The Blank Slate: The Denial of Human Nature and Modern Intellectual Life
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The Blank Slate: The Denial of Human Nature and Modern Intellectual Life

4.05 of 5 stars 4.05  ·  rating details  ·  10,722 ratings  ·  405 reviews
Our conceptions of human nature affect everything aspect of our lives, from child-rearing to politics to morality to the arts. Yet many fear that scientific discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert social change, and to dissolve personal responsibility.

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker explores the idea of hu...more
Hardcover, 528 pages
Published September 30th 2002 by Viking Adult (first published January 1st 2002)
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Jenn Pellerin
Jun 05, 2008 Jenn Pellerin rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jenn by: Jamie
I'm an atheist. I've always been and always will be (god willing). When I was a kid, I used to envy the religious folks who seemed to be having such deep meaningful fun all the time. It's not that I hate religion, or the idea of god, it's just that I can't really get my mind around it after a childhood devoid of spirituality. Newsflash: if you don't take a lot for granted, religious theory makes NO SENSE. The only place I've ever found deeper meaning is in biology and physics and neurology. SO.....more
Nebuchadnezzar
I contend that there are two Steven Pinkers. Pinker 1 is an eloquent, witty, and insightful writer on the issues of cognitive psychology and linguistics who has the rare talent of making his subjects accessible and appealing to academic and lay audiences. Pinker 2 retains the writing ability, but instead uses it for pushing his pet theories, usually political in nature (cf. his most recent Better Angels of Our Nature). This book comes straight from the pen of Pinker 2.

There are really two main c...more
Ianw19
This book grew on me as I read it. At first, I suspected Pinker of cherry-picking targets from the extreme fringe of cultural constructivism. However, after I spent some time in a Sociology of Gender class at college, I discovered that the total denial of innate psychological programming is indeed as pervasive among the social sciences as Pinker suggests. His characterization of post-modernist philosophy, cultural anthropology, and some factions within psychology are very consistent with the ide...more
Manny
Steven Pinker takes on the old nature/nurture question, and does an excellent job of it. Are we the products of our genes or our upbringing? Pinker tells you in the first few pages what the new consensus is: both, but genes are probably more important.

He has some wonderful stories to back up the general points. Here's one that particularly appealed to me. During the 60s and 70s, you often heard that boys and girls are indoctrinated from an early age so as to conform to conventional gender roles....more
Lena
The Blank Slate is Steven Pinker's ambitious attempt to close the gap between the conventionally accepted dogma that human beings come into this world free of innate characteristics, ready to be molded and shaped by society, and what science has begun to reveal about genetic predisposition.

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that the origin of human nature was such a contentious topic amongst modern intellectuals. Seems that a lot of people think acknowledging that something like violence...more
Daniel
Louis Menand has written a typically excellent piece on Pinker's arrogance: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002...
I found this book simultaneously interesting and exasperating, because the author is obviously a highly educated, well-read man who thinks he knows everything about every subject. There is a whole class of these public intellectuals (the late Carl Sagan, Richard Dawins, et al) who play this game: they use the public authority they have gained by virtue of (at least modest) academic...more
Ezra
so. steven pinker got a lot of press out of this thing. it is essentially a sustained and detailed case for the predominance of genetic factors in determing human behavior. mr pinker is (if i recall) mainly a developmental neuroscientist (if that's a legitimate description...?). he provides a tremendous and very enjoyable welath of case studies and background for the various psychological, philosophical, sociological and biological problems which he subjects to the peculiar dialectical lens of n...more
Chuck McCabe
Pinker examines the concept of the mind as a blank slate capable of taking any impressions that arose in England and France in the mid-18th century and became the basis for liberal democracy in the 19th and 20th centuries. The "blank slate" underlies the nurture pole of the nature/ nurture debate and looms huge in political and social policies. Drawing on an immense body of research in psychology and other social sciences, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Pinker makes the case for the natu...more
David Redden
The Blank Slate was an informative, thought-provoking and polemic book designed to refute ordinary conceptions and intellectual arguments which cut against a sociobiological understanding of humans and human society. I detected a couple instances in which the author, Stephen Pinker, overstated scientific conclusions, leading me to doubt the accuracy of his other scientific evidence. I also have reservations about the rational-actor lens through which he interprets human nature. On the other hand...more
Steven Peterson
Pinker takes on a perspective regarding human nature that tended to dominate the social sciences in the 20th century (with many adherents of the position still active now), namely that humans are "blank slates" and their life course is highly malleable. He says (Pages 2-3): "That theory of human nature--namely that it barely exists--is the topic of this book. . .Challenges to the doctrine from skeptics and scientists have pushed some believers into a crisis of faith and have led others to mount...more
Book
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker

