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4.2 out of 5 stars
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4.2 out of 5 stars
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science)
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on 23 October 2017
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 July 2014
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.
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on 11 December 2015
This was not the edition I received. Disappointed.
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on 4 August 2016
This is an important book that goes a long way to establishing once and for all that nature determines the individual who is then moulded by nurture and the environment: not much point in adding more to the myriad of approving reviews here.
I have one criticism to make of the content of the book: it does not discuss the cause of homosexuality which is determined in the nine month gestation period in the woman's body - perhaps Mr Pinker thinks that it was inappropriate to even touch on this subject but I cannot agree with that. Taking into account how wide the compass of the book is, sex determination (woman's brain with a man's body and vice versa) would not be out of place.
If there is another edition, I do hope Mr Pinker will address this issue and add it to what is, for me, an already important book on the human condition.
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on 13 March 2016
Brilliant book from the top thinker of his Age. Should be available on Audible.co.uk though, not just as MP3. Having some understanding of our natures helps us to nurture different ways to behave. People still wish to deny human nature and want to believe we are all 'blank slates'. This is dangerous nonsense and Pinker has done us all a great service by exposing irt. Trouble is; Who is reading it? We all should be. Put onto Audible.co.uk!
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on 4 March 2012
I did read The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker as a paperback, but still it was so heavy at times that I did not have strength to read it more than half an hour at a time at some times. The book is not even a heavy or dull read, as Steven Pinker is a great writer, who can really present his case in readable and enjoyable form
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)

Jaakko Wallenius
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on 18 July 2017
This book was first published in 2002, fifteen years ago as I write this. It was a highly praised, prize-winning best-seller, and provides an excellent description of the Blank Slate myth (the idea that humans are born without any innate psychological tendencies or aptitudes, but are infinitely malleable, so that all differences are created by the environment), examining the myth's history, its ideological significance, and how it is completely contradicted by 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.
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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.
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on 9 September 2010
This may be a great book but I wouldn't know.

I like books on human nature, but just couldn't get into this edition because the print is so small and crammed into each page without many breaks.

I found it impossible to read comfortably on the train and gave up - and by the way; my eyesight is perfect...

I suggest try a different print of this book.
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on 3 September 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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