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Steven Pinker is a man of encyclopedic knowledge and an incisive style of argument. His argument in The Blank Slate is that intellectual life in the West, and much of our social and political policy, was increasingly dominated through the twentieth century by a view of human nature that is fundamentally flawed; that this domination has been backed by something that amounts to academic terrorism (he does not put it quite so strongly); and that we would benefit substantially from a more realistic view. Pinker's exposition is thoroughly readable and of enviable clarity. His explanation of such a difficult technical matter as the analysis of variance and regression in twin studies, for example, would be very hard to better. He is not afraid of using strong language: "boo- word", "basket-case" and (for the technical term "psychopath") "evil"; in addition, parts of the book are delightfully funny.

The prevailing orthodoxy was once that "there is no such thing as human nature". We are all like putty, infinitely malleable and capable of any degradation or improvement that can be brought about by the reaction between ourselves and our social institutions. In extreme cases, society is an organic entity directly, totally and solely responsible for the psychic make-up and behaviour of its individual members. Perhaps this is what Margaret Thatcher was thinking of when she remarked "There is no such thing as society."