On the Malleability and Plasticity of the History of the Blank Slate

Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider the Blank Slate affair the greatest debacle in the history of science.  Perhaps you haven’t heard of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  Those who are the most capable of writing its history are often also those who are most motivated to sweep the whole thing under the rug.  In any case, in the context of this post the Blank Slate refers to a dogma that prevailed in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century according to which there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as human nature.  I consider it the greatest scientific debacle of all time because, for more than half a century, it blocked the path of our species to self-knowledge.  As we gradually approach the technological ability to commit collective suicide, self-knowledge may well be critical to our survival.

Such histories of the affair as do exist are often carefully and minutely researched by historians familiar with the scientific issues involved.  In general, they’ve personally lived through at least some phase of it, and they’ve often been personally acquainted with some of the most important players.  In spite of that, their accounts have a disconcerting tendency to wildly contradict each other.  Occasionally one finds different versions of the facts themselves, but more often its a question of the careful winnowing of the facts to select and record only those that support a preferred narrative.

Obviously, I can’t cover all the relevant literature in a single blog post.  Instead, to illustrate my point, I will focus on a single work whose author, Hamilton Cravens, devotes most of his attention to events in the first half of the 20th century, describing the sea change in the behavioral sciences that signaled the onset of the Blank Slate.  As it happens, that’s not quite what he intended.  What we see today as the darkness descending was for him the light of science bursting forth.  Indeed, his book is entitled, somewhat optimistically in retrospect, The Triumph of Evolution:  The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941.  It first appeared in 1978, more or less still in the heyday of the Blank Slate, although murmurings against it could already be detected among academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences after the appearance of a series of devastating critiques in the popular literature in the 60’s by Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and others, topped off by E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

Ostensibly, the “triumph” Cravens’ title refers to is the demise of what he calls the “extreme hereditarian” interpretations of human behavior that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century in favor of a more “balanced” approach that recognized the importance of culture, as revealed by a systematic application of the scientific method.  One certainly can’t fault him for being superficial.  He introduces us to most of the key movers and shakers in the behavioral sciences in the period in question.  There are minutiae about the contents of papers in old scientific journals, comments gleaned from personal correspondence, who said what at long forgotten scientific conferences, which colleges and universities had strong programs in psychology, sociology and anthropology more than 100 years ago, and who supported them, etc., etc.  He guides us into his narrative so gently that we hardly realize we’re being led by the nose.  Gradually, however, the picture comes into focus.

It goes something like this.  In bygone days before the “triumph of evolution,” the existence of human “instincts” was taken for granted.  Their importance seemed even more obvious in light of the rediscovery of Mendel’s work.  As Cravens put it,

While it would be inaccurate to say that most American experimentalists concluded as  the result of the general acceptance of Mendelism by 1910 or so that heredity was all powerful and environment of no consequence, it was nevertheless true that heredity occupied a much more prominent place than environment in their writings.

This sort of “subtlety” is characteristic of Cravens’ writing.  Here, he doesn’t accuse the scientists he’s referring to of being outright genetic determinists.  They just have an “undue” tendency to overemphasize heredity.  It is only gradually, and by dint of occasional reading between the lines that we learn the “true” nature of these believers in human “instinct.”  Without ever seeing anything as blatant as a mention of Marxism, we learn that their “science” was really just a reflection of their “class.”  For example,

But there were other reasons why so many American psychologists emphasized heredity over environment.  They shared the same general ethnocultural and class background as did the biologists.  Like the biologists, they grew up in middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant homes, in a subculture where the individual was the focal point of social explanation and comment.

As we read on, we find Cravens is obsessed with white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, noting that the “wrong” kind of scientists belong to that “class” scores of times.  Among other things, they dominate the eugenics movement, and are innocently referred to as Social Darwinists, as if these terms had never been used in a pejorative sense.  In general they are supposed to oppose immigration from other than “Nordic” countries, and tend to support “neo-Lamarckian” doctrines, and believe blindly that intelligence test results are independent of “social circumstances and milieu.”  As we read further into Section I of the book, we are introduced to a whole swarm of these instinct-believing WASPs.

