Vol. 9, No. 2, 2003 Page 4


BOOK REVIEW: THE BLANK SLATE

By Steven Pinker, Viking Press, 2002 ($27.95)

When a child fails at school, hurts other children, or takes illegal drugs, the almost-universal tendency is to blame the child's parents. But as Steven Pinker shows in his new book, children are not born with "a clean slate," and parenting has vastly less influence on a child's behavior than do genes.

As this carefully researched book (which includes 900 references) clearly reveals, children are born with different talents, temperaments, and cognitive abilities. The greater a child's innate ability to use logic and insight, the more he or she will benefit from good parentingóbut, conversely, the less damage poor parenting will elicit. As for the children who murder or rape, Pinker says, "genetics and neuroscience are showing that a heart of darkness cannot always be blamed on parents or society."

Denying that human nature is largely innate and genetically determined, Pinker says, leads to misguided social and political policies. For instance, he says, the money we spend on trying to change troubled children's home environments could be better spent on identifying and understanding genetic influences on dysfunctional behavior.

Pinker, an MIT professor, is widely considered to be one of the world's leading cognitive scientists. His brilliant book is an important addition to a growing body of research that shows that our genes play a far larger role in our behavior than most of usóincluding the "experts"órealize.

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QUOTES FROM The Blank Slate:

"Some faculties may endow us with greed or lust or malice, but others may endow us with sympathy, foresight, self-respect, a desire for respect from others, and an ability to learn from our own experiences and those of our neighbors. These are physical circuits residing in the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain, not occult powers of a poltergeist, and they have a genetic basis and an evolutionary history no less than the primal urges."

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"When scientific facts come in they rarely conform exactly to our expectations; if they did, we would not have to do science in the first place. So when facts tip over a sacred cow, people are tempted to suppress the facts and to clamp down on debate because the facts threaten everything they hold sacred. And this can leave us unequipped to deal with just those problems for which new facts and analyses are most needed."

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"The belief on the left that human nature can be changed at will, and the belief on the right that morality rests on God's endowing us with an immaterial soul, are becoming rearguard struggles against the juggernaut of science."

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"'All traits are heritable' is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Concrete behavioral traits that patently depend on content provided by the home or culture are, of course, not heritable at all: which language you speak, which religion you worship in, which political party you belong to. But behavioral traits that reflect the underlying talents and temperaments are heritable: how proficient with language you are, how religious, how liberal or conservative. General intelligence is heritable, and so are the five major ways in which personality can vary: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion-introversion, antagonism- agreeableness, and neuroticism. And traits that are surprisingly specific turn out to be heritable, too, such as dependence on nicotine or alcohol, number of hours of television watched, and likelihood of divorcing."

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"[T]he doctrine that the mind is a blank slate has distorted the study of human beings, and thus the public and private decisions that are guided by that research. Many policies on parenting, for example, are inspired by research that finds a correlation between the behavior of parents and the behavior of children.... Parents, remember, provide their children with genes, not just a home environment. The correlations between parents and children may be telling us only that the same genes that make adults loving, authoritative, and talkative make their children self-confident, well-behaved, and articulate.

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"[C]onvicted murderers and other violent, antisocial people are likely to have a smaller and less active prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs decision making and inhibits impulses. These gross features of the brain are almost certainly not sculpted by information coming in from the senses, which implies that differences in intelligence, scientific genius, sexual orientation, and impulsive violence are not entirely learned."

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