Peter's Reviews > The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
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Mar 13, 11


Champion of an adolescent science: 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.

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message 1: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Did you read about this subject in "a crossing or the drop's history" by Anatoliy Obraztsov?


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