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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.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
This book is more a synthesis of his ideas than a scientific work. It gives occasions to question what we believe to be obvious, while it is only the result of the mainstream idea which has been invading the medias and the families for decades : the idea that the human mind is a mere "blank slate" and that, subsequently, all our behaviours, and more generally, our plagues, come from our environment, ie, family, "society" or "culture".
I agree that Mr. Pinker sometimes simplifies his opponents' viewpoints, and he sometimes lacks of nuance and in-depth analysis.
But I don't think he ever pretended to release a scientific work. I think that, first of all, Mr. Pinker wants us to change our references and to be able to accept the very idea of an open debate on the human nature. I personally loved changing my mind on so many topics, or at least finding out that other approaches were possible, where I used to be entrenched in a one-explanation approach.
For instance I used to believe that parenting was the alpha and omega of what makes a person what she/he is. Steven Pinker's book ruined this certainty. I am happy I ceased accusing my parents of all my difficulties in life. This by no means implies that parenting is not a good and important thing. It only gives an opportunity to change glasses about what it means to be a mother or a father.
There are dozens of other fascinating examples of what "the Blank Slate" can bring to the reader.
Maybe this explains the violence behind the debates about human nature.
The book invites us to ask ourselves about our ability to question our certainties with GOOD FAITH, i.e., our ability to admit that facts could invalidate sometiles (but not all the times) our opinions.
Even if we are not forced to follow Mr. Pinker in ALL his developments (I don't say I do), it is still an interesting approach, which brings lots of factual, solid information often ignored by most of us. It is a good start for reflexion, and by no means a dogmatic or "reductionnist" work (I always wonder why this word, "reductionnist" is used by people who precisely reduce the whole human experience to social and familial patterns and reject any other approach).
Some of the reviews here on Amazon.com come from people who visibly have difficulties dealing with FACTS and are really very aggressive (hence my 5 stars, in order to compensate such undue attacks).
When FACTS tend to question our opinions, we have two choices :
1. We admit that we could be wrong and try to start a discussion to redefine our point of view; or
2. We attack the man who states these facts and pretend him to be a stupid / fascist / chauvinist person.
I don't say I always fall in the first category, but I think it is a good way to discuss books like Mr. Pinker's (instead of personal and aggressive attacks, or, worse, commentaries written by people who didn't read the book since they reproach to Mr. Pinker ideas that he never expresses).
It is true that Mr. Pinker sometimes adopts a biased presentation of facts. But the nice thing is that he quotes all his references and exposes every step of his reasoning, which allows a true discussion and an open, honest debate. I really enjoyed very much reading this book.
If you are interested in human behavior and its causes you need to read this book.