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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Paperback – August 26, 2003
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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"An extremely good book-clear, well argued, fair, learned, tough, witty, humane, stimulating." (The Washington Post)
"Pinker makes his main argument persuasively and with great verve...ought to be read by anybody who feels they hav had enough of the nature-nurture rows." (The Economist)
"Stylish...what a superb thinker and writer he is." (Richard Dawkins, TLS)
"Required reading...an unanswerable case for accepting that man can be, as he is, both wired and free." (Frederick Raphael, Los Angeles Times)
About the Author
Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of our Nature, is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers.
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He lights up a giant science blowtorch to both the left and the right's notions regarding human nature.
As a parent of two children I was particularly interested in his parenting section, where the argument of "nature VS nurture" is torched. Explanations for how a parent does and doesn't shape their kids are unique, basically he's saying that parents are less significant than the rest of the environment (country, region, city/town) and what the culture that environment provides. While this might appear a "it takes a village" leftist argument, in reality it's just a common sense argument that I see every day as a person who left home to move to a different part of the world and after meeting a girl there; watch as my children grow up here and how different they are from me as a child and are more like other children here. Yet at the same time his use of adoption studies and separated twin studies are at once fascinating and also hard to argue against as he explains how much of us is in the genes and not in that environment.
On crime and IQ he dispels moral notions and poses new ones as he explains our newfound ability to determine a person's pre-disposition to violent or peaceful conflict resolution via brain scans, which he admits should have been expected after the extraordinary 19th century case of Phineas Gage surviving a traumatic brain injury and his behavior change predicted it.
He also tackles race, gender, and many other hot issues.
Pinker, a consummate Humanist, provides much backing to his thesis that nature (read: genetics) have significant explanatory power in human differences (and similarities). He commences by addressing the controversial nature of the book, attempting to connect with those who will likely (still) have emotionally charged, knee-jerk reactions to the material. [Honestly, I am not sure how many converts he's actually racked up.]
Pinker addresses the fears this theory raises head-on, from his Watson-Skinner school of behaviouralists, Enlightenment progressives in the Rousseau camp or Hobbesian pessimists, and feminists, he lays a strong backstory defence and ends with hot buttons: politics, violence, gender, children, and the (high) arts. Although I feel the arts chapter was a bit out of place, more of a platform to proselytise his Humanism and slam Subjectivism, it was still interesting.
The Blank Slate is an ambitious book that goes after the blank slate fallacy that is the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves. It's a social-biological study of nature versus nature. This excellent 528 page-book is composed of the following six parts: Part I. The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine, Part II. Fear and Loathing, Part III. Human Nature with a Human Face, Part IV. Know Thyself, Part V. Hot Buttons, and Part VI. The Voice of the Species.
1. Steven Pinker the well known Professor of Psychology at Harvard University writes thought-provoking, well-researched books and this book is no different.
2. Professor Pinker goes after the doctrines of the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine and does so with gusto and a mountain of scientific evidence.
3. I'm glad someone finally refers to Social Darwinism to what it really is, "Social Spencerism".
4. The fallacy of behaviorists.
5. The theory of mind explained.
6. Great quotes with conviction. "The evidence is overwhelming that every aspect of our mental lives depends entirely on physiological events in the tissues of the brain".
7. The three great outrages of self-love.
8. How genes affect our behavior..."Small differences in the genes can lead to large differences in behavior".
9. Evolution is central to the understanding of life.
10. Culture defined.
11. Fascinating look at how our brains remain active during "assembly".
12. Evolutionary biology used to explain the complex cognitive and behavioral adaptations.
13. The attacks on "determinism" and "reductionism".
14. The religious opposition to evolution and its intended corruption of American science education.
15. The religious opposition to neuroscience. The exorcism of the human soul. I would love a whole book on just this topic!
16. The dangerous fallacy of equating evolutionary psychology with "Social Darwinism".
17. Debunking the four fears over the anxiety of human nature.
18. The fact that all species harbor genetic variability, but our species is among the less variable ones. Racial differences being among them.
19. The disposal of eugenics, discrimination, and Social Darwinism.
20. Many excellent messages throughout the book, "An idea is not false or evil because the Nazis misused it".
21. The fallacies of Nazism and Marxism. Nazism with races and the Marxists with classes.
22. Homosexuality in its proper form.
23. The importance of respecting women's fundamental rights to their bodies.
24. The compatibility of human nature with social and moral progress. Excellent!
25. The debunking of environmental determinism.
26. How our minds work.
27. The fallacy of the soul!
28. The co-evolution of intelligence and language.
29. The importance of our genes.
30. The ethics of autonomy, community and divinity explained.
31. Tragic Vision and Utopian outlooks.
32. Interesting take on the goals of the Constitution. How to anticipate and limit that corruption became an obsession of the framers.
33. Interesting take on economics.
34. Fascinating look at the fallacy of the connection between media violence and violent behavior.
35. The logic of violence.
36. The understanding of true equality.
37. Gender under a true light.
38. The appalling notion that rape has nothing to do with rape. Thank you.
39. The three laws of behavioral genetics.
40. Many parenting myths debunked, bravo!
41. A good grasp of how the mind works is indispensable to the arts.
42. Great notes.
43. Extensive references.
1. Links did not work. A real crime for a book like this.
2. Not an even-handed approach. Mr. Pinker has his opinions and does not hesitate to use them. This could be considered a positive but it's not because the author does unleash ad hominen attacks to some of his opponents. For example, B.F. Skinner.
3. The book could be tedious to read at times.
4. It requires an investment of time. The book is too long.
5. A more comprehensive summary at end of each chapter would have been added value.
In summary, this is an important contribution to knowledge. This book is worthy of five stars just based on the wisdom you will obtain. Many important ideas and thoughts are found throughout this ambitious book. Such as, that new ideas from the sciences of human nature DO NOT undermine human values.
Further suggestions: "Human" by Michael S. Gazzaniga, "SuperSense" by Bruce M. Hood, "The Myth of Free Will" by Cris Evatt, "Hardwired Behavior" by Laurence Tancredi, "Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality" by Patricia S. Churchland, and "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard.