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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

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In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading experts on language and the mind, explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of...

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Overview

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading experts on language and the mind, explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of human nature based on science and common sense.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Bestselling author Steven Pinker plunges into the fray with this wide-ranging look at the seemingly intractable debate on nature versus nurture. Well known for his popular works on language and cognition, Pinker takes on an even bigger subject here, going to the heart of what it means to be human. Ideas that have permeated our culture, such as John Locke's "blank slate," are now known to be misleading. An infant's mind is not simply a tablet waiting to receive a blueprint for whatever we want the child to become. Rather, the infant enters the world as a highly complex being with an agenda already mapped out by its genes. Unfortunately, in Pinker's view, new findings in this area from the biological sciences are attacked ferociously by commentators on both the left and the right who believe that acknowledging any innate human qualities amounts to racism, sexism, nihilism, and/or a reactionary view of human development.

Pinker argues that scientific insights into human nature need to be separated from political and moral issues, and that the ideals of equality, compassion, and social progress need not depend on the idea that individual development is exclusively determined by education and environment. Indeed, he believes that a refusal to recognize that our true natures are influenced by both instinct and culture will leave us unequipped to analyze pressing issues. Passionately argued but never shrill, Pinker's manifesto is a compelling, highly accessible, and elegantly constructed synthesis of current thinking about human nature that avoids the traps of reductionism and political correctness and is sure to inspire much comment and debate. Deirdre Mullane

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; extensive review coverage and a 10-city author tour should bring it into E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould territory in terms of sales. (Sept. 30) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The well-published MIT cognitive scientist and linguist (How the Mind Works, 1997, etc.) takes on one of philosophy's thorniest problems in this lucid view of what makes humans human. Against scholars and ideologues of the left and right, Pinker offers a profoundly biological view of human nature, even if his descriptions of what make us tick sometimes sound as if they're straight out of a software manual. Pinker describes the brain, for instance, as a set of data-processing modules, "with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action. It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules." Far from a tabula rasa, the brain is hard-wired with genetic information millennia old, governing our responses to events: altruism here, perhaps, or violence there. Psychologists believe that the human personality is variable in only five general dimensions, each governed by genetics: "we are to varying degrees introverted or extroverted, neurotic or stable, incurious or open to experience, agreeable or antagonistic, and conscientious or undirected." (A shy, neurotic, agoraphobic, narcissistic, and wholly unreliable person, then, can take comfort in blaming his or her unpleasant makeup on generations of ancestors.) The implications of the biological view are many and large, and thus are the subject of fierce debate: if we are but a set of electrochemical circuits heavily programmed to behave according to a simple set of rules, then free choice and moral responsibility go out the window. Yet, Pinker remarks before examiningthe political and philosophical consequences of this position, "Nothing prevents the godless and amoral process of natural selection from evolving a big-brained social species equipped with an elaborate moral sense"-perhaps too much moral sense, he adds. His conclusions won't please exponents of several camps, Christian conservatives and what he calls "gender feminists" among them, but he ably defends his ground, and with a minimum of jargon and scholarly sophistry. A rich, sophisticated argument that may leave pious souls a little uneasy. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142003343
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 8/28/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 111,615
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Pinker 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.

Biography

"When a gifted scientist and a gifted writer are all in one, you have Steven Pinker," writes fellow cognitive scientist Michael S. Gazzaniga. With his crisp prose style and zany, pop culture-inflected sense of humor, the MIT psychology professor has become famed for his ability to turn something like a discussion of regular and irregular verb forms into a rollicking good read.

As a psychology student at McGill University in Montreal, Pinker was drawn to the emergent field of cognitive science: "I found alluring the combination of psychology, computer science, artificial intelligence, the philosophy of mind, and linguistics," he said in a Scientific American interview. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, where his mentor was the psychology professor Roger Brown, who was a pioneer in the study of language acquisition and one of the first to apply Noam Chomsky's theories of language to field research. After accepting a post at MIT in 1982, Pinker began studying language acquisition in children, amassing enough data to demonstrate that children have an inborn facility for language.

