- Paperback: 528 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 26, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0142003344
- ISBN-13: 978-0142003343
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (363 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,722 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Paperback – August 26, 2003
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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 the Audio CD edition.
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 the Audio CD edition.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
The title, 'The Blank Slate' is one of three commonplace theories that Pinker sees as contributing to the misdirection of politics, society and science in general. In brief, the belief that we are all interchangeable tabula rasas (the blank slate), that we are born with only good instincts only to be corrupted by society (the noble savage) and the existence of 'higher' spirit or soul in each human body (the ghost in the machine.) It's not hard to see why the blank slate is a bogus theory. Humans, as products, of biology have innate urges and are in a sense, genetically INCLINED towrds certain behavior. Why is the blank slate dangerous? Belief that crime can be 'unlearned' through rehabilitation, that 'reality' is simply a synonym for 'conditioned belief' that can be reframed at will, and that there is no thing as measured intellegence- all of these beliefs lead to socially disasterous consequences.
It should be said that the authors goal is not shock us, stir up unnecessary contraversy or get off on offending his readers. This is not an anti-PC book; in fact, Pinker is admirably calm and well-reasoned. He discusses sciences relations to social policy, but doesn't preach about or disclose his political leanings. He talks about feminism but where he comes out against 'gender feminism,' he has nothing but praise for feminisms goals of parity and equality. To be sure, he lets us know that evolutionary science has tended to point towards the right by showing us that marxist and postmodernist interprestations of 'social reality' to be untrue. On the other hand, though, Pinker shows us that sciences insistence that while biology doesn't explain everything, it factors in to more than we think, alienates the right-wingers and backs certain left-leaning theories. In this way, science, and hence Pinker's book, is apolitical.
In close, I have to affirm an observation below. At first glance, a commentary on the problem in the arts and humanities by scientist, Pinker seems not only a far stretch, but snooty. After reading the book in full though, I can easily say that it is not only the best chapter of the book, it ranks amongst the best discourses on the 'humanities slump' that I've ever read, easily beating out most by humanities professors. This book deserves every piece of it's 5 stars and then some!!!