Nature vs. Nurture at the Movies: Hollywood Turns on the Blank Slate

If Hollywood is any guide, we can put a fork in the Blank Slate.  I refer, of course, to the delusional orthodoxy that was enforced by the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century, according to which there is no such thing as human nature.  Consider, for example, the movie Divergent.  It belongs to the dystopian genre beloved of American audiences, and is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago.  A semblance of order has been restored by arranging the surviving population into five factions based on what the evolutionary psychologists might call their innate predispositions.  They include Candor, whose supreme values are honesty and trustworthiness, and from whose ranks come the legal scholars and lawyers.  The brave and daring are assigned to the Dauntless faction, and become the defenders of the little city-state.  At the opposite extreme is Amity, the home of those who value kindness, forgiveness and trust, and whose summum bonum is peace.  Their admiration for self-reliance suits them best for the agricultural chores.  Next comes Abnegation, composed of the natural do-gooders of society.  So selfless that they can only bear to look in a mirror for a few seconds, they are deemed so incorruptible that they are entrusted with the leadership and government of the city.  Finally, the intelligent and curious are assigned to the Erudite faction.  They fill such roles as doctors, scientists, and record-keepers.  They are also responsible for technological advances, which include special “serums,” some of which are identified with particular factions.  One of these is a “simulation serum,” used to induce imaginary scenarios that test a subject’s aptitude for the various factions.

As it happens, the simulation serum doesn’t always work.  When the heroine, Tris, takes the test, she discovers that she can “finesse” the simulation.  She is a rare instance of an individual whose nature does not uniquely qualify her for any faction, but who is adaptable enough to fit adequately into several of them.  In other words, she is a “Divergent,” and as such, a free thinker and a dire threat to anyone who might just happen to have plans to misuse the serums to gain absolute control over the city.

Alas, there’s trouble in paradise.  The “factions” are groups, and where there are groups, there are ingroups and outgroups.  Sure enough, each “in-faction” has its own “out-faction.”  This aspect of the plot is introduced matter-of-factly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  And, of course, since it can be assumed that the audience will consist largely of the species Homo sapiens, it is.  Most of us, with the exception of a few aging behavioral scientists, are familiar with the fact that it is our nature to apply different versions of morality depending on whether we are dealing with one of “us” or one of the “others.”  It turns out that Abnegation is the outgroup of Erudite, who consider them selfish poseurs, and weak and cowardly to boot.  That being the case, it follows that Abnegation is completely unsuited to run the government of Chicago or any other post-apocalyptic city state.  That role should belong to Erudite.

Which brings us, of course, to the “bad guy.”  You’ll never guess who the bad guy is, so I’ll just spill the beans.  It’s none other than Kate Winslet!  She plays the cold and nefarious Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews.  These smarties are planning to overthrow Abnegation and seize control for themselves with the aid of the martial Dauntless, whose members have been conveniently mind-controlled with the aid of one of Erudite’s serums.  Eventually, Jeanine unmasks Tris and her amorous partner, Four, as Divergents.  And with them in her power, she treats them to a remarkable soliloquy, which nearly caused me to choke on my butter-slathered popcorn.  Once Erudite is in the saddle, she explains, they will eliminate human nature.  Using a combination of re-education a la Joseph Stalin and mind control drugs, all citizens will become latter day versions of Homo sovieticus, perfectly adapted to fit into the Brave New World planned by the Erudites.  The utopia envisioned by generations of Blank Slaters will be realized at last!

There’s no need for me to reveal any more of the plot.  It’s a very entertaining movie so, by all means, see it yourself.  Suffice it to say that, if Hollywood now associates the denial of human nature with evil bad guys, then the Blank Slate must be stone cold dead.  Or at least it is with the exception of a few ancient Blank Slater bats still hanging in the more dark and obscure belfries of academia.

For the benefit of the history buffs among my readers, I note in passing that Hollywood never quite succumbed to Gleichschaltung.  They were always just a bit out of step, even in the heyday of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  Consider, for example, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie Straw Dogs.  It was directly inspired by the work of none other than that greatest of bête noires of the Blank Slaters, Robert Ardrey.  The first to taste of the forbidden fruit was Strother Martin, best known for his portrayal of the sadistic “Captain” in Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is a failure to communicate”).  He, in turn, passed on Ardrey’s African Genesis to Peckinpah, with the remark that the two seemed to share similar attitudes about violence in human beings.  Peckinpah was fascinated, and later said,

Robert Ardrey is a writer I admire tremendously.  I read him after Wild Bunch and have reread his books since because Ardrey really knows where it’s at, Baby.  Man is violent by nature, and we have to learn to live with it and control it if we are to survive.

