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Completely explains the idea of the blank slate, why it is outdated, why people believe it and what we actually do understand about human nature.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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
on 9 February 2003
this book is an introduction to the theory that half a person's personality and intelligence is genetic, and present at birth. It was very liberating to read, as it deconstucted those annoying theories of the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. The other "myth" that he explains away is that parents are responsible for how their children behave, as every parent knows, its often a complete mystery why ones children do what they do...He discusses religion, rape, and aggressive behaviour in a way that makes sense in evolutionary terms, and personally speaking revolutionised the way I think about most of the basic philosophical questions. Thank you Professor Pinker.