The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature Hardcover – 1 Sep 2002
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In The Blank Slate, the bestselling author Steven Pinker produces his most polemical and convincing attack upon the nurture side of the nature versus nurture debate. Pinker's previous books The Language Instinctand How the Mind Works have already attracted huge praise and controversy in arguing that language and cognition are natural rather than cultural. In The Blank Slate he refines and extends his arguments.
The book is aimed at "people who wonder where the taboo against human nature came from", and promises to explain "the moral, emotional and political colorings of the concept of human nature in modern life". For Pinker, the belief that we are all born as "blank slates" upon which culture places its decisive imprint is not only wrong but dangerous. He persuasively argues that "the conviction that humanity could be reshaped by massive social engineering projects led to some of the greatest atrocities in history". This is all very well, but at over 500 pages it can also be daunting for the general reader, as Pinker takes on all-comers, from biologists and sociologists to a dizzying array of classical thinkers from Calvin and Hobbes to Marx and Dawkins. The sections on gender will undoubtedly inflame many feminist writers (the most persuasive of which Pinker sadly neglects to discuss), and the criticisms of modern art are flimsy, but The Blank Slate is an impressive and sustained broadside that cannot be ignored. -Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Pinker challenges conventional wisdom that our thoughts and feelings seep into our heads from the surrounding culture. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product description
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The problem was that this book is so laden with heavy truths about humans, humanity, perception, mind and the processes that govern it, that it is at times really difficult to absorb it all in one go. This is really no complaint, but a praise.
In less than 500 pages Steven Pinker gives more solid information that many writers do achieve after a lifetime at book-writing. He just has this fantastic gist for finding the real big names in the diverse fields that he does present in this book.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science)
It also shows how the myth can be harmful (it served as an inspiration to Stalin and Mao, who thought they could create perfect people by totalitarian means), and why and how many in academia still cling to it. Even some in relatively hard science fields cling to the idea. One section looks at the hoops and contortions jumped through, and sometimes outright lies resorted to, by such luminaries as the geneticist Richard Lewontin and the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould in the service of this idea. Both of these individuals (and others besides), were motivated by their extreme left ideology. There's also right-wing adherence to the blank slate myth, particularly among creationists, but this does not play a significant role in academia.
The book is very wide ranging, drawing on prominent research in genetics, criminology, child development (especially the work of Judith Rich Harris), evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience, and even aesthetics (anthropologist Dennis Dutton gets most of the credit here). Fiction gets a look-in, too, with an interesting discussion of George Orwell's Brave New World, noting certain insights in that book that are not always highlighted.
The sad thing is, despite the prizes and plaudits and huge sales (for a science book) this work has enjoyed, and despite the fact that vastly more evidence has accumulated since the book was published which confirms its thesis that human behaviour is heavily influenced by our genetics and by our evolutionary history, the book seems to have had no influence on public policy at all, and Blank Slatism is as rife in academia as it ever was.
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.
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