Episode Description

“We were each put on earth to torment the other,” says cognitive scientist Steven Pinker of Elizabeth Bates, a psychologist who challenged the prevailing theory about how humans acquire language. Bates believed that language emerges from interactions between our brains and our environments, and that we do not have an innate language capacity. To many, that sounds like an innocuous statement. But in making these claims, Bates challenged formidable linguists like Pinker and Noam Chomsky, placing herself at the center of a heated debate that remains unresolved half a century later.

Liz Bates courtesy of Diane Farris

Liz in 1981, courtesy of George Carnevale

Liz Bates, courtesy of George Carnevale

Liz in San Marco, Venice, courtesy of George Carnevale. 1991

HOST: Katie Hafner


Fred Dick, Professor of Neuroimaging and Director of BUCNI, University College London

Brian MacWhinney, Professor of Psychology and Modern Languages, Carnegie Mellon University

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

Mike Tomasello, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University

Virginia Volterra, formerly Director of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome

Julia Carnevale, Physician-Scientist at the University of California, San Francisco

PRODUCER: Samia Bouzid

Samia is based in Philadelphia. Her work spans a range of themes, including science, language, and culture. She has contributed to shows such as the Duolingo French and Spanish podcasts, the BBC’s Short Cuts, and LWC Studios' 100 Latina Birthdays. She also writes scripts for science YouTube channels including SciShow and Be Smart.


Elah is a journalist, audio producer, and editor. Her work has appeared on Science Friday, Undiscovered, Science Diction, Planet Money, and various CBC shows. She has a masters from the University of Toronto, where she studied evolutionary biology, and later completed a masters at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Art Design: Keren Mevorach; photograph courtesy of George Carnevale


Language and context: the acquisition of pragmatics, by Elizabeth Bates, Academic Press (1976)

Noam Chomsky interviewed on the BBC’s Men of Ideas (1978)

Tribute to Elizabeth Bates, obituary by Virginia Volterra (Cortex, 2004)

Beyond nature-nurture: essays in honor of Elizabeth Bates, edited by Michael Tomasello and Dan Isaac Slobin, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2005)

The Language instinct, by Steven Pinker, Harper Perennial Modern Classics (1994/2007)

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