Customer Reviews: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science)
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on September 21, 2014
If you want to know anything at all about what makes us tick, this is the book for you. I don't want to commit the logical fallacy of Argument from Authority, so I will only say that Steven Pinker has the background and the chops to pull off an amazing tour of the human mind. He uses discoveries and science from a variety of disciplines, such as linguistics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, history, and even pop culture. He is witty and very readable. I first bought this book when it came out in hardcover back in 2003. Since then, I have bought it many times as gifts for friends and colleagues. I find the book, witty, useful, and (dare I say it) authoritative. As the introduction states, it is not just another nature-versus-nurture book! After reading this book, I have bought several other of Pinker's books.
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on May 20, 2014
This took me a while to get into but by the middle part of the book I was quite focused and enjoying it. My most valuable takeaway has been how science research has given support to what is legitimate in philosophies of human nature on the left AND the right. And what's wrong in those philosophies is where we spend most of our time being defensive and non-productive. Good science wins!
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on June 17, 2015
Note that this is more of a commentary than a review - this book needs it! Pinker's other books were more fun to read, because they were about cognitive science and linguistics. This book is very verbose and seems self-indulgent at times, but he gets his points about culture very clearly. Pinker tries to inform social sciences in this book, rightfully so, but he often seems to break out into tangents. I feel the book could be divided into many different parts given the scope of ideas he wanted to deal with, and some parts could have been removed without any loss to his argument. Many of the things he may mention may seem trivial to the informed reader, but they were novel when the book was written.

The central idea of his book is about the three main ideas present in the History of Western Philosophy and ingrained in public and academic consciousness: The Noble Savage (`we are born noble, but corrupted by society') , The Blank Slate (`tabula rasa' - we are born without any innate mechanisms and the blank is filled by experience) and The Ghost in the Machine (`we are guided by a spirit and our thoughts are not a product of our nervous system').

Pinker wants to use evolutionary theory as a base for the idea of innateness and advocates for a paradigm shift away from thinking of humans as only learning through experience. We are made witness to a beautiful demolition of the concept of political correctness or the phenomenon of moral outrage based on faulty logic when it comes to evolutionary psychology. This is based on moral self-gratification and an ill-informed fear of the post-Nazi phobia of commentary regarding genetic bases of behaviour. No one likes biological determinism, some parts can be scary, but you can't afford to close your eyes to statistical results that show that intelligence and some positive traits are hereditary. He points out this hypocrisy beautifully, and I'll quote it again in it's elegant form "I find it truly surreal to read academics denying the existence of intelligence. Academics are OBSESSED with intelligence. They discuss it endlessly in considering student admissions, in hiring faculty and staff, and especially in their gossip about one another". Following into the normal traps of academic life, Pinker's avoidance of the silly liberal bias of academics that equality is natural is avoided ("political equality is a moral stance, not an empirical hypothesis").

Pinker writes about nature from his natural habitat of linguistics and Chomsky's idea of language "growth" as opposed to "learning." The mind is reduced to its prewired computational functions. The Ifaluk tribe has an emotion called 'song' ("state of dudgeon triggered by a moral infraction") analogous to the Western emotion of 'anger'. Pinker feels that language is based on observable behaviour, but both emotions may arise from the same brain functions endowed by our evolutionary history. He puts it very aptly, "Universal mental mechanisms can underlie superficial variation across cultures".

The book itself provides an introduction to evolutionary psychology, in fact, that is mainly what the book is about. You'll hear about all the normal controversial topics: the nature of altruism, aggression, child rearing and game theory. Some of his arguments are strong, others are very weak. For example, his claim that the idea of the Blank Slate is not feasible because "if our minds were malleable they would be easily manipulated by our rivals, who would mould or condition us into serving their needs rather than our own. A malleable mind would quickly be selected out". This is a hard claim to verify through empirical evidence, and it seems more like a convenient narrative than scientific fact.

The real juice of the book comes when he discusses the behavioural roots of human conformity and imitation. He explains conformity as the information taken from others can help survival. Moreover, normative motives allow people to assimilate into a society by settling on a `cooperative equilibria' (money, public goods etc.) that allow for group survival.

His ideas on culture are interesting to say the least: culture seems abstract and to transcend biology (not literally, thats ridiculous). He gives the perfect instance, take the sentence "English has a larger vocabulary than Japanese" could be true even if no individual English speaker has a larger vocabulary then a single Japanese speaker. "English language was shaped by broad historical events that did not take place inside a single head... at the same time, none of these forces can be understood without taking into account the thought processes of flesh-and-blood people". This is the perfect one-line justification for why psychology and biology have the license to comment about culture, breaking into the exclusive hold of the humanities. Yes, scientific analysis of culture may be nerdy and back-fitted, but science aims to fund truths, not necessarily ones that are interesting from every angle.

