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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002)

de Steven Pinker

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In "The Blank Slate", Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading experts on language and the mind, explores the idea of human nature and it's moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits, a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century, denies our common humanity and our individual perferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts.… (mais)
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It's not often that I read a book and can honestly say it changed my outlook on life, but The Blank Slate is definitely one of them (trite, I know). In the book, Steven Pinker analyzes the current concepts of human nature, of culture and heritability, and reveals why in both popular and intellectual circles the prevailing viewpoints are flawed, and indeed detrimental to both research and society.

Brief summary:

The first section of the book introduces Pinker's three fallacies, which contribute to our misunderstanding of human nature. These are the Blank Slate, the tabula rasa, which considers each human being to be a moldable clay at birth, intrinsically shaped by their environment and culture.
( )
  Zedseayou | Jan 30, 2024 |
Authors feels that the blank slate, noble savage and ghost in the machine are inaccurate views of human nature and that further research on human nature and acceptance of the results of the research is important.
  ritaer | Oct 3, 2023 |
I really should not even count this book as read, since I mostly gave up halfway through. I did skip ahead and read the chapter on "Gender", but that was as annoying as the rest. Boring, verbose, pedantic....and BORING; this book made me realize that the few hours I did spend on it is time that I'll never get back. The only good thing about it was that I used to read it right before I went to bed, and when it bored me to exhaustion I'd fall asleep. Next time I'll try Nyquil or something. UGH.
  kwskultety | Jul 4, 2023 |
Simply excellent. Such a wide-ranging, eye-opening and thorough review and analysis of the developments that are critical to our understanding of humans, what forges and drives them and what that might mean. An essential read, for anyone and everyone. ( )
  malcrf | Apr 26, 2022 |
يدور حول الدور الضخم الذي يلعبه التطور وعلم الوراثة في جعلنا ما نحن عليه. يقدم ستيفن بينكر حجة قوية ضد الاعتقاد بأن الجميع يولدون "صفحة بيضاء" ويتأثرون فقط بتربيتهم، ويجادل بأن علم الأحياء هو عامل أكثر أهمية في تشكيل سلوكياتنا وشخصياتنا. فيأخذنا إلى أعماق عالم الجينات السلوكية لفحص ثروة الأدلة التي تشير إلى أن الكثير من هويتنا، سواء معتقداتنا أو تفضيلاتنا أو ميلنا نحو العنف، موروث في معظمه. يتعارض هذا التركيز على علم الوراثة مع الفرضيات الشائعة في القرن الماضي، التي وفقاً لها فقد ولدنا جميعاً أبرياء ومتساوين، بدون سمات شخصية أو سلوكية. ولكن كما يكشف الكتاب، هناك القليل جداً من الأدلة لدعم هذه الفرضيات، والكثير الذي يدعم فرضية العقل التطوري. ( )
  TonyDib | Jan 28, 2022 |
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Preface
"Not another book on nature and nurture! Are there really people out there who still believe that the mind is a blank slate?"
PART I

THE BLANK SLATE, THE NOBLE
SAVAGE, AND THE GHOST
IN THE MACHINE

 
Everyone has a theory of human nature.
The denial of human nature has spread beyond the academy and has led to a disconnect between intellectual life and common sense. I first had the idea of writing this book when I started a collection of astonishing claims from pundits and social critics about the malleability of the human psyche: that little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; that children enjoy sweets because their parents use them as a reward for eating vegetables; that teenagers get the idea to compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes; that men think the goal of sex is an orgasm because of the way they were socialized. The problem is not just that these claims are preposterous but that the writers did not acknowledge they were saying things that common sense might call into question. This is the mentality of a cult, in which fantastical beliefs are flaunted as proof of one’s piety. That mentality cannot coexist with an esteem for the truth, and I believe it is responsible for some of the unfortunate trends in recent intellectual life. One trend is a stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence. Another is a hypocritical divide between what intellectuals say in public and what they really believe. A third is the inevitable reaction: a culture of “politically incorrect” shock jocks who revel in anti-intellectualism and bigotry, emboldened by the knowledge that the intellectual establishment has forfeited claims to credibility in the eyes of the public.