In Section II, however, we begin to see the first glimmerings of a new, critical and truly scientific approach to the question of human instincts.  Men like Franz Boas, Robert Lowie, and Alfred Kroeber, began to insist on the importance of culture.  Furthermore, they believed that their “culture idea” could be studied in isolation in such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, insisting on sharp, “territorial” boundaries that would protect their favored disciplines from the defiling influence of instincts.  As one might expect,

The Boasians were separated from WASP culture; several were immigrants, of Jewish background, or both.

A bit later they were joined by joined by John Watson and his behaviorists who, after performing some experiments on animals and human infants, apparently experienced an epiphany.  As Cravens puts it,

To his amazement, Watson concluded that the James-McDougall human instinct theory had no demonstrable experimental basis.  He found the instinct theorists had greatly overestimated the number of original emotional reactions in infants.  For all practical purposes, he realized that there were no human instincts determining the behavior of adults or even of children.

Perhaps more amazing is the fact that Cravens suspected not a hint of a tendency to replace science with dogma in all this.  As Leibniz might have put it, everything was for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.  Everything pointed to the “triumph of evolution.”  According to Cravens, the “triumph” came with astonishing speed:

By the early 1920s the controversy was over.  Subsequently, psychologists and sociologists joined hands to work out a new interdisciplinary model of the sources of human conduct and emotion stressing the interaction of heredity and environment, of innate and acquired characters – in short, the balance of man’s nature and his culture.

Alas, my dear Cravens, the controversy was just beginning.  In what follows, he allows us a glimpse at just what kind of “balance” he’s referring to.  As we read on into Section 3 of the book, he finally gets around to setting the hook:

Within two years of the Nazi collapse in Europe Science published an article symptomatic of a profound theoretical reorientation in the American natural and social sciences.  In that article Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist, and M. F. Ashley-Montagu, an anthropologist, summarized and synthesized what the last quarter century’s work in their respective fields implied for extreme hereditarian explanations of human nature and conduct.  Their overarching thesis was that man was the product of biological and social evolution.  Even though man in his biological aspects was as subject to natural processes as any other species, in certain critical respects he was unique in nature, for the specific system of genes that created an identifiably human mentality also permitted man to experience cultural evolution… Dobzhansky and Ashley-Montagu continued, “Instead of having his responses genetically fixed as in other animal species, man is a species that invents its own responses, and it is out of this unique ability to invent…  his responses that his cultures are born.”

and, finally, in the conclusions, after assuring us that,

By the early 1940s the nature-nurture controversy had run its course.

Cravens leaves us with some closing sentences that epitomize his “triumph of evolution:”

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.

At this point, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Apparently Cravens, who has just supplied us with arcane details about who said what at obscure scientific conferences half a century and more before he published his book was completely unawares of exactly what Ashley Montagu, his herald of the new world order, meant when he referred to “extreme hereditarian explanations,” in spite of the fact that he spelled it out ten years earlier in an invaluable little pocket guide for the followers of the “new science” entitled Man and Aggression.  There Montagu describes the sort of “balance of man’s nature and his culture” he intended as follows:

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.

and,

There is, in fact, not the slightest evidence or ground for assuming that the alleged “phylogenetically adapted instinctive” behavior of other animals is in any way relevant to the discussion of the motive-forces of human behavior.  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.

So much for Cravens’ “balance.”  He spills a great deal of ink in his book assuring us that the Blank Slate orthodoxy he defends was the product of “science,” little influenced by any political or ideological bias.  Apparently he also didn’t notice that, not only in Man and Aggression, but ubiquitously in the Blank Slate literature, the “new science” is defended over and over and over again with the “argument” that anyone who opposes it is a racist and a fascist, not to mention far right wing.

