The Blank Slate is not over. True, behavioral scientists, intellectuals, and ideologues of all stripes now grudgingly admit something that has always been obvious to those Donald Trump refers to as the “poorly educated,” not to mention reasonably perceptive children; namely, that there is such a thing as human nature. However, many of them only admit it to the point where it interferes with their imaginary utopias of universal brotherhood and human flourishing, and no further. Allow me to consult the source material to illustrate what I’m talking about. In Man and Aggression, published in 1968, Blank Slate high priest Ashley Montagu wrote,
…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… 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… Human nature is what man learns to become a human being.
A bit later, in 1984, fellow Blank Slater Richard Lewontin generously expanded the repertoire of “innate” human behavior to include urinating and defecating in his Not in Our Genes. One still finds such old school denialists in the darker nooks of academia today, but now one can at least speak of human nature without being denounced as a fascist, and the existence of such benign aspects thereof as altruism is generally admitted. However, no such tolerance is extended to aspects of our behavior that contradict ideological shibboleths. Here, for example, is a recent quote from a review of Jerry Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact (a good read, by the way, and one I highly recommend) by critic George Sciallaba:
For all the vigor with which Coyne pursues his bill of indictment against organized religion, he leaves out one important charge. As he says, the conflict between religion and science is “only one battle in a wider war—a war between rationality and superstition.” There are other kinds of superstition. Coyne mentions astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing, but religion “is the most widespread and harmful form.” I’m not so sure. Political forms of superstition, like patriotism, tribalism, and the belief that human nature is unalterably prone to selfishness and violence, seem to me even more destructive.
Aficionados will immediate recognize the provenance of this claim. It is a reworked version of the old “genetic determinism” canard, already hackneyed in the heyday of Ashley Montagu. It serves as a one size fits all accusation applied to anyone who suggests that any aspect of the human behavioral repertoire might be “bad” as opposed to “good.” Patriotism and tribalism are, of course, “bad.” There’s only one problem. If “genetic determinists” exist at all, they must be as rare as unicorns. I’ve never encountered a genuine specimen, and I’ve search long and hard. In other words, the argument is a straw man. There certainly are, however, people, myself included, who believe that our species is predisposed to behave in ways that can easily lead to such “bad” behaviors as tribalism, selfishness and violence. However, to the best of my knowledge, none of them believe that we are “unalterably prone” to such behavior. What they do believe is that the most destructive forms of human behavior may best be avoided by understanding what causes them rather than denying that those causes exist.
Which finally brings us to the point of this post. Human beings are predisposed to categorize others of their species into ingroups and outgroups. They associate “good” qualities with the ingroup, and “evil” qualities with the outgroup. This fact was familiar to behavioral scientists at the beginning of the 20th century, before the Blank Slate curtain fell, and was elaborated into a formal theory by Sir Arthur Keith in the 1940’s. I can think of no truth about the behavior of our species that is so obvious, so important to understand, and at the same time so bitterly denied and resisted by “highly educated” ideologues. Tribalism is not a “superstition,” as Mr. Sciallaba would have us believe, but a form of ingroup/outgroup behavior and, as such, a perfectly predictable and natural trait of our species. It has played a major role as the sparkplug for all the bloody and destructive wars that have plagued us since the dawn of recorded time and before. It is also the “root cause” of virtually every ideological controversy ever heard of. It does not make us “unalterably prone” to engage in warfare, or any other aggressive behavior. I have little doubt that we can “alter” and control its most destructive manifestations. Before we can do that, however, we must understand it, and before we can understand it we must accept the fact that it exists. We are far from doing so.
Nowhere is this fact better illustrated today than in the struggle over international borders. Take, for example, the case of Germany. Her “conservative” government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, long followed a policy of treating the countries borders as if they didn’t exist. More than a million culturally alien Moslem “refugees” were allowed to pour across them in a single year. This policy of the “conservative” German government was cheered on by the “leftist” German news media, demonstrating that the pleasant mirage of universal human brotherhood is hardly a monopoly of either extreme of the political spectrum. The masses in Germany reacted more or less the same way they have reacted in every other western European country, demonstrating what some have referred to as an “immune” response. They resisted the influx of immigrants, and insisted that the government reestablish control over the nation’s borders. For this, one finds them condemned every day in both the “right wing” and “left wing” German media as “haters.”