Pinker's academic works on language development were admired by many of his peers, but in 1994 he sought—and gained—a broader audience with The Language Instinct, which suggests that human language is a biological adaptation, like web-spinning in spiders, rather than (as it is sometimes seen) a cultural invention, like the wheel. Pinker's lively and engaging treatise held tremendous appeal for a popular audience. Michael Coe, writing in The New York Times, called The Language Instinct "A brilliant, witty and altogether satisfying book."

But if humans have an instinct for language, how was that instinct acquired? That question led Pinker to the field of evolutionary psychology, and to the writing of his next book, How the Mind Works. If a particular behavior is common among humans, evolutionary psychologists reason, that behavior probably contributed to the ability of earlier humans to survive and pass along their genes. How the Mind Works, which uses this approach to examine behaviors from music-making to murder, was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Following its release, Pinker publicly tangled with Stephen Jay Gould over the scientific legitimacy of evolutionary psychology. Although the two scientists clashed on some issues, Pinker admired Gould's ability to write entertaining explications of complex ideas—"profundity with a light touch," as Pinker wrote in his Time magazine eulogy for Gould.

Pinker's next book, Words and Rules, returned to the subject of language; specifically, it explores the different mechanisms involved in learning regular and irregular verb forms. In a recent book The Blank Slate, Pinker tackled the objections some people have to a biological view of human nature. "There are fears that if you acknowledge that people are born with anything, it implies that some people have more of it than others, and therefore it would open the door to political inequality or oppression, for example," he explained in a New York Times interview. The Blank Slate is Pinker's attempt to demonstrate that there's no inherent contradiction between evolutionary psychology and the concepts of free will and moral behavior. "It's a fallacy to think that hunger and thirst and a sex drive are biological but that reasoning and decision making and learning are something else, something non-biological," he said. "They're just a different kind of biology."

Good To Know

Journalists often comment on Pinker's rock-star mane of curls, and indeed Pinker once flirted with the idea of becoming a rock musician: "I have to confess that watching rock 'n' roll concerts, I did fantasize about being up on stage," he told The Guardian. "Not in the lead. I never wanted to be Mick Jagger. Maybe the bass-player or the drummer. But I never, ever played air guitar."

Research at Pinker's lab, in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, focuses on the different mental processes involved in using grammatical rules (e.g., an English plural can be formed by adding –s to the end of a noun) and using exceptions to the rules (e.g., the plural of mouse is not mouses but mice). The lab has undertaken magnetoencephalographic (MEG) studies to identify "the time course of the processing of words and rules in the brain."

Pinker was named among Newsweek's "100 Americans for the Next Century" and included in Esquire's "Register of Outstanding Men and Women."

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    1. Hometown:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 18, 1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Montreal, Canada
    1. Education:
      B.A., McGill University, 1976; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1979
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Everyone has a theory of human nature. Everyone has to anticipate the behavior of others, and that means we all need theories about what makes people tick. A tacit theory of human nature—that behavior is caused by thoughts and feelings—is embedded in the very way we think about people. We fill out this theory by introspecting on our own minds and assuming that our fellows are like ourselves, and by watching people's behavior and filing away generalizations. We absorb still other ideas from our intellectual climate: from the expertise of authorities and the conventional wisdom of the day.

Our theory of human nature is the wellspring of much in our lives. We consult it when we want to persuade or threaten, inform or deceive. It advises us on how to nurture our marriages, bring up our children, and control our own behavior. Its assumptions about learning drive our educational policy; its assumptions about motivation drive our policies on economics, law, and crime. And because it delineates what people can achieve easily, what they can achieve only with sacrifice or pain, and what they cannot achieve at all, it affects our values: what we believe we can reasonably strive for as individuals and as a society. Rival theories of human nature are entwined in different ways of life and different political systems, and have been a source of much conflict over the course of history.

For millennia, the major theories of human nature have come from religion. The Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, offers explanations for much of the subject matter now studied by biology and psychology. Humans are made in the image of God and are unrelated to animals.  Women are derivative of men and destined to be ruled by them.  The mind is an immaterial substance: it has powers possessed by no purely physical structure, and can continue to exist when the body dies.  The mind is made up of several components, including a moral sense, an ability to love, a capacity for reason that recognizes whether an act conforms to ideals of goodness, and a decision faculty that chooses how to behave. Although the decision faculty is not bound by the laws of cause and effect, it has an innate tendency to choose sin. Our cognitive and perceptual faculties work accurately because God implanted ideals in them that correspond to reality and because he coordinates their functioning with the outside world. Mental health comes from recognizing God's purpose, choosing good and repenting sin, and loving God and one's fellow humans for God's sake.