Finally, the denial of human nature has not just corrupted the world of critics and intellectuals but has done harm to the lives of real people. The theory that parents can mold their children like clay has inflicted childrearing regimes on parents that are unnatural and sometimes cruel. It has distorted the choices faced by mothers as they try to balance their lives, and multiplied the anguish of parents whose children haven’t turned out the way they hoped. The belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences has led social planners to write off people's enjoyment of ornament, natural light, and human scale and force millions of people to live in drab cement boxes. The romantic notion that all evil is a product of society has justified the release of dangerous psychopaths who promptly murdered innocent people. And the conviction that humanity could be reshaped by massive social engineering projects led to some of the greatest atrocities in history.
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The moral, then, is that familiar categories of behavior—marriage customs, food taboos, folk superstitions, and so on—certainly do vary across cultures and have to be learned, but the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate. People may dress differently, but they may all strive to flaunt their status via their appearance. They may respect the rights of the members of their clan exclusively or they may extend that respect to everyone in their tribe, nation-state, or species, but all divide the world into an in-group and an out-group. They may differ in which outcomes they attribute to the intentions of conscious beings, some allowing only that artifacts are deliberately crafted, others believing that illnesses come from magical spells cast by enemies, still others believing that the entire world was brought into being by a creator. But all of them explain certain events by invoking the existence of entities with minds that strive to bring about goals. The behaviorists got it backwards: it is the mind, not behavior, that is lawful.
Moreover, many of the traits affected by genes are far from noble. Psychologists have discovered that our personalities differ in five major ways: we are to varying degrees introverted or extroverted, neurotic or stable, incurious or open to experience, agreeable or antagonistic, and conscientious or undirected. Most of the 18,000 adjectives for personality traits in an unabridged dictionary can be tied to one of these five dimensions, including such sins and flaws as being aimless, careless, conforming, impatient, narrow, rude, self-pitying, selfish, suspicious, uncooperative, and undependable. All five of the major personality dimensions are heritable, with perhaps 40 to 50 percent of the variation in a typical population tied to differences in their genes. The unfortunate wretch who is introverted, neurotic, narrow, selfish, and undependable is probably that way in part because of his genes, and so, most likely, are the rest of us who have tendencies in any of those directions as compared with our fellows.

It’s not just unpleasant temperaments that are partly heritable, but actual behavior with real consequences. Study after study has shown that a willingness to commit antisocial acts, including lying, stealing, starting fights, and destroying property, is partly heritable (though like all heritable traits it is exercised more in some environments than in others). People who commit truly heinous acts, such as bilking elderly people out of their life savings, raping a succession of women, or shooting convenience store clerks lying on the floor during a robbery, are often diagnosed with “psychopathy” or “antisocial personality disorder.” Most psychopaths showed signs of malice from the time they were children. They bullied smaller children, tortured animals, lied habitually, and were incapable of empathy or remorse, often despite normal family backgrounds and the best efforts of their distraught parents. Most experts on psychopathy believe that it comes from a genetic predisposition, though in some cases it may come from early brain damage. In either case genetics and neuroscience are showing that a heart of darkness cannot always be blamed on parents or society.
The difference between proximate and ultimate goals is another kind of proof that we are not blank slates. Whenever people strive for obvious rewards like health and happiness, which make sense both proximately and ultimately, one could plausibly suppose that the mind is equipped only with a desire to be happy and healthy and a cause-and-effect calculus that helps them get what they want. But people often have desires that subvert their proximate wellbeing, desires that they cannot articulate and that they (and their society) may try unsuccessfully to extirpate. They may covet their neighbor’s spouse, eat themselves into an early grave, explode over minor slights, fail to love their stepchildren, rev up their bodies in response to a stressor that they cannot fight or flee, exhaust themselves keeping up with the Joneses or climbing the corporate ladder, and prefer a sexy and dangerous partner to a plain but dependable one. These personally puzzling drives have a transparent evolutionary rationale, and they suggest that the mind is packed with cravings shaped by natural selection, not with a desire for personal wellbeing.
Counting societies instead of bodies leads to equally grim figures. In 1978 the anthropologist Carol Ember calculated that 90 percent of hunter-gatherer societies are known to engage in warfare, and 64 percent wage war at least once every two years. Even the 90 percent figure may be an underestimate, because anthropologists often cannot study a tribe long enough to measure outbreaks that occur every decade or so (imagine an anthropologist studying the peaceful Europeans between 1918 and 1938). In 1972 another anthropologist, W. T. Divale, investigated 99 groups of hunter-gatherers from 37 cultures, and found that 68 were at war at the time, 20 had been at war five to twenty-five years before, and all the others reported warfare in the more distant past. Based on these and other ethnographic surveys, Donald Brown includes conflict, rape, revenge, jealousy, dominance, and male coalitional violence as human universals.

It is, of course, understandable that people are squeamish about acknowledging the violence of pre-state societies. For centuries the stereotype of the savage savage was used as a pretext to wipe out indigenous peoples and steal their lands. But surely it is unnecessary to paint a false picture of a people as peaceable and ecologically conscientious in order to condemn the great crimes against them, as if genocide were wrong only when the victims are nice guys.
HISTORY AND CULTURE, then, can be grounded in psychology, which can be grounded in computation, neuroscience, genetics, and evolution. But this kind of talk sets off alarms in the minds of many nonscientists. They fear that consilience is a smokescreen for a hostile takeover of the humanities, arts, and social sciences by philistines in white coats. The richness of their subject matter would be dumbed down into a generic palaver about neurons, genes, and evolutionary urges. This scenario is often called “reductionism,”…
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In "The Blank Slate", Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading experts on language and the mind, explores the idea of human nature and it's moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits, a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century, denies our common humanity and our individual perferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts.

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