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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
Some things could have been stressed more than they were. Somewhere (I have the Kindle edition, which makes it hard to find stuff if you forget to highlight it) he lists some bullet points referring to traits of what he calls intuitive responses that are part of our original nature, which are often at odds with the conditions imposed on us by the intricate culture we have evolved in the last 10-15,000 years. This implies that there are two distinct aspects of human evolution, 1) the slow process of animal evolution dating back several million years and proceeding one individual generation at a time (source of the intuitive traits) and 2) the express train (or rocket ship) of cultural evolution that began with the invention of language and agriculture (or, one could say, with the first syllogism). When we talk about human evolution, we tend to speak as if these were one and the same thing. This reminds me of the baseball story (famously applied to George W. Bush) about the man who was born on third base and thought he had hit a triple. Pinker's book is a major attempt to make these two processes distinct, but I think the message is obscured by the proliferation of arguments about side issues.
Also, in the chapter on gender, the discussion about rape and other forms of involuntary sexual activity passed over (without emphasis) a fact that I believe has great relevance here: humans are almost unique in mammal species in having concealed ovulation and in lacking any definite season of estrus, which seems of utmost significance with regard to sexual consent. Animals, by and large, don't have a rape problem, and don't need to deal with the 1001 issues of sexual relations that humans handle on a daily basis.
The first part of the book examines the theory of "the blank state," the position that Pinker targets in much of the rest of the book. He notes some of the bitter academic politics going with the struggle over the question of the nature of human nature. Academics advocating the view that biology and evolution play a role in influencing human nature have often suffered at the hands of their critics (some egregious examples are included in the book). However, Pinker argues that we will develop a much richer understanding of humankind if we consider the variety of influences on human nature and move away from the sterile (my words, not his) blank slate metaphor.
Indeed, much of my academic research has focused on how an understanding of the life sciences can enrich our understanding of politics (I am a political scientist). An awareness of the neurosciences, evolutionary theory, genetics, and so on enrich our understanding of policy choices and our understanding of political behavior. Pinker, by addressing the myth of the blank slate, does a boon for those who have a richer, more integrated sense of human nature.
If you are interested in human behavior and its causes you need to read this book.
His other two books are much better.