A rich, sophisticated argument that may leave pious souls a little uneasy.

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THE BLANK SLATE

THE MODERN DENIAL OF HUMAN NATURE

The well-published MIT cognitive scientist and linguist (How the Mind Works, 1997, etc.) takes on one of philosophy’s thorniest problems in this lucid view of what makes humans human.

Against scholars and ideologues of the left and right, Pinker offers a profoundly biological view of human nature, even if his descriptions of what make us tick sometimes sound as if they’re straight out of a software manual. Pinker describes the brain, for instance, as a set of data-processing modules, “with many parts cooperating to generate a train of thought or an organized action. It has distinct information-processing systems for filtering out distractions, learning skills, controlling the body, remembering facts, holding information temporarily, and storing and executing rules.” Far from a tabula rasa, the brain is hard-wired with genetic information millennia old, governing our responses to events: altruism here, perhaps, or violence there. Psychologists believe that the human personality is variable in only five general dimensions, each governed by genetics: “we are to varying degrees introverted or extroverted, neurotic or stable, incurious or open to experience, agreeable or antagonistic, and conscientious or undirected.” (A shy, neurotic, agoraphobic, narcissistic, and wholly unreliable person, then, can take comfort in blaming his or her unpleasant makeup on generations of ancestors.) The implications of the biological view are many and large, and thus are the subject of fierce debate: if we are but a set of electrochemical circuits heavily programmed to behave according to a simple set of rules, then free choice and moral responsibility go out the window. Yet, Pinker remarks before examining the political and philosophical consequences of this position, “Nothing prevents the godless and amoral process of natural selection from evolving a big-brained social species equipped with an elaborate moral sense”—perhaps too much moral sense, he adds. His conclusions won’t please exponents of several camps, Christian conservatives and what he calls “gender feminists” among them, but he ably defends his ground, and with a minimum of jargon and scholarly sophistry.

A rich, sophisticated argument that may leave pious souls a little uneasy.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-670-03151-8

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2002

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should...

MASTERY

Greene (The 33 Strategies of War, 2007, etc.) believes that genius can be learned if we pay attention and reject social conformity.

The author suggests that our emergence as a species with stereoscopic, frontal vision and sophisticated hand-eye coordination gave us an advantage over earlier humans and primates because it allowed us to contemplate a situation and ponder alternatives for action. This, along with the advantages conferred by mirror neurons, which allow us to intuit what others may be thinking, contributed to our ability to learn, pass on inventions to future generations and improve our problem-solving ability. Throughout most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, and our brains are engineered accordingly. The author has a jaundiced view of our modern technological society, which, he writes, encourages quick, rash judgments. We fail to spend the time needed to develop thorough mastery of a subject. Greene writes that every human is “born unique,” with specific potential that we can develop if we listen to our inner voice. He offers many interesting but tendentious examples to illustrate his theory, including Einstein, Darwin, Mozart and Temple Grandin. In the case of Darwin, Greene ignores the formative intellectual influences that shaped his thought, including the discovery of geological evolution with which he was familiar before his famous voyage. The author uses Grandin's struggle to overcome autistic social handicaps as a model for the necessity for everyone to create a deceptive social mask.

Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should beware of the author's quirky, sometimes misleading brush-stroke characterizations.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02496-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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