As it turns out, Cravens didn’t completely lapse into a coma following the publication of Ashley Montagu’s 1947 pronunciamiento in Science.  In his “Conclusion” we discover that, after all, he had a vague presentiment of the avalanche that would soon make a shambles of his “new evolutionary science.”  In his words,

Of course in recent years something approximating at least a minor revival of the old nature-nurture controversy seems to have arisen in American science and politics.  It is certainly quite possible that this will lead to a full scale nature-nurture controversy in time, not simply because of the potential for a new model of nature that would permit a new debate, but also, as one historian has pointed out, because our own time, like the 1920s, has been a period of racial and ethnic polarization.  Obviously any further comment would be premature.

Obviously, my dear Cravens.  What’s the moral of the story, dear reader?   Well, among other things, that if you really want to learn something about the Blank Slate, you’d better not be shy of wading through the source literature yourself.  It’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.  One particularly rich source of historical nuggets is H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, which Ron Unz has been so kind as to post online.  Mencken took a personal interest in the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, and took care to publish articles by heavy hitters on both sides.  For a rather different take than Cravens on the motivations of the early Blank Slaters, see for example, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley.  Parshley was an interesting character who took on no less an opponent than Clarence Darrow in a debate over eugenics, and later translated Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto The Second Sex into English.

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17 thoughts on “On the Malleability and Plasticity of the History of the Blank Slate”

  1. I would have used the term SSSM to describe what you’re talking about here. The blank slate is merely one facet of it. The term “SSSM” (standard social science model) is an umbrella term that encompasses just about every postmodern scourge we’re up against. Social constructionism, environmental determinism, cultural determinism, the blank slate; in short, the whole repulsive package. Relativism (moral, cultural, aesthetic) is of course the underlying factor that strings it all together. It’s an absolute nightmare.

  2. There’s certainly truth in what you say. The battle is by no means over. However, I think the Blank Slate phenomenon warrants attention in its own right. IMHO it was the greatest scientific debacle of all time, for all practical purposes ending for a period of half a century and more the progress of our species towards understanding our own behavior. One can document its beginning, its end, and the subsequent distortion of history to rationalize it among the “men of science” who were responsible for it. In short, one can learn something from the Blank Slate disaster if one has an open mind and isn’t afraid to look at the historical source material.

  3. I think the challenge we face from the postmodern liberal left is just as great, if not greater, than the challenge science faces from religion. Leftism is surely the best example of a secular religion that I’ve ever encountered. What bothers me is just how big the knowledge gap is between the general public, young people especially, and true science. In a way the liberals and religious are very similar; they are both indoctrinated, but they also both object to the scientific truth on the grounds of “human dignity” (equality). This is upsetting for me as an autistic person because being honest and telling the truth is very important to me. I cannot trust, let alone respect, someone who believes something is true when I know it to be false. The relentless relativism that swamps contemporary culture is what unnerves me the most. I cannot imagine a more destructive philosophy.

  4. I think you’re right when you say the current versions of postmodern Puritanism are similar to the more traditional religions. Psychologically speaking, they are practically identical, the only difference being that the latter have spiritual gods, whereas the former have earthly ones. That is actually something of an Achilles heel. Eventually, like the earthly god of Marxism, they can be fact checked. Unfortunately, before that ever happens these “modern” secular religions can do a tremendous amount of damage.

  5. I came here from a link on HBD chick’s website. I don’t know exactly what the focus of your site is or what fields you would claim to be an expert. Are you a geneticist, or a biologist, or perhaps an anthropologist? Are you familiar with human biodiversity (HBD)? What country do you live in?

    I would describe myself as a racially aware atheist, and my primary concern is the safety of the West European peoples and their culture. I am in an odd position morally, as I think the world is such an awful place, for the most part, that creating new life is fundamentally unjustifiable.

