What Made the “blank slate” the Blank Slate?

The Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest scientific debacle in history.  For half a century, give or take, an enforced orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences, promoting the dogma that there is no such thing as human nature.  So traumatic was the affair that no accurate history of it has been written to this day.  What was it about the Blank Slate affair that transmuted what was originally just another false hypothesis into a dogma that derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century?  After all, the blank slate as a theory has been around since the time of Aristotle.  A host of philosophers have supported it in one form or another, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.  Many others had opposed them, including such prominent British moral philosophers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Mackintosh.

Sometimes the theories of these pre-Darwinian philosophers were remarkably advanced.  Hume, of course, is often cited by evolutionary psychologists in our own time for pointing out that such human behavioral phenomena as morality cannot be derived by reason, and are rooted in emotion, or “passions.”  In his words, “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.”  The relative sophistication of earlier thinkers can also be demonstrated by comparing them with the rigid dogmas of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century who followed them.  For example, the latter day dogmatists invented the “genetic determinist” straw man.  Anyone who insisted, however mildly, on the existence of human nature was automatically denounced as a “genetic determinist,” that is, one who believes that human “instincts” are as rigid as those of a spider building its nest, and we are powerless to control them rationally.  Real “genetic determinists” must be as rare as unicorns, because in spite of a diligent search I have never encountered one personally.  The opponents of the Blank Slate against whom the charge of “genetic determinism” was most commonly leveled were anything but.  They all insisted repeatedly that human behavior was influenced, not by rigid instincts that forced us to engage in warfare and commit acts of “aggression,” but by predispositions that occasionally worked against each other and could be positively directed or controlled by reason.  As it happens, this aspect of the nature of our “nature” was also obvious to earlier thinkers long before Darwin.  For example, 19th century British moral philosopher William Whewell, referring to the work of his co-philosopher Henry Sidgwick, writes,

The celebrated comparison of the mind to a sheet of white paper is not just, except we consider that there may be in the paper itself many circumstances which affect the nature of the writing.  A recent writer, however, appears to me to have supplied us with a much more apt and beautiful comparison.  Man’s soul at first, says Professor Sidgwick, is one unvaried blank, till it has received the impressions of external experience.  “Yet has this blank,” he adds, “been already touched by a celestial hand; and, when plunged in the colors which surround it, it takes not its tinge from accident but design, and comes out covered with a glorious pattern.”  This modern image of the mind as a prepared blank is well adapted to occupy a permanent place in opposition to the ancient sheet of white paper.

Note that Sidgwick was a utilitarian, and is often referred to as a “blank slater” himself.  Obviously, he had a much more nuanced interpretation of “human nature” than the Blank Slaters of a later day, and was much closer, both to the thought of Darwin and to that of modern evolutionary psychologists than they.  This, by the by, illustrates the danger of willy-nilly throwing all the thinkers who have ever mentioned some version of the blank slate into a common heap, or of ordering them all in a neat row, as if each one since the time of Aristotle “begat” the next after the fashion of a Biblical genealogy.

In any case, these pre-Darwinian thinkers and philosophers could occasionally discuss their differences without stooping to ad hominem attacks, and even politely.  That, in my opinion, is a fundamental difference between them and the high priests of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  The latter day Blank Slaters were ideologues, not scientists.  They derailed the behavioral sciences because their ideological narrative invariably trumped science, and common sense, for that matter.  Their orthodoxy was imposed and enforced, not by “good science,” but by the striking of moralistic poses, and the vicious vilification of anyone who opposed them.  And for a long time, it worked.

By way of example, it will be illuminating to look at the sort of “scientific” writings produced by one of these high priests, Richard Lewontin.  Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is occasionally flawed, but it does do a good job of describing the basis of Lewontin’s Blank Slate credentials.  Interested readers are encouraged to check the index.  As Pinker puts it,

So while Gould, Lewontin, and Rose deny that they believe in a blank slate, their concessions to evolution and genetics – that they let us eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, grow bigger than a squirrel, and bring about social change – reveal them to be empiricists more extreme than Locke himself, who at least recognized the need for an innate faculty of “understanding.”

Anyone doubting the accuracy of this statement can easily check the historical source material to confirm it.  For example, in a rant against E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books, which Lewontin co-authored with Gould and others, we find, along with copious references to the “genetic determinist” bugbear,

We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.

