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  • More Whimsical History of the Blank Slate

    Posted on March 12th, 2017 Helian 10 comments

    As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  The history of the Blank Slate is a perfect illustration of what he meant.  You might say there are two factions in the academic ingroup; those who are deeply embarrassed by the Blank Slate, and those who are still bitterly clinging to it.  History as it actually happened is damaging to both factions, so they’ve both created imaginary versions that support their preferred narratives.  At this point the “official” histories have become hopelessly muddled.  I recently ran across an example of how this affects younger academics who are trying to make sense of what’s going on in their own fields in an article entitled, Sociology’s Stagnation at the Quillette website.  It was written by Brian Boutwell, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at St. Louis University.

    Boutwell cites an article published back in 1990 by sociologist Pierre van den Berghe excoriating the practitioners in his own specialty.  Van den Berghe was one of those rare sociologists who insisted on the relevance of evolved behavioral traits to his field.  He did not mince words.  Boutwell quotes several passages from the article, including the following:

    Such a theoretical potpourri is premised on the belief that, in the absence of a powerful simplifying idea, all ideas are potentially good, especially if they are turgidly presented, logically opaque, and empirically irrefutable. This sorry state of theoretical affairs in sociology is probably the clearest evidence of the discipline’s intellectual bankruptcy. But let my colleagues rest assured: intellectual bankruptcy never spelled the doom of an academic discipline. Those within it are professionally deformed not to recognize it, and those outside of it could not care less. Sociology is safe for at least a few more decades.

    In response, Boutwell writes,

    Intellectually bankrupt? Those are strong words. Can a field survive like this? It can, and it has. Hundreds of new sociology PhDs are minted every year across the country (not to mention the undergraduate and graduate degrees that are conferred as well). How many students were taught that human beings evolved about around 150,000 years ago in Africa? How many know what a gene is? How many can describe Mendel’s laws, or sexual selection? The answer is very few. And, what is worse, many sociologists do not think this ignorance matters.

    In other words, Boutwell thinks the prevailing malaise in Sociology continues because sociologists don’t know about Darwin.  He may be right in some cases, but that’s not really the problem.  The problem is that the Blank Slate still prevails in sociology.  It is probably the most opaque of all the behavioral “sciences.”  In fact, it is just an ideological narrative pretending to be a science, just as psychology was back in the day when van den Berghe wrote his article.  Psychologists deal with individuals.  As a result they have to look at behavior a lot closer to the source of what motivates it.  As most reasonably intelligent lay people have been aware for millennia, it is motivated by human nature.  By the end of the 90’s, naturalists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary psychologists had heaped up such piles of evidence supporting that fundamental fact that psychologists who tried to prop up the threadbare shibboleths of the Blank Slate ran the risk of becoming laughing stocks.  By 2000 most of them had thrown in the towel.  Not so the sociologists.  They deal with masses of human beings.  It was much easier for them to insulate themselves from the truth by throwing up a smokescreen of “culture.”  They’ve been masturbating with statistics ever since.

    Boutwell thinks the solution is for them to learn some evolutionary biology.  I’m not sure which version of the “history” gave him that idea.  However, if he knew how the Blank Slate really went down, he might change his mind.  Evolutionary biologists and scientists in related fields were part of the heart and soul of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  They knew all about genes, Mendel’s laws, and sexual selection, but it didn’t help.  Darwin?  They simply redacted those parts of his work that affirmed the relationship between natural selection, human nature in general, and morality in particular.  No matter that Darwin himself was perfectly well aware of the connections.  For these “scientists,” an ideological narrative trumped scientific integrity until the mass of evidence finally rendered the narrative untenable.

    Of course, one could always claim that I’m just supporting an ideological narrative of my own.  Unfortunately, that claim would have to explain away a great deal of source material, and because the events in question are so recent, the source material is still abundant and easily accessible.  If Prof. Boutwell were to consult it he would find that evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, geneticists like Richard Lewontin, and many others like them considered the Blank Slate the very “triumph of evolution.”  I suggest that anyone with doubts on that score have a look at a book that bears that title by scientific historian Hamilton Cravens published in 1978 during the very heyday of the Blank Slate.  It is very well researched, cites scores of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and behavioral scientists, and concludes that all the work of these people who were perfectly familiar with Darwin culminated in the triumphant establishment of the Blank Slate as “scientific truth,” or, as announced by the title of his book, “The Triumph of Evolution.”  His final paragraph gives a broad hint about how something so ridiculous could ever have been accepted as an unquestionable dogma.  It reads,

    The long-range, historical function of the new evolutionary science was to resolve the basic questions about human nature in a secular and scientific way, and thus provide the possibilities for social order and control in an entirely new kind of society.  Apparently this was a most successful and enduring campaign in American culture.