  6. My academic and professional background is in nuclear engineering and physics. However, I write mainly about human nature, with emphasis on morality, on my blog. My position on hbd is similar to hbd chick’s. I’m in the USA, and, like you, am an atheist. However, I cannot agree with you on creating new life. Morality exists because it increased the odds that our ancestors would survive and reproduce, or “create new life” as you put it. As I see it, that is the only reason that morality as we know it exists. To use it as an excuse not to create new life is, therefore, to stand it on its head. It is what I refer to as a “morality inversion.”

  7. Perhaps it is an inversion, but I still don’t see how it invalidates the anti-natalist position. I have always been told that I’m a very negative person, even as a child, although I would use the term “realistic” instead. The book that confirmed my deepest fears about the world, and how much the game is rigged against us as sentient creatures with hopes and dreams that cannot possibly be fulfilled, is “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence” by South African professor of philosophy David Benatar. I would consider it one of the most important books ever written, at least in terms of procreative ethics.

    American atheist Sam Harris (who is Jewish and therefore very liberal, unfortunately) has written a very good book called “The Moral Landscape” which attempts to tackle the problem of relativism. The sad reality, of course, is that morality is not enshrined in immutable cosmic law like physics and gravity, but I still think he does a pretty damn good job.

  8. Morality exists because it evolved. It follows that, if Good and Evil existed as objective things-in-themselves, nothing could conceivably be more immoral than deliberately failing to survive and reproduce. In other words, it would be impossible for anything to be more immoral than the anti-natalist position. Of course, objective Good and Evil do not exist, so the morality or immorality of anti-natalism cannot be subject to truth claims. In the end, it boil down to a mere whim. My whim happens to be the opposite. It seems to me that any biological entity whose phenotype includes a consciousness that desires its own annihilation is dysfunctional. I would find it troubling to think of myself as a dysfunctional biological entity. Therefore I reject anti-natalism.

    As for Sam Harris, my take on him may be found at:

    http://helian.net/blog/2010/10/14/worldview/sam-harris-still-chasing-the-moral-butterfly/

  9. I accept that, but I think you have to acknowledge that morality has evolved into something much more complex than an aiding mechanism of the evolutionary drive to spread one’s genes.

    There is a great deal of discomfort surrounding anti-natalist arguments, as there are for race realist and genetic determinist arguments. Benatar readily anticipates the argument that anti-natalism is counter-productive to the wellbeing of our species, but goes on the explain that the opposite may in fact be true.

    I would very much like you to read his book and write a review. I think you will find it very stimulating. But I should probably warn you, several reviewers claim to have experienced an intense feeling of dread as a result of reading the book, so it may well be potent enough to induce an existential crisis in more faint-hearted readers.

  10. There is no evidence whatsoever for the contention that morality has evolved as you say. The heritable behavioral predispositions that are the root cause for the existence of morality are probably quite similar now to what they were tens of thousands of years ago. What you refer to as “evolution” is in reality the exponential explosion of blather we have witnessed in the course of human history resulting from the attempts of creatures with large brains to explain and interpret these moral emotions without having the faintest idea how they came into existence and why. The result has been a huge smoke screen that has formed a very effective barrier to us gaining any useful knowledge about our own nature and behavior. In short, it has barred the way to self-knowledge.

    I haven’t read Benatar’s book, but based on the reviews it would appear that he is just another among the myriad philosophers who have made truth claims about what is “really” good and what is “really” evil. In fact, I agree with Westermarck that, as manifestations of subjective emotions, good and evil have no existence as objects, and are thus entirely outside the realm of truth claims. His “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas” is available online to anyone who cares to look at it. Read the first chapter, and you will see what I’m talking about.

    In general, I merely point out such instances of morality inversions to my readers. Beyond that, if they don’t “get it,” and are determined to remove themselves from the gene pool, I can only conclude that, as far as I am concerned, they are probably performing a useful function.

  11. So you’re saying that because good and evil are human constructs they don’t matter? I couldn’t possibly agree with that. Benatar explains that a significant part of the human dilemma is that we desire more from our lives than this reality can provide. To survive and pass on your genes may be what nature has in mind as far as life’s purpose goes, but we as individuals put far more focus on the quality of our experiences during the time we spend in existence. That is how we measure success, by the level of happiness we attain from our lives.

