a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

me little mate Stevie Pinker and me

with one comment

the famous and the nutso famous


So this piece is not in dialogue form, though I still see myself as a female-type male (rather than a male-type female), trying to transcend gender in ‘rising above myself and grasping the world’ as Archimedes putatively put it. Sometimes the dialogue form stimulates my slow-acting mind to some sort of thesis-antithesis-synthesis delusionary state that’s temporarily satisfying – like when my mind tells me she’s made of truth (I believe her though I know she lies). And I’ve always ‘liked’ Chekhov’s apparent remark that the best conversations we have are with ourselves, though again, what really best shakes us are our communications with others, in writing or, even better because always more hard-hitting, in person. I’m not sure where I’m going with this except to say that my reading is a kind of communication, if only one way. And sometimes I feel a real itch to communicate back, in spite of nobody listening…

I’ve read a number of books by Steven Pinker – let me see, I was introduced to his work by a young philosophy tutor about eighteen years ago, when, as a volunteer at my local community centre, I happily joined its philosophy group’s weekly meetings. The tutor assigned Pinker’s The blank slate as the book to be read and discussed. I found the book’s general thesis – that the idea we’re born as a blank slate is a dangerous myth, in political, educational and other contexts – to be congenial enough, and Pinker’s overall mode of thinking struck me as sensible, rational and positive, if some of the wordiness and smart-aleckiness grated a bit. But after all, wasn’t I sometimes guilty of same? At least in my head.

So later I read other Pinker books – The language instinct and The sense of style (I was an ESOL teacher for a couple of decades), as well as The better angels of our nature and Enlightenment now. And all of this stimulated me and grated with me in no doubt unequal levels. After all, I’ve continued to read him.

And so to Rationality, his most recent book. But first I’d like to look at Pinker’s academic and general background as it compares to mine, which should be amusing if nothing else.

Pinker was born in September 1954, while I was born in July 1956, so we’re pretty much contemporaries. He was born in Montreal, Canada to a ‘middle-class Jewish family’ (I quote from Wikipedia), and I was born in Dundee, Scotland, to a working-class family. His father was a lawyer. My father was an unskilled labourer and factory worker. His mother ‘eventually became a high-school vice-principal’. My mother eventually became a teacher of mental-deficiency nursing (an occupation that has since become largely obsolete due to the de-institutionalisation of the intellectually disabled, if that’s the current term). Pinker’s grandparents ’emigrated to Canada from Poland and Romania’ in the 1920s, and owned a small business in Montreal. Wikipedia doesn’t specify whether these were paternal or maternal grandparents. I know very little about my own grandparents – our family emigrated to Australia when I was five years old, so I only have vague memories of my paternal grandparents, and none of my maternal ones. There was little discussion of the extended family when I was growing up, but I believe my paternal grandfather was a shipwright in Dundee, which sounds pretty impressive, and my maternal grandfather was a coal-miner.

So, education. Pinker graduated from Dawson College in 1973. So he was then nineteen. Dawson College gets its own Wikipedia article (harrumph) which tells us that it ‘became the first English-language institution in the new CEGEP network’. CEGEP comes from the French Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel, though it has become a word of its own in the Canadian lexis. So, as a Québécois Canadian, Pinker must have had early exposure to French, as did I to a much lesser degree. When I was a ten-year-old my older brother, who shared a bedroom with me and was learning the language at high school, used to teach me at night before lights out, and I absorbed these dribs of French like a sponge. But more of that later.

Nothing is mentioned of Pinker’s primary education, so I can dominate that period with my own experience. I did spend a brief time at school in Dundee, and my principal memory was of someone shouting about throwing stones at the Catholics. I rushed to the school fence with everyone else, and craned to see the kids passing by outside, trying to discern their Catholic features. On the ship coming out to Australia I joined a makeshift class of kids my age, with my mother as the teacher. On arrival in South Australia, we were housed at Smithfield Hostel, north of Adelaide, the state’s capital (where I currently live). I attended Smithfield primary school for a year, where my principal memories were of being shouted at for forgetting my books, and being sent to the headmaster for some misdemeanour (I didn’t go, being too scared, and hid in some bushes outside before returning to class).

