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4.0 out of 5 stars Because we're all relatives, it's not all relative, October 20, 2002
This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (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. Fifty to seventy percent of the variation between individuals - in intelligence, in personality, in political leanings, or just about any other mental character you care to name - derives from the genes; zero to ten percent derives from the home environment; and the mysterious remainder is due to chance or to non-parental environment.
We have been conditioned in recent decades to think of both these contentions as shocking. They violate two precepts Pinker designates the "sacred doctrines in modern intellectual life." He calls them The Blank Slate (with a nod to Locke), and The Noble Savage (with a nod to Rousseau.) The first holds that ideas, likes, dislikes, and personalities are all the result of what Locke called "sense impressions", that is, they are all imprinted on us by our environments. The second is a little more modest, but forms the seductive core of the first, because we'd all like it to be true. It holds that all our unpleasant ideas, likes, dislikes, and neurotic tics are forced by a wicked society upon an infant slate which is, if not blank, devoid of all blemish.
Pinker spends the first hundred pages tracing the lineage of these sacred doctrines (and of a third, neither so carefully examined nor so carefully defined, which he calls The Ghost in the Machine. The philosophers who originated the phrase were trying to deny the reality of consciousness, but what Pinker is trying to deny turns out to be narrower - essentially, the doctrine that whatever biological nature we may have can be overriden by a soul or self with a free will independent of biology.) He explores what has made the three doctrines attractive to all of us, but especially to the academic left, and the deep fears which have made it taboo, as E.O. Wilson found to his cost, to contradict them.
He then explains, carefully and (at least with respect to the first two) convincingly, why the fears in question are groundless - and why we should rather fear the ill effects of suppressing this new knowledge about human nature.
Finally, he takes up in a series of individual chapters several of the hot-button political and social issues that are affected by the existence of an objective human nature, and by the largely genetic basis of most human differences: the source of the left/right divide in politics, the root causes of violence, what objective gender differences (and the biological influences bearing on rape) do and do not mean for public policy, the coming irrelevance of the child-rearing advice industry, and a rather curmudgeonly take on what he sees as the well-deserved unpopularity of avant-garde art.
The child-rearing chapter is particularly eye-opening, while the violence chapter offers some fairly fresh ideas, not so much on its origins, which are the same for us as for chimpanzees, but on the variables affecting its expression. Also notable is Pinker's calm, complete demolition, on strictly biological grounds, of the notion that an embryo is "ensouled" at the moment of conception. (Perhaps still more notable, and indicative of the book's even tenor for all its polemics, is his refusal to draw any pro-choice conclusion from that.)
It's a joy to see some of Pinker's more irrational targets, from die-hard Marxism to the rejection of science itself by "critical theory" to the bromide that rape isn't "about" sexual desire, skewered with such swift and classical neatness. The longer lasting pleasures will come from a leisurely unpacking and sifting of all his positive conjectures, conclusions, and insights. It's a book you can zip through in a couple of nights, or return to for thought-fodder for years.
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Showing 1-10 of 38 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 5, 2007 6:13:15 PM PST
"The score" is nature pretty much one, nurture zero? So, does this mean that white people are, for example, in my home of minneapolis, more obedient because of their genetic makeup? And black people more criminal, more prone to becoming theives because they are naturally so?

I've heard "experts" on both sides say that the score is settled, and I've heard more sober voices state that it is more complex and the idea that behavior is determined by nature or nurture is actually a problematic question. But I didn't need a scientist to say it to know. A set of genes can't make a human in a vacuum, and human behavior doesn't develop without the social matrix--not any more than a a human develops without the DNA. I don't believe that our behaviors are genetically determined any more than they are socially determined. This review grossly simplifies this matter.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2007 12:08:33 PM PDT
P.K. Ryan says:
"So, does this mean that white people are, for example, in my home of minneapolis, more obedient because of their genetic makeup? And black people more criminal, more prone to becoming theives because they are naturally so?"

Pretty much, yes.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 29, 2007 6:47:35 PM PDT
[Deleted by Amazon on Oct 23, 2007 4:47:48 PM PDT]

Posted on Sep 24, 2007 10:35:21 AM PDT
Uncle Redeye says:
If Mr. Pinker's book is half as good as Mr. Buehler's review it should be very good, indeed.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 8, 2007 11:55:10 AM PDT
R. Chesly says:
i think what pinker is really trying to say is that genetics dispose people to certain things. also i dont think that pinker would suggest the environment plays no part. rather, what pinker is saying is that our gentic makeup has certain guidelines that our brain follows when interacting with the environment- environment does play a part......this is contrary to the blank slate theory which suggests that the human mind is well, blank at birth. its a great book please dont listen to this joker.....determinism isthe next revolution in science. it will bury darwin......

Posted on Dec 21, 2007 6:41:38 PM PST
bg says:
Pinker's argument isn't 100% nature, its 50 percent nature 50 percent enivonrment. A. Kranz-McGuire: It's completely possible, in fact reasonable and likely, that differences in environment and culture account for differences in groups of people. Don't listen to PK Ryan, he clearly has his own prejudices about black people.

Posted on Dec 22, 2007 6:26:28 PM PST
bg says:
Here's a direct quote from Pinker from The Blank Slate: "It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers."

This squarely contradicts PK Ryan.

In reply to an earlier post on May 14, 2008 5:28:32 PM PDT
Igor says:
"This squarely contradicts PK Ryan."

Not really. If enough lower class blacks migrated into middle class white neighborhoods, they would behave as a group exactly as they do in their own neighborhoods. It's just a question of numbers.

You could just as easily flip this around and say that middle class white kids would start behaving more violently if they were forced to live in black neighborhoods (they would have to, for their own survival). But this hardly means that where whites are a majority, they behave the same as where blacks are a majority.

I say let blacks be blacks and let whites be whites. Just don't force them to live together.

In reply to an earlier post on May 14, 2008 5:30:45 PM PDT
Igor says:
"So, does this mean that white people are, for example, in my home of minneapolis, more obedient because of their genetic makeup? And black people more criminal, more prone to becoming theives because they are naturally so?"

Yes, absolutely. What is so hard to believe about that?

Posted on May 14, 2008 6:04:21 PM PDT
Igor says:
Just wanted to throw this out for all the politically-correct nurture-conquers-nature types to chew on:

Under colonialism, blacks were made to behave. If the environment trumps genes, and if we can all agree that white, Western values are superior to those of black African culture, then what was wrong with colonialism? If one truly believes that nurture conquers nature, then logically, colonialism was a far better arrangement than blacks being given the right of self-determination.
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