More Whimsical History of the Blank Slate

As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  The history of the Blank Slate is a perfect illustration of what he meant.  You might say there are two factions in the academic ingroup; those who are deeply embarrassed by the Blank Slate, and those who are still bitterly clinging to it.  History as it actually happened is damaging to both factions, so they’ve both created imaginary versions that support their preferred narratives.  At this point the “official” histories have become hopelessly muddled.  I recently ran across an example of how this affects younger academics who are trying to make sense of what’s going on in their own fields in an article entitled, Sociology’s Stagnation at the Quillette website.  It was written by Brian Boutwell, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at St. Louis University.

Boutwell cites an article published back in 1990 by sociologist Pierre van den Berghe excoriating the practitioners in his own specialty.  Van den Berghe was one of those rare sociologists who insisted on the relevance of evolved behavioral traits to his field.  He did not mince words.  Boutwell quotes several passages from the article, including the following:

Such a theoretical potpourri is premised on the belief that, in the absence of a powerful simplifying idea, all ideas are potentially good, especially if they are turgidly presented, logically opaque, and empirically irrefutable. This sorry state of theoretical affairs in sociology is probably the clearest evidence of the discipline’s intellectual bankruptcy. But let my colleagues rest assured: intellectual bankruptcy never spelled the doom of an academic discipline. Those within it are professionally deformed not to recognize it, and those outside of it could not care less. Sociology is safe for at least a few more decades.

In response, Boutwell writes,

Intellectually bankrupt? Those are strong words. Can a field survive like this? It can, and it has. Hundreds of new sociology PhDs are minted every year across the country (not to mention the undergraduate and graduate degrees that are conferred as well). How many students were taught that human beings evolved about around 150,000 years ago in Africa? How many know what a gene is? How many can describe Mendel’s laws, or sexual selection? The answer is very few. And, what is worse, many sociologists do not think this ignorance matters.

In other words, Boutwell thinks the prevailing malaise in Sociology continues because sociologists don’t know about Darwin.  He may be right in some cases, but that’s not really the problem.  The problem is that the Blank Slate still prevails in sociology.  It is probably the most opaque of all the behavioral “sciences.”  In fact, it is just an ideological narrative pretending to be a science, just as psychology was back in the day when van den Berghe wrote his article.  Psychologists deal with individuals.  As a result they have to look at behavior a lot closer to the source of what motivates it.  As most reasonably intelligent lay people have been aware for millennia, it is motivated by human nature.  By the end of the 90’s, naturalists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary psychologists had heaped up such piles of evidence supporting that fundamental fact that psychologists who tried to prop up the threadbare shibboleths of the Blank Slate ran the risk of becoming laughing stocks.  By 2000 most of them had thrown in the towel.  Not so the sociologists.  They deal with masses of human beings.  It was much easier for them to insulate themselves from the truth by throwing up a smokescreen of “culture.”  They’ve been masturbating with statistics ever since.

Boutwell thinks the solution is for them to learn some evolutionary biology.  I’m not sure which version of the “history” gave him that idea.  However, if he knew how the Blank Slate really went down, he might change his mind.  Evolutionary biologists and scientists in related fields were part of the heart and soul of the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  They knew all about genes, Mendel’s laws, and sexual selection, but it didn’t help.  Darwin?  They simply redacted those parts of his work that affirmed the relationship between natural selection, human nature in general, and morality in particular.  No matter that Darwin himself was perfectly well aware of the connections.  For these “scientists,” an ideological narrative trumped scientific integrity until the mass of evidence finally rendered the narrative untenable.

Of course, one could always claim that I’m just supporting an ideological narrative of my own.  Unfortunately, that claim would have to explain away a great deal of source material, and because the events in question are so recent, the source material is still abundant and easily accessible.  If Prof. Boutwell were to consult it he would find that evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould, geneticists like Richard Lewontin, and many others like them considered the Blank Slate the very “triumph of evolution.”  I suggest that anyone with doubts on that score have a look at a book that bears that title by scientific historian Hamilton Cravens published in 1978 during the very heyday of the Blank Slate.  It is very well researched, cites scores of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and behavioral scientists, and concludes that all the work of these people who were perfectly familiar with Darwin culminated in the triumphant establishment of the Blank Slate as “scientific truth,” or, as announced by the title of his book, “The Triumph of Evolution.”  His final paragraph gives a broad hint about how something so ridiculous could ever have been accepted as an unquestionable dogma.  It reads,

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.

Here, unbeknownst to himself, Cravens hit the nail on the head.  Social control was