- Hardcover: 509 pages
- Publisher: Viking; 1st edition (September 30, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0670031518
- ISBN-13: 978-0670031511
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.7 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 370 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #89,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Hardcover – September 30, 2002
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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.
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.
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Top customer reviews
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.
What makes people behave the way we do? How do our personality traits emerge? Is it in our genes? Is it in our environment? Is it a combination of both? Are characteristics ingrained in our species? Or are we blank slates? These are the questions tackled by MIT Psychologist Steven Pinker in this wonderful and voluminous book. From the start, Pinker makes it clear that his purpose is to promote and support the view that human traits, that is to say human nature, is carried in our genes, that we are not blank slates molded by our environments. His further purpose is to expose and destroy the arguments of those who reject the truth about human nature on political rather than scientific grounds. He is very convincing in his arguments.
In the first part of the book, Pinker presents a basic history of the philosophy and theories of human nature. What emerges is that the philosophers we think of as "liberal" such as Hobbes, Locke and Machievelli, believe in an inherent human nature which society can temper through laws while the utopians do not believe in any inborn traits, that people can be molded in any way society sees fit. As Pinker demonstrates, in the academic world, the liberal idea which formed much of the basis of the western enlightenment has been largely superceded by counter-intuitive ideas that people are either "noble savages" or "blank slates."
In the next part of the book, Pinker demonstrates the discoveries science has made into how the mind works. In an easy to read manner, he shows how many human tendencies are rooted in evolutionary selection and are controlled by inherited genes. Pinker's real purpose in writing this book, however, is not to present a history of the development of evolutionary psychology. Rather his purpose is to show how the intrusion of political ideology of both the right and left has infected this academic discipline, rendering pursuit of scientific truth secondary to justification of a series of pre-ordained conclusion. For this reason, the "Blank Slate" is among the most important books of recent years. As Pinker demonstrates, there are real consequences to the savaging of any scientist whose conclusions do not meet with the accepted theory that human beings are blank slates to be molded as society sees fit. The book is filled with examples of accepted dogma that does not fit with scientific evidence. Pinker not only demolishes some of these dogmatic beliefs that defy logic and factual analysis, he demonstrates the moral and philosophical foolishness of such beliefs. As Pinker demonstrates, the accepted dogma is that criminal tendencies are acquired, not inborn. But the argument the proponents of the blank slate seem to make is that if a behavior is inborn it cannot be immoral or otherwise wrong. Therefore, since criminal behavior is wrong, it cannot be inborn. As Pinker convincingly argues, this line of reasoning is not only fallacious but dangerous. The proponents of the blank slate have left themselves no moral wiggle room if and when their argument is proven false. If traits are truly proven to be inborn, then the blank slate proponents would have no choice but to argue that such behavior is not wrong. Pinker avoids this twisted reasoning because, as he rightly asserts, just because a tendency is inborn does MEAN that acting on that tendency is appropriate or anything other than immoral. Morality is defined by society or God, if you like, not by our genetics. The ultimate conclusion of the theory that society creates personality is that society can re-make personalities as it sees fit. Pinker shows how this has led to disastrous experimentation on children and adults alike. In its worst manifestation, it leads to the mass murder of a Pol Pot or Mao Tse Tung.
This book is part science, part philosophy and part political/social criticism. It is always entertaining and hugely informative. If I have any criticism of the book at all, it is Pinker's complete lack of a discussion, even superficial, over the role played by social and environmental factors in overcoming genetically based traits and tendencies. However, the complex interplay between the genetic markers which pre-determine many human tendencies and the environmental factors which influence those tendencies is clearly a subject for a different book. Pinker's goal here is to demolish the dogmatists. In this he succeeds. Any reader who values truth over dogma will enjoy and appreciate it.
If you are interested in human behavior and its causes you need to read this book.