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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

What human nature is...and is not

A book as ambitious and comprehensive as Steven Pinker¿s ¿The Blank Slate¿ deserves an extensive review. This is only an attempt to suggest some of its impressive scope and excellence. The title would be more descriptive if it were simply ¿Human Nature¿. The ...
A book as ambitious and comprehensive as Steven Pinker¿s ¿The Blank Slate¿ deserves an extensive review. This is only an attempt to suggest some of its impressive scope and excellence. The title would be more descriptive if it were simply ¿Human Nature¿. The ¿blank slate¿ is merely one of three fallacious myths which, Pinker shows, obscure the true understanding of human nature that evolutionary biology affords. (Pinker is one of a trio of modern philosopher- scientists, along with Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett, who eloquently examine the full implications of Darwinism for society). The ¿blank slate¿ is the notion that every aspect of human behavior is the product of experience, including socialization and education. A corollary is that the human mind is infinitely malleable. The ¿noble savage¿ is the belief that primitive people untouched by civilization are naturally peaceful and virtuous, that violence, greed and the host of other evils are in no way inherent in man but are the product only of corrupt society. The ¿ghost in the machine¿ is the conviction that science, such as biology and its branches, is inadequate to explain the operation of the human mind¿that the mechanistic approach to comprehending consciousness profoundly diminishes and demeans the human condition, and therefore supernatural explanations must be invoked. Pinker¿s achievement is to demolish these fallacies with clarity and temperateness. For me, this book is the most awesomely lucid and intelligent explication I have ever read of a thesis which touches on such an enormous range of contentious issues. What does science, free of the wishful thinking, misunderstanding, superstition, and error represented by the three fallacies allow us to comprehend about racism, human aggression, politics, international relations, language, abortion, world trade, love & sex, gender, child-rearing, and the arts? That Pinker had the audacity or courage to take on all these ¿hot button¿ issues is not the most impressive fact about this book what is most stunning is that he meets the challenge by having important insights to share in all these matters, and more. For instance, his discussion of the ¿gender gap¿ is the most thorough, cogent, and constructive that I have seen. All these weighty matters are not merely personal opinions of the author. His erudition is evident. He cites examples, case studies, quotations from sources as different as Calvin & Hobbes cartoons and René Descartes. His notes run over 19 pages of fine print. His references take up 29 pages of the same fine print. And yet, though his subject matter could not be more serious, Pinker wields a witty and lively pen.The thinking is deep, but its expression is as clear and refreshing as spring water. Here he is on genetics: ¿...all this talk about genes that influence behavior does not mean that we are cuckoo clocks or player pianos, mindlessly executing the dictates of DNA. The genes in question are those that endow us with the neural systems of conscience, deliberation, and will, and when we talk about the selection of such genes, we are talking about the various ways those faculties could have evolved.¿ A thoughtful reading of ¿The Blank Slate¿ could not only evaporate the fallacies that have misled and confused so many, including some scientists, but it should allay fears that Darwinism, evolutionary biology, and genetics are somehow dehumanizing, for Pinker shows that they are truly humanizing in the deepest sense.

posted by Anonymous on December 2, 2005

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Most Helpful Critical Review

1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

Bitter Pills and Stone Soup

In his bestselling book The Blank Slate, psycholinguist Steven Pinker recalls how sixteen hours of lawless mayhem during a police strike in Montreal shook his faith in the perfectability of human nature and set his idealistic former self on the high road of science. Her...
In his bestselling book The Blank Slate, psycholinguist Steven Pinker recalls how sixteen hours of lawless mayhem during a police strike in Montreal shook his faith in the perfectability of human nature and set his idealistic former self on the high road of science. Here is the passage:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960's, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 am on October [7], 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. [...] By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.

Pinker has presented us with a dramatic story of lost innocence, and to his credit he kept the story short. In the end, young Pinker swallowed the bitter pill, accepted the facts of life and human nature, and followed the trail of shattered glass to the high road of science. Reluctantly, sadly but stalwartly, he embraced the Tragic View of Life, the realization that life is not fair.

The high road of science, we have heard, is paved with objectivity. Objectivity, presumably, involves taking the facts as they are, without embellishment or spin. To be objective, one must acquire a taste for bitter pills.

