…And One More Thing about James Burnham: On Human Nature

There’s another thing about James Burnham’s Suicide of the West that’s quite fascinating; his take on human nature.  In fact, Chapter III is entitled “Human Nature and the Good Society.”  Here are a few excerpts from that chapter:

However varied may be the combination of beliefs that it is psychologically possible for an individual liberal to hold, it remains true that liberalism is logically committed to a doctrine along the lines that I have sketched:  viewing human nature as not fixed but plastic and changing; with no pre-set limit to potential development; with no innate obstacle to the realization of a society of peace, freedom, justice and well-being.  Unless these things are true of human nature, the liberal doctrine and program for government, education, reform and so on are an absurdity.

But in the face of what man has done and does, it is only an ideologue obsessed with his own abstractions who can continue to cling to the vision of an innately uncorrupt, rational and benignly plastic human nature possessed of an unlimited potential for realizing the good society.

Quite true, which makes it all the more remarkable that virtually all the “scientists” in the behavioral “sciences” at the time Burnham wrote these lines were “clinging to that vision,” at least in the United States.  See, for example, The Triumph of Evolution, in which one of these “men of science,” author Hamilton Cravens, documents the fact.  Burnham continues,

No, we must repeat:  if human nature is scored by innate defects, if the optimistic account of man is unjustified, then is all the liberal faith in vain.

Here we get a glimpse of the reason that the Blank Slaters insisted so fanatically that there is no such thing as human nature, at least as commonly understood, for so many years, in defiance of all reason, and despite the fact that any 10 year old could have told them their anthropological theories were ludicrous.  The truth stood in the way of their ideology.  Therefore, the truth had to yield.

All this begs the question of how, as early as 1964, Burnham came up with such a “modern” understanding of the Blank Slate.  Reading on in the chapter, we find some passages that are even more intriguing.  Have a look at this:

It is not merely the record of history that speaks in unmistakable refutation of the liberal doctrine of man.  Ironically enough – ironically, because it is liberalism that has maintained so exaggerated a faith in science – almost all modern scientific studies of man’s nature unite in giving evidence against the liberal view of man as a creature motivated, once ignorance is dispelled, by the rational search for peace, freedom and plenty.  Every modern school of biology and psychology and most schools of sociology and anthropology conclude that men are driven chiefly by profound non-rational, often anti-rational, sentiments and impulses, whose character and very existence are not ordinarily understood by conscious reason.  Many of these drives are aggressive, disruptive, and injurious to others and to society.


The bolding and italics are mine.  How on earth did Burnham come up with such ideas?  By all means, dear reader, head for your local university library, fish out the ancient microfiche, and search through the scientific and professional journals of the time yourself.  Almost without exception, the Blank Slate called the tune.  Clearly, Burnham didn’t get the notion that “almost all modern scientific studies of man’s nature” contradicted the Blank Slate from actually reading the literature himself.  Where, then, did he get it?  Only Burnham and the wild goose know, and Burnham’s dead, but my money is on Robert Ardrey.  True, Konrad Lorenz’ On Aggression was published in Germany in 1963, but it didn’t appear in English until 1966.  The only other really influential popular science book published before Suicide of the West that suggested anything like what Burnham wrote in the above passage was Ardrey’s African Genesis, published in 1961.

What’s that you say?  I’m dreaming?  No one of any significance ever challenged the Blank Slate orthodoxy until E. O. Wilson’s stunning and amazing publication of Sociobiology in 1975?  I know, it must be true, because it’s all right there in Wikipedia.  As George Orwell once said, “He who controls the present controls the past.”

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.

4 thoughts on “…And One More Thing about James Burnham: On Human Nature”

  1. Well said. Your recent thoughts have triggered so many responses that its hard to know where to begin. The yquestion I keep asking is why, why the hypocrisy, why the self deception. Group behaviour. ? I have no idea.

  2. Reading Ardreys Social Contract, the chapter on the monkeys and the ability of others in the band to learn from the Alpha, contrasted to where the Omega is almost ignored, or the uptake is slow. This group dynamic strikes me as having profound implications in regard to the inability of science and scientists to ‘belief shift’.
    One of the most notable exceptions was around the quantum period in Physics. Whilst they fought and argued, they often ‘ditched a theory before lunch.
    Imagine the likely response if any of the ‘new scientists’ in the Dawkins camp had the temerity to speak against the ‘Alphas of Dawkins etc. Academic death!
    This then leads one to the question of where and how do we expend our arguments. The current orthodoxy is so bizarrely straight jacketed that the whole conversation and theoretical basis is stuck.
    Sorry that this is not really a question more a thought out loud but I would suggest that the social sciences are like physics pre that great era, stuck and entrenched in nothing but a belief structure that they cannot see for what it is.

  3. I think Ardrey himself demonstrated a possible answer. Acquire a bully pulpit, for example by becoming a famous playwright, and then broadcast your message. At some level the ideologues realize that. That’s why they always do their best to monopolize all the bully pulpits.

  4. That is a fascinating insight, the ‘message’ or the ‘truth’ of the ‘content’ of what is said or written is apparently not the crucial point/element.
    There are various shades of objective truth circling in the ether, persistence and tenacity in not accepting falsehood can lead to the removal of nonsense, belief etc. Now this ‘possibility’ of ‘Truth’ brings us to the next why. Do people look for a messenger with Authority rather than ‘Objective Truth’, and if so is there any point in doing an Ardrey? For when he, Lorenz, Tinbergen left and took their Alphaness with them, the remaining (Dawkins etc) reverted to type, climbed the respective ‘bully pulpits’ (academic sheltered workshops) and lost the crucial insights that Morias/Ardrey/Lorenz/Tinbergen etc had.
    This is my problem with Dawkins, not that I dislike his ‘morality’ and ‘ethical’ (I think your regular comments re ethics etc cover that topic) ramblings, just that he has, (in my opinion) not been a custodian to Tinbergen’s insights in particular.
    Now to extend, if we consider the many who flutter around Dawkins and defend him on the internet, or write rubbish in Wiki sites about the Blank Slate, we see that actually they are behaving as classic omega’s, even down to the point where they are demanding not to be seen as challenging the ‘Alpha’s’ of their ‘Group’.
    To go out on the limb as far as I can with any hope of it not totally disintegrating, I would guess that the average birth-rate amongst the academic elite surrounding the intellectual orthodoxy would be lower that the so called ‘peasants’ of most of our third world countries. Thus proving, like the catholic priest, that their illusions and delusions re reality are delightfully sorting the gene pool. As Ardrey says, nature shrugs!

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