Geoffrey Gorer and the Blank Slate

Geoffrey Gorer was a British anthropologist, essayist, long-time friend of George Orwell, and, at least in my estimation, a very intelligent man.  He was also a Blank Slater.  In other words, he was a proponent of the orthodox dogma that prevailed among psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and other experts in the behavioral sciences during much of the 20th century according to which there was no such thing as human nature or, if it existed at all, its impact on human behavior was insignificant.  He defended that orthodoxy, among other places, in Man and Aggression, a collection of essays edited by Ashley Montagu, and an invaluable piece of source material for students of the Blank Slate phenomenon.

Now, of course, after one of the most remarkable paradigm shifts in the history of mankind, the Blank Slate has gone the way of Aristotelian cosmology, and books roll off the presses in an uninterrupted stream discussing innate human behavior as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  How, one might ask, if Geoffrey Gorer really was such an intelligent man, could he ever have taken the Blank Slate ideology seriously?  Well, I speak of intelligence in relative terms.  Taken as a whole, we humans aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are and, as Julius Caesar once said, we have a marked tendency to belief what we want to believe.

And why did Gorer “want” to believe in the Blank Slate?  I submit it was for the same reason that so many of his contemporaries defended the theory; their faith in socialism.  I do not use the term socialism in any kind of a pejorative sense.  Rather, I speak of it as the social phenomenon it was; for all practical purposes a secular religion posing as a science.  It is scarcely possible for people today to grasp the power and pervasiveness of socialist ideology in its heyday.  We have the advantage of hindsight and have watched socialist systems, ranging from the Communist authoritarian versions to the benign, democratic variant of the type tried in Great Britain after the war, fail over and over again.  Earlier generations did not have that advantage.

More or less modern socialist theories were prevalent in England long before Marx.  By 1917 they had taken such root in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia that Maxim Gorky could write that he couldn’t imagine a democratic state that wasn’t socialist.  A couple of decades later, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, Malcolm Muggeridge remarked that,

In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.

Anyone doubting the influence of similar ideas in the United States at the time need only go back and read the New Republic, The Nation, The American Mercury, and some of the other intellectual and political journals of the mid-30’s.  In a word, then, socialism was once accepted as an unquestionable truth by large numbers of very influential intellectuals.  It seemed perfectly obvious that capitalism was gasping its last, and the only question left seemed to be how the transition to socialism would take place, and how the socialist states of the future should be run.

There was just one problem with this as far as the social and behavioral sciences were concerned.  Socialism and human nature were mutually exclusive.  The firmest defenders of genetically programmed behavioral predispositions in human beings have never denied the myriad possible variations in human societies that are attributable to culture and environment.  Socialism, however, required more than that.  It required human behavior to be infinitely malleable which, if innate behavioral predispositions exist, it most decidedly is not.

Which brings us back to Geoffrey Gorer.  In an essay entitled, appropriately enough, The Remaking of Man, written in 1956, we can follow the intellectual threads that show how all this came together in the mind of a mid-20th century anthropologist.  I will let Gorer speak for himself.

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.

In Gorer’s opinion the problem wasn’t human nature.  It couldn’t be, or socialism wouldn’t work.  The problem was that we simply hadn’t been using the right technique.  For example, we hadn’t been relying on proper role models.  Gorer had somehow convinced himself that female school teachers had played a decisive role in altering the character of immigrants to American, “transforming them within a generation into good citizens of their countries of adoption, with changed values, habits and expectations… In our original thinking, this role of the school-teacher, and the derivatives of this situation, were idiosyncratic to the culture of the United States.”  According to Gorer, the introduction of police in England had had a similar magical effect.  By serving as role models, they had, almost sole-handedly, brought about “the great modifications in the behavior of the English urban working classes in the nineteenth century from violence and lawlessness to gentleness and law-abiding.”  They had, “…provided an exemplar of self-control which the mass of the population could emulate and use as a model.”  If the phrase “just so story” popped into your mind, you’re not alone.  Of course, one man’s “just so story” is another man’s “scientific hypothesis.”  It all depends on whether it happens to be politically convenient or not.

Proper role models, then, were one of the ingredients that Gorer discovered were needed to “change the character and behavior of adult human beings within a single generation.”  He discovered no less than four more in the process of reading Margaret Mead’s New Lives for Old, which he described as “account of a society which has transformed itself within twenty-five years.”  The society in question was that of the Manus, inhabitants of the Admiralty Islands, which lie just north of New Guinea.  And sure enough, their society did change drastically in a generation and, if we are to believe Mead, for the good.  This change had been greatly facilitated by one Paliau, a charismatic leader of the Manu who luckily happened along at the time.  Gorer admitted this was a fortuitous accident, but he saw, or at least imagined he saw, several other ingredients for radical change which could be applied by properly qualified experts.  In his words,

The availability of a man of Paliau’s genius is obviously an unpredictable accident which cannot be generalized; but the other four conditions – readiness for change, the presentation of a model for study and observation, the sudden and complete break with the past, nurture and support during the first years of the new life – would seem to provide a paradigm of the way in which men may be changed in a single generation.