But here and there in The Blank Slate one encounters less-than-optimal modeling of the prescribed behavior. Here, for instance, is Pinker's version of an old French tale, recounted in Marcia Brown's Caldecott Honor book, Stone Soup, first published in 1947:

In the children's story called "Stone Soup," a hobo borrows the use of a woman's kitchen ostensibly to make soup from a stone. But he gradually asks for more and more ingredients to balance the flavor until he has prepared a rich and hearty stew at her expense.

But compare this to the familiar story as Brown tells it: not a hobo in the famous children's tale nor in the older tale, either; rather, three hungry soldiers returning from a war. Not one woman, but the entire village. Not a private kitchen, either, but a public space. And "at her expense" in what way? At first the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry soldiers, but one by one, reluctantly, they add ingredients to the pot, and in the end the soldiers and the villagers eat their fill, dance, and laugh together into the night. The clever soldiers tricked villagers out of their greed and xenophobia, and as a result of sharing and working together, advantages accrued to each and all. That, one can pretty confidently conclude, is the moral of the unreconstructed story. As Pinker has spinned it, though, the story has a very different moral, a moral more in keeping with the tragic view of life that "the new sciences of human nature" are said to certify.

Here and throughout The Blank Slate, Pinker has done us the favor of supplying the morals to the stories that objectivity and human nature require. Those famous ideological blinders, it seems, are a funny sort of accessory: only former selves and other people ever wear them.

posted by M_Melkonian on August 17, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2005

    What human nature is...and is not

    A book as ambitious and comprehensive as Steven Pinker¿s ¿The Blank Slate¿ deserves an extensive review. This is only an attempt to suggest some of its impressive scope and excellence. The title would be more descriptive if it were simply ¿Human Nature¿. The ¿blank slate¿ is merely one of three fallacious myths which, Pinker shows, obscure the true understanding of human nature that evolutionary biology affords. (Pinker is one of a trio of modern philosopher- scientists, along with Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett, who eloquently examine the full implications of Darwinism for society). The ¿blank slate¿ is the notion that every aspect of human behavior is the product of experience, including socialization and education. A corollary is that the human mind is infinitely malleable. The ¿noble savage¿ is the belief that primitive people untouched by civilization are naturally peaceful and virtuous, that violence, greed and the host of other evils are in no way inherent in man but are the product only of corrupt society. The ¿ghost in the machine¿ is the conviction that science, such as biology and its branches, is inadequate to explain the operation of the human mind¿that the mechanistic approach to comprehending consciousness profoundly diminishes and demeans the human condition, and therefore supernatural explanations must be invoked. Pinker¿s achievement is to demolish these fallacies with clarity and temperateness. For me, this book is the most awesomely lucid and intelligent explication I have ever read of a thesis which touches on such an enormous range of contentious issues. What does science, free of the wishful thinking, misunderstanding, superstition, and error represented by the three fallacies allow us to comprehend about racism, human aggression, politics, international relations, language, abortion, world trade, love & sex, gender, child-rearing, and the arts? That Pinker had the audacity or courage to take on all these ¿hot button¿ issues is not the most impressive fact about this book what is most stunning is that he meets the challenge by having important insights to share in all these matters, and more. For instance, his discussion of the ¿gender gap¿ is the most thorough, cogent, and constructive that I have seen. All these weighty matters are not merely personal opinions of the author. His erudition is evident. He cites examples, case studies, quotations from sources as different as Calvin & Hobbes cartoons and René Descartes. His notes run over 19 pages of fine print. His references take up 29 pages of the same fine print. And yet, though his subject matter could not be more serious, Pinker wields a witty and lively pen.The thinking is deep, but its expression is as clear and refreshing as spring water. Here he is on genetics: ¿...all this talk about genes that influence behavior does not mean that we are cuckoo clocks or player pianos, mindlessly executing the dictates of DNA. The genes in question are those that endow us with the neural systems of conscience, deliberation, and will, and when we talk about the selection of such genes, we are talking about the various ways those faculties could have evolved.¿ A thoughtful reading of ¿The Blank Slate¿ could not only evaporate the fallacies that have misled and confused so many, including some scientists, but it should allay fears that Darwinism, evolutionary biology, and genetics are somehow dehumanizing, for Pinker shows that they are truly humanizing in the deepest sense.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2004

    Not an easy read for the weak intellect.