    Here, unbeknownst to himself, Cravens hit the nail on the head.  Social control was exactly what the Blank Slate was all about.  It was essential that the ideal denizens of the future utopias that the Blank Slaters had in mind for us have enough “malleability” and “plasticity” to play their assigned parts.  “Human nature” in the form of genetically transmitted behavioral predispositions would only gum things up.  They had to go, and go they did.  Ideology trumped and derailed science, and kept it derailed for more than half a century.  As Boutwell has noticed, it remains derailed in sociology and a few other specialties that have managed to develop similarly powerful allergic reactions to the real world.  Reading Darwin isn’t likely to help a bit.

    One of the best books on the genesis of the Blank Slate is In Search of Human Nature, by Carl Degler.  It was published in 1991, well after the grip of the Blank Slate on the behavioral sciences had begun to loosen, and presents a somewhat more sober and realistic portrayal of the affair than Cravens’ triumphalist account.  Among other things it gives an excellent account of the genesis of the Blank Slate.  As portrayed by Degler, in the beginning it hadn’t yet become such a blatant tool for social control.  One could better describe it as an artifact of idealistic cravings.  Then, as now, one of the most important of these was the desire for human equality, not only under the law, but in a much more real, physical sense, among both races and individuals.  If human nature existed and was important, than such equality was out of the question.  Perfect equality was only possible if every human mind started out as a Blank Slate.

    Degler cites the work of several individuals as examples of this nexus between the ideal of equality and the Blank Slate, but I will focus on one in particular; John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism.  One of the commenters to an earlier post suggested that the behaviorists weren’t Blank Slaters.  I think that he, too, is suffering from historical myopia.  Again, it’s always useful to look at the source material for yourself.  In his book, Behaviorism, published in 1924, Watson notes that all human beings breathe, sneeze, have hearts that beat, etc., but have no inherited traits that might reasonably be described as human nature.  In those days, psychologists like William James referred to hereditary behavioral traits as “instincts.”  According to Watson,

    In this relatively simple list of human responses there is none corresponding to what is called an “instinct” by present-day psychologists and biologists.  There are then for us no instincts – we no longer need the term in psychology.  Everything we have been in the habit of calling an “instinct” today is the result largely of training – belongs to man’s learned behavior.

    A bit later on he writes,

    The behaviorist recognizes no such things as mental traits, dispositions or tendencies.  Hence, for him, there is no use in raising the question of the inheritance of talent in its old form.

    In case we’re still in doubt about his Blank Slate bona fides, a few pages later he adds,

    I should like to go one step further now and say, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”  I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.  Please note that when this experiment is made I am to be allowed to specify the way the children are to be brought up and the type of world they have to live in.

    Here, in a nutshell, we can see the genesis of hundreds of anecdotes about learned professors dueling over the role of “nature” versus “nurture,” in venues ranging from highbrow intellectual journals to several episodes of The Three Stooges.  Watson seems to be literally pulling at our sleeves and insisting, “No, really, I’m a Blank Slater.”  Under the circumstances I’m somewhat dubious about the claim that Watson, Skinner, and the rest of the behaviorists don’t belong in that category.

    What motivated Watson and others like him to begin this radical reshaping of the behavioral sciences?  I’ve already alluded to the answer above.  To make a long story short, they wanted to create a science that was “fair.”  For example, Watson was familiar with the history of the Jukes family outlined in an account of a study by Richard Dugdale published in 1877.  It documented unusually high levels of all kinds of criminal behavior in the family.  Dugdale himself insisted on the role of environmental as well as hereditary factors in explaining the family’s criminality, but later interpreters of his work focused on heredity alone.  Apparently Watson considered such an hereditary burden unfair.  He decided to demonstrate “scientifically” that a benign environment could have converted the entire family into model citizens.  Like many other scientists in his day, Watson abhorred the gross examples of racial discrimination in his society, as well as the crude attempts of the Social Darwinists to justify it.  He concluded that “science” must support a version of reality that banished all forms of inequality.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    I could go on and on about the discrepancies one can find between the “history” of the Blank Slate and source material that’s easily available to anyone willing to do a little searching.  Unfortunately, I’ve already gone on long enough for a single blog post.  Just be a little skeptical the next time you read an account of the affair in some textbook.  It ain’t necessarily so.


  • 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