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253 of 300 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but not particularly well researched, October 30, 2004
This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (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. His attribution of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs to the superior technology of the Spaniards is a popular Western fantasy that has been strongly challenged in recent years. In particular one very persuasive alternate explanation that has been put forth argues that the defeat of the Aztecs was largely a Native American phenomenon: the Aztecs had succeeded in angering a very large proportion of the surrounding civilizations, so that when Cortes showed up, he served as a rallying point for large numbers of these disaffected peoples. These nations were willing to contribute large numbers of troops to fight alongside him, and it was largely thanks to these indigenous troops that Cortes was able to succeed. Certainly it can be argued that this is a more persuasive hypothesis than that a small band of Europeans, in unfamiliar territory with limited supplies and ammuntion, were able to all on their own throw down one of the largest empires of the New World, no matter *what* technological advantages they may have possessed. Pinker also does not often cite the primary literature; a large number of his factoids are drawn from books. This is a problem, as often the peer review process for books is not as stringent as that applied to articles published in journals.

In addition, I found Pinker's analysis of sexual assault to be severely flawed. While I agree with Pinker that the concept that "rape is not about sex, it is about power" has in some circles ascended to the status of dogma and is a concept that deserves some thorough scrutiny (the idea that all sexual assault everywhere across all cultures is only about one thing?), again, he doesn't seem to have a good understanding of the cultural and social dynamics surrounding sex roles and sexual assault. For example, he argues that feminists assert that "fear of rape has to be pounded into women by ... social influence." This is a distortion of an assertion by feminist thinkers that fear of rape--in particular, fear of "stranger rape," the least common form of rape--is often deployed as a tactic to limit women's behavior, freedom, and freedom of choice. For example, traditional societies that place heavy restrictions on women's dress, appearance and behavior often claim they are doing so in order to "protect" them.

His assertion that countries with far more rigid gender roles demonstrate far fewer rates of rape overlooks the fact that societies with rigid gender roles and norms will often very severely penalize rape victims who come forward. Therefore the seemingly low rate of sexual assault in these societies cannot *by any means* be taken at face value. Furthermore, many incidents which are considered rape in modern Western society are often not so considered in more traditional societies (or indeed, in our own, until very recently). So for example in the case of marital rape, though the woman knows she did not consent to sex, and though she experiences great distress over the event, she will not consider it rape because according to the norms of her society she does not have the right to refuse sex with her husband, so therefore she "cannot" be raped by him. This also affects rape statistics. Finally, in seeking to demonstrate that rape is about sex, he overlooks many situations where it is *also* about power. For example, he asserts that rapists tend to be males with marginal status in society. Perhaps many of them are, but how about those who are not? For example, the captain of industry who is accustomed to getting his way in every situation and will not take no for an answer from his lowly secretary?

Pinker does do a very good job laying out the history behind the "blank slate" approach and explaining some of the ideological reasons why people are so committed to this position--and he does indicate that this position is often adopted for irreproachable moral reasons; his main issue is that this adoption often leads to distortions of the evidence being presented as fact. He is plain about how and why he thinks the ideological use of bioloical data is wrongheaded and harmful. His reasoning is often well-thought-out and comprehensive, based on the information he presents. However, in his drive to bring the "nature" side into prominence, I feel he overly rejects the influence of culture. As previously stated, I also have qualms about the accuracy of much of the information he tosses in; based on the matters of which I have knowledge, Pinker does not always adequately grasp the nuances of the examples he's using. However whether you agree or disagree with him, there's plenty of food for thought here. The bottom line is, as an anthropologist, Pinker's a great biologist. If he grasped the culture better, this would be a five-star book.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 1, 2009 6:02:50 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 1, 2009 6:56:34 AM PST
J. S. Dodds says:
I agree, but go a little further. For me, his mischaracterizations of fields he is unfamiliar with, or worse yet has some beef against, is not just wrong but often downright insulting, often in hackneyed ways. (Do we really need to once again negatively stereotype post-modernists and liberals?) My knowledge is not broad (I have a background in political science and anthropology), but often when he treads into waters about which I have even modest expertise, like you, I find he's way off base, like he read the pop literature and not the academic. Of course, that makes me suspicious of the rest. I likened his methods of argument to Rush Limbaugh's in my review (entertaining but based on cherry-picked facts and misrepresentation of the opposition), although I agree with many of his major themes. Thanks for the accurate and thoughtful review, I'm glad it was highlighted. All well put. I liked the Language Instinct, but not this.

Posted on May 11, 2010 10:29:54 AM PDT
Douglas Rose says:
Pinker asked why the Spanish crossed the Atlantic to attack the Incas and Aztecs "rather than the other way around," and answered "better technology and a more complex political and economic organization." The reviewer seems to miss Pinker's point, while being correct about important contributions to the Aztec defeat. Otherwise, the review does not dispute what Pinker says, though it is somewhat mischaracterized. For instance, while Pinker doesn't mention "captain of industry," he does suggest that many males of high status will use coercion to get what they want, including sex. He rejects not the "influence of culture" but a monopoly of perceived influence by culture. The only way this could be "overly" is if culture is taken to appropriately be the only possible explanation of behavior.

Posted on Mar 17, 2011 1:35:24 AM PDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

Posted on Nov 28, 2011 4:13:46 PM PST
J. Fultz says:
Pinker is neither an anthropologist or a biologist - though one might think so given his examples. He's an experimental psychologist and a cognitive scientist - and a rather brilliant one at that.

Posted on Jan 27, 2012 12:53:59 PM PST
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Posted on Jun 11, 2012 10:54:13 AM PDT
Avi Love says:
I found your review somewhat helpful. I do appreciate the idea that Pinker is not entirely credible in some of his statements. It's something that I picked up on as well. However you're taking a few isolated segments which really don't do much to illustrate the book as a whole. It seems your personal agenda as an anthropologist is outweighing a solid review of the book. You demonstrate a couple of effective examples of potential cultural influence that Pinker may have gotten wrong, but no large percentage of the book was actually based on those examples. I would have been much more interested to see a review of the entire book and the accuracy of a wide spread of information and argument in it rather than a couple of more minor examples apparently just trying to prove the influence of culture. Incidentally, does the inaccuracy of those examples actually change the percentage influence of culture that Pinker is arguing for on the broader level by much at all?

Also I admit I'm heavily detracted from anything you say for your use of the ad hominem rephrasing of polymath. As a culture-driven anthropologist, you should be aware that your distinguishment between polymath and "jack of all trades, master of none" is actually culturally driven. There's another term for polymath which is "renaissance man." These are all strictly cultural views on the reality, but they are cultural views you deliberately attempt to turn against Pinker thus, I think, discrediting yourself to some extent in the process. No one ever said there wasn't a range of what varying "polymaths" might be good at. It would have been far more effective to simply have said that Pinker does have expertise in certain fields but does not demonstrate expertise or appropriate sources from other fields that he uses evidence from in the work. Otherwise I would be inclined to ask if we can call Da Vinci a "jack of all trades" as well.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 30, 2013 9:16:25 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 30, 2013 9:17:54 PM PDT
Please don't nitpick over semantics. This makes you look silly.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 11, 2014 5:20:43 PM PDT
Davide T. says:
To debeehr: how would you characterize the sexual and social behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos?

Posted on Dec 3, 2014 2:35:44 PM PST
AdoringFan says:
Your comment is so helpful and amazing, if YOU wrote a book on these topics, I'd buy it.
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