Faith versus Fact: New Atheism Rejects the Blank Slate

Jerry Coyne just launched another New Atheist salvo against the Defenders of the Faith in the form of his latest book, Faith versus Fact.  It’s well written and well reasoned, effectively squashing the “sophisticated Christian” gambit of the faithful, and storming some of their few remaining “God of the gaps” redoubts.  However, one of its most striking features is its decisive rejection of the Blank Slate.  The New Atheists have learned to stop worrying and love innate morality!

Just like the Blank Slaters of yore, the New Atheists may be found predominantly on the left of the political spectrum.  In Prof. Coyne’s case the connection is even more striking.  As a graduate student, his professor/advisor was none other than Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin of Not In Our Genes fame!  In spite of that, in Faith versus Fact he not only accepts but positively embraces evolutionary psychology in general and innate morality in particular.  Why?

It turns out that, along with the origin of life, the existence of consciousness, the “fine tuning” of physical constants, etc.,  one of the more cherished “gaps” in the “God of the gaps” arguments of the faithful is the existence of innate morality.  As with the other “gap” gambits, the claim is that it couldn’t exist unless God created it.  As noted in an earlier post, the Christian philosopher Francis Hutcheson used a combination of reason and careful observation of his own species to demonstrate the existence of an innate “moral sense,” building on the earlier work of Anthony Ashley-Cooper and others early in the 18th century.  The Blank Slaters would have done well to read his work.  Instead, they insisted on the non-existence of human nature, thereby handing over this particular “gap” to the faithful by default.   Obviously, Prof. Coyne had second thoughts, and decided to snatch it back.  However, he doesn’t quite succeed in breaking entirely with the past.  Instead, he insists on elevating “cultural morality” to a co-equal status with innate morality, and demonstrates that he has swallowed Steven Pinker’s fanciful “academic version” of the history of the Blank Slate in the process.  Allow me to quote at length some of the relevant passages from his book:

Evolution disproves critical parts of both the Bible and the Quran – the creation stories – yet millions have been unable to abandon them.  Finally, and perhaps most important, evolution means that human morality, rather than being imbued in us by God, somehow arose via natural processes:  biological evolution involving natural selection on behavior, and cultural evolution involving our ability to calculate, foresee, and prefer the results of different behaviors.

Here we encounter the conflation of biological and cultural evolution, which are described as if they were independent factors accounting for the “rise” of human morality.  This tendency to embrace innate explanations while at the same time clinging to the “culture and learning” of the Blank Slate as a distinct, quasi-independent determinant of moral behavior is a recurring theme in FvF.  A bit later Coyne seems to return to the Darwinian fold, citing his comments on “well-marked social instincts.”

In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where Darwin first applied his theory of evolution by natural selection to humans, he did not neglect morality.  In chapter 3, he floats what can be considered the first suggestion that our morality may be an elaboration by our large brains of social instincts evolved in our ancestors:  “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

This impression is apparently confirmed in the following remarkable passage:

A century later, the biologist Edward O. Wilson angered many by asserting the complete hegemony of biology over ethics:  “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.”  Wilson’s statement, in the pathbreaking book Sociobiology:  The New Synthesis, really began the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior that has become the discipline of evolutionary psychology.  In the last four decades psychologists, philosophers, and biologists have begun to dissect the cultural and evolutionary roots of morality.

Here we find, almost verbatim, Steven Pinker’s bowdlerized version of the “history” of the Blank Slate, featuring E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who came out of nowhere to “begin the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior,” with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975.  Anyone with even a faint familiarity with the source material knows that Pinker’s version is really nothing but a longish fairy tale.  The “modern incursion of evolution into human behavior” was already well underway in Europe in 1951, when Niko Tinbergen published his The Study of Instinct.  It was continued there through the 50’s and 60’s in the work of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and many others.  Long before the appearance of Sociobiology, Robert Ardrey began the publication of a series of four books on evolved human nature that really set in motion the smashing of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences.  There is literally nothing of any significance in Sociobiology bearing on the “incursion of evolution into human behavior” or the emergence of what came to be called evolutionary psychology that is not merely an echo of work that had been published by Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and others many years earlier.  No matter.  It would seem that Pinker’s fanciful “history” has now been transmogrified into one of Coyne’s “facts.”

But I digress.  As noted above, even as Coyne demolishes morality as one of the “gaps” that must be filled by inventing a God by noting its emergence as an evolved trait, and even as he explicitly embraces evolutionary psychology, which has apparently only recently become “respectable,” he can never quite entirely free himself from the stench of the Blank Slate.  Finally, as if frightened by his own temerity, and perhaps feeling the withering gaze of his old professor/advisor Lewontin, Coyne executes a partial retreat from the territory he has just attempted to reconquer:

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a strong case that since the Middle Ages most societies have become much less brutal, due largely to changes in what’s considered moral.  So if morality is innate, it’s certainly malleable.  And that itself refutes the argument that human morality comes from God, unless the moral sentiments of the deity are equally malleable.  The rapid change in many aspects of morality, even in the last century, also suggests that much of its “innateness” comes not from evolution but from learning.  That’s because evolutionary change simply doesn’t occur fast enough to explain societal changes like our realization that women are not an inferior moiety of humanity, or that we shouldn’t torture prisoners.  The explanation for these changes must reside in reason and learning:  our realization that there is no rational basis for giving ourselves moral privilege over those who belong to other groups.