The rest of my primary schooling was at Elizabeth Downs primary from grade 2 to grade 5, and Elizabeth Fields primary for grades 6 and 7. Elizabeth was a newly built town, named for the Queen, centred mostly around the car industry. General Motors Holden was building a factory there, and when it was finished, my father got a job on the assembly line, for a while at least. The town was built about 18 miles north of Adelaide, and has since been absorbed as a northern suburb of that city. The Elizabeth Fields primary school made headlines in the state newspaper, about a decade after my period of attendance, for being the most violent and dysfunctional primary school in the state, which came as a shock to me – my memories of the place are pretty bland. It might’ve been a hatchet job.

From the age of 12 I was sent to Elizabeth West High, which I attended until I dropped out at age 15. I have a story to tell about that. At the end of my last primary year, we all sat a test, and on the first day at the new high school – it had only been running for a couple of years – a crowd of kids my age gathered in a quadrangle to be ‘streamed’ into eight first-year classes. We all had been previously asked, probably at the time of the test, to name which language we wanted to learn, French or German, so that we’d be streamed into F1, F2, F3 or F4, or G1, 2, 3 or 4. I chose French of course, and my name was called first for the F1 class. This rather shocked me and made me wonder, but I wasn’t too surprised to be in F1, as I’d been a ‘straight A’ student (apart from Art and PhysEd) in grade 7, without putting in much effort. Then, a week or two into the year, another boy told me excitedly – ‘do you know you got the top marks? I was in teacher’s office and all the tests were on his desk, and I got to look at them – yours was at the top…’ Looking back, I suppose they were IQ tests, or something like. Anyway, I loved my first year of high school – it was a very cheeky, smart-alecky class, which brought me out of my shell a little. I even had girls flirting with me. I felt I’d really made it. I topped the year in French and English, but was well down the list in other subjects, and by second year, even my favourite subjects were suffering. At home, my parents’ relationship had become increasingly toxic, and I was becoming something of a teenage runaway. At fourteen, I was put on a fifteen-month bond, with a group of friends, for stealing. I spent a lot of time at the local library, and developed a passion for nineteenth century English lit, reading the whole of Thomas Hardy’s oeuvre, as well as Dickens, Austen, Eliot and the Brontës. My two older siblings, now at university, filled the house with books – Nietzsche, Freud, and the new feminists – Germaine Greer, Eva Figes, Betty Friedan. I began to hate school and often wagged it with friends, or just stayed home, filling my head with music and philosophy or at least the philosophy contained in fiction – I read Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy and The Outsider, The Plague, The myth of Sisyphus, and 1984. Animal Farm, one of the school’s set texts, was a particular pleasure, in a sense, as was Huxley’s Brave New World.

Meanwhile, my formal education was going down the tube. I was caned by the headmaster (a repulsive brute) for not doing some homework (or probably a lot of homework), and when on another occasion I was slapped across the face by same for chewing gum while he was chiding me, I left the building never to return.

So this was around 1972, a little before Pinker graduated from Dawson College. I got work, first on a pig farm in Nuriootpa (ok that lasted one day, but it felt like weeks), then at Wilkins Servis, a washing machine factory. Then at Atco Structures, building temporary school classrooms. In 1973, I somehow managed to land a job as an accounts clerk at Iplex Plastics, makers of PVC pipes, where I lasted nine months and became wealthy enough to to create my own record collection, becoming a lifelong fan of David Bowie and looking to get out of a house that was driving all its inhabitants crazy.