Anyone still inclined to believe that Lewontin wasn’t a “real” Blank Slater need only consult the title of his most significant book on the subject, Not In Our Genes, published in 1984.  What on earth was he referring to as “not in our genes,” if not innate behavior?  As it happens, that book is an excellent reference for anyone who cares to examine the idiosyncratic fashion in which the Blank Slaters were in the habit of doing “science.”  Here are some examples, beginning with the “genetic determinist” bogeyman:

Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies, and of defining human “universals” of behavior as natural characteristics of these societies.  As such, it has been gratefully seized upon as a political legitimator by the New Right, which finds its social nostrums so neatly mirrored in nature; for if these inequalities are biologically determined, they are therefore inevitable and immutable.

Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image.  The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society.

All of these recent political manifestations of biological determinism have in common that they are directly opposed to the political and social demands of those without power.

The Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz, in a scientific paper on animal behavior in 1940 in Germany during the Nazi extermination campaign said:  “The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility… must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy.  The racial idea as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.”  He was only applying the view of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who sixty years before wondered that “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”  What for Galton was a gradual process became rather more rapid in the hands of Lorenz’s efficient friends.  As we shall see, Galton and Lorenz are not atypical.

Of course, Lewontin is a Marxist.  Apparently, by applying the “dialectic,” he has determined that the fact that the process was even more rapid and efficient in the hands of his Communist friends doesn’t have quite the same “ideological” significance.  As far as eugenics is concerned, it was primarily promoted by leftists and “progressives” in its heyday.  Apparently Lewontin “forgot” that as well, for, continuing in the same vein, he writes:

The sorry history of this century of insistence on the iron nature of biological determination of criminality and degeneracy, leading to the growth of the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, and the race science of Nazi Germany has frequently been told.

The claim that “human nature” guarantees that inherited differences between individuals and groups will be translated into a hierarchy of status, wealth, and power completes the total ideology of biological determinism.  To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded.  To maintain their position they now claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, will be rewarded, for it is “human nature” to form hierarchies of power and reward.

Biological determinism, as we have been describing it, draws its human nature ideology largely from Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.

Everyone had to be stretched or squeezed to fit on the Procrustean bed of Lewontin’s Marxist dogma. In the process, E. O. Wilson became a “bourgeois” like all the rest:

More, by emphasizing that even altruism is the consequence of selection for reproductive selfishness, the general validity of individual selfishness in behaviors is supported.  E. O. Wilson has identified himself with American neoconservative liberalism, which holds that society is best served by each individual acting in a self-serving manner, limited only in the case of extreme harm to others.  Sociobiology is yet another attempt to put a natural scientific foundation under Adam Smith.  It combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.

This, then, was the type of “scientific” criticism favored by the ideologues of the Blank Slate.  They had an ideological agenda, and so assumed that everything that anyone else thought, wrote, or said, must be part of an ideological agenda as well.  There could be no such thing as “mere disagreement.”  Disagreement implied a different agenda, opposed to clearing the path to the Brave New World favored by the Blank Slaters.  By so doing it sought to institutionalize inequality, racism, and the evil status quo, and was therefore criminal.

It’s hard to imagine anything more important than getting the historical record of the Blank Slate affair straight.  We possess the means of committing suicide as a species.  Self-knowledge is critical if we are to avoid that fate.  The Blank Slate orthodoxy planted itself firmly in the path of any advance in human self-knowledge for a great many more years than we could afford to squander.  In spite of that, the bowdlerization of history continues.  Lewontin and the other high priests of the Blank Slate are being reinvented as paragons of reason, who were anything but “blank slaters” themselves, but merely applied some salutary adult supervision to the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology.  Often, they left themselves such an “out” to their own eventual rehabilitation by themselves protesting that they weren’t “blank slaters” at all.  For example, again quoting from Lewontin:

Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae, which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances.  If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.

One can easily see through this threadbare charade by merely taking the trouble to actually read Lewontin.  What Pinker has to say as noted above about the degree to which he was “not a blank slater” is entirely accurate.  I know of not a single instance in which he has ever agreed that anything commonly referred to in the vernacular as “human nature,” as opposed to urinating, defecating, being taller than a squirrel, etc., is real.  Throughout his career he has rejected the behavioral hypotheses of ethology (yes, I am referring to the behavior of animals other than man, as well as our own species), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology root and branch.

It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  However, it’s not out of the question that we don’t have enough time left to enjoy the luxury of making the same mistake twice.  Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to take a very dim view of any future saviors of the world who show signs of adopting political vilification as their way of “doing science.”

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

Leave a Reply