Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Blank Slate review

I read my friend Alex's thoughts on gender differences (although technically it's sex differences, gender's for language) presented when signing up for Stumble Upon which led him to think further about the targeting of information that we receive.

If you've not heard about "the filter bubble", and have 9 minutes, you should watch this:


Any how, those posts reminded me of the excellent book The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, which I finished, but didn't review on this blog as I was just finishing my PGCE and didn't have the time. It's in a box in storage at the mo', but will review from memory as it's really good!

The book looks at human nature, and challenges three concepts:

The Blank Slate - that there is nothing innate in the human brain and it is all learnt.
The Noble Savage - that people are born good, and it is society that corrupts them.
The Ghost in the Machine - the idea of a soul that can make choices free from biology.

He takes each of these apart masterfully, taking into account the moral attitudes that are associated with each of these concepts - for example showing that, just because there may well be differences between ethnic groups, it is not ok to discriminate because of this, because you should take each individual on their merits.

Indeed, Part V of the book is titled "Hot buttons", and looks at politics, violence, gender, children and the arts.

He notes, for example, that men and women do tend to choose different things. Striving to get a 50:50 break down of men and women into a particular field would not be fair - because the applications would not be received in a similar ratio.

Physics will always have more men in it, for example, because more men choose to do physical sciences. This isn't to say that there aren't other barriers which need to be overcome; that women might still be underrepresented; and that more women should be encouraged to take physics if they wish: but even without any barriers what so ever, there will be more men doing physics. 

The book is actually the second he's written on human nature, the first being How the mind works. In fact, I've quoted from that before about, in relation to male and female attitudes to sex. Pinker has actually written two trilogies - one on language, the other on human nature. Both trilogies finish with The Stuff of Thought, which combines the two, and is the book I am currently reading. If I were you, I'd invest your time in reading The Language Instinct, How the mind works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought in that order. It's a fantastic set of books - interesting, well written, humorous. I hadn't read anything by Steven Pinker before these, but he is now one of my favourite writers.

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