Pinker, meanwhile, had become a student of McGill University in Montreal, and was perhaps going through his own crises. Anyway, by the time he’d graduated in 1976 (with a BA in psychology) I’d spent seven memorable days in prison for ‘insufficient means of support’, in between working at another washing machine factory (Simpson-Pope), a small family foundry (Ellis wireworks) and a very depressing hospital (The Home for Incurables, later renamed the Julia Farr Centre, to the relief of all), which for all that I found to be one of the most rewarding jobs of my young career. My parents had separated by this time and in 1976-7 I lived for a few months with my father then my mother in the inner suburbs of Adelaide.

In 1977 or 1978, from memory, I was invited to moved in with a social worker I’d met at a youth camp. He’d taken a shine to me, it seems. He was about 8 years older than me, homosexual and a wee bit eccentric. He never wore clothes inside the house, sometimes answering the door naked. A more important connection for me, though was the other tenant, a visual arts student, ‘ages with me’, as the Scots say. He was smart and exploratory and through him I met a crowd of more or less interesting students, and began to feel I’d found my ‘scene’ at last.

It was while living with these two, and later with a maths and philosophy PhD student who introduced me to geeky science types who seemed even more congenial than the often anti-social arts crowd, that I started keeping a journal. That was about 1979. I kept the journal until 1995 when I bought my first computer. Or I should say journals, about 14 foolscap books covered in tiny inked print, presenting ideas, memories and tales of very varying quality no doubt. Two ‘self-obsessed’ individuals  in particular influenced my turn to diary-writing, or made me feel justified in the indulgence – Michel de Montaigne and Franz Kafka.

So this takes my life to 1979-80. Pinker went to Harvard University, I believe in 1977. Wikipedia tells us that Harvard ‘is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and one of the most prestigious and highly ranked universities in the world’. So he was doing okay, and no doubt working hard. He graduated with a PhD in 1979, after engaging in ‘doctoral studies in experimental psychology’. We’re then told he ‘did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a year, then became a professor at Harvard and then Stanford University’.

So, presumably he was at MIT in 1980. That was an interesting year for me. The federal government had introduced CAEs (Colleges of Advanced Education) in the late sixties (they died in the nineties) as something intermediate between universities and the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) system, and for some reason I was advised or impelled to enrol in one of them. I know that during much of my early twenties I was proud of my ‘autodidact’ status as a smartarse who’d opted out of formal education at fifteen, but I was also feeling the pressure. I hadn’t worked since my last factory job, as a slinger at a metal pipe factory, in late 1977, and going to college would at least keep the government off my back, and it might even lead somewhere. So I enrolled in a course called ‘Communication Studies’ at Hartley College, which involved classes in anthropology, philosophy, mathematics and I forget what else. I recall not ‘getting’ the maths stuff, though both anthropology and philosophy piqued my interest (I’d been reading bits and pieces of philosophy for years). I recall two proud moments – when the sociology lecturer called me into his office to discuss my essay on the potlatch system – which to my amazement he’d never heard of – and when the philosophy lecturer, who was also the senior administrator of the college – also called me in to commend an essay of mine and told me he could recommend for me a transfer to the Flinders University philosophy department at the end of the year.  However, when I blurted out that I was failing in all my other subjects, his interest cooled quite noticeably.

So I dropped out of Hartley College at the end of the year. But the 1980-1982 period was interesting for me housing-wise and in other ways. We’d been turfed out of our rental accommodation in early 1980, and spent a few months squatting and being moved on, until in mid-1980 I was accepted as a tenant in a very swish multi-bedroomed home set back from the road in a beautiful garden with a driveway lined with hibiscus bushes. And due to a sudden move-out of tenants after I moved in (hopefully not my fault), I soon found myself the inheritor of a huge furnished bedroom with an ensuite bathroom. The other tenants were mostly students, and the environment salubrious beyond my deserving. And as I soon became the most long-standing tenant, I was treated with unwonted deference by the others, which tickled me greatly. I also picked up a job in a nearby restaurant, my first paying job in about four years…

But, back to the other bloke, with his 1979 PhD. In 1980 he was presumably either a Harvard professor or just shy of becoming one. Not bad for someone around 26 years of age. And in 1982, while I was still working as a kitchen hand… well let me quote from the Wikipedia summary of his academic activities and movements over the next couple of decades :

From 1982 until 2003 Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, was the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Science (1985–1994), and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (1994–1999), taking a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1995–96.