The Judeo-Christian theory is based on events narrated in the Bible. We know that the human mind has nothing in common with the minds of animals because the Bible says that humans were created separately. We know that the design of women is based on the design of men because in the second telling of the creation of women Eve was fashioned from the rib of Adam. Human decisions cannot be the inevitable effects of some cause, we may surmise, because God held Adam and Eve responsible for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, implying that they could have chosen otherwise. Women are dominated by men as punishment for Eve's disobedience, and men and women inherit the sinfulness of the first couple.

The Judeo-Christian conception is still the most popular theory of human nature in the United States. According to recent polls, 76 percent of Americans believe in the biblical account of creation, 79 percent believe that the miracles in the Bible actually took place, 76 percent believe in angels, the devil, and other immaterial souls, 67 percent believe they will exist in some form after their death, and only 15 percent believe that Darwin's theory of evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on Earth. Politicians on the right embrace the religious theory explicitly, and no mainstream politician would dare contradict it in public. But the modern sciences of cosmology, geology, biology, and archaeology have made it impossible for a scientifically literate person to believe that the biblical story of creation actually took place. As a result, the Judeo-Christian theory of human nature is no longer explicitly avowed by most academics, journalists, social analysts, and other intellectually engaged people.

Nonetheless, every society must operate with a theory of human nature, and our intellectual mainstream is committed to another one. The theory is seldom articulated or overtly embraced, but it lies at the heart of a vast number of beliefs and policies. Bertrand Russell wrote, "Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day." For intellectuals today, many of those convictions are about psychology and social relations. I will refer to those convictions as the Blank Slate: the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.

That theory of human nature—namely, that it barely exists—is the topic of this book. Just as religions contain a theory of human nature, so theories of human nature take on some of the functions of religion, and the Blank Slate has become the secular religion of modern intellectual life. It is seen as a source of values, so the fact that it is based on a miracle—a complex mind arising out of nothing—is not held against it. Challenges to the doctrine from skeptics and scientists have plunged some believers into a crisis of faith and have led others to mount the kinds of bitter attacks ordinarily aimed at heretics and infidels. And just as many religious traditions eventually reconciled themselves to apparent threats from science (such as the revolutions of Copernicus and Darwin), so, I argue, will our values survive the demise of the Blank Slate.

The chapters in this part of the book (Part I) are about the ascendance of the Blank Slate in modern intellectual life, and about the new view of human nature and culture that is beginning to challenge it. In succeeding parts we will witness the anxiety evoked by this challenge (Part II) and see how the anxiety may be assuaged (Part III). Then I will show how a richer conception of human nature can provide insight into language, thought, social life, and morality (Part IV) and how it can clarify controversies on politics, violence, gender, childrearing, and the arts (Part V). Finally I will show how the passing of the Blank Slate is less disquieting, and in some ways less revolutionary, than it first appears (Part VI).

Chapter 1

The Official Theory

"Blank slate" is a loose translation of the medieval Latin term tabula rasa—literally, "scraped tablet." It is commonly attributed to the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), though in fact he used a different metaphor. Here is the famous passage from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience.

Locke was taking aim at theories of innate ideas in which people were thought to be born with mathematical ideals, eternal truths, and a notion of God. His alternative theory, empiricism, was intended both as a theory of psychology—how the mind works—and as a theory of epistemology—how we come to know the truth. Both goals helped motivate his political philosophy, often honored as the foundation of liberal democracy. Locke opposed dogmatic justifications for the political status quo, such as the authority of the church and the divine right of kings, which had been touted as self-evident truths. He argued that social arrangements should be reasoned out from scratch and agreed upon by mutual consent, based on knowledge that any person could acquire. Since ideas are grounded in experience, which varies from person to person, differences of opinion arise not because one mind is equipped to grasp the truth and another is defective, but because the two minds have had different histories. Those differences therefore ought to be tolerated rather than suppressed. Locke's notion of a blank slate also undermined a hereditary royalty and aristocracy, whose members could claim no innate wisdom or merit if their minds had started out as blank as everyone else's. It also spoke against the institution of slavery, because slaves could no longer be thought of as innately inferior or subservient.

