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77 of 81 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful & Essential Reading
This profound book examines 3 doctrines: The Blank Slate (no human nature), The Noble Savage (no selfish or evil instincts), and The Ghost in the Machine (independent existence of the mind from the body/brain).
Steven Pinker elegantly presents the evidence against these views, sometimes in concise and quite overwhelmingly devastating lists.
In a small way...
Published on 18 Oct 2002 by pascal dunning

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14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The outsider
Blank Slate is a defence of, for want of a better term, pseudo-genetic determinism. Pinker argues that while genetic research has not reached an appropriate level of knowledge to identify specific genes that effect behaviour, the wholesale dismissal of genetic conrtibutions to human psychology are detrimental to scientific inquiry. Having read Neuroscience at UCL I am...
Published on 15 Dec 2011 by markss


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77 of 81 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful & Essential Reading, 18 Oct 2002
This profound book examines 3 doctrines: The Blank Slate (no human nature), The Noble Savage (no selfish or evil instincts), and The Ghost in the Machine (independent existence of the mind from the body/brain).
Steven Pinker elegantly presents the evidence against these views, sometimes in concise and quite overwhelmingly devastating lists.
In a small way this subject matter is similar to J.Diamond's 'The 3rd Chimpanzee' or E.O. Wilson's 'Consilience'- showing that we are imperfect products of evolution, limited in knowledge and wisdom, tempted by status and power, and blinded by self-deception and delusions of moral superiority.
If this were all the book was about it would still be fascinating reading. Fortunately however, Pinker has gone two steps further, thus making this book a landmark in the Nature/Nurture debate.
Firstly he explains that the reason why so many people (Postmodernists, Marxists, Gender Feminists etc) want to believe in these 3 doctrines is based on fears of inequality, determinism, imperfectability, and nihilism. He examines each of these fears and demonstrates that they are based on a poverty of understanding of human nature (the 3 doctrines), a myriad of fallacies and non sequiturs, a lack of understanding of ethics, and moralistic self-displays.
Secondly, in agreement with Chekhov's 'Man will become better when you show him what he is like', Pinker gives powerful and sensible arguments how an accurate understanding of human nature would aid in the reduction of violence & oppression and increase human happiness. They are a real and timely intellectual treat, brimming with positive potential of application.
For those new to evolutionary psychology I would recommend that they first read Pinker's 'How the Mind Works' or Robert Wright's 'The Moral Animal'.
It would be an understatement to say that this book is eye-opening. I would regard this book as essential reading to those that think that the Greek's advice 'Know thyself' is sage.
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53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tabula not so rasa, 11 Oct 2003
By 
John James "JMJ" (Surrey, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
The 'blank slate' of the title is the human mind at birth, a view held, often implicitly, by our modern society, which has been conditioned to accept this by religions, progressive educationists, and the left in general. Those who hold the opposing view, that much of our nature is inherited, are subjected to frequent and vicious personal attacks (see the reviews of this book).
Pinker, however, is made of stern stuff, and has put a large explosive device under his opponents with this book based, as it is, on carefully documented research and grounded in appropriate theory. He ranges from genetics to computational linguistics via neurology and statistical theory in dazzling fashion.
It might seem that the weight of evidence gathered might cause the book to be heavy going, but the writing is sharper, and the touch is lighter and more humorous than anyone has a right to expect. As an example, consider the following, after a discussion on the effects of ageing: "Forget 'As the twig is bent, so the tree grows', think 'Omigod, I'm turning into my parents'".
While there are parts to the book which some will question, Pinker has turned the searchlights of reason and common sense on much of the political correctness of our time, showing how ludicrous most of it is, and showing also how science is beginning to give us a better understanding of what is meant by 'human nature'. If 'the proper study of mankind is man' then this is the essential primer.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read it, 19 Sep 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
The Blank Slate is the most interesting and challenging book I have read this year. Pinker claims that our abilities and behavioural tendencies are heritable and less influenced by society than is currently accepted. He moves on to examine how this affects our political affiliations, religion, gender issues and child development. He’s occasionally guilty of academic one-upmanship and nit-picking and is undeniably US-centric in terms of his cultural analysis; no other Western nations have adopted the extremism of American feminists, for example, but is otherwise coherent and compassionate.
I agree with Pinker that discussions of race and gender lead to extreme, knee-jerk responses and that over-simplification of issues and mud slinging does nothing to progress our understanding. The chapter on gender, for example, asserts that men and women are different and that these differences are consistent, though may be more or less extreme, across cultures. This isn’t news to me and I don’t feel that Pinker is dictating how people ‘ought’ to behave depending on their sex, race etc. He emphasises throughout that ‘natural’ doesn’t mean inevitable or right and that most us have the capacity to understand our impulses and moderate our behaviour.

