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Is there a human nature?

I've just posted my review of Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate. There is a widespread notion that human nature is almost infinitely malleable and that hardly any of our characteristics are inherited, although the findings of numerous twin studies surely are evidence enough to the contrary. Pinker makes a strong case for the view that we are indeed shaped by the way we have evolved.

His arguments are in flat contradiction to much of the received wisdom on all kinds of matters: politics, sociology, education, child rearing, gender and even art. Sacred cows fall dead all over the place. I'm all for it.

This is an important book, I think. I have to admit that I was already pretty much persuaded of the truth of the case he makes even before reading it, but he has certainly reinforced my acceptance of these ideas. However, for a well-argued presentation of the contary opinion, see Man, Beast and Zombie, by Kenan Malik.


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John Floyd, MD on :

BLANK SLATE was a most dissapointing book when I read it 2 years ago.
THE PROBLEM OF THE SOUL (Owen Flannagan), A USER'S GUIDE TO THE BRAIN (John J. Ratney), and SEEING RED (Nicholas Humphrey) strike much more rational arguments. I am surprised you would suggest it worthwhile to read "BLANK SLATE", which I would think goes strongly against your own philosophy as I am able to understand it from your website and blog. It's completely unlike your typical insightful commentary. JLF

Anthony Campbell on :

Disappointing in what way? Expand please. Do you also dislike EO Wilson's sociobiology?

John Floyd on :

I am sorry that this response to your request will not be as specific as you would like. At 61, my mind is not the steel trap I once thought it to be, generalities and abstract original impressions are what primarily remain. After reading THe Blank Slate, I discarded the book as not one that I felt deserved space in what are already overflowing bookshelves in my home, and I cannot at this time pull it our for review. With this limitation of recall, I felt that it did not square adequately with my understanding (at that time at least)of functional neurobiology/mind science (in contrast to Flannagan's and Humphrey's books.)

EO Wilson on the other hand, causes me no grief. My reading of "Conscilience" was a seminal event in my personal enlightenment. I have always found Wilson's conclusions much more rational and compatable with my limited understanding of evolutionary neurobiology

Let me add Dr Campbell that I am awed by your volume of reading, your apparent retention, your scope of interest and your insights in general. This is perhaps the only review of yours with which I have had a significant disagreement, and that is certainly not to suggest that my opinion has the same weight as yours.

In way of background, I am a American (but did live in Suffolk for 3 years) and a pastor's son, and it took me 5 decades to throw off the yoke of this early environment, but life is far, far more interesting since.

Anthony Campbell on :

I think that Pinker's subject is different from those tackled by Flanagan and Humphrey (both reviewed on my site, incidentally). In essence, he seems to be offering a defence of sociobiology, hence my reference to Wilson.

One fairly peripheral matter where I do tend to part company with Pinker is his adoption of Chomsky's theory of innate grammar. I've been pretty much persuaded by Terrence Deacon's view of language as something that has evolved to be easily learned by children. (See my review of "The Symbolic Species".)

John Floyd on :

I yield, particularly if you have interpred Pinker's work as a defense of Wilson's sociobioloby. I will have to find another copy of Blank Slate, re-read it, and address this commentary again.
FYI there was a talk show (Charlie Rose) in the US that hosted EOWilson and James Watson in Dec 2005. It was intended for a general Public TV audience, but you might find it worthwhile. It is available on Google video:

Anthony Campbell on :

Thanks for the link.

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