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
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.
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.
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
"An extremely good book-clear, well argued, fair, learned, tough, witty, humane, stimulating." (The Washington Post)
"Pinker makes his main argument persuasively and with great verve...ought to be read by anybody who feels they hav had enough of the nature-nurture rows." (The Economist)
"Stylish...what a superb thinker and writer he is." (Richard Dawkins, TLS)
"Required reading...an unanswerable case for accepting that man can be, as he is, both wired and free." (Frederick Raphael, Los Angeles Times)