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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Paperback – August 26, 2003
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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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At some length, and with great equanimity, Pinker follows the implications of each of these theories and their consequences for the structuring of our moral and civic order.
To take one: the ghost in the machine, most commonly proffered in religious explanations, Pinker understands that this autonomous soul appears to be an agent for good - for if the soul follows God's directives, how can it go awry? But yet, he asks, what if there is a God that commands us to be selfish and cruel, rather than generous and kind? "This thought experiment is not just a logical brainteaser of the kind beloved by thirteen-year-old atheists, such as why God cares how we behave if he can see the future and already knows. The history of religion knows that God has commanded people to do all manner of selfish and cruel acts: massacre Midianites and abduct their women, stone prostitutes, execute homosexuals, burn witches, slay heretics and infidels, throw Protestant out of windows, withhold medicine from dying children, shoot up abortion clinics, hunt down Salman Rushdie, blow themselves up in marketplaces, and crash airplanes into skyscrapers." His clean and fresh new reasoning brings into a new light many of the nostrums believed to be healthy, moral, and idealistic.
For Pinker, the genetic influences on our behavior are ever-present, though he is at pains to repeat that genes are influencers, not determinants. And it is these influences and tendencies that he calls on to explore subjects as wide-ranging as feminism, art, child-rearing, punishment, sexual attraction, and status symbols.
For one, the variability in citizens' reactions to varying levels of punishment are in part determined genetically, so that, as Pinker notes, one lash of a wet noodle may deter me, while it takes ten to deter you. Which brings an interesting light to the efficiency of justice debate - what if there is not a single set of punishments appropriate to all citizens? Should punishments be calibrated to genetic thresholds?
Pinker ties human behavior into the species-propagating necessities of cooperators: "In a social, language-using, reasoning organism, [punishment] can also deter similar acts by other organisms who learn of the contingencies and control their behavior so as not to incur the penalties." And he follows through and takes on to the implications for our species, our times, and ourselves.
There are unconvincing elements in Pinker's argument that do not undercut his overall achievement, but do establish areas for future inquiry:
Gifting, sweet nothings, and shows of romantic love have been selected for in our breeding (those of our ancestors who behaved this way thrived, and produced us; their contemporaries did not). Pinker here distinguishes ultimate causation (why something evolved by natural selection) and proximate causation (how the entity works here and now). And he asserts that the fact that something has an ultimate causation (ostentatious displays to attract a mate to pass on genes to the next generation) shouldn't deter us from enjoying its proximate causation (she thinks you're cute). Nonetheless, one feels a bit deflated knowing that our suitor's genes put her up to it. Similarly, he fails to make anything but the negative case for free will, asserting that determinism is impossible to calculate, or that there are "random" variables for which we can not control.
And in discussing the morality of sexism, he asserts that even IF there was a genetic basis for discrimination in one direction or the other, we as a democracy have asserted that we value people as individuals and wouldn't tolerate that level of discrimination. Which begs the question, what in our human nature presupposes that democracy is the correct form of government, or that its functioning is in tune with human nature? Pinker the Philosopher is not as expert and thorough in his field as Pinker the Scientist.
Pinker undoubtedly presents a discomfiting challenge to post-modernists, despite which, there is nothing inherently "right-wing" about this work. It skewers fashionable thinking of all flavors. To cite just one example, he points out that, the "heritability of intelligence ought to galvanize the left into a greater commitment to Rawlsian social justice."
As a writer, Pinker is hip, informed, and inclined to use Dilbert cartoons or Who lyrics when it illuminates his point. Despite these common touches, he thankfully does not veer off into the cloying or over-familiar. In this large and busy book, Pinker packs in one-sentence summaries of papers that leave one yearning for a heavier author's hand in the footnotes - he is sparse, too sparse, in his citational tangents!
Thankfully, this will not be Pinker's magnum opus. Too many of the questions he raises and explores are out to the jury pending additional evidence. But by pointing the searchlight in the deep dark jungle, he has illuminated a path for fellow scientists, philosophers and citizens to explore in search of the roots of our morality.
I started reading this book because I wanted to learn more of the cognitive sciences. I did learn a great deal. There were, however, many other lessons that I picked up along the way. The most important is that our children are not lumps of clay waiting to be made into something. Our children are our children and we need to focus more on the experience of parenting them. When I finished this book I spent the evening at the movies with my son. I think this is the most important lesson I have learned from the book.
As a Christian, I found this book challenged my faith. I do not mean that as a bad thing in any way. The book raised important questions that we as Christians need to ask ourselves. I am not sure if I have any answers to the questions this book raises, but I am glad that it has forced me to think more deeply about my beliefs.
Also, I enjoy a book that pulls in things from many different disciplines. You have to love a book that quotes Hobbes, Vonnnegut, and Orwell. This book is well worth whatever investment you might make in the time and money to read it. I would strongly recommend this book.
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Pinker, a consummate Humanist, provides much backing to his thesis...Read more