Cognitive Scientist Steve Pinker Will Inaugurate New UB Lecture Series

His theories are as exhilarating as they are controversial

Release Date: November 5, 2010

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Cognitive scientist Steve Pinker will present the inaugural Paul Kurtz lecture on Dec. 2 at UB.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Steve Pinker, the über-eminent and multiple award-winning cognitive scientist with rocker hair and a populist touch, will inaugurate the University at Buffalo Department of Philosophy's new Paul Kurtz Lecture Series on Dec. 2.

Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor in the Harvard University Department of Psychology, will present "A History of Violence" at 4 p.m. in the Screening Room, Center for the Arts, UB North Campus.

The lecture is free and open to the public. But get there early.

Pinker usually plays to packed houses in large part due to what science scholar and journalist Robert Wright calls "his ability to convey complex ideas with clarity, flair and wit." This is also why his highly regarded academic books routinely are found on The New York Times bestseller lists.

Contradicting what he calls "the treacle that we often teach our children" about a historical past defined largely by peace and harmony, Pinker will chart the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present day, which he defines as "the most peaceful time in our species' existence."

"Though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Iraq, Ruanda and Darfur," Pinker says, "it is true."

A Canadian-American experimental psychologist, psycholinguist and author of popular science, in 2004 Pinker was named one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. This supports what has often been said about him: that he embodies his intellectual era the way B.F. Skinner did in the mid-20th century and William James did, writing in Darwin's wake, at the end of the 19th century.

Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. Like Golding and Hobbes, he contradicts centuries of presumptions that the human mind is a blank slate, an idea handed down by Aristotle, Avicenna, Ibn Tufail and Aquinas, and later popularized by Locke, Freud, Skinner, Ashley Montagu, Stephen Jay Gould and many, many others.

Although he does not hold that biology alone is destiny, Pinker considers the brain to be something akin to a genetically based word processor engineered by natural selection. That means a variety of behaviors and impulses are already hard-wired into it for good and ill. Our job as human beings, he holds, is to move above and beyond what nature has installed.

Pinker writes for The New York Times, TIME magazine and The New Republic, and is the author of seven award-winning bestsellers. Among them are "The Language Instinct" (1994), "How the Mind Works" (1997), "Words and Rules" (2000), "The Blank Slate" (2002) and, most recently, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature" (2007).

His books have won myriad literary and science awards and he sits on the editorial boards of many important journals in the fields of cognitive science and linguistics.

Pinker is the recipient of a number of honorary degrees, as well as the 2010 George Miller Prize from the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, the 2004 Henry Dale Prize from the Royal Institution, the 2003 Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences and the 2006 Humanist of the Year award from the American Association of Humanists for his contributions to public understanding of human evolution.

He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998.

Before joining the Harvard faculty in 2003, Pinker taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 21 years, during which time he directed two research centers and held an endowed professorship.

The Paul Kurtz lecture series has been endowed by Paul Kurtz, PhD, professor emeritus of philosophy at UB and a national figure in the philosophical field. Like Pinker, he is both eminent and controversial, a populist who has made a significant mark in his field.

Often referred to as "the father of secular humanism," Kurtz is best known for his prominence in the American skeptical community. He is founder and past chair of the Center for Inquiry Transnational and its federated organizations, including the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The New York Times called him "a skeptic of everything but fact."

He is the founder of Prometheus Books, former editor of The Humanist and former editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry magazine. He also contributed to the writing of the Humanist Manifesto II and is well-known for his critique of the paranormal. Kurtz also is the author or editor of 45 books and more than 800 articles and reviews.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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