The Blank Slate is an ambitious book that goes after the blank slate fallacy that is the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves. It’s a social-biological study of nature versus nature. This excellent 528 page-book is composed of the following six parts: Part I. The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine, Part II. Fear and Loathing, Part III. Hum...more
Camille
May 26, 2008 Camille rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who like challenging thoughts
Every so often in life you read a book that significantly influences the way you think. The Blank Slate, for me, is one of those rare books. My understanding of human nature, gender, politics, violence, learning, and, most significantly, my view on child-raising will all be affected by this book from here on. In fact, I would go so far as to say that The Blank Slate will be as significant and influence on the second third of my life as Atlas Shrugged was on the first third. I find it somewhat in...more
Gendou
Pinker argues cleanly and decisively against the theory of the Blank Slate (and its corollary, the Noble Savage). You might say he wipes the Blank Slate clean. Or that he breaks it over his knee.

He examines how motivations for wanting to believe in a Blank Slate come from four fears of human nature:

1. The Fear of Inequality: if people are innately different, oppression and discrimination (like sexism and racism) would be justified. But people are, in fact, different. Ignoring this fact doesn't h...more
Linsey Duncan
So here's a case where you have a book about how much of our personalities and, well, nature is innate, rather than nurtured into us by our parents or our environment. If The Blank Slate were two hundred pages and focused just on brain science, it'd be one thing. The trouble is that it ends up reading as if Pinker gathered every single study that seemed to support his position and threw it into a blender, and then threw in a number of screeds against groups he has a bone to pick with. The result...more
Kevin
Along with Non-Zero, this is one of the best books I've ever read. Life-changing. Pinker is a genius and explains in this 2002 book why humans are not blank slates but rather born with our personalities and traits in place. His findings and conclusions undermine some sacred cows on the left and right. Pinker just follows the science. It would take too long to recount all of the things I learned from the book, but the bottom line is that it changed my thinking overall and it's hard to ask more th...more
Larry
Dec 04, 2008 Larry rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone who thinks we were created special.
Recommended to Larry by: New York Review of Books
Professor Pinker may be the closest thing we have comparible to an old time polymath, and he has a sense of humor. This book has been rendered into laymans' terms, thankfully, yet still reeks with references to endless scientific studies. On the way it debunks many common myths about the preprogramming, or lack thereof, in human beings. It also comes dangerously close to knocking the props out from under the assumptions necessary to support most religious principles. Yet, the author goes to grea...more
Kunal Sen
Not that I was convinced by all the arguments presented in this book, but it is an incredible joy to discover a single book that echoes so many thoughts that have been percolating in my mind, and to hear the same things I have been trying to say, argued and articulated so well.

With age I have come to dislike the idea of an ideology, any ideology. Anything that compels us to think that something is correct or good because it ought to be correct. Reality does not care how any of us feel about it....more
Ed Zwart
My favorite of all Pinker's books. It makes the case for a science of human nature, and in the process is devastating to so-called conventional wisdom, political correctness and other silliness. The highlight for me is how clearly he lays bare the utter waste of human activity that is postmodernism. It was one of those rare moments when an author seems to be giving the exact words to the reader's earlier intuition or experiences. I constantly found myself wishing I could travel back in time to o...more
Robert Delikat
I sometimes find a book that is so eloquently written, I enjoy reading it even if the concepts are too far beyond me to fully comprehend what the words are trying to tell me. This could be that kind of book except that also it is so clearly written, I may actually understand what the author was trying to convey. It is one thing to be a language expert and quite another to be a great author. I think that this book proves Pinker to be both.
John
Honestly, I think that if you have a 4-year degree in either a liberal arts program or a science (of any sort), you need to read this book. Pinker concentrates on trying to make all of these things intersect with one another, attempting to find the connection between them. In this book, he struggles to lay out the consequences of believing people to be innately blank at birth - this argument engages with multiple disciplines to build its case

I say 'struggles' because I don't agree at all with th...more
Oscar
Steven Pinker reviews the concept of the blank slate, that is, the notion that everyone is blank and ready to be shaped by their environment. Pinker, then, argues against the blank slate pushing forth the idea that as result of complex biological, physical, and psychological factors, people are born inherently different. Pinker, furthermore, argues that some people are unwilling to accept that human nature creates natural differences since they would rather believe that everyone is equal or can...more
Ryan
This is one of the most amazing books that I've read. It's well-written, well-argued and very interesting.