    Sharp, sometimes funny, thought provoking and most importantly excellent ammunition against fundamentalist extremists like George Bush.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 17, 2010

    Bitter Pills and Stone Soup

    In his bestselling book The Blank Slate, psycholinguist Steven Pinker recalls how sixteen hours of lawless mayhem during a police strike in Montreal shook his faith in the perfectability of human nature and set his idealistic former self on the high road of science. Here is the passage:

    As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960's, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 am on October [7], 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. [...] By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.

    Pinker has presented us with a dramatic story of lost innocence, and to his credit he kept the story short. In the end, young Pinker swallowed the bitter pill, accepted the facts of life and human nature, and followed the trail of shattered glass to the high road of science. Reluctantly, sadly but stalwartly, he embraced the Tragic View of Life, the realization that life is not fair.

    The high road of science, we have heard, is paved with objectivity. Objectivity, presumably, involves taking the facts as they are, without embellishment or spin. To be objective, one must acquire a taste for bitter pills.

    But here and there in The Blank Slate one encounters less-than-optimal modeling of the prescribed behavior. Here, for instance, is Pinker's version of an old French tale, recounted in Marcia Brown's Caldecott Honor book, Stone Soup, first published in 1947:

    In the children's story called "Stone Soup," a hobo borrows the use of a woman's kitchen ostensibly to make soup from a stone. But he gradually asks for more and more ingredients to balance the flavor until he has prepared a rich and hearty stew at her expense.

    But compare this to the familiar story as Brown tells it: not a hobo in the famous children's tale nor in the older tale, either; rather, three hungry soldiers returning from a war. Not one woman, but the entire village. Not a private kitchen, either, but a public space. And "at her expense" in what way? At first the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry soldiers, but one by one, reluctantly, they add ingredients to the pot, and in the end the soldiers and the villagers eat their fill, dance, and laugh together into the night. The clever soldiers tricked villagers out of their greed and xenophobia, and as a result of sharing and working together, advantages accrued to each and all. That, one can pretty confidently conclude, is the moral of the unreconstructed story. As Pinker has spinned it, though, the story has a very different moral, a moral more in keeping with the tragic view of life that "the new sciences of human nature" are said to certify.

    Here and throughout The Blank Slate, Pinker has done us the favor of supplying the morals to the stories that objectivity and human nature require. Those famous ideological blinders, it seems, are a funny sort of accessory: only former selves and other people ever wear them.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2002

    May Be The Last Book on Evolutionary Psychology

    Dr. Pinker has written the last book we need about 20th century evolutionary psychology. That field has now been replaced by 21st century Cultural Biology, as explained in the new book 'Liars, Lovers, and Heroes' about the new developmental neuroscience of brain and behavior. The history of these paradigm shifts in the science of human nature is described well in another new book, 'Sense and Nonsense' (about evolution of humans). So Dr. Pinker has provided a nice and readable conclusion to the old approach that was called evolutionary psychology. This makes his book a "must read" for those who want to understand the origins of the new Cultural Biology movement. Overall, I am happy that psychological human science is finally becoming more realistic and constructive.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2003

    The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine

    Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate, attempts to debunk three linked but separable dogmas: that the human mind has no innate traits but can be treated as if it were a blank slate to be written upon by parents and society, that human beings in a precivilized state of nature are good but these noble savages are corrupted by civilization, and that the human mind (or soul - the Ghost in the Machine) exists apart from the body and is able to make choices free from biologic control. Pinker proposes instead that we naked apes have inherited our current mental abilities through natural processes that govern all life on this planet and mostly have arisen through the inexorable process of Darwinian selection. In doing so, Pinker addresses the core question of philosophy: what does it mean to be human? Biologists recognize four agents of evolution: Darwinian selection, mutation, gene drift and gene flow. But there is a fifth method for perpetuating biological genetic information, overlooked by many contemporary biologists, including Pinker. Perhaps 5000 to 10000 generations ago, a catastrophe of earth-shaking proportions occurred. Somewhere in Africa, a female naked ape gave birth to the world's first psychopath. Unlike other members of his species, at some stage in his growth to adulthood he became self-aware. This first psychopath passed on to his progeny whatever biological characteristics that had enabled him to become self-aware. But this itself was not a catastrophe. One of his descendants became aware that not only was she self-aware, but that others of her kind were also self-aware. This was the catastrophe. This awareness of the awareness of others helped her offspring to organize their affairs in such a way as to out-reproduce their psychopathic kin and their non-self-aware brethren. They spread like a plague upon the planet. Mutually self-aware beings possess a fifth method of affecting evolution: societal control over nature. This results from deliberate willful acts of individual members of the society, acting alone or in concert, to control the way in which both they and other species reproduce. These willful beings bent nature to their purpose: they developed agricultural. They developed language that could be used to transfer information from one individual to others outside of the family group, even from one generation to another. They developed art. They developed science. Eventually, they developed the mind of Steven Pinker. Steven Pinker can willfully choose to ignore the Ghost in the Machine and propose that free will does not exist. The very act of making such a choice, however, only proves that it does. To err is human. Two out of three isn't so bad. Indeed, this book should be a required text for every student of philosophy. We need to reconcile what it means to be human with the biological baggage with which we have been endowed. Steven Pinker goes a long way toward exploring and explaining our biological underpinnings. But the Ghost remains in the Machine.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2013