    But moving away from reproductive ethics, I wanted to talk about race. Are you in any way troubled by the likely extinction of the white race during this century, and what that will mean for civilisation? It could well be that the dark Caucasians of the Indian subcontinent could provide the source for a white resurgence in future years, if they migrate northwards again. But the torch of modern civilisation will inevitably pass to the East Asian peoples, who have not been brainwashed to hate their own superior genes and culture. The white man will likely be annihilated by his ethno-masochism, which is as much a product of his own complacency as it is a tool crafted by his enemies.

  12. I can’t think of anything that’s more important than a correct understanding of human morality. That should be obvious from the fact that I write about it so much. However, good and evil as you imagine them can’t possibly matter, because they don’t exist. They don’t exist as independent objects. They don’t exist as things-in-themselves. They exist as subjective constructs in the consciousness of individuals. As such, they cannot possibly manage to jump out of one individual’s skull and gain independent, legitimate normative power over any other individual or group. As Westermarck put it:

    “As clearness and distinctness of the conception of an object easily produces the belief in its truth, so the intensity of a moral emotion makes him who feels it disposed to objectivize the moral estimate to which it gives rise, in other words, to assign to it universal validity.”

    However, as he points out, these “objects” can’t have universal validity, because they don’t exist. One can’t make truth claims about imaginary things.

    In my younger days a girlfriend informed me that we would all be dead in five years because the oxygen in the atmosphere would be exhausted. That was a great deal longer than five years ago. I would put the fear that the white race will disappear by the end of the century in a similar category. Many white public intellectuals do seem to be suicidal. However, that is a cultural trait of a certain class of whites that is not shared by the whole race, and is not somehow immutable. I happen to live in a Mormon neighborhood. My next door neighbors have eleven children and 37 grandchildren. I think the odds are rather good that they and their descendants will still be around when the mouths of the public intellectuals referred to above are stopped with dust.

  13. I am taken aback by your stance. Your position sounds very similar to the relentless relativism of the left. “But what is real? How can we know for sure?” So because something exists in the mind and not in the physical world, you would say it’s not real? So pain and love are not real things? Maybe not as tangible as this keyboard I’m typing on, but still, you’re getting very abstract indeed. Reminds me of that bizarre “how can I be sure other minds exist outside my own” argument.

    Whites may not become extinct in their entirety, but they will become close to extinct in their homeland of Europe. I’m sure you’re aware by now that a policy of interbreeding, especially with blacks, is being heavily promoted by Western governments and the mass media. This will be disastrous because, as I’m sure you would be aware, blacks are physically and mentally much lower down the evolutionary tree. I know leftists like to say that evolution is random and therefore any “stages” are socially constructed, but just look at them. They have retained more simian features than any other population group, which is what one would logically expect to find, since they’ve never left the environment of our ancient ape ancestors and their physical morphology and mental acuity has not been under much pressure to change. Having said that, I find it interesting to note that there bear not much resemblance at all to chimps, whereas gorillas look remarkably similar to negroes. I have even heard that they retain a bony appendage known as the simian shelf, found in apes but not in whites or mongols. Some west African populations also appear to have retained a slight sagittal crest, as you would find in a gorilla. This is undoubtedly disturbing information for black people to possess, and even more disturbing for the white man, whose is shrinking daily before an ever growing tidal wave of primitive Africans. This is an astonishing era of de-volution that we are currently passing through. What are your thoughts? Are you as intimidated and astonished as I am?

  14. My position does not imply moral relativism, nor any ambiguity about what is real. I’m merely saying that things that exist subjectively in human consciousness do not necessarily also exist as independent objects outside of human consciousness.

    I don’t deny that there are substantial heritable differences between races. I also oppose immigration of racial or cultural elements that are alien to the races and cultures already existing in a country. I do so not because I consider certain races and cultures inferior, but because of the innate tendency of humans to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups. As a result, such immigration is likely to lead to social friction and unrest at a minimum, and possibly civil war, as our history has demonstrated so many times in the past.

