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  • Troublesome Nick and the Timid Echoes of the Blank Slate

    Posted on May 14th, 2014 Helian No comments

    You can still get in trouble for saying things that are true, or, for that matter, even obvious.  Consider, for example, Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.  I haven’t yet read the book, so have no comment on whether any of the specific hypotheses therein are scientifically credible or not.  However, according to the blurb at Amazon, the theme of the book is that there actually is such a thing as human biodiversity (hbd).  So much is, of course, not only true, but obvious.  The problem is that such truths have implications.  If there are significant genetic differences between human groups, then it is unlikely that the influence of those differences on the various metrics of human “success” will be zero.  In other words, we are dealing with a truth that is not only inconvenient, but immoral.  It violates the principle of equality. 

    It is only to be expected that there will be similarities between the reaction to this particular immoral truth and those that have been observed in response to other immoral truths in the past.  Typical reactions among those whose moral emotions have been aroused by such truths have been denial, vilification of the messenger, and the invention of straw men that are easier targets than the truth itself.  All these reactions occurred in response to what is probably the most familiar example of an immoral truth; the fact that genes influence behavior, or, if you will, that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.”  In that case, denial took the form of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, which perverted and derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century.  The messengers were condemned, not only with the long since hackneyed accusation of racism, but with a host of other political and moral shortcomings.  The most familiar straw man was, of course, the “genetic determinist.”

    Predictably, the response to Wade’s book has been similar.  Not so predictable has been the muted nature of that response.  Compared to the vicious attacks on the messengers who debunked the Blank Slate, it has been pianissimo, and even apologetic.  It would almost seem as if the current paragons of moral purity among us have actually been chastened by the collapse of that quasi-religious orthodoxy.  Allow me to illustrate with an example from the past.  It took the form of a response to the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.  Entitled Against “Sociobiology”, it appeared in the New York Review of Books shortly after Wilson’s book was published.  As it happens, it didn’t have just one author. It had a whole gang, including such high priests of the Blank Slate as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The message, of course, was that all right-thinking people agreed that the book should be on the proscribed list, and not just a mere individual. Anathemas were rained down on the head of Wilson with all the pious self-assurance of those who were cocksure they controlled the message of “science.” For example,

     The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.

     Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.

    and, of course, the de rigueur association of Wilson with the Nazis:

     These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

    Now, fast forward the better part of four decades and consider a similar diatribe by one of the current crop of the self-appointed morally pure.  The paragon of righteousness in question is Andrew Gelman, and the title of his bit is The Paradox of Racism. True, Gelman doesn’t leave us in suspense about whether he’s in the ranks of the just and good or not. He can’t even wait until he’s past the title of his article to accuse Wade of racism. However, having established his bona fides, he adopts a conciliatory, and almost apologetic tone. For example,

    Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics.

    Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.

    That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture.

    Obviously, Gelman hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years.  Here we find him peering back over his shoulder, appearing for all the world as if he’s afraid the truth might catch up with him.  He’s aware of the collapse of the Blank Slate orthodoxy, perhaps the greatest debunking of the infallible authority of “science” of all time.  He allows that we might not merely be dealing with a racist individual here, but a racist truth. He even acknowledges that, in that case, something might actually be done about it, implicitly dropping the “genetic determinism” canard:

     Despite Wade’s occasional use of politically conservative signifiers (dismissive remarks about intellectuals and academic leftists, an offhand remark about “global cooling”), I believe him when he writes that “this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.” If researchers ever really can identify ethnic groups with genetic markers for short-term preferences, low intelligence, and an increased proclivity to violence, and other ethnic groups with an affinity for authoritarianism, this is something that more peaceful, democratic policymakers should be aware of.

    Indeed, unlike the authors of the earlier paper, Gelman can’t even bring himself to summon up the ghost of Hitler.  He concludes,

     Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.