I don’t agree with everything Pinker claims, in particular the chapter on art is tosh (I don’t think you have to intellectualise all modern art to feel an emotional response to it – Guernica, anybody?), but I don’t think he’s a right wing apologist either. Let’s have more rational discussion on these issues, without demonising people who dare suggest that people aren’t born angels.
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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pinker's Best Yet, 4 Nov 2002
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This is Pinker's best book to date. He's no great original thinker, but what he does superbly well is to clarify and summarise. There's no hidden ideology here: the author sets out to present as clearly as he can what he sees as the current state of research into the nature/nurture evolutionary psychology debate, and there is simply no escaping the fact that nature is vitally important. Not only is current scientific research showing this, but it's also common sense. The extraordinary thing is how strong the resistance is to this obvious fact, largely from the academic left, who have adopted the Blank Slate doctrine that human nature doesn't exist (pace Marx - consciousness doesn't determine society: society determines consciousness), and like to accuse all those who disagree as fascists. As Pinker points out, there is absolutely no reason why the left should have to saddle itself with this absurd doctrine; after all, if your aim is to improve society, the basic starting point should be to establish exactly what material you're working with. And it should hardly need emphasising at this point in history that those societies which have based themselves on the notion of an infinitely malleable human nature have been uniformly totalitarian. So not only is this book an excellent guide to contemporary scientific thinking on human pyschology, it's also a powerful work of popular philosophy, and a wake-up call to the left. As Peter Singer and others have stated, the left needs to abandon its disastrous alliance with Marxism, and start looking at Darwin instead.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fundementally important book, 18 Jan 2012
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This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
In my view this is probably one of the most important books to have been written so far about the human condition. Why?, well he demolishes three of the most prevalent views about human motivations and development and places us in a biological evolutionary perspective.

The first view he deals with is the blank slate, the idea that we are born with empty minds/brains and that our behaviours and motivations are formed by the type of society we live in, or more ominously our behaviour can be determined by social engineering. Pinker shows that our physical brains are composed of a "took kit" that has evolved over millenia and that this "tool kit" affects our behavioural responses to the environment we find ourselves in and is passed on through genetics.

The second view Pinker addresses is the ghost in the machine, the idea that we have a soul or spirit floating about in our head somewhere that affects our behaviour and can leave our body when it dies. Again Pinker refers to our biological evolution to explain why we have no need for a soul.

The last view is the Noble Savage, the idea that in a state of nature (ie with no Government, social institutions etc) that humans live moral, good lives. Pinker demolises this belief by showing that in so called state of nature societies violence was endemic.

The thrust of this book means that all the experiments in social engineering that have occured over the last 200 years that have tried to mould a "new man" have and will fail. Socialism, communism, fascism, free market economic man, won't work.

We need to be more aware of our evolutionary psychological makeup, understand how this motivates us and affects out behaviour.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amusing, rigorous, and concrete., 2 Jan 2003
By 
viridiana (Granada Spain) - See all my reviews
I would recommend this book to everybody for many reasons, of which the following are just a few. All the books by Pinker have in common several features that make them real treasures: on the stylistic side, they are clear, very well written, easy to understand, entertaining, and often genuinely amusing. On the methodological side, they always offer plenty of evidence for each theory they propose, both by offering an exhaustive bibliography, and by calling the attention to simple facts of everyday life that by themselves support those theories. On the content side, they speak about basic facts of everyday life, always succeeding in shedding a new light on them, and building bridges between topics at first sight unrelated. The most rewardful experience I owe to these books is reading one page of any of them, and finding myself on the next day, one hundred times throughout the day, remarking things I never noted before, and surprised of how my vision of the world had changed: in the words of E. Drew, I "live more intensely for the reading of it". All this was true of the three previous books I read - 'The language instinct', 'How the mind works', and 'Words and rules'. But it is even more true in the case of 'The blank slate', which deals with an intrinsically more general topic.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Human Nature revealed... in part, 21 Oct 2003
This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
Steven Pinker truly is a great writer. He writes clearly and succinctly, and elucidates his points with witticisms and cartoons, among others. However, the massive bulk of the research he cites, and the thinking he discusses, is purely based on differences between white, middle-class Americans. He offers next-to-no discussion on the differences (if there are any) and effects of different cultures, races, or neighbourhoods.
Still though, a fantastic read, even with its short-comings, and thoroughly recommended to anyone with an interest in how modern empirical scientific methodologies are having an effect on our theories of human nature, and, essentially, truth.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not controversial enough !, 5 Nov 2011
This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
This book presents Stevens' conclusions about the role of hereditary in human behavior, based on his reading of the literature. It is also liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, presumably to get his point across more clearly.

While some of the conclusions are surprising, and many people will not agree with them, I can't help thinking that the only people who are actually going to get upset by this book are academics with competing pet theories. But not you and me.