During the past century the doctrine of the Blank Slate has set the agenda for much of the social sciences and humanities. As we shall see, psychology has sought to explain all thought, feeling, and behavior with a few simple mechanisms of learning. The social sciences have sought to explain all customs and social arrangements as a product of the socialization of children by the surrounding culture: a system of words, images, stereotypes, role models, and contingencies of reward and punishment. A long and growing list of concepts that would seem natural to the human way of thinking (emotions, kinship, the sexes, illness, nature, the world) are now said to have been "invented" or "socially constructed."

The Blank Slate has also served as a sacred scripture for political and ethical beliefs. According to the doctrine, any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences—by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards—and you can change the person. Underachievement, poverty, and antisocial behavior can be ameliorated; indeed, it is irresponsible not to do so. And discrimination on the basis of purportedly inborn traits of a sex or ethnic group is simply irrational.

The Blank Slate is often accompanied by two other doctrines, which have also attained a sacred status in modern intellectual life. My label for the first of the two is commonly attributed to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), though it really comes from John Dryden's The Conquest of Granada, published in 1670:

I am as free as Nature first made man,

Ere the base laws of servitude began,

When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists' discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization. In 1755 Rousseau wrote:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man. . . .

The more we reflect on this state, the more convinced we shall be that it was the least subject of any to revolutions, the best for man, and that nothing could have drawn him out of it but some fatal accident, which, for the public good, should never have happened. The example of the savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species.

First among the authors that Rousseau had in mind was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who had presented a very different picture:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. . . .

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Hobbes believed that people could escape this hellish existence only by surrendering their autonomy to a sovereign person or assembly. He called it a leviathan, the Hebrew word for a monstrous sea creature subdued by Yahweh at the dawn of creation.

Much depends on which of these armchair anthropologists is correct. If people are noble savages, then a domineering leviathan is unnecessary. Indeed, by forcing people to delineate private property for the state to recognize—property they might otherwise have shared—the leviathan creates the very greed and belligerence it is designed to control. A happy society would be our birthright; all we would need to do is eliminate the institutional barriers that keep it from us. If, in contrast, people are naturally nasty, the best we can hope for is an uneasy truce enforced by police and the army. The two theories have implications for private life as well. Every child is born a savage (that is, uncivilized), so if savages are naturally gentle, childrearing is a matter of providing children with opportunities to develop their potential, and evil people are products of a society that has corrupted them. If savages are naturally nasty, then childrearing is an arena of discipline and conflict, and evil people are showing a dark side that was insufficiently tamed.

The actual writings of philosophers are always more complex than the theories they come to symbolize in the textbooks. In reality, the views of Hobbes and Rousseau are not that far apart. Rousseau, like Hobbes, believed (incorrectly) that savages were solitary, without ties of love or loyalty, and without any industry or art (and he may have out-Hobbes'd Hobbes in claiming they did not even have language). Hobbes envisioned—indeed, literally drew—his leviathan as an embodiment of the collective will, which was vested in it by a kind of social contract; Rousseau's most famous work is called The Social Contract, and in it he calls on people to subordinate their interests to a "general will."

Nonetheless, Hobbes and Rousseau limned contrasting pictures of the state of nature that have inspired thinkers in the centuries since. No one can fail to recognize the influence of the doctrine of the Noble Savage in contemporary consciousness. We see it in the current respect for all things natural (natural foods, natural medicines, natural childbirth) and the distrust of the man-made, the unfashionability of authoritarian styles of childrearing and education, and the understanding of social problems as repairable defects in our institutions rather than as tragedies inherent to the human condition.

The other sacred doctrine that often accompanies the Blank Slate is usually attributed to the scientist, mathematician, and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650):

There is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible. . . . When I consider the mind, that is to say, myself inasmuch as I am only a thinking being, I cannot distinguish in myself any parts, but apprehend myself to be clearly one and entire; and though the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, yet if a foot, or an arm, or some other part, is separated from the body, I am aware that nothing has been taken from my mind. And the faculties of willing, feeling, conceiving, etc. cannot be properly speaking said to be its parts, for it is one and the same mind which employs itself in willing and in feeling and understanding. But it is quite otherwise with corporeal or extended objects, for there is not one of them imaginable by me which my mind cannot easily divide into parts. . . . This would be sufficient to teach me that the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body, if I had not already been apprised of it on other grounds.

