and cleverer, happier, gentler and kinder.
Pinker’s optimism can sound a bit Tiggerish and it has brought him plenty of joshing. Would he be so cheery if, instead of being a white man with a professorship at Harvard, he were a woman in Afghanistan, a Uyghur in China or a victim of racism, terrorism