Human societies certainly may change radically within a very short time.  It is an adaptive trait that accounts for the fact that we managed, not only to survive, but to thrive during times of rapid environmental change.  The brilliant South African, Eugene Marais, was the first to make the connection.  In his words,

If now we picture the great continent of Africa with its extreme diversity of natural conditions – its high, cold, treeless plateaux; its impenetrable tropical forests; its great river systems; its inland seas; its deserts; its rain and droughts; its sudden climatic changes capable of altering the natural aspect of great tracts of country in a few years – all forming an apparently systemless chaos, and then picture its teeming masses of competing organic life, comprising more species, more numbers and of greater size than can be found on any other continent on earth, is it not at once evident how great would be the advantage if under such conditions a species could be liberated from the limiting force of hereditary memories? Would it not be conducive to preservation if under such circumstances a species could either suddenly change its habitat or meet any new natural conditions thrust upon it by means of immediate adaptation? Is it not self-evident that in a species far-wandering, whether on account of sudden natural changes, competitive pressure, or through inborn “wanderlust,” those individuals which could best and most quickly adapt themselves to the most varied conditions would be the ones most likely to survive and perpetuate the race, and that among species, one equipped for distant migrations would always have a better chance than a confined one? Are not all the elements present to bring about the natural selection of an attribute by means of which a species could thus meet and neutralise one of the most prolific causes of destruction?

This is not advanced as a demonstrable theory. It is no more than an attempt to show that it is hardly possible to imagine conditions existing anywhere in nature at any time which would not in some degree tend towards the evolution of such an attribute. If these present conditions are self-evidently likely to select it, how much more likely, for instance, would not its birth and growth have been during the earlier history of the planet, during the Pleistocene period, when cataclysmic movements of its crust and great and repeated climatic changes still belonged to the usual and customary category of natural events.

These astounding insights occurred to a man, working mainly alone in South Africa, in the early years of the 20th century.  Marais was indeed a genius.  Unfortunately, at least from Gorer’s point of view, while his theories accounted for mankind’s extreme adaptability, they in no way implied that that adaptability would enable well-meaning ideologues to reinvent human character at will to convert us into suitable inmates for whatever utopia du jour they were cooking up for us.  It would seem that’s what Gorer overlooked in his sanguine conclusions about the Manu.  Their society had indeed adapted, but it had done so on its own, and not as programmed by some inspired anthropologist.  He concludes his essay as follows:

The great merit of New Lives for Old is that it opens up a whole new field for observation, experiment and speculation, a field of the greatest relevance to our present preoccupations.

The “present preoccupation” which required the “remaking of man” was, of course, our happy transformation to a socialism.  Unfortunately, the wishful thinking of a generation of Gorers made no impression on the genetic programming responsible for our behavioral predispositions.  It remained stubbornly in place, spoiling who knows how many of the splendid Brave New Worlds that noble idealists the world over were preparing for us.

In retrospect, socialism ended, as the old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky suggested it might in 1939, just before Stalin had him murdered, in a utopia.  It was a secular religion that inspired a highly speculative and mindless faith in a collection of untested theories in the minds of a host of otherwise highly intelligent and perfectly sane people like Gorer, who all managed to somehow convince themselves that the socialist mirage was a “science.”  As E. O. Wilson so succinctly summed it up, “Great theory, wrong species.”  And that, perhaps, is the reason that the Blank Slate was defended so fiercely for so long, in the teeth of increasingly weighty scientific evidence refuting it, not to mention common sense, until its conflict with reality became too heavy to bear, and it finally collapsed.  It was an indispensible prop for a God that failed.


Geoffrey Gorer

3 thoughts on “Geoffrey Gorer and the Blank Slate”

  1. The current of thought, the streams with their flavours and ‘group speak’ are fascinating and again rich ground for pondering.
    I’ll use socialism but add a few other isms’, pick any you like that entails a moment of epiphany. And let’s return to our bedrock example for epiphany, the rapture of religion.
    I explained to a couple of friends recently, they were later day atheists, (one after a lifetime the other married in) the moment of epiphany comes before the “Architecture” of the belief, therefore epiphany before understanding.
    Particularly for the later convert, but even the born Catholic could identify, the ‘rapture’, the epiphany came before any exploration of the layout of the belief. Ie they were not experiencing epiphany because of ‘truth’. Well what was it then?
    Back to nature, the baby duckling identifies the first object as its ‘mother’. Lorenz had them follow him around. Can we imagine the rapture of the duckling, having found the answer of the primal need.
    Man is more complex, his Band/group had parents yes, but it also had alpha’s or a group of alpha’s, the submissive needed to identify and possible change the source of the ‘rapture’.
    Back to the isms and religion, they are all dressed as Tinbergen would suggest in ‘Super Stimuli’ Ie they are irresistible to the young, the weak and the submissive! The Church and the King long ago learned of the hypnotic power of large grand buildings, power dressing and crown’s etc.
    When someone follows a new leader or ideology or discovers a new religion, lets be clear, it is always a external and powerful force. Perceived by the individual and the individual experiences a release, as in Lorenz’s hydraulic release, as soon as it is released it will be defended etc as the band member, the tribe member would defend it.
    Crucially we now see that the ‘content’, the language of the ism or religion is unimportant, and as above the person can hold farcical positions in regard to reality.
    We are right back to the functioning of the conscious and unconscious here.
    Mans greatest arrogance is his belief that his conscious mind is in control. Personally I find that contemplation bizarre, however openly admit that for the vast majority of my life would have thought any other possibility to ridiculous to consider.

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