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Pinker says it's nature, not nurture

Genes, instincts determine thoughts, feelings, behavior

Steven Pinker brings his theory of human mind development to the masses with his best-selling books.

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Steven Pinker
Harvard University
Pulitzer Prize

(CNN) -- According to Steven Pinker, every human exclamation, every chuckle, every expression of love stems not from life experience, but from millions of years of human development.

The best-selling author and Harvard professor argues that evolution, more than environment, has shaped the human mind -- echoing Charles Darwin's famous contention that natural development, occurring over centuries, altered the makeup of the human body.

In his latest book, "The Blank Slate," Pinker takes aim at the theory that people are born with minds that are blank, to be filled by experiences and lessons. Instead, he contends, many human behaviors are the product of genes and, thus, innate.

"During the past century the doctrine of the blank slate has set the agenda for much of the social sciences and humanities," Pinker writes. "... Psychology has sought to explain all thought, feeling, and behavior with a few simple mechanisms of learning."

A native of Montreal, Canada, Pinker has spent most of his adult life studying and teaching in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Three years after earning his doctorate at Harvard University in 1979, he began a 21-year stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Last year, he returned to Harvard as a psychology professor.

The mind and, especially, language have long interested Pinker, 49. Early in his career, the experimental psychologist researched language development in children. He examined the ways children acquire vocabulary and grammar and also looked at their ability to distinguish between different types of verbs.

In 1994, Pinker translated some of his findings into a book aimed at a general audience, "The Language Instinct," in which he promoted the idea that language is a biological adaptation. A few years later, "Words and Rules" described how language works in general.

He expanded on his linguistic theory in 1997's critically praised "How the Mind Works," which proposed that emotions and other brain functions stem from an evolutionary process, too. In the book, he used evolution to explain a range of everyday behaviors, such as why people find something funny, how they can appreciate art, or the mechanics behind falling in love.

With 2002's "The Blank Slate," Pinker used pop culture and psychology references to show that people's conceptions of human nature affect everything from child-rearing to politics to morality to the arts.

Pinker's way with words has earned him finalist nods for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and 2003 (for "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate," respectively), as well as the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize (for "How the Mind Works"). In 1984, the American Psychology Association awarded him its Early Career Award. In addition to his duties at Harvard, Pinker currently serves as an adviser for The American Heritage Dictionary.

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