A remarkable fact about all this, at least as far as Germany is concerned, is that the very same German media, whether of the “right” or the “left,” quite recently engaged in a campaign of anti-American hatemongering that would put anything they accuse the local “tribalists” of completely in the shade. The magazine Der Spiegel, now prominent in condemning as “haters” anyone who dares to suggest that uncontrolled immigration might not be an unalloyed blessing, was in the very forefront of this campaign of hate against the United States. One could almost literally feel the spittle flying from the computer screen if one looked at their webpage during the climax of this latest orgy of anti-Americanism. It was often difficult to find any news about Germany among the furious denunciations of the United States for one imagined evil or another. It was hardly “all about Bush,” as sometimes claimed. These rants came complete with quasi-racist stereotyping of all Americans as prudish, gun nuts, religious fanatics, etc. If ever there were a textbook example of what Robert Ardrey once called the “Amity-Enmity Complex,” that was it. After indulging in this orgy of hatemongering, Der Spiegel and the rest are now sufficiently hypocritical to point the finger at others as “haters.”
There is another remarkable twist to this story as far as Germany is concerned. There were a few brave little bloggers and others in Germany who resisted the epidemic of hate. Amid a storm of abuse, they insisted on the truth, exposed the grossly exaggerated and one-sided nature of the media’s anti-American rants, and exposed the attempts in the media to identify Americans as an outgroup. Today one finds the very same people who resisted this media hate campaign among those Der Spiegel and the rest point the finger at as “haters.” In general, they include anyone who insists on the existence of national borders and the sovereign right of the citizens in every country to decide who will be allowed to enter, and who not.
The point here is that the outgroup have ye always with you. Those most prone to strike self-righteous poses and hurl down anathemas on others as “haters” are often the most virulent haters themselves. To further demonstrate that fact, one need only look at the websites, magazines, books, and other media produced by the most ardent proponents of “universal human brotherhood.” If you find a website with comment threads, by all means look at them as well. I guarantee you won’t have to look very far to find the outgroup. It will always be there, decorated with all the usual pejoratives and denunciations we commonly associate with the “immoral,” and the “other.” The “tribe” of “others” can come in many forms. In the case of the proponents of “human flourishing,” the “other” is usually defined in ideological terms. For leftists, one sometimes finds the “Rethugs,” or “Repugs” in the role of outgroup. For rightists, they are “Commies” and “socialists.” It’s never difficult to exhume the hated outgroup of even the most profuse proponents of future borderless utopias as long as one knows where to dig. We are all “tribalists.” Those who think tribalism is just a “superstition” can easily demonstrate the opposite by simply looking in the mirror.
Today we find another interesting artifact of this aspect of human nature in the phenomenon of Donald Trump. The elites of both parties don’t know whether to spit or swallow as they watch him sweep to victory after victory in spite of “gaffes,” “lies,” and all kinds of related “buffoonery,” that would have brought his political career to a screeching halt in the past. The explanation is obvious to the “poorly educated.” Trump has openly called for an end to uncontrolled illegal immigration. The “poorly educated” were long cowed into silence, fearing the usual hackneyed accusations of racism, but now a man who can’t be cowed has finally stepped forward and openly proclaimed what they’ve been thinking all along; that uncontrolled immigration is an evil that will lead to no good in the long run. This fact is as obvious to the “poorly educated” in Europe as it is to the “poorly educated” in the United States.
Ingroups and outgroups are a fundamental manifestation of human morality. There is an objective reason for the existence of that morality. It exists because it has promoted the survival and reproduction of the genes responsible for it in times not necessarily identical to the present. It does not exist for the “purpose” of promoting universal brotherhood, or the “purpose” of promoting “human flourishing,” or the “purpose” of eliminating international boundaries. It has no “purpose” at all. It simply is. I am a moral being myself. I happen to prefer a version of morality that accomplishes ends that I deem in harmony with the reasons that morality exists to begin with. Those ends include my own survival and the survival of others like me. Uncontrolled immigration of culturally alien populations into the United States or any other country is most unlikely to promote either the “flourishing” or the survival of the populations already there. As has been demonstrated countless times in the past, it normally accomplishes precisely the opposite, typically in the form of bitter civil strife, and often in the form of civil war. I happen to consider civil strife and civil war “evil,” from what is admittedly my own, purely subjective point of view. I realize that my resistance to these “evils” really amounts to nothing more than a whim. However, it happens to be a whim that is obviously shared by many of my fellow citizens. I hope this “ingroup” of people who agree with me can make its influence felt, for the very reason that I don’t believe that human beings must forever remain “unalterably prone” to constantly repeating the same mistake of substituting a mirage for reality when it comes to understanding their own behavior. That is what the Blank Slaters have done, and continue to do. I hope they will eventually see the light, for their own “good” as well as mine. We are not “unalterably prone” to anything. However, before one can alter, one must first understand.