His moral discussions are also brilliant: since our behaviours arise from our primitive hunter-gatherer roots, what does that mean for us in our modern society: "So if we are put in this world to rise above nature, how do we do it?" This is where his ideas of proximate (causes of real-time behaviour e.g. hunger, lust) and ultimate cause (the adaptive rationale that led to the proximate cause to evolve - hunger for nutrition, lust for reproduction) come in.

A good third of the book that talks about genes and evolutionary psychology is better captured in a more straightforward and less verbose style by Gary Marcus in `The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates The Complexities of Human Thought' that I reviewed earlier. It seems that in every book Pinker repeats the same basic ideas about language, making a lot of his books almost sound the same (quantification, compositionality and recursion in language). Worse, Pinker talks about perception and categories although the topics could have been removed from the book entirely.

At this point, following the 'Know Thyself' chapter is precisely where the book should have finished or at least been separated into another book: the next part of the book is more about economics, ethics, public policy - something that can be endlessly commented on from this angle. My assertion is not that Pinker went off-topic; it's just that his commentary is lengthy. For instance - a good book on biology will talk a bit about the ethics of genetic engineering, but it will NOT dedicate half of it to it - that falls into a separate field of bioethics that should be dealt with independently.

With regards to ethical commentary, if you have to read one example, read his example on the folly of the `naturalistic' defence of rape - because it gives the best example of how evolutionary history does not give us a moral framework to act in our modern environments - the view that rape would help us reproduce, so wouldn't that make it right to simply go in line with our primitive impulses since they helped us survive earlier. He does what every person must do in this field, and that is clear up the logic and the possible implications of everything he is saying - which he does!

In terms of economics and politics, I would say that his most interesting idea is the one taken from Singer and the `expanding circle of moral consciousness' where we have started to empathise with more and more circles that go beyond our family and tribe all the way to larger entities including the whole of humanity. He has a curious answer to this phenomenon, coming from its has roots in the basic principle of survival: "you can't kill someone and trade with them too". However, when he reaches the point about politics and economics, it gets boring - and you can really tell that its not his field. He quotes the classics of political thought, only to claim that political science is 300 years outdated as it has gone without incorporating the new ideas about human nature from evolutionary psychology. However, I don't really think this view is justified, evolutionary psychology mainly gives a narrative, not novel observations. So, when the ancients Greeks were commenting about human behaviour - their commentary is just as applicable now - simply adding psychology and biology jargon might give it a scientific narrative, but will not invalidate the originality of their timeless observations.

The way the reader reacts to the book will depend on how tolerant he is of repetition, what he already knows (thus how novel the ideas seem) and how straightforward he wants his reads to be. I like Pinker, but there is some magic missing from some of his writings. I will admit two things: I was about to put the book down twice before I forced myself to finish it, and it's not a book that I will be inclined to read again.

(Apologies for dealing with the irony of reading a long review that includes criticisms about how long a book was - and my habit of quoting. I can't resist repeating a few beautifully written sentences.)
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on June 24, 2016
This book updates us on several levels of neuropsychology. What works and what is a myth is exposed in several areas of life including parenting, arts, and violence. Pinker uses current research to evaluate these areas and comes up with some surprising conclusions. Adequate detail to support conclusions is refreshing. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in coping with violence and all parents.
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on October 19, 2015
The Blank Slate is that rare book which combines a deep understanding of a subject with the ability to make the subject accessible to the general reader. Additionally it is a fun read. Highly recommended!
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on May 10, 2007
The Blank Slate - Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker's profound and thought provoking work "The Blank Slate" is both a guided tour through the cognitive neurosciences (sociobiology, behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology among others); as well as a blueprint for social & political reform. This is despite the fact that much of the book is a detailed attack on the ideological doctrines that underpin traditional reformist agendas. He calls these the "holy trinity" of "a blank slate" (that human minds are totally plastic and formed for good or ill, success or failure, solely by environment, including education etc); of "the noble savage" (that culture and society are to blame for evils such as violence, discrimination etc); and of the "ghost in the machine" (that personality and agency do not reside in our brain but exists essentially as pure spirit outside the realms of biology or physics)

This is not to say Pinker advocates some sort of biological determinism or that there is a gene for every behavior. He explicitly and repeatedly denies such a stance. Heritability is not an "all or nothing" subject but a realm of seemingly limitless subtlety and complexity, but it is also decidedly not a realm of infinite plasticity.