The main conclusion is that hereditary plays a surprisingly strong role in how we behave as adults. Almost to the point where it does not make much difference how we bring up our children. If, like me, you do not accept this conclusion, then I am sure that Steven would be genuinely delighted for you to present evidence to back your argument. This is how scientific understanding progresses.

A lot of the evidence, such as twin studies, is not actually described in the book. Only Stevens' conclusions about the studies are presented, so it is hard to judge for yourself how valid his conclusions are. And that is why the book did not convince me.

The style is a bit dry, like lecture notes, and the injections of humor often seemed artificial. It also goes over much well-worn ground for anyone already interested in psychology.

The strong point of this book is that it challenges some of our preconceptions, and lets us dare to think new things.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This book is a must, but...., 3 Sep 2009
I'd already read the book, but still I had to buy it. The overwhelmingly thorough documentation presented as to determine the human mind, being not a blank slate but an evolutionarily determined complexity, is not only convincing, it states the evolutionary heritage an inevitable fact. The strentgh of the book, however, also describes its weakness. Apparently determined to change a ruling blank slate paradigm Pinker remains in attack mode and consequently, he fails to disclose,(he may not know?)in which way he and other evolutionary psychologists concider the evolutionary understanding a task enhancing improvement. How does he (they)solve the problem of competing traits? How will he (they)distinguish among trait determinations on the side of the investigating part from occurrences investigated? The fields of social science are among other characteristica characterized by the fact that interventions, whatever they basically refer to science, religion or ideologi, necessarily have to be considered by nature interactive with the object determined and investigated and thus by nature, can be determined to be trait-acts.
Nevertheless, in my opinion the first hundred pages could likely be considered obligatory reading to any student and any other with interests within the fields of social science. Reading "The Blank Slate" certainly will provide broad and knowledgeable insight with related and interconnected fields of science, and will most probably alter previous beleifs.
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43 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Champion of an adolescent science, 13 Sep 2004
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
This finely crafted work has a dual purpose. The first is to confound, refute, and rebuke the fatuous critics of sociobiology. The second aim is to strengthen that nascent science with further research. Pinker wants us to shed the notion that we have no evolutionary roots for our behaviour - that our actions come wholly from parents, schools or churches. While that sounds largely reasonable, he continually reminds us that many public pronouncements and policies continue to reflect the mistaken stand. Otherwise, he argues, we are infinitely malleable, vulnerable to anyone able to direct our actions. Birth with an empty mind is the ultimate condemnation of free will, not the reverse, Pinker argues. This excellent work demonstrates how evolution provides a framework for how we think and how our cultural environment finishes the structure.
The blank slate view of the mind, along with its fallacious fellows, the noble savage and the "ghost in the machine," have a long tradition in Western culture. All three concepts detach humanity from the rest of nature. "Nature is what we are born to rise above," said Rose in The African Queen, reflecting, says Pinker, the universality of the triplet in our society. He urges a more reasonable basis for considering who we are and how we react to life. Scorning any accusations of "biological determinism," Pinker doesn't insists nature drives our behaviour. He merely wants us to bring its impact into clear view. We've allowed the myths to conceal our real roots.
Simply stated, the slate is first written on in the womb. He outlines the structure of the brain, showing how the embryo's physical growth and the brain's development relate. Given the many brain-controlled operations that are in working order at birth, it seems unlikely the "slate" could be blank. Pinker stresses "the computational theory of the mind" which places process before content. The mind, then, is a form of software. The software comes with birth, but the input varies with different environments. It's important we understand this, he urges. Every software has built in limitations and constraints. Pinker contends these limitations are exhibited in every individual in unique fashion. Groups or cultures, in themselves, don't manifest patterns of these limitations. Cultural change are simply observed averages, not predictable or inevitable manifestations.
Pinker goes on to examine facets of our views of life - politics, gender, children, violence, all collected under his rubric: "hot buttons." He analyses in some detail how our genetic heritage [but, emphatically, not a "gene for . . . "] impacts these topical areas. More significantly, he indicates how we might address these issues better than we do. His suggestions aren't even recommendations, but a call for a broader outlook before attitudes on behaviour are expressed. His discussion of these topics is the real value this book holds for the general reader. The examples are practical and addressable by policy makers and those who elect them. The more scientific material in the first chapters of the book provide strong background for his more concrete examples further on.
Pinker is under no illusions that his ideas will be implemented quickly, nor will they fail to be targeted by those still holding to "the modern denial of human nature." That mind-set is the reason he is very clear in pointing out where research is needed. He recognizes where resistance will arise and meets it effectively. He explains the tactics and reasoning of those who deny human nature has a biological basis, and counters with excellent examples and suggestions. That he is able to achieve this with such lucidity is refreshingly welcome. Anyone with children should read this book. Anyone who's been a child should read this book.
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