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  • Was There a Time Before the Blank Slate?

    Posted on April 13th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Yes, dear reader, there was.  It’s quite true that, for half a decade and more, the “Men of Science” imposed on the credulity of mankind by insisting that something perfectly obvious and long familiar to the rest of us didn’t exist.  I refer, of course, to human nature.  It was a herculean effort in self-deception that confirmed yet again George Orwell’s observation that, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”  In the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, such “Men of Science” as Ashley Montagu could say things such as,

    …man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.


    The fact is, that with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.

    and do it with a perfectly straight face.  It was an episode in our history that must never be forgotten, and one that should be recalled whenever we hear someone claim that “science says” this or that, or that “the science is settled.”  The scientific method is the best butterfly net our species has come up with so far to occasionally capture a fluttering bit of truth.  However, it can never be separated from the ideological context in which it functions.  As the Blank Slate episode demonstrated, that context is quite capable of subverting and adulterating the truth when the truth stands in the way of ideological imperatives.

    In the case of the Blank Slate, as it happens, those imperatives did not derail our search for truth for some time after Darwin first grasped the behavioral implications of his revolutionary theory.  And just as those implications were obvious to Darwin, they were obvious to many others.  The existence and selective significance of human nature were immediately apparent to anyone with an open mind and rudimentary powers of self-observation.  Indeed, they were treated almost as commonplaces in the behavioral sciences for decades after Darwin until they finally succumbed to the ideological fog.

    For example, at about the same time that J. B. Watson and Frank Boas began fabricating the first serious “scientific” rationalizations of the Blank Slate, there was no evidence in the popular media of the rigid ideological orthodoxy that became such a remarkable feature of their coverage of anything dealing with human behavior in the 60’s and 70’s.  The later vilification of heretics as “racists” and “fascists” was nowhere to be seen.  Indeed, one Dr. Grace Adams, who held a Ph.D. in psychology from Cornell, was actually guileless enough to contribute an article entitled Human Instincts to H. L. Mencken’s The American Mercury as late as 1928!  Apparently without the faintest inkling of the hijacking of the behavioral sciences that was then already in the works, she wrote,

    The recognition of the full scope and function of the human instincts will appear to those who come after us as the most important advance made by psychology in our time. (!)

    How ironic those words seem now!  The very term “instinct” became toxic during the ascendancy of the Blank Slate, when the high priests of the prevailing orthodoxy insisted on their own rigid definition of the term, and then proceeded to exploit it as a handy tool for “smarter than thou” posturing and scientific one-upmanship.  Adams’ article includes some interesting remarks on the origin of the word “instinct” in the biological sciences and the later, gradual redefinitions that occurred when it was taken up by the psychologists.  In particular, she notes that, while the biologists of the time still used the term to describe behaviors that were unaffected by either “experience or volition,” and were “purely mechanical processes lying completely outside the province of consciousness,” psychologists preferred a much more flexible definition.  Referring to the great American ur-psychologist William James, Adams wrote,

    So it was obvious, to him at least, “that every instinctive act in an animal with memory must cease to be ‘blind’ after being once repeated.”  In this way, according to James, an instinct could become not only conscious but capable of modification and conscious direction and change.

    Or, as we would say today, the expression of “instincts” could be modified by “culture.”  Adams notes that, as early as 1890,

    James was able to state complacently that there was agreement among his contemporaries that the human instincts were: sucking, biting, chewing, grinding the teeth, licking, making grimaces, spitting, clasping, grasping, pointing, making sounds of expressive desire, carrying to the mouth, the function of alimentation, crying, smiling, protrusion of the lips, turning the head aside, holding the head erect, sitting up, standing, locomotion, vocalization, imitation, emulation or rivalry, pugnacity, anger, resentment, sympathy, the hunting instinct, fear, appropriation or acquisitiveness, constructiveness, play, curiosity, sociability and shyness, secretiveness, cleanliness, modesty and shame, love, the anti-sexual instincts, jealousy, and parental love.  (Italics are mine)

    Turn the page to the 20th century, and we already find two of the prominent psychologists of the day, James Angell and Edward Thorndike, squabbling over the definition of “instinct.”  According to Adams,

    Angell, accepting James’ argument that instincts once yielded to are thereafter felt in connection with the foresight of their ends, expands this idea into the statement that “instincts, in the higher animals, at all events, appear always to involve consciousness.” And he makes consciousness the essential element of instincts. Thorndike, on the other hand, remembers James’ admission that instincts are originally blind and maintains that “all original tendencies are aimless in the sense that foresight of the consequences does not affect the response.”  For him the only necessary components of an instinct are “the ability to be sensitive to a certain situation, the ability to make a certain response, and the existence of a bond or connection whereby that response is made to that situation.” While the ideas of neither Angell nor Thorndike are actually inconsistent with James’ two-fold definition of an instinct, they lead to very different lists of instincts.

    To cut to the chase, here are the lists of Angell,

    Angell, by making consciousness the mark that distinguishes an instinct from a reflex, has to narrow the number of instincts to fear, anger, shyness, curiosity, sympathy, modesty (?), affection, sexual love, jealousy and envy, rivalry, sociability, play, imitation, constructiveness, secretiveness and acquisitiveness.