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  • Posted March 17, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Cleaning the Slate

    This book shaped (or I should say re-shaped) much of my thinking about human nature. The chapter entitled "Culture Vultures" was especially enlightening, as it provides a solid scientific study of what many in my humanities field continue to bandy about without structure. I also loved the "Hot Buttons" chapters, as the analyses led me to other influential books. Well worth multiple readings.

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  • Posted March 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Provocative exploration of genetics, cognition and academic warfare

    This book covers a lot of ground: philosophy, genetics, cognition, sociology and academic infighting. Steven Pinker, writing with persuasiveness and craft, shows why the doctrine of the "Blank Slate" became so important to 20th century intellectuals that they were willing to lie, cheat, libel and even threaten those who dissented. Yet, the dissenters were right. Given what science now knows of genetics, the idea that people are blank slates at birth is simply untenable. getAbstract finds that the author, despite a few hints of personal prejudices (ah, there's human nature again), does an excellent job of grappling with enormously challenging subjects.

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  • Posted February 25, 2009

    Sound Scholarship

    "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker is an example of how to condense sound scholarship it into a clear and concise book about a polemical subject. Dr. Pinker presents his subject matter in an intriguing and compelling manner which serves to make his thesis relevant and intellectually stimulating.

    As you read the book, you will be thoroughly educated in the subject of human nature.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone who deems themselves an intellectual and seeks a comprehensive understanding of human nature.

    For further intellective titillation, I also recommend Dr. Pinker's exceptional book titled "How the Mind Works" to keep those synapses firing!

    Acquiring a more indepth understanding of human nature and the mind will help you to better understand yourself, your fellow man, and thus, your life's experience.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2003

    An explosion of stars for this as for all of Pinker's books.

    I can't say I can read Pinker but only study him. I felt punch-drunk after ingesting The Blank Slate. It was like taking an intellectual super roller coaster ride hanging upside down. Wonderful. What has Pinker brought most flak with this book is his attack on modernism in art. Pinker thinks the declining number of 'compelling' works in music and painting can be traced to 'movements denying that there was any such thing as human taste or pleasure in art.' Art, he maintains, 'is in our nature, in the blood and in the bone,' and 'artists are sexy.' The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) came up with the idea of the mind being a 'blank slate' at birth, i.e. that all ideas were placed in the mind by experience. The blank slate idea was based on the intention of making racism, sexism and class prejudice 'factually untenable' and over the years it grew into an 'official theory,' enforced by hook and by crook. I personally have never believed in the blank slate philosophy, not before I became a mother and most certainly not after I became a mother. Any parent knows that their babies have notable personalities the minute they arrive on this earth and that, over the years, these personalities can only be nurtured and directed, but never be completely altered. John Locke wouldn't have come up with the blank slate idea if he had been a parent and closely observed his kids. I thought of Pinker's remarks about modernism in art when I visited Florence for a week this summer. Yes, we haven't heard about, or seen, any modern artists who can hold a candle to the magnificent painters and sculptors of Florence, or to composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Tschaikovsky. . . They have disappeared as if they had been miracles never to be repeated on this earth. Instead we have modern art. But do modern artists deny human nature? I don't know. Leave it to Pinker! Gisela Gasper Fitzgerald, author of ADOPTION: An Open, Semi-Open or Closed Practice?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2003

    Forget team building exercises!

    This is the only non-computer-related book I've read in the last 15 years. Picked it up on a whim to try reading something with some social relevance. I cannot explain how this book has helped me look at people in a different light--and understand them better. Finding out that my boss has a noble savage mentality has helped me more than knowing that she's a type 'A'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2002

    What does it mean to be human?