Here we find the good professor behaving for all the world like one of Niko Tinbergen’s famous sticklebacks who, suddenly realizing he has strayed far over the established boundary of his own territory, rushes back to more familiar haunts.  Only one of Lewontin’s “genetic determinists” would be obtuse enough to suggest that the meanderings of 21st century morality are caused by “evolution,” and those are as rare as unicorns.  Obviously, no such extraordinarily rapid evolution is necessary.  The innate wellsprings of human morality need not “evolve” at all to account for these wanderings, which are adequately accounted for by the fact that they represent the mediation of a relatively static “moral sense” in a rapidly changing environment through the consciousness of creatures with large brains.  As brilliantly demonstrated by Hutcheson in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, absent this “root cause” in the form of evolved behavioral predispositions, “reason and learning” could chug along for centuries without spitting out anything remotely resembling morality.  Innate behavioral predispositions are the basis of all moral behavior, and without them morality as we know it would not exist.  The only role of “reason and learning” is in interpreting and mediating the “moral passions.”  Absent those passions, there would be literally nothing to be reasoned about or learned that would manifest itself as moral behavior.  They, and not “reason and learning” are the sine qua non for the existence of morality.

But let us refrain from looking this particular gift horse in the mouth.  In general, as noted above, the New Atheists may be found more or less in the same region of the ideological spectrum as was once occupied by the Blank Slaters.  If they are now constrained to add innate behavior to their arsenal as one more weapon in their continuing battle against the faithful, so much the better for all of us.  If nothing else it enhances the chances that, at least for the time being, students of human behavior will be able to continue acquiring the knowledge we need to gain self-understanding without fear of being bullied and intimidated for pointing out facts that happen to be politically inconvenient.

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.

6 thoughts on “Faith versus Fact: New Atheism Rejects the Blank Slate”

  1. Well said.
    However as we move past the unconscious level of dependency which we call religion /humanism etc lets not claim the resultant cleared field for our next layer of unconscious dependence.
    It’s rather stating the obvious but we don’t see the unconscious forces that bubble up from the various instinctive drivers.
    Removing one groups yelling gives us an insight into
    group dynamics, what we then see emerging on our own thoughts surely has the same possible weakness.weaknesses Labels such as left and right are meaningless in evolutionary time.
    For individuals to pursue ‘facts’ leaving the false security of intellectual or political factions strikes me as pragmatic and liberating. That the group has an inhibiting influence on challenging the considered ‘norm’ seems quite obvious but we continue to risk being influenced by others prejudices.

  2. As I’ve written elsewhere, “The outgroup have ye always with you,” but the urge to belong to and conform to the norms of an ingroup is always there as well. The impact on ideology becomes obvious once you’ve read a few Internet comment threads. When you see someone’s opinion on one thing, you can generally predict quite accurately what it will be on other things as well. The absence of religious faith doesn’t necessarily imply the absence of faith in some secular analog.

  3. Thats right, and for us to develop further understanding we need to reach this point of seeing our comments for what they are and not hanging our hat on the content of these said comments.
    Which then gets us to the next point, having read preliminary material, ie Ardrey, Tinbergen, Lorenz etc I have a question, why did the insights they had not resonate, why was the mementum lost, why did the audience revert or worship the Dawkins of the world and the otherworldliness of his metaphysical ethical and morally based humanism, losing sight of the harsh and unconmfortable reality of the orignal work?
    I recently read the Morias book, ‘The Soul of the Ape’ with the introduction by Ardrey. there is a part where he reaches the discussion of the range of possible expressions or configurations of this ‘soul’ (Ardre rightly points out that when Morias uses the term he is actually talking about the psyche/consciousness/instinctive drivers and not any ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ type soul. Now this spectrum of possible awareness or range of flexibility away for the unconscoius instinctive drivers gives us great insight into one possible reason why people have reverted to the default unconscoius/instinctive position.
    Lorenz, Tinbergen and Morias all suffered great defeats, they were able to see the harsh and uncomfortable truth of the reality and horror of the position man finds himself in. Contrast this to the sheltered workshop environment of the Academic with his cultural positions of privelidge and the nurturing of his psyche, he remains childlike and demanding of the warmth of his supported position.
    What religion so clearly gives, has been transferred to the nation state and the establishment that he works within and is dependant on. Unconsious of this dependancy and group identification, his defence of the language of his group reverts to normal group behaviour and losses the great insights of the Lorenz type. There is nothing in the experience of a Dawkins to allow them revelations that Lorenz had in the prisoner of war camp, or Morais with his shattering life experiences.
    Just a thought.

  4. I don’t think momentum was ever really lost. By the time Ardrey began writing, the Blank Slate orthodoxy was, for all practical purposes, unchallenged among behavioral scientists in the U.S. in both the academy and the professions, although there were occasional murmurs against it in such practical specialties as political science. The Blank Slate also controlled the media. Smashing it was not something that was going to happen overnight. It was bound to take time.

    Dawkins was never a hardcore Blank Slater. He was interested in the ways and means of evolution. That was really what “The Selfish Gene” was about, with emphasis on his theory of replicators. That theory ruled out group selection as a significant factor in natural selection. The most influential opponents of the Blank Slate at the time were Ardrey and Lorenz, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt was another significant voice. They had all voiced support for group selection at one time or another. By attacking them as “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection in “The Selfish Gene,” Dawkins insured that his book would be well-received, both in the media and among the high priests of the Blank Slate. I don’t think he felt any particular antipathy for Ardrey, and actually quoted him with approval later in the book. Unfortunately, Pinker took this “totally and utterly wrong” quote completely out of context in his “The Blank Slate,” using it as a lame and despicable rationalization for dismissing Ardrey’s entire legacy.

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