on 18 October 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.
on 25 June 2015
Completely explains the idea of the blank slate, why it is outdated, why people believe it and what we actually do understand about human nature. I find the book well researched though occasionally to get the point across can be a little repetitive. One of the best books I have seen on human nature.
Further, I would not be put off by the three lowest reviewers as they seem to have either not read the book or not understood it.
Buckley claims the questions "Why is that we have a concept of human nature? Who uses this term and for what purposes? Does it have scientific legitimacy, or is it politically deployed to legitimate other claims? How has our understanding of human nature changed, and indeed, has human nature itself changed are all questions left, sadly, unanswered." I think he missed the entire point, these are questions that are so thoroughly woven through the text that they cannot be answered in one simplistic line and he may wish. Though rest assured Pinker goes over how human nature has been used by politicians, creationists, the fearful and why they use it (actually the subject of part II and III of the book...) And first part (and partially the rest of the book) covers the historical theories of the blank slate, ghost in the machine and noble savage aka the original human nature doctrines. And the final question, though not directly answered only takes a tiny morsel of initiative to answer after reading the book, yes, human nature has changed through the process of evolution.
Ashtar's review is more of a rant, the sentence "sociobiologists nevertheless believe that genes constrain our behaviour to such a large extent, that the vernacular expression "genetic determinism" is perfectly apt" really says all you need to know about Ashtar. Pinker sees things as a seemless interaction between genetics and enviroment, genes forming the basis for which our brains can absorb the given environment, he does not even deny the brain has partial plasticity in terms of different regions completing tasks. If Ashtar thinks genetic determinism is a "perfectly apt" expression then he both doesn't understand genetic determinism and doesn't understand Pinkers viewpoint. That review is effectively an attack on sociobiology which is then generalised to Pinker, incorrectly.
It is a great shame you are able to publish a review without actually having read it. A great book, one everyone should examine.
on 19 September 2003
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.
on 11 October 2003
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.
on 22 August 2015
In this book, Professor Pinker presents some radical new ideas, which he backs up with rigorous statistics and copious academic references: boys are different from girls; children take after their parents; it's hard for parents to change a child's personality; some rapists do it for the sex; there is such a thing as human nature, and it affects what we think and do.
At this point, you may be thinking that all this is common sense -- your grandmother would have told you as much. If you want to see why Professor Pinker needed to write this book, take a look at the one, two and three star reviews. Not one criticises the book for stating the bleeding obvious.
Some thirty years ago when I was at university, our sociology lectures really did feed us the line that those reviewers are trying to assert: that intelligence and personality are not inherited; that boys and girls would be the same if they were brought up the same; that rapists are not interested in sex, just violence in asserting male hegemony; that humans are a blank slate.
Strangely enough, I bought into these assertions myself, not because they had any evidence or theory to back them up, but because the lecturers were respected academics, and because they presented the ideas as new and somehow left wing and feminist.
This book is important, not only because it shows that their ideas are unsupported and wrong, but because it shows that they are not left wing either. Dr Pinker is not some male-chauvinist right-wing bigot, and in the book he shows that feminism and equality must not be tied to ideas about human nature that run counter to the facts. Even if there is evidence that man and women are different, it must not become an excuse for discriminating against women.
The book has some flaws. Dr Pinker is careful to show that differences between men and women should not be allowed to affect our value judgements about sexism. However, his chapters on education and art do make this sort of linkage, implying that jazz and rock music are better than modernist serial music because they are closer to human nature, for example. In this case, I agree with Pinker's conclusions, but not his argument, which is less academically rigorous than other chapters of this book. Worse, these arguments undermine Pinker's points about sexism and racism, and the book would be much better without them.
Nonetheless, this book represents rather a turning point for academia, drawing together recent research by feminists, statisticians and other academics that leaves the old-style sociologists and philosophers looking rather silly. An important book, presented in Pinker's fluent and accessible style, and a comfortable five stars.
on 4 November 2002
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.
on 12 January 2016
I read his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined some time ago. This book (being less optimistic) seems to contradict some of the ideas found in that book. Maybe his views changed over nine years.
Most of us are tired of the nature versus nurture debate – we decide that it’s a bit of both. Pinker comes down on the unfashionable side of nature.
He introduces us to many famous philosophers on the way and shows that their work has considerable repercussions on the way we live our lives and how we treat other people.
Examples of harm done by the belief in a blank slate of human nature: Totalitarian social engineering. If the human mind is a blank slate completely formed by the environment, then ruthlessly and totally controlling every aspect of the environment will create perfect minds; Inappropriate or excessive blame of parents since if their children do not turn out well this is assumed to be entirely environmentally caused and especially due to the behavior of the parents; Release of dangerous psychopaths who quickly commit new crimes; Construction of massive and dreary tenement complexes since housing and environmental preferences are assumed to be culturally caused and superficial; Persecution and mass murder of the successful who are assumed to have gained unfairly. This includes not only individuals but entire successful groups who are assumed to have become successful unfairly and by exploitation of other groups. Examples include Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust; kulaks in the Soviet Union; teachers and "rich" peasants in the Cultural Revolution; city dwellers and intellectuals under the Khmer Rouge.
According to Pinker, the Blank Slate is demonstrably false. Discoveries in neuroscience have shown that the mind comes equipped with various specialized functions, including those responsible for learning languages, estimating numerical quantities, picking out objects in the world, and attributing thoughts and intentions to other human beings. Some of these systems, moreover, vary from person to person in ways that are influenced by the genes. Behavioral geneticists have shown that about half of the variability in a trait like IQ is biological in origin, confirming the long-held suspicion that—all other things being equal—smart people tend to have smart children.
