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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

(Language and Human Nature Tetralogy #3)

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  23,574 ratings  ·  1,059 reviews
In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked dogmas: the Blank Slate (the mind has no innate traits), the Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (eac ...more
Paperback, 528 pages
Published August 26th 2003 by Penguin Books (first published 2002)
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Ross Very much so. It's written for a general audience and all terminology is explained in lay terms.…moreVery much so. It's written for a general audience and all terminology is explained in lay terms.(less)
MJD Still ongoing, and the version I got has a final chapter at the end, written in 2016, that gives updates on all the chapters given new scientific disc…moreStill ongoing, and the version I got has a final chapter at the end, written in 2016, that gives updates on all the chapters given new scientific discoveries and new trends in academia and popular culture.(less)

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Jenn Pellerin
Jun 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Feb 03, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
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.
Daniel Clausen

In some ways, this book is both a tragedy and an inspiration.

How is it a tragedy? It's a tragedy because the book is responding to very ideologically-based, simple arguments for the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine that I think don't really need to be addressed. Many of the points in the book I was thoroughly convinced of before reading the book -- I knew that genetics played some role in determining personality and aptitude; I was convinced of the probabilistic appro
Sep 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Infinite Jen
Feb 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Do you believe that the human mind, at conception, is a Tabula Rasa? Because John Locke was completely out of his depth regarding the architecture of the brain and said something that sounded good? Well, here’s a Hobbesian Hammer to mangle the handsome features of your Rousseaian naïveté. Are you convinced that, despite evolution’s demonstrable power to produce a wide variety of phenotypic delights and inform the instinctual capacities of creatures big and small, it had nothing to say about the ...more
Jul 14, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
L.E. Duncan
Apr 18, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
Sep 25, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"I'm only human
Of flesh and blood I'm made
Born to make mistakes"

--The Human League, Human

Most of us instinctively feel the acquisition of scientific knowledge follows a linear path, first operating from a solid factual base, and then modifying itself as it goes along in an objective fashion. Ultimately, a common agreeance on a certain topic will be reached, and the findings will translate into well-considered policy.

Ideally, that is how it should work, with scientists serving as neutral ob
David Rubenstein
What an impressive book! I have been reading a number of Steven Pinker's books, and they are all excellent. I was particularly interested in how politics and social activists have worked to slow down the progress of science. The concept of a "blank slate", though socially attractive, has held back science and our understanding of human nature.

The chapter on children was especially interesting. Pinker rightly gives much credit to Judith Harris' excellent book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children
Apr 27, 2017 rated it it was ok
In which Pinker argues against a bunch of straw men without backing up his overly sweeping claims. I don't disagree with his basic thesis, but I do disagree with his cartoonish characterizations of his opponents, namely, feminists, the left, social scientists, etc. If you're going to write a book in which you are right and everyone else is wrong and stupid, you should at least make sure you support your huge thesis with unassailable facts. He did not. It's one thing to say "we are not a blank sl ...more

(Steven Pinker in Oporto, on the 11th of November 2017. My photo.)

"Nature, Mr Allnut , is what we are put in this world to rise above" Katherine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen

"Hillary Clinton may have advanced the dumbest explanation in the history of psychobabble, but she does not deserve the charge of trying to excuse the president's [husband] behavior"

Pinker makes the case against a man who gets his formation/make up only from the outer forces of parenting, education, etc
Dec 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Wow What an interesting and exquisitely written book!!!

This is my first read by this author “Steven Pinker”. He is a psychologist and author of several books and articles on cognition and linguistics. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature he refuted the widely held belief that the human mind at birth is a tabula rasa /blank slate to which the environment (nurture) gives form and substance.

He further explained that neither genetics nor environmental conditions are solely resp
David Redden
Jul 21, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Jun 26, 2008 rated it it was ok
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
Nov 13, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book is not without its flaws. As others have pointed out, the picture here might just be a tad bit too simple. However, Pinker accomplishes one important feat in this book, and that is to point out that our theories of justice and morality are not hostage to the empirically falsifiable claim that there are no innate differences between individuals. Our moral commitment to respecting the human dignity, equality, freedom, and human rights of any and all regardless of gender or race is in no ...more
Morgan Blackledge
Aug 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
I love Steven Pinker and I loved this book.

NOTE: What an ironically lame review of a book that is legitimate genius! In retrospect, I must not have had the time/wherewithal to write the review this amazing book deserves.

It had (and still has) a HUGE influence on my thinking and way of seeing the world. How many books can you say that about?

Clichés like ‘transformative’ or ‘monumental’ or ‘important’ come to mind when I try to describe it in a quick pass.

That sounds lame and hyperbolic, but tha
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
Alina Lucia
Dec 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Reading this book has been a transformative experience for me, and I just happened to read it at the perfect time, a time where I was having trouble verbalising my moral convictions as a scientist.

It was as if Pinker read my mind and listed my ideas, only in a more eloquent, well structured manner.

He argues that the acceptance of innate differences and tendencies between members of our species, a result of genetic make-up, should not be detrimental to our moral reasoning, but rather the opposi
Jun 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: evolution
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
Innate Temperament: A Terrifying Idea?

“We are not, as many people assume, blank slates shaped by our environment”

In his book (The Blank Slate: The modern denial of Human Nature), Steven Pinker argues that modern science (evolutionary psychology and neuroscience in particular) has challenged three "linked dogmas" that constitute the dominant view of human nature in intellectual life:

1. The Blank Slate aka “Tabula Rasa” (adopted by the empiricists): the mind has no innate traits, and therefore all
Jul 21, 2014 rated it it was ok
I can't finish this. The first third or so of the book is interesting and important, mostly because of the discussion about cognitive neuroscience. I think it's extremely important that any educated person in the modern or future world get a solid basic understanding of what we know (and don't know) about how the human brain works. Obviously that will govern our whole understanding of psychology, sociology, and human life in general. Anyone who wants his or her worldview to actually reflect real ...more
Apr 14, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
Farha Crystal
Jan 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: steven-pinker
'Man will become better when you show him what he is like.' - Anthon Chekov

Won't he??? ...

Maybe, the arguments in this book can't be put any more eloquently than the quote of Anton Chekov.

The book was both fun and terrible to encounter how supposed "liberals" experience the cognitive dissonance by having their assumptions and dogmas challenged.

The author goes over controversies , a number of hot buttons, hot zones, Chernobyls, third rails, and so on -- including the arts ( I disagree with hi
Coco Smit
Well written and easy readable book. This book just wasn't really what I was expecting. The author just wants us to know why the Blank Slate theory is not a morally better theory than the Human Nature theory. In fact the whole argument of the book is why the Human Nature theory is a much better theory.

I don't believe in the blank slate personally so I didn't need to be convinced. Even so the 'this is better because' tone throughout the book became slightly annoying.

He completely lost me at the
Kunal Sen
May 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Apr 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
"Once again a Pinker book changed my world view."

The book really opened my eyes about how we learn and become who we are. I had previously just accepted the various interpretations of the the noble savage, the ghost in the machine and the blank slate. Pinker demolishes and demonstrates why those interpretations are misleading, and you will realize why Pinker is called one of the only linguists who can write in prose.
Steven Peterson
Dec 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
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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 explorations of human nature and its relevance to language, history, morality, politics, and everyday life. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Repu ...more

Other books in the series

Language and Human Nature Tetralogy (4 books)
  • The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
  • How the Mind Works
  • The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

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