A large part of the early chapters is spent explaining why such a work is needed - to justify the place of these sciences in the face of some very unscientific attacks on the works and persons of the pioneers in these fields.

We are then taken through a wonderful survey of the findings uncovered by the neurosciences that provide inescapable evidence of our common human nature.

I was personally captivated by the implications of an evolutionary understanding of the faculties of learning, and the alternative vision of school education as a place to acquire skills for living in a modern world, things for which evolution has not yet had time to select and produce instincts (in contrast to our instinctive and unschooled abilities to walk, to acquire language, to perceive intention behind other people's behavior etc). A whole new curriculum could be based on an understanding of what our brain can do easily and how to use these abilities to learn new and unintuitive skills such as mathematics and economics.

I was also particularly struck by a section in which he redefined the contrasting traditional political tendancies "left" and "right" into novel descriptors: "Utopian Vision" and "Tragic Vision", reflecting different underlying attitudes to human nature. Pinker himself says the neurosciences are coming down on the side of the Tragic Vision - an inherent and hence constrained human nature, but denies this means the "right" is necessarily right, or that the leftist impulse must be abandoned. He quotes numerous left-leaning philosophers and activists striving to realign the egalitarian agenda to the reality of a human nature whose millenia-old impulses have guided our species to survive and are impossible to eradicate. He then proceeds to analyse a series of "hot button" social topics (politics; violence, including crime and war; gender and rape; childhood and personality development; and art). In each topic his discussion discomforts the prevailing orthodoxy but his explanation of the science supporting his case is always prefixed by a careful statement and affirmation of liberal and progressive goals and principles and repudiation of injustice, discrimination or oppression. In each case his aim is to show how genuine progress might be achievable and constructive if account is taken of scientifically demonstrated and ineradicable human tendencies rather than holding dogmas or utopian theories based on the blank slate and its fellows. This is not merely a matter of theory but of great social import and potentially lifesaving. For instance his insistence that the dogma of "rape not being about sex but about power" is biologically unsustainable and effectively shuts even the consideration of alternative biologically-grounded approaches to its eradication, instead of the current hopeless attempts to reprogram the brain of offenders. Likewise his analysis of violence as an evolutionary strategy rather than a cultural artefact that could be wished away by cultural re-engineering offers policy-makers promising and practical lines of approach to reduce violent crime in our communities and reduce wars between nations.

The practicality of his analysis offers a ready made political program for any party brave enough to defy both the anti-cognitive scientific intelligentia of the left and the religious fundamentalists of the right, and to pitch a new course appealing to the common sense and common nature of ordinary concerned citizens.

I found this to be a liberating book, freeing me to trust my own instincts for instance in childraising and art, rather than be bound by the controlling doctrines of a supposed expert class.

After reading it I am convinced a course in cognative neurosciences should be an essential prerequisite for students of humanities, especially philosophy, politics and law.
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on November 29, 2002
This is a great book - well almost. In 24 punchy chapters, Pinker counter-blasts the culture-only theories of human nature that have dominated the social sciences over the last 70 years. Franz Boas and his students are often praised (or blamed) for having successfully decoupled the social and the biological sciences and thereby blunted the Darwinian Revolution of the 1860s. Pinker's book is the latest in a series that joins together what Boas did asunder. In the catacombs and labyrinths of academia, in the research labs and debating halls, in specialist after specialist journal, evidence from behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive neuroscience has been ushering in a counter-revolution in the behavioral sciences. Much of what Pinker ably pulls together is a far-ranging review of this research on children and family life, love and attraction, personality and temperament, religion, politics, and the arts. Time after time he shows how scientifically necessary it has now become to examine genetic as well as cultural influences.
Pinker rarely meets a phenotype for which he can't find some genetic variance. But alas, Pinker then blinks and stumbles when it comes to race, "gender" (i.e., sex), brain size, and IQ. Early in the book, he explains in detail about how it was the political ramifications of the controversy over issues of race that undermined the Darwinian perspective in the 1920s and established what he terms the Blank Slate Orthodoxy whose stranglehold on the behavioral sciences he now hopes to break. Perhaps this is why when it comes to the topic of the "Black-White IQ gap in the United States," Pinker safely opines that, "the current evidence does not call for a genetic explanation" (p. 144) and omits telling us what this evidence is or what, if anything, is wrong with it. For Pinker, apparently, traits may run in families for genetic reasons, but not in families of families. Race is the glaring exception to his otherwise general rule that phenotypes require genetic as well as cultural explanation.
Since Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, it is even more surprising that he doesn't give his readers a clue as to the latest research on brain size and IQ. ...High-tech, state-of-the-art MRI imaging studies reveal a 0.40 correlation between brain size and intelligence test scores. Other brain size studies show an average Black-White and male-female difference amounting to about 100 grams (the size of a quarter-pounder), favoring Whites over Blacks, and men over women. When Pinker does dare whisper of such forbidden truths, he quickly shouts out enough technical details about small brain parts (men also have larger "interstitial nuclei in the anterior hypothalamus, and a nucleus of the stria terminalis, also in the hypothalamus" (p. 347), whereas women have larger "cerebral commissures") that the central theme is drowned out by a cacophony of qualifications, caveats, and minutiae. He is silent about the average 15 IQ point difference between African Americans and Europeans, or the 30 IQ points between unmixed Africans in Africa, and Europeans, although these have been repeatedly corroborated by over 100 years of research on millions of people. He also skirts the evidence of the large male greater than female differences in spatial and mathematical ability, which may explain the comparable sex differences in brain size (even after adjusting for body size).
One novel, braver message is Pinker's marrying of evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics. For the most part these disciplines tactfully avoided each other. Many evolutionary psychologists worry about being perceived as fellow travelers of behavioral genetics, some of whose disciples have, on occasion, carried out research on IQ, crime, and race. Some behavioral geneticists, in turn, dismissed the evolutionary psychology "science of just-so stories." Here, Pinker performs his greatest service to the behavioral sciences, advocating consilience over fragmentation. This book sweeps Blank Slate orthodoxy toward the dustbin of history. One only wishes Pinker had used a wider and stiffer broom.
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on January 12, 2016
I read his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined some time ago. This book (being less optimistic) seems to contradict some of the ideas found in that book. Maybe his views changed over nine years.