He shows that cherished beliefs, such as the comparative non-violence of the Samoans, is based on faulty research by Margaret Mead.
His ideas are bad news for liberal educationists and good news for Tories who want children to learn their times tables by rote.
However, his summary of Christian beliefs is a caricature based on fundamentalism so I wonder how accurate, or otherwise, is his summary of the thoughts of the various philosophers he quotes.
At one stage, he says that the family is subversive of the state. Jesus’s notion of the family of believers is even more subversive – of the notion of ‘family’ itself. “Who are my mother and sisters …?’
This is one of those books that force you to change the way you think and conceptualise the whole debate on nature v nurture. As you can probably guess by now, this book comes out strongly on the nature side of the debate. Prefiguring the breadth and depth of his recent book, the Better Angels of our Nature, his argument is informed by an array of sources drawn from many different disciplines. On one level, the book argues very forcefully for an innatist theory of human motivation and behaviour. Brain science shows that we are born with innate concepts to acquire language, to read and understand the minds and motivations of others, to discern cause and effect in the natural world, even a sense of fairness and empathy. He argues that these faculties can be explained in terms of natural selection and evolution, can be found across cultures and are not something inscribed on us by our environment (in the sense as inscribed on our psyche by parents and peers).
The argument then goes on to apply these insights, provocatively, to hot button topics like violence, the difference between the sexes and parenting. An explanation of human violence cannot be divorced from biology; there are innate differences between the sexes; children grow into the sorts of adults they are less down to the influence of their parents but to their genes and their peers. Some resist this because it smacks of a scientific version of original sin. But Pinker shows that the best and worst of us has biological antecedents. It is not as if our worst instincts are innate and our sense of justice, mercy etc are given to us by a god or a soul: our better instincts are as innate as our worst ones. Important nuances are introduced here: the bitterest conflicts among people can be down to the fact that the protaganists are simply in thrall to a bloodlust. They can be morally motivated. But they disagree what the content of morality is and their biases assume that right belongs to their side, wrong to the other side.
This is obviously provocative stuff. But the book is interesting for me not only because he argues for a naturalist basis of human nature so forcefully. He also manages to show a `blank slate' view of human nature is less desirable than one might think. To take one example: in the United States, conservative Christians offer therapy to gay people in order to `cure' them of their affliction. This is therapy based on a view of sexuality as malleable rather than innate. Unsurprisingly, such therapy has never produced a certifiable `cure'. If we are mere products of our experiences, then we are not necessarily freer to act and shape our destinies thereby - we can prisoners of our experiences as much as our genes. As the homosexuality example shows, people can oppress others and repress difference on the basis of environmental views of human nature. The view that human beings are merely products of their experiences, if this becomes a dogma that informs policy, can have deleterious consequences: for instances, psychopaths deceive their gullible incarcerators that they are reformed, are let out of jail, and promptly go on to reoffend. There are very good reasons for keeping people like Peter Sutcliffe locked away permanently.
He also shows that just because certain traits, like intelligence, might be highly inheritable, it would not follow that social and economic policy should therefore favour the smart and penalise the dumb - if the smart cannot take credit for their good genetic fortune, then they don't automatically have an entitlement to be treated better than everyone else. Women for instance may prefer certain occupations over others because of biological differences (i.e. to differences traceable to brain development) but that is no reason to pass laws discriminating against them in job applications.
No one book will ever settle the nature/nurture debate decisively - this book included. Some of its assertions will no doubt be contested and some may be qualified and refuted as our understanding grows. However, it does I think set out some very powerful principles for thinking about the issue of the relationship between nature and nurture. Human beings have evolved, like every other species on the planet. Our brains, like every other organ we have, have evolved as a result of selection pressure. It would be astonishing if our beheaviour alone, out of all the species that have ever existed on this planet, cannot be explained at least in part in biological terms. The same goes for our brains. If our brains, alone among all the species' brains on this planet, cannot be explained at least part as the outcome of selection pressures producing certain biological outcomes which affect our behaviour and motivation, then this would be nothing short of astonishing. We would be a species detached altogether from nature. That surely cannot be right.
These reasons are, at least for me, powerful prima facie reasons to accept that our motivations and behaviour have a significant biological underpinning. Sometimes this insight is resisted because it is assumed that the worst of us is natural in origin and the best comes from some mysterious force from outside us or vice versa. But the fact is both the best and worst of us could be explained in biological terms - our sense of fairness and morality, as well as the less edifying drives that disfigure our relationships with one another. This book has an original take on some of the most vexed issues of the human condition. I recommend it.
on 2 January 2003
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.
on 17 March 2011
The interrelationship between nature and nurture is an endlessly intriguing and controversial subject.
Early evolutionary psychology presented observations that `nature' has some key roles in behaviour. However, early accounts of these theories led to oversimplifications and extrapolations, which led in turn to the discrediting of the discipline.
Steven Pinker takes us back through these potentially complex issues, and lays out with exhilarating clarity of thought the interrelationships between nature and nurture as they are currently understood.
Having explained how evolutionary psychology can be thus properly `rehabilitated', he turns the tables on the 'nurture only' view, refuting the validity of the 'blank slate' theory of the title.
He goes on to consider several thorny and perplexing issues in an illuminating and stimulating survey.
Culture, morality, conflict, politics, violence, gender issues, and parenting are re-examined through the prism of current evolutionary psychological theory.
The book is professorial in its factual reach, yet written in a lively and engaging way. A highly valuable contribution to anyones's pursuit of a modern understanding of human psychology, and the interaction of influences exerted by nature and nurture.