    …and Thorndike,

    But Thorndike admits no gap between reflexes and instincts, so he must both expand and subdivide James’ list. He does this in a two hundred page inventory (!) which he regrets is incomplete. He adds such activities as teasing, tormenting, bullying, sulkiness, grieving, the horse-play of youths, the cooing and gurgling of infants and their satisfaction at being held, cuddled and carried, attention-getting, responses to approving behavior, responses to scornful behavior, responses by approving behavior, responses by scornful behavior, the instinct of multiform physical activity, and the instinct of multiform mental activity. The “so-called instinct of fear” he analyzes into the instinct of escape from restraint, the instinct of overcoming a moving obstacle, the instinct of counterattack, the instinct of irrational response to pain, the instinct to combat in rivalry, and the threatening or attacking movements with which the human male tends to react to the mere presence of a male of the same species during acts of courtship.

    In a word, the psychologists of the 20’s were still quite uninhibited when it came to compiling lists of instincts.  It is noteworthy that Thorndike’s The Elements of Psychology, which originally included extensive discussions of human “instincts” in Chapters 12 and 13, continued in use as a textbook for many years.  Indeed, Thorndike was one of the many psychologists of his day who seem surprisingly “modern” in the context of the early 21st century.  For example, again quoting Adams,

    And Thorndike points out that a complete inventory of man’s original nature is needed not only as a basis of education but for economic, political, ethical and religious theories.

    And, in a passage that, in light of recent developments in the field of evolutionary psychology, can only be described as stunning, Adams continues,

    For Colvin and Bagly the chief essential of instincts is that “they are directed toward some end that is useful.” But they do not mean useful in a selfish or materialistic sense, for they are able to describe an altruistic instinct which is as real to them as the predatory instinct. And Kirkpatrick conceives of man being by native endowment even more noble. Indeed he credits to the human being a regulative instinct “which exists in the moral tendency to conform to law and to act for the good of others as well as self, and in the religious tendency to regard a Higher Power.”

    Writing in the June and August, 1928 editions of the Mercury, H. M. Parshley elaborates on the connection, noticed decades earlier by Darwin himself, between “instincts” and morality:

    Ethics certainly involves the consideration of motives, values, and ideals; and a scientific ethics requires genuine knowledge about these elusive matters.

    As if anticipating Stephen J. Gould’s delusional theories of “non-overlapping magisterial,” he continues,

    …in my “opinion, the chief support of obscurantism at this moment is the notion that motives, values, and ideals, unlike material things, are beyond the range of scientific study, and thus afford a free and exclusive field in which religion and philosophy may disport themselves authoritatively without challenge.

    Parshley continues with a comment that we now recognize was sadly mistaken:

    The biological needs are clear enough to see and we know a great deal about them – quite sufficient to establish the futility of asceticism and give rise to a complete distrust of any ethics that involves us in serious conflict with them.  Science has done this, and, I think, it will never be undone.

    Parshley’s naïve faith in the integrity and disinterestedness of science was to be shattered all too soon.  Indeed, without recognizing the danger, Adams was already quite familiar with its source:

    For many years the iconoclastic Watson strove to explain instincts in suitably behavioristic terms. But neither his definition nor his classification need concern us now, for in 1924 Watson repudiated everything he had previously said about them by declaring that “there are no instincts,” and furthermore, that “there is no such thing as an inheritance of capacity, talent, temperament, mental constitution and characteristics.” With these two statements Watson cast aside the biological as well as the psychological notion of mental inheritance.

    For Adams, the behaviorist creed of Watson and Boas was just a curiosity.  She didn’t realize they were already riding on the crest of an ideological wave that would submerge the behavioral sciences in a sea of obscurantism for decades to come.  Marxism was hardly the only dogma that required their theories to be “true.”  The same could be said of many other pet utopias that could generally be included in the scope of E. O. Wilson’s epigram, “Great theory, wrong species.”  The ideological imperative was described in a nutshell by psychologist Geoffrey Gorer in an essay entitled The Remaking of Man, published in 1956:

    One of the most urgent problems – perhaps the most urgent problem – facing the world today is how to change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.  This problem of rapid transformation has underlaid every revolution (as opposed to coups d’etat) at least from the time of the English Revolution in the seventeenth century, which sought to establish the Rule of the Saints by some modifications in the governing institutions and the laws they promulgated; and from this point of view every revolution has failed… the character of the mass of the population, their attitudes and expectations, change apparently very little.

    Up till the present century revolutions were typically concerned with the internal arrangements of one political unit, one country; but the nearly simultaneous development of world-wide communications and world-wide ideologies – democracy, socialism, communism – has posed the problem not merely of how to transform ourselves – whoever ‘ourselves’ may be – but how to transform others.

    This imperative shattered the naïve faith of Adams and Parshley in the inevitability of scientific progress with astonishing rapidity.  Later, during the heyday of the Blank Slate, Margaret Mead described the triumph of the “new ideas,” just a few short years after their articles appeared in the Mercury:

    In the central concept of culture as it was developed by Boas and his students, human beings were viewed as dependent neither on instinct nor on genetically transmitted specific capabilities but on learned ways of life that accumulated slowly through endless borrowing, readaptation, and innovation… The vast panorama which Boas sketched out in 1932 in his discussion of the aims of anthropological research is still the heritage of American anthropology.

    And so the darkness fell, and remained for more than half a decade.  The victory of the Blank Slate was, perhaps, the greatest debacle in the history of scientific thought.  Even today the “men of science” are incapable of discussing that history without abundant obfuscation and revision.  Still, the salient facts aren’t that hard to ferret out for anyone curious enough to dig for them a little.  It would behoove anyone with an exaggerated tendency to believe in the “integrity of science” to grab a shovel.

    American Mercury

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