Most of us are tired of the nature versus nurture debate – we decide that it’s a bit of both. Pinker comes down on the unfashionable side of nature.

He introduces us to many famous philosophers on the way and shows that their work has considerable repercussions on the way we live our lives and how we treat other people.

Examples of harm done by the belief in a blank slate of human nature: Totalitarian social engineering. If the human mind is a blank slate completely formed by the environment, then ruthlessly and totally controlling every aspect of the environment will create perfect minds; Inappropriate or excessive blame of parents since if their children do not turn out well this is assumed to be entirely environmentally caused and especially due to the behavior of the parents; Release of dangerous psychopaths who quickly commit new crimes; Construction of massive and dreary tenement complexes since housing and environmental preferences are assumed to be culturally caused and superficial; Persecution and mass murder of the successful who are assumed to have gained unfairly. This includes not only individuals but entire successful groups who are assumed to have become successful unfairly and by exploitation of other groups. Examples include Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust; kulaks in the Soviet Union; teachers and "rich" peasants in the Cultural Revolution; city dwellers and intellectuals under the Khmer Rouge.

According to Pinker, the Blank Slate is demonstrably false. Discoveries in neuroscience have shown that the mind comes equipped with various specialized functions, including those responsible for learning languages, estimating numerical quantities, picking out objects in the world, and attributing thoughts and intentions to other human beings. Some of these systems, moreover, vary from person to person in ways that are influenced by the genes. Behavioral geneticists have shown that about half of the variability in a trait like IQ is biological in origin, confirming the long-held suspicion that—all other things being equal—smart people tend to have smart children.

He shows that cherished beliefs, such as the comparative non-violence of the Samoans, is based on faulty research by Margaret Mead.

His ideas are bad news for liberal educationists and good news for Tories who want children to learn their times tables by rote.

However, his summary of Christian beliefs is a caricature based on fundamentalism so I wonder how accurate, or otherwise, is his summary of the thoughts of the various philosophers he quotes.

At one stage, he says that the family is subversive of the state. Jesus’s notion of the family of believers is even more subversive – of the notion of ‘family’ itself. “Who are my mother and sisters …?’
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on February 4, 2003
This is a balanced and thoughtful exploration of recent developments in evolutionary biology and genetics and their imlications with respect to social policy. Pinker does a good job of providing scientific and rational discussions related to some controversial topics, providing insights into the science and rationale behind his beliefs. It is obviously the work of a brilliant mind. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions (I found I agreed with about 90%) it was enjoyable just following his thought processes.
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on December 30, 2011
I came across the mention of The Blank Slate while reading Sam Harris' Moral Landscape with an intention of fine-tuning my opinion of human nature. This should have been the book I read first. Though I may not agree with all of the conclusions Pinker presents to his research, the amount of it and irrefutable evidence against social constructionism is something everyone can benefit from. I had many assuptions about human nature with a backround in Sociology and have found many of them to be shattered. Easily readable and a great sense of humor. It is certainly one of the most important books I've read. Should be mandatory reading for every human being.
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