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Steven Pinker was born in 1954 in the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal, Canada. He earned a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology at McGill University and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976, where he has spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT. He earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1979, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, a one-year stint as an assistant professor at Harvard, and in 1982, a move back to MIT that lasted until 2003, when he returned to Harvard as the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. He also has spent two years in California: in 1981–82, when he was an assistant professor at Stanford, and in 1995–96, when he spent a sabbatical year at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Pinker is an experimental psychologist who is interested in all aspects of language and mind. Much of his initial research was in visual cognition, the ability to imagine shapes, recognize faces and objects, and direct attention within the visual field. But beginning in graduate school he cultivated an interest in language, particularly language development in children, and this topic eventually took over his research activities. Aside from his experimental papers in language and visual cognition, he wrote two fairly technical books early in his career. One outlined a theory of how children acquire the words and grammatical structures of their mother tongue. The second focused on one aspect of this process, the ability to use different kinds of verbs in appropriate sentences, such as intransitive verbs, transitive verbs, and verbs taking different combinations of complements and indirect objects. For the past fifteen years his research has focused on the distinction between irregular verbs like bring-brought and regular verbs like walk-walked. The reason is that the two kinds of verbs neatly embody the two processes that make language possible: looking up words in memory, and combining words (or parts of words) according to rules. Along the way he wrote a monograph that analyzed 20,000 past-tense forms in children's speech, concentrating on errors like bringed and holded that reveal children's linguistic creativity at work.

In 1994 he published the first of four books written for a general audience. The Language Instinct was an introduction to all aspects of language, held together by the idea that language is a biological adaptation. This was followed in 1997 by How the Mind Works, which offered a similar synthesis of the rest of the mind, from vision and reasoning to the emotions, humor, and art. In 1999 he published Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which presented his research on regular and irregular verbs as a way of explaining how language works in general. And in 2002 he published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which explored the political, moral, and emotional colorings of the concept of human nature. Pinker frequently writes for the popular press on subjects ranging from politically correct language to the genetic enhancement of human beings.

Pinker serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards, including the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary and the scientific advisory board for "The Decade of Behavior." He has won many prizes for his books (including the William James Book Prize three times, the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, and the Eleanor Maccoby Book Prize), his research (including the Troland Research Prize from the National Academy of Sciences and the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association), and his graduate and undergraduate teaching. He is also a Humanist Laureate and the recipient of three honorary doctorates.