That statement, rough around the edges though it is, actually shows more insight into the thought of Ardrey than that revealed by about 99.9% of the learned book reviewers and “Men of Science” who have deigned to comment on his work in the ensuing 45 years.  Specifically, Peckinpah understood that Ardrey was no “genetic determinist,” and that he believed that aggressive human predispositions could be controlled by environment, or “culture.”  As it happens, that is a theme he elaborated on repeatedly in every one of his books.  The theme of Straw Dogs was taken directly out of The Territorial Imperative.  According to Ardrey,

There is a law of territorial behavior as true of the single roebuck defending his private estate as it is of a band of howling monkeys defending its domain held in common.  Huxley long ago observed that any territory is like a rubber disc:  the tighter it is compressed, the more powerful will be the pressure outward to spring it back into shape.  A proprietor’s confidence is at its peak in the heartland, as is an intruder’s at its lowest.  Here the proprietor will fight hardest, chase fastest.

In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s diminutive hero, timid mathematician David Sumner, played by Dustin Hoffman, travels from the sheltered campus of an American university to be with his young wife, Amy, in her native village in England.  To make a long story short, she is raped by three of the locals.  Eventually, these muscular miscreants are joined by other townspeople in besieging Sumner in his territory, his house, in the mistaken belief that he is knowingly harboring a murderer.  Ardrey’s territorial boost takes over with a vengeance, and Sumner draws on unimagined reserves of strength, courage, and resourcefulness to annihilate the attackers one by one.  As badly behind the PC curve as any Disney film, Hollywood eventually repented and in 2000 churned out an alternative version of Straw Dogs, in which all the violent behavior was “learned.”  By then, however, getting in step meant getting out of step.  Even the Public Broadcasting Network had given the Blank Slate the heave ho years earlier.

Straw Dogs was hardly the first time Hollywood took up the subject of nature versus nurture.  For those whose tastes run more to the intellectual and profound, I have attached a short film below dealing with that theme that predates Peckinpah by almost a quarter of a century.

5 thoughts on “Nature vs. Nurture at the Movies: Hollywood Turns on the Blank Slate”

  1. Just watched the recent Godzilla film, another big Hollywood affair, and though not a particularly great film (I was disappointed after being so excited for it), I am reminded of its tagline “Nature has an order.” Watching the film, it was clear to me that the core theme suggests the potential disaster involved in attempting to overcome (or perhaps even destroy) nature. The Japanese scientist in the film (played by Ken Watanabe) states “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.”

    Perhaps not so much to do with human nature specifically (rather our relationship with nature), but still a humbling and respectful consideration for nature in and of itself.

  2. The film’s director pretty much agrees with you. He said that Godzilla represents the force of nature (“nature’s mascot” as he put it) and the other monsters represent man’s abuse of nature. In any case, the political message isn’t too deep or distracting in the latest Godzilla.

    I agree is isn’t a great film, but I thought it was entertaining. I know a little about animation methods, and was very impressed by how well Godzilla was done.

  3. Yeah, I agree with you about the visual effects – They were quite spectacular. If you’ve ever seen the director’s previous film ‘Monsters’, it really showcases his ability as an animator, as it was a smaller budget film ($500,000 compared to Godzilla’s $160 million) where he did all the effects himself from his personal computer.

    He seems to be a humble and fine director with potential for greatness, as some scenes from the film prove (particularly the riveting HALO jump sequence), but he just needs a better script to truly showcase his ability.

  4. Re the straw dogs comments in this blog post,
    there seems like a strange synchronicity, no surely its an unconscious trick, or maybe I’m underestimating John Gray, the British writer, but there have been a set of subtle signs that Gray knows more than he is letting on. In this article he says so much about Richard Dawkins, that we can see buds of hope http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119596/appetite-wonder-review-closed-mind-richard-dawkins and he says it with such panache that I felt compelled to re read his book ‘Straw Dogs, and when he mentions Eugene Morais, the Boer naturalist, sure enough he mentions the plagiarism and in the reference section he mentions Robert Ardrey.
    Now Gray makes some fantastic points in his book Straw Dogs, the title is provocative and the original Taoist quote so neatly sums up so much of what is wrong with the Dawkinsesque romanticism of the Atheist movement that morphed into the humanism/nationalism that he so forcefully demands other accept. I was just wondering if you were familiar with John Gray. Sadly I don’t think he gave Ardrey the credit he deserves(in Straw dogs), but maybe that’s just part of this British academic tribalism.

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