A memorable name for this doctrine was given three centuries later by a detractor, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976):

There is a doctrine about the nature and place of minds which is so prevalent among theorists and even among laymen that it deserves to be described as the official theory. . . . The official doctrine, which hails chiefly from Descartes, is something like this. With the doubtful exception of idiots and infants in arms every human being has both a body and a mind. Some would prefer to say that every human being is both a body and a mind. His body and his mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body his mind may continue to exist and function. Human bodies are in space and are subject to mechanical laws which govern all other bodies in space. . . . But minds are not in space, nor are their operations subject to mechanical laws. . . .

. . . Such in outline is the official theory. I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as "the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine."

The Ghost in the Machine, like the Noble Savage, arose in part as a reaction to Hobbes. Hobbes had argued that life and mind could be explained in mechanical terms. Light sets our nerves and brain in motion, and that is what it means to see. The motions may persist like the wake of a ship or the vibration of a plucked string, and that is what it means to imagine. "Quantities" get added or subtracted in the brain, and that is what it means to think.

Descartes rejected the idea that the mind could operate by physical principles. He thought that behavior, especially speech, was not caused by anything, but freely chosen. He observed that our consciousness, unlike our bodies and other physical objects, does not feel as if it is divisible into parts or laid out in space. He noted that we cannot doubt the existence of our minds-indeed, we cannot doubt that we are our minds-because the very act of thinking presupposes that our minds exist. But we can doubt the existence of our bodies, because we can imagine ourselves to be immaterial spirits who merely dream or hallucinate that we are incarnate.

Descartes also found a moral bonus in his dualism (the belief that the mind is a different kind of thing from the body): "There is none which is more effectual in leading feeble spirits from the straight path of virtue, than to imagine that the soul of the brute is of the same nature as our own, and that in consequence, after this life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than the flies and the ants." Ryle explains Descartes's dilemma:

When Galileo showed that his methods of scientific discovery were competent to provide a mechanical theory which should cover every occupant of space, Descartes found in himself two conflicting motives. As a man of scientific genius he could not but endorse the claims of mechanics, yet as a religious and moral man he could not accept, as Hobbes accepted, the discouraging rider to those claims, namely that human nature differs only in degree of complexity from clockwork.

It can indeed be upsetting to think of ourselves as glorified gears and springs. Machines are insensate, built to be used, and disposable; humans are sentient, possessing of dignity and rights, and infinitely precious. A machine has some workaday purpose, such as grinding grain or sharpening pencils; a human being has higher purposes, such as love, worship, good works, and the creation of knowledge and beauty. The behavior of machines is determined by the ineluctable laws of physics and chemistry; the behavior of people is freely chosen. With choice comes freedom, and therefore optimism about our possibilities for the future. With choice also comes responsibility, which allows us to hold people accountable for their actions. And of course if the mind is separate from the body, it can continue to exist when the body breaks down, and our thoughts and pleasures will not someday be snuffed out forever.

As I mentioned, most Americans continue to believe in an immortal soul, made of some nonphysical substance, which can part company with the body. But even those who do not avow that belief in so many words still imagine that somehow there must be more to us than electrical and chemical activity in the brain. Choice, dignity, and responsibility are gifts that set off human beings from everything else in the universe, and seem incompatible with the idea that we are mere collections of molecules. Attempts to explain behavior in mechanistic terms are commonly denounced as "reductionist" or "determinist." The denouncers rarely know exactly what they mean by those words, but everyone knows they refer to something bad. The dichotomy between mind and body also pervades everyday speech, as when we say "Use your head," when we refer to "out-of-body experiences," and when we speak of "John's body," or for that matter "John's brain," which presupposes an owner, John, that is somehow separate from the brain it owns. Journalists sometimes speculate about "brain transplants" when they really should be calling them "body transplants," because, as the philosopher Dan Dennett has noted, this is the one transplant operation in which it is better to be the donor than the recipient.

