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.
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.