Pinker was particularly interested in ‘cognitive linguistics’ at this time, methinks, which I also became somewhat interested in in the nineties. Generative grammar, and the way children pick language up so effortlessly, by and large, learning the exceptions along the way, does seem to suggest some sort of innate capacity. His first book was Language learnability and language development, published in 1984, and subsequent works  promoted a ‘nativist’ view of language acquisition, no doubt influenced by Chomsky’s work, but this is all controversial and much disputed, and I don’t feel expert enough to hold a solid opinion on the matter.

Meanwhile, back in Adelaide, we were turfed out of the share-house in mid-1982, for which I blame the tenants (not including me of course!) rather than the landlord – shameful behaviour I’d rather not go into. I soon found further share accommodation though, and continued my restaurant job well into 1983. And so it went, with lots of reading and writing and amateur discussion. I should mention that my reading, in 1981-2, of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in particular a central section in which Hans Castorp reflects, with a lot of time on his hands, on the origin of life and even of matter, had a strangely exhilarating impact on me, and from that time on I became more of a non-fiction than a fiction reader, starting I think with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and each monthly issue of Scientific American. 

My peripatetic housing situation continued through the 80s and 90s, but, feeling that time was running out, I applied in 1985 for mature age entry to university, and received offers from Flinders and then Adelaide University, where I began as an arts undergraduate in 1986, breezing through with a degree majoring in French language and literature in 1988. I did actually start a biology class in my first year – presumably dumbed down for arts students – but I found that it took up all my time, and I kept botching up the lab work, so I gave it up, a decision I’ve always regretted.

In 1989 I accepted an offer to do honours French, while realising that it was all going nowhere in terms of earning a living. There was also the obvious fact that my French writing wasn’t of high quality, and that I could only dream of visiting that country to improve my usage, if in fact it would do so. Even so, I planned to write my thesis on the work of Stendhal, a writer of romantic inclinations, come moi, though I try to hide it, and a feminist avant la lettre, and also, like me, a writer more or less completely unknown in his lifetime, though he expressed some confidence that his time would come…  So the major pleasure of my honours year lay in acquainting myself with all of Stendhal’s works, major and minor.

I say my honours year – but I should say that I dropped out well before finishing (quelle surprise!), considering it all a bit pointless, again. In 1990 I began a post-graduate Diploma of Education, but my experience of ‘prac teaching’ turned me off teaching as a career – though later, when I started teaching English to adults, a much more interactive process (and not driven by a particular syllabus), I enjoyed it very much.

So we’re into the nineties now. Pinker was teaching at MIT and had written or co-written works on cognition, language and learning. Meanwhile, as mentioned, I dropped out of my one-year post-grad course near the end – in fact, this time I would’ve finished but for a very serious financial crisis which forced me to find work. So I spent the last couple of months of 1990 working at another factory, this time Griffin Press, the largest book printing and binding facility in the Southern Hemisphere, owned by one Rupert Murdoch. I worked there pretty well non-stop until mid-1993, loading bound but uncovered hardbacks onto a conveyor belt. I worked a permanent afternoon shift, from 3pm till near midnight, but sometimes, in the pre-Christmas period, I worked thirteen or fourteen hours straight, and I used some of the money to pay for undergraduate studies in English Lit, which I attended, somewhat listlessly, in the mornings. I’d discontinued English studies after the first year of my undergraduate course, considering it all too easy-breezy. Now I decided that I’d work towards an English honours degree… I mean, why not?

Some time in 1993 I was helped by a friend to jump from the then-ailing Griffin Press into a temp office job for the government’s Department of Social Security. And then, in 1994, I commenced full-time English Honours at the University of Adelaide.

