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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

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Our conceptions of human nature affect every aspect of our lives, from the way we raise our children to the political movements we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the very idea. They fear that discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert social change, to dissolve personal responsibility, and to strip life of meaning and purpose. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, ...
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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

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Overview

Our conceptions of human nature affect every aspect of our lives, from the way we raise our children to the political movements we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the very idea. They fear that discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert social change, to dissolve personal responsibility, and to strip life of meaning and purpose. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker, bestselling author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked dogmas: the Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits), the Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology). Each dogma carries a moral burden, so their defenders have engaged in desperate tactics to discredit the scientists who are now challenging them.

Pinker injects calm and rationality into these debates by showing that equality, progress, responsibility, and purpose have nothing to fear from discoveries about a rich human nature. He disarms even the most menacing threats with clear thinking, common sense, and pertinent facts from science and history. Despite its popularity among intellectuals during much of the twentieth century, he argues, the doctrine of the Blank Slate may have done more harm than good. It denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces hardheaded analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of government, violence, parenting, and the arts. Pinker shows that an acknowledgment of human nature that is grounded in science and common sense, far from being dangerous, can complement insights about the human condition made by millennia of artists and philosophers. All this is done in the style that earned his previous books many prizes and worldwide acclaim: wit, lucidity, and insight into matters great and small.

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Editorial Reviews

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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: 9780641599002
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 9/30/2002
  • Pages: 509
  • Product dimensions: 6.72 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology at MIT. His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has earned prizes from the National Academy of Sciences and the American Psychological Association. Pinker has also received many awards for his teaching at MIT and for his books How the Mind Works (which was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and The Language Instinct. He is an elected fellow of several scientific societies, associate editor of Cognition, and a member of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He has written for the New York Times, Time, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Slate, and Technology Review.

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

The Blank Slate

The Modern Denial of Human Nature
By Steven Pinker

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2003 Steven Pinker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0142003344

Chapter One

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).

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,]BRK Ere the base laws of servitude began,]BRK 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.



Continues...


Excerpted from The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker Copyright © 2003 by Steven Pinker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Pt. I The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine 1
Ch. 1 The Official Theory 5
Ch. 2 Silly Putty 14
Ch. 3 The Last Wall to Fall 30
Ch. 4 Culture Vultures 59
Ch. 5 The Slate's Last Stand 73
Pt. II Fear and Loathing 103
Ch. 6 Political Scientists 105
Ch. 7 The Holy Trinity 121
Pt. III Human Nature with a Human Face 137
Ch. 8 The Fear of Inequality 141
Ch. 9 The Fear of Imperfectibility 159
Ch. 10 The Fear of Determinism 174
Ch. 11 The Fear of Nihilism 186
Pt. IV Know Thyself 195
Ch. 12 In Touch with Reality 197
Ch. 13 Out of Our Depths 219
Ch. 14 The Many Roots of Our Suffering 241
Ch. 15 The Sanctimonious Animal 269
Pt. V Hot Buttons 281
Ch. 16 Politics 283
Ch. 17 Violence 306
Ch. 18 Gender 337
Ch. 19 Children 372
Ch. 20 The Arts 400
Pt. VI The Voice of the Species 421
App Donald E. Brown's List of Human Universals 435
Notes 441
References 461
Index 491
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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.

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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.

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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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  • 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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