The book is mostly about which parts of human behavior are hard-wired and which can be changed. The best example of both is language: we have an inborn ability to recognize nouns, verbs and grammar (rather than just hearing a bunch of gobbledygook), but we learn the language spoken where we grow up.

The first third goes through a lot of the science, though the science is, of course, discussed...more
Andrea
How refreshing that S. Pinker abundantly refers to the vast trove of literary works, picking out gems of insight into human nature, in his elegant scientific analysis! Perhaps no surprise from a cognitive psychologist so implicated in the study of linguistics and language acquisition, but welcome all the same.
Far from rendering his propos less scientific, his quotes from literary sources (throughout the book, not limited to the chapter on the Arts) give depth and relevance to his arguments, whic...more
Jeffrey Guterman
This is a must read for anyone interested in human nature. It was in Pinker's book, The Blank Slate that I was introduced to Francis Crick’s, The Astonishing Hypothesis. In the opening passage of Crick's book of the same name, he writes:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that "You," your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis...more
Brett Hilton
Steven Pinker is an excellent writer, but I have major problems with this book. For starters, his main argument - that the blank slate hypothesis is untenable - is something of a straw man argument. How many people today actually believe that genes don't shape our brains, and thus our minds? I'm friends with many anthropology students who have read about the blank slate hypothesis, and their criticism of sociobiology is often directed at writers in the 19th century (and EO Wilson, who himself is...more
Holly
Pinker writes engagingly on a complex topic that has been highly politicized for generations. What struck me especially in this book and in The History Of Violence is that all in all, one comes away with a certain optimism with regard to humankind. And the final chapters of The Blank Slate are downright liberating. The Humanities are not dying after all, it's academic postmodernism that is, blessedly, in its death throes. As an "academic" who was never able to make peace with the purposely herme...more
Tokuiwaza
Only in the first few pages. I want to finish Consciousness Explained before I get too far into this one.
Currently on p. 60 after two long azz work weeks. This is easy reading for a philosophy/cog sci/behavioral sci etc. noob. I should have read Pinker long before I went near Ayer. There's a helpful ongoing dumbasses' guide to all the neuroscience that fascinated me when my brother was completing his B.S. in psychology. Copious note-taking, as is my custom, has slowed my progress even further, b...more
Andy
Pinker claims there is much opposition to the idea that biology (as opposed to parenting, etc.) is an important determinant of human behavior. This seems fishy to me because it is the exact opposite of my reality. Also, his narrow focus on a particular type of research might confuse people regarding the implications of the science.

In medical practice, there is extreme tunnel vision on biological causes of disease to the exclusion of other explanations. The reflex standard position in our societ...more
Andrea
After a prolonged absence from GR due to work and life pressures, I feel the need to break my silence and speak out honestly about this book. What a shame that such an excellent writer could have produced a book whose purpose is ideological and not instructive. This is not a reasoned presentation and analysis of the evidence in the nature vs nurture debate. It is a repetitive rant demonising any discussion of environmental factors in human behaviour. It is everything I hate about many "popular"...more
Eric Hines
There's some good stuff here for those unfamiliar with the nature/nurture debate, but Pinker is a polemicist, and not a very good one--I honestly don't think he understands a lot of the more subtle points in the debate and he tends to caricature folks he doesn't like as people who believe we are truly born wholly blank slates, which no serious person believes.[return][return]Over and over again in this book, Pinker quotes his purported opposition and follows up his quotation with an interpretati...more
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  • The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation
  • The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
  • On Human Nature
  • The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
  • Consciousness Explained
  • The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature
  • The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene
  • Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong
  • Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
  • Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
  • The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture
  • Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief
  • Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine
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Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of seven b...more
More about Steven Pinker...
The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language How the Mind Works The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature Words And Rules: The Ingredients of Language (SCIENCE MASTERS)

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“Much of what is today called "social criticism" consists of members of the upper classes denouncing the tastes of the lower classes (bawdy entertainment, fast food, plentiful consumer goods) while considering themselves egalitarians.” 29 likes
“Nature is a hanging judge," goes an old saying. Many tragedies come from our physical and cognitive makeup. Our bodies are extraordinarily improbable arrangements of matter, with many ways for things to go wrong and only a few ways for things to go right. We are certain to die, and smart enough to know it. Our minds are adapted to a world that no longer exists, prone to misunderstandings correctable only by arduous education, and condemned to perplexity about the deepest questions we can ascertain.” 29 likes
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