    In a word, Gelman’s remarks are rather more nuanced than the fulminations of his predecessors.  Am I making too much of this apparent change of tone? I don’t think so. True, there are still plenty of fire-breathing Blank Slaters lurking in the more obscure echo chambers of academia, but, like the Communists, they are doing us the favor of gradually dying off. Their latter day replacements, having seen whole legions of behavioral “scientists” exposed as charlatans, are rather less self-assured in their virtuous indignation. Some of them have even resorted to admitting that, while it may be true that there is such a thing as human biodiversity, the masses should be sheltered from that truth. Predictably, they have appointed themselves gatekeepers of the forbidden knowledge.

    I note in passing the historical value of the attack on Wilson mentioned above.  Like many similar bits and pieces of source material published in the decade prior to 1975, still easily accessible to anyone who cares to do a little searching, it blows the modern mythology concocted by the evolutionary psychologists to account for the origins of their science completely out of the water.  According to that mythology, it all began with the “big bang” of Wilson’s publication of Sociobiology.  The whole yarn may be found summarized in a nutshell in the textbook Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss.  According to Buss, Sociobiology was “monumental in both size and scope.” It “synthesized under one umbrella a tremendous diversity of scientific endeavors and gave the emerging field (sociobiology) a visible name.”  And so on and so on.  At least that’s the version in my 2009 edition of the book.  “History” might have changed a bit since Wilson’s embrace of group selection in his The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012.  We’ll have to wait and see when the next edition of the textbook is published.

    Be that as it may, the fact is that the reason for the original notoriety of Sociobiology, and the reason it is not virtually forgotten today, had nothing to do with all the good stuff Wilson packed into the middle 25 chapters of his book that was subsequently the subject of Buss’ panegyrics.  That reason was Wilson’s insistence in the first and last of his 27 chapters that there actually is such a thing as “human nature.” There was nothing in the least novel, original, or revolutionary in that insistence. In fact, it was merely a repetition of what other authors had been writing for more than a decade. Those authors were neither obscure nor ignored, and were recognized by Blank Slaters like Gould and Lewontin as their most influential and effective opponents. They, and not any novel “scientific synthesis,” were the reason that such worthies paid any attention to Wilson’s book at all. And, much as I admire the man, they, and not Wilson, were most influential in unmasking the absurdities of the Blank Slate, causing it to stumble and eventually collapse. Those facts were certainly no secret to the authors of the article.  Allow me to quote them by way of demonstration:

    From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.

    Each time these ideas have resurfaced the claim has been made that they were based on new scientific information.

     The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology.

    In a word, the Blank Slaters themselves certainly perceived nothing “novel” in Sociobiology. By the time it was published the hypotheses about human nature they objected to in its content were already old hat. They were merely trying to silence yet another voice proclaiming the absence of the emperor’s new clothes. Again, just do a little searching through the historical source material and you’ll find that the loudest and most influential voice of all, and the one that drew the loudest bellows of rage from the Blank Slaters, belonged to one of Wilson’s predecessors mentioned by name in the above quotes; Robert Ardrey. Of course, Ardrey was a “mere playwright,” and it’s a well-known fact that, once one has been a playwright, one is automatically disqualified from becoming a scientist or writing anything that counts as science ever after. Add to that the fact that Ardrey was right when all the scientists with their Ph.D.’s were wrong about human nature, and I think it’s obvious why making him anything like the “father of evolutionary psychology” would be in bad taste. Wilson fits that role nicely, or at least he did until his flirtation with group selection escalated into a full scale romance.  Ergo, Ardrey was declared “totally and utterly wrong,” became an unperson, and Wilson stepped up to fill his ample shoes.  Alas, if past history is any guide, I fear that it eventually may become necessary to drop poor Nick down the memory hole as well.  True, at least the man isn’t a playwright, but he isn’t sporting a Ph.D., either.  Really, how “scientific” can you be if you don’t have a Ph.D.?   In any case, the mythology that passes for the history of evolutionary psychology began “just so.”   

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