The doctrines of the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine—or, as philosophers call them, empiricism, romanticism, and dualism—are logically independent, but in practice they are often found together. If the slate is blank, then strictly speaking it has neither injunctions to do good nor injunctions to do evil. But good and evil are asymmetrical: there are more ways to harm people than to help them, and harmful acts can hurt them to a greater degree than virtuous acts can make them better off. So a blank slate, compared with one filled with motives, is bound to impress us more by its inability to do harm than by its inability to do good. Rousseau did not literally believe in a blank slate, but he did believe that bad behavior is a product of learning and socialization. "Men are wicked," he wrote; "a sad and constant experience makes proof unnecessary." But this wickedness comes from society: "There is no original perversity in the human heart. There is not a single vice to be found in it of which it cannot be said how and whence it entered." If the metaphors in everyday speech are a clue, then all of us, like Rousseau, associate blankness with virtue rather than with nothingness. Think of the moral connotations of the adjectives clean, fair, immaculate, lily-white, pure, spotless, unmarred, and unsullied, and of the nouns blemish, blot, mark, stain, and taint.

The Blank Slate naturally coexists with the Ghost in the Machine, too, since a slate that is blank is a hospitable place for a ghost to haunt. If a ghost is to be at the controls, the factory can ship the device with a minimum of parts. The ghost can read the body's display panels and pull its levers, with no need for a high-tech executive program, guidance system, or CPU. The more not-clockwork there is controlling behavior, the less clockwork we need to posit. For similar reasons, the Ghost in the Machine happily accompanies the Noble Savage. If the machine behaves ignobly, we can blame the ghost, which freely chose to carry out the iniquitous acts; we need not probe for a defect in the machine's design.

Philosophy today gets no respect. Many scientists use the term as a synonym for effete speculation. When my colleague Ned Block told his father that he would major in the subject, his father's reply was "Luft!"—Yiddish for "air." And then there's the joke in which a young man told his mother he would become a Doctor of Philosophy and she said, "Wonderful! But what kind of disease is philosophy?"

But far from being idle or airy, the ideas of philosophers can have repercussions for centuries. The Blank Slate and its companion doctrines have infiltrated the conventional wisdom of our civilization and have repeatedly surfaced in unexpected places. William Godwin (1756-1835), one of the founders of liberal political philosophy, wrote that "children are a sort of raw material put into our hands," their minds "like a sheet of white paper." More sinisterly, we find Mao Zedong justifying his radical social engineering by saying, "It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written." Even Walt Disney was inspired by the metaphor. "I think of a child's mind as a blank book," he wrote. "During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly."

Locke could not have imagined that his words would someday lead to Bambi (intended by Disney to teach self-reliance); nor could Rousseau have anticipated Pocahontas, the ultimate noble savage. Indeed, the soul of Rousseau seems to have been channeled by the writer of a recent Thanksgiving op-ed piece in the Boston Globe:

I would submit that the world native Americans knew was more stable, happier, and less barbaric than our society today. . . . there were no employment problems, community harmony was strong, substance abuse unknown, crime nearly nonexistent. What warfare there was between tribes was largely ritualistic and seldom resulted in indiscriminate or wholesale slaughter. While there were hard times, life was, for the most part, stable and predictable. . . . Because the native people respected what was around them, there was no loss of water or food resources because of pollution or extinction, no lack of materials for the daily essentials, such as baskets, canoes, shelter, or firewood.

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Table of Contents

Preface

Part 1: The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine

Chapter 1: The Official Theory
Chapter 2: Silly Putty
Chapter 3: The Last Wall to Fall
Chapter 4: Culture Vultures
Chapter 5: The Slate's Last Stand

Part II: Fear and Loathing

Chapter 6: Political Scientists
Chapter 7: The Holy Trinity

Part III: Human Nature with a Human Face

Chapter 8: The Fear of Inequality
Chapter 9: The Fear on Imperfectibility
Chapter 10: The Fear of Determinism
Chapter 11: The Fear of Nihilism

Part IV: Know Thyself

Chapter 12: In Touch with Reality
Chapter 13: Out of Our Depths
Chapter 14: The Many Roots of Our Suffering
Chapter 15: The Sanctimonious Animal

Part V: Hot Buttons

Chapter 16: Politics
Chapter 17: Violence
Chapter 18: Gender
Chapter 19: Children
Chapter 20: The Arts

Part VI: The Voice of the Species

Appendix: Donald E. Brown's List of Human Universals

Notes

References

Index

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 39 Customer Reviews
  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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

    Posted December 18, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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