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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Paperback – Deckle Edge, August 26, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his last outing, How the Mind Works, the author of the well-received The Language Instinct made a case for evolutionary psychology or the view that human beings have a hard-wired nature that evolved over time. This book returns to that still-controversial territory in order to shore it up in the public sphere. Drawing on decades of research in the "sciences of human nature," Pinker, a chaired professor of psychology at MIT, attacks the notion that an infant's mind is a blank slate, arguing instead that human beings have an inherited universal structure shaped by the demands made upon the species for survival, albeit with plenty of room for cultural and individual variation. For those who have been following the sciences in question including cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology much of the evidence will be familiar, yet Pinker's clear and witty presentation, complete with comic strips and allusions to writers from Woody Allen to Emily Dickinson, keeps the material fresh. What might amaze is the persistent, often vitriolic resistance to these findings Pinker presents and systematically takes apart, decrying the hold of the "blank slate" and other orthodoxies on intellectual life. He goes on to tour what science currently claims to know about human nature, including its cognitive, intuitive and emotional faculties, and shows what light this research can shed on such thorny topics as gender inequality, child-rearing and modern art. Pinker's synthesizing of many fields is impressive but uneven, especially when he ventures into moral philosophy and religion; examples like "Even Hitler thought he was carrying out the will of God" violate Pinker's own principle that one should not exploit Nazism "for rhetorical clout." For the most part, however, the book is persuasive and illuminating.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Pinker moves from How the Mind Works to how human nature works, offering a theory that ably blends instinct and choice.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 26, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142003344
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142003343
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (313 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,569 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching, books, and scientific research, Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He also writes frequently for The New York Times, Time, The New Republic, and other magazines.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

666 of 717 people found the following review helpful By Royce E. Buehler on October 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Cultural relativism, the intellectual underpinnings of which rest on a faith (whether acknowledged or not) in the supremacy of nurture over nature, has had a long run. But has its boiler run out of steam at last?
In his latest and by far his most ambitious work, Steven Pinker tells us, in a lively but dispassionate voice of sweet reason, that the answer is yes. His demolition of cultural relativism may well make him a lot of enemies. He's touched on many of these same ideas before, but now he is spelling out the consequences - and the incompatibility of those consequences with the received wisdom of most of the last century.
His fundamental message is: Yes, Virginia, there is a human nature. People of all cultures are born with a host of inborn predispositions - to acquire language and music, to favor kin over strangers, to desire sex and to be ashamed of it, to value even trades and to punish cheaters, and dozens more. Our common nature springs from our common biology; it is not very malleable, and it is not "socially constructed." Cultural diversity is marvelous, but it is all a variation on an immutable theme; and there have never been any human cultures free of war, of greed, or of prescribed gender roles. (Any more than there have ever been any free of conflict resolution techniques, altruism, and shared parenting.)
His secondary theme is that the differences between people, so much smaller than what we have in common, are also primarily biologically determined. A juggernaut of data has finally put the nature/nurture controversy to rest, at least from a scientific standpoint, and the final score is pretty much nature one, nurture zero.
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188 of 224 people found the following review helpful By john o. mcginnis on October 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Steven Pinker's book is a wonderful explication of what we now know about human nature. As such, it mounts a powerful attack on postmodernist attemps to argue that humans are completely malleable and socially constructed. The book reminds me most of David Hume's A Treatise on Human Nature. Like Hume, Pinker attacks the reigning orthodoxies and pieties of the politically and religiously correct. Because of such sacrilege, he will be attacked as an immoralist, just as Hume was. But like Hume, Pinker is in reality engaged in a deeply moral enterprise. By dispelling myths that are often propogated by ideologues to advance their agenda (such as the myth that the average man and woman differ only anatomically and not in their desires and interests), he makes it easier to understand the real costs and benefits of different social policies (such as quotas for women, whether in college athletics or on the job). By helping us understand the biologicaly wellsprings of our conflicts with others, be they parents, children, friends, or mates, he provides an important step to living with them more humanely and kindly. In perhaps its most completely original chapter, the book even uses his a theory of biologically shaped human nature to diagnose the discontents of much modern art, and if taken to heart, may show a way out of the cul de sac in which those who claim the mind is a blank slate have trapped many proud artistic traditions. The Blank Slate is a vaccination against the characteristic follies and errors of postmodernism and as such should be required reading for all students at our often diseased universities.
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267 of 320 people found the following review helpful By debeehr on October 30, 2004
Format: Paperback
Pinker constructs an elaborate and well-thought out argument, and his overall thesis is one whose outlines I largely agree with--that as biological creatures, humans are influenced by biology in many ways, often so subtly that we are unaware of it. Humans are animals, after all, and subject to the same instinctual drives and influences as other animals are; it's only human arrogance that would ever lead us to think otherwise. His assertion that humans are inherently *both* peaceable, kind, and generous *and* violent, savage and cruel, is one that I also agree with; see my point above about humans being animals.

However, I have doubts about the validity of some of the information Pinker presents here. One reviewer called Pinker a "polymath;" another and less favorable way to state that might be to say "jack of all trades, master of none." Pinker presents scores upon scores of statistics, facts, factoids and examples to buttress his claims, and at first glance it does all appear to be very impressive. However, on closer inspection, I found that claims pertaining to fields of which I had knowledge were all somewhat dubious. For example, his contrast on page 45 of common chimps and bonobos, in which he characterizes common chimps as "among the most aggressive mammals known to zoology" and bonobos as "among the most peaceful," "in common chimps, males dominate the females while among bonobos the females have the upper hand, common chimps have sex for procreation, bonobos for recreation" is a gross oversimplification of the differences between these two species, to the point of caricature if not outright distortion.
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