Meanwhile, Steven Pinker was fully establishing himself as a writer of works for the common, albeit educated reader. The first of these was The Language Instinct published in 1994, which, inter alia, argued that language is a uniquely human trait. I (or we) may have more to say on that in another place. There’s been much controversy about the issue for decades.

I completed my honours year but not with great success. I had to support myself on my dwindling savings, and I couldn’t afford one of those new-fangled items called ‘word processors’ or ‘computers’, which most of my fellow-students had bought. Moreover, I couldn’t type to save myself, or my thesis (this was the first piece of typing I was asked, or forced, to do in my ‘academic career’).

So, I missed getting a first-class honours by a percentage or two, and I was again at a loose end as 1995 rolled around. Having kept journals for over 15 years by this time, I naturally fancied myself as a halfway talented writer, so I wrote what I deemed to be a wittily begging letter to The Adelaide Review, a local arts and politics rag, suggesting a few diverting or enlightening topics I could discourse upon. To my surprise I received a positive response, and I duly wrote a little piece on my childhood in Elizabeth, which was duly published some time in 1995 or 1996. I was now a ‘published writer’, and things started to run smoothly for a while. I added more to the piece until I had the makings of a novel, which was accepted by the only publisher  I approached and in 1997, after an endless editing process, my worst-selling novel In Elizabeth was published. I thought this was a new beginning, but it turned out to be the beginning of the end.

So I’ll try to be more brief, as I’ve gone on too long. In Elizabeth received some local publicity, I had my face plastered on the cover of the weekend magazine section of the local paper, but reviews were scarce, and mixed. Our principal national paper, The Australian, carried an article which dismissed my work briefly and attacked Wakefield Press, the publisher, at some length, for promoting inferior writers. This so shocked me that I could hardly get out of bed for a few days. I was later told by the head of Wakefield Press that the reviewer was miffed because Wakefield had rejected his poetry collection. Even so, Wakefield rejected my second novel, Sextet, explaining that they’d henceforth be focussing on non-fiction. Which in fact turned out be true. Apparently the lack of sales for In Elizabeth was the deciding factor?

So I tried another publisher, Text Publishing, a rather elite Melbourne-based outfit, and to my surprise the book was accepted within weeks. I had a charming phone conversation with the senior editor who found the work witty and insightful and looked forward to working with me. But then a couple of weeks later, I received another call from her, apologising profusely. The CEO had come back from holiday and, in his wisdom, reversed the decision. I didn’t have the heart to try another publisher, and thus ended my literary career.

A few words about Sextet. It told the tale of a shy, sex-obsessed young man who had the grand idea of geeing up his life by writing letters he hoped would be found amusing, charming and enlivening, to six different young women he more or less knew, and whom, as far as he knew, didn’t know each other, in the hope of captivating at least one heart, and the delightful body that went with it. And of course it all ends in tears, as far as I can recall. And of course it wasn’t remotely autobiographical.

So that MS remains archived in a box somewhere, rendered largely obsolete by the modern social media world.

We’re now into the late 90s, when I entered into a rather stormy but more or less permanent relationship with my current partner, did some further study in TESOL, and started teaching English to immigrants and foreign students in various locations, as well as doing a seven-year stint in the 2000s as a foster carer, feeling that my unhappy childhood experiences would be of use in handling sometimes difficult kids. Not sure if that turned out to be true.

I don’t know if much more needs to be said about Pinker, who I last left in the 90s, and who has since become a high-profile public intellectual in the manner of Dennett, Dawkins, Harris et al, and has published increasingly ambitious works about the general tenor of society and where it is and should be heading. Having read his earlier Big Books, I’m currently half-way through Rationality, and have become stuck on the matter of Bayesian inference/probability/statistics, which I’ve written about before, and which always strikes me as both more simple and more complicated than my curious intellect allows. I’ll let Canto and Jacinta mull over it yet again in an upcoming post.





what is Bayesian inference?

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2023 at 3:36 pm

Posted in biography

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  1. You’re better looking than Steven Pinker!


    January 12, 2023 at 4:30 pm

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