    Absolute Steven Pinker style, insightful and witty. A human nature must read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2003

    Good Exposition, sometimes weak extrapolation

    I found reading this both edifying and troubling. The science covered in the book is very useful. The exploration of the blank slate and the ghost in the machine and how it has seeped into our political systems and social morality creating a dead lock between what Pinker describes as a genetically determined juxtaposition between a Tragic Vision and Utopian Vision are well explored. I had trouble with many of the conclusions of the book. There is a deterioration to a theory of evolutionary 'design' which seems to be a panacea for the numerous areas of inquiry that might reveal areas where our slow evolution may not be up to the changes in environment represented by technology. In my opinion his focus logically misses the possibility of the dialectic as an evolutionary characteristic of our species. His argument takes a leap in support of 'the tragic vision' which is not well supported. I found it still, well worth the read. Interestingly I found the chapters under hot buttons to be some of the most useful, even though I disagreed with some of his conclusions. For me, the exploration revealed points where one could discern strategies that might work more constructively using the background of the science explored to conclude other than the author has. I found myself going... 'yes, that makes sense', 'yes that makes sense', 'wait a minute, how did you get there from where you were?' and then most usefully 'what about here'?. I believe the book is dangerous in that the weakness of the extrapolations are tempting the the political right. Because the book actually includes references to Sept 11 and some current political possibilities, the tempation would be strong to just use this book as a support for doing things that to my thinking are not based on science but based on a twisting science to fit a political position.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2002

    An Eloquent Essay of Nature Triumphing Nurture

    This is a broad compilation of material restating the scientific evidence of the overarching role of genes and non-social environment in shaping humans. There is not a lot of new material here and readers looking for "breaking news" will likely be disappointed. One example of how the book is more restatement is the author's reviewof a predecessor title, The Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris. While noting that Harris had postulated a number of experiments to prove or disprove her theories that peers arther than parents played a larger role in a child's development, there are no similar suggestions. In addition, coming from the perspective of a psychologist, it is easy to see how the book would shy away from the "hard sciences" such as genetic engineering, cloning, etcetera. But it would have been nice to see some of the author's witty and well written prose put to the task of imagining such a future. All in all, a very good guide for the lay reader on the topic of behavioral genetics.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2002

    The Emperor's New Clothes

    A piercing analysis of contemporary misunderstandings about the sources of variance in the human population.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2002

    Same Philosophy but good new ideas

    Instinct or our social surroundings while growing up(culture) has always been the central theme to Human philosophy of being who we are. Simply put Evolution or Creation by a God. I found this book to explore in areas somewhat unexplored. I've read many books on this subject, the best is Maddox.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2002

    If you read one book in your life, read "The Blank Slate."

    This is the book I've been waiting for all my life. "The Blank Slate" is an utterly brilliant work. Its science is unassailable, its conclusions are astounding, and its implications for the future of both science and the humanities are enormous. Like Samson destroying the temple of Dagon, Pinker casts down three of the major pillars of modern political and academic debate: the Blank Slate (the view that the mind is infinitely malleable, and is shaped entirely by parents and/or the media), the Noble Savage (the view that indigenous peoples of the world are far more peaceable and enlightened than the citizens of modern societies, and, consequently, that modern civilization itself is the root of all social ills), and the Ghost in the Machine (the belief that the human "soul" is made up of some magical material somehow separate from the operation of the human brain). This book builds a desperately-needed bridge between the sciences and the humanities. It presents a worldview that is simultaneously pragmatic, moral, ethical, scientifically defensible, and unflinchingly moderate. In the process, Pinker brilliantly smashes many of the most extreme intellectual and political fallacies of our day -- the intellectually bankrupt social constructionism of academia, the racist theories of modern Nazism, the fallacious social-engineering ideals of modern Marxism, the absurd relativism of modern gender feminism, and the sanctimonious moralistic paranoia of modern religious conservatism. The arts, the media, the humanities, and the political extremes of both the right and the left frequently behave as though the doctrines of the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine were self-evident truths. As science continues to shovel dirt onto the graves of these fallacies, much of modern political and intellectual debate continues as though they still lived. This book has the potential to radically transform our shared worldview. We as a society desperately need to heal these mischaracterizations of the human mind and learn from the discoveries of modern science. I for one will be rereading this book for a long time to come. I cannot recommend any book more highly.

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    Posted December 18, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted October 29, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted January 3, 2011

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