    However, I don’t agree that blacks are hopelessly inferior to whites. I also believe that individuals should be judged as such, and not according to their race. There may be a gap between the average IQ of blacks and whites. However, during my career I had the responsibility to judge scientific proposals for grants to be awarded by major government agencies. Some who were awarded grants, in fields such as computer science, were black. They won their awards against stiff competition, and because they deserved to win, not because of anything like affirmative action. Many of them later did an excellent job performing the scientific work described in their proposals. What should one tell such people? That they are certainly very intelligent as individuals, but their work can’t be considered because they belong to an inferior race? Perhaps it’s just my U.S. cultural background, but I personally value equality, and I certainly wouldn’t like to be subjected to that kind of prejudice myself. Just a whim, if you like, but that’s the way I feel about it.

  15. Well you’re saying that because they don’t exist in the physical world, only in our minds, that makes it all subjective and relative. You open up the whole nominalist wormhole of doubt and uncertainty. How can you write about morality if you believe right and wrong are not objective in any sense, but merely the product of a random and unplanned evolutionary process?

    I kind of feel that you dodged my question. I’m not talking about blacks in America, the vast majority of whom have hijacked white and Amerindian genes through past miscegenation, which will have has bolstered their IQ. I’m talking about Africa and sub-Saharan Africans. I would like you to address what I said about their status, about them having more simian traits, both physically in regard to their morphology, and mentally with regard to their simple-mindedness and propensity for rage and violence. The simian shelf and the sagittal crest, not to mention their muzzle-like prognathism and larger teeth, and the amber sclerotic coat that often covers their eyes in the same manner as a gorilla.

    Equality is a good example of a genuine social construct. It does not exist naturally, and so has to be enforced with social engineering policies. The evolutionary process is highly discriminatory, and is at total odds with the morally and politically driven concept of equality.

  16. My take on morality is really very simple. I consider it a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits in creatures with large brains. The rest of my opinions about it follow from that. Beyond that, you will find the answers to your questions about it in my blog. If you don’t agree with me, so be it.

    I don’t think your opinions about blacks are entirely rational. Rather, they are an instance of one of the fundamental characteristics of human morality; our tendency to apply a dual moral code, depending on whether we perceive those we are dealing with as members of our ingroup or outgroup. For more on the subject, I suggest you get a copy of Robert Ardrey’s “The Territorial Imperative,” either in hardcopy or on Kindle, and read Chapter 8, “The Amity-Enmity Complex.”

    If blacks are really as “simian” as you say, how is it that escaped slaves in the West Indies managed to defeat British expeditionary forces sent to root them out on numerous occasions? How is it that, in spite of being a despised minority, they either created or contributed substantially to every “indigenous” form of American music, including Jazz, Blues, Reggae, Ragtime, Rock and Roll, etc. How is it that, while there may be basket cased in Africa just as there are in Europe, many African countries are enjoying substantial economic growth and rapidly improving standards of living? Is that really all because of tiny white minorities? I don’t think so. In short, I think the differences between blacks and whites are a great deal less drastic than you think.

  17. Hi Helian, just found this post because Simon linked to it here: http://therightstuff.biz/2015/04/26/a-comprehensive-response-to-aurini-forney/#comment-1990210588

    You seem like a bright guy, and it’d be a shame to see you waste your time, so I’m just going to tell you what dozens of people at TRS have had to figure out for themselves: Simon is not worth talking to. You can take my word for it or not, but entering a dialogue with him is like slipping slowly into a mud pit from which there is no escape. He is too arrogant and autistic to be taught anything of value, and to make matters worse, he is too lazy to read anything longer or more complex than a blog post. He is immune to improvement of any kind.

    Awesome blog, btw. I’m sure some of the people at TRS would leave to hear your input on the posts/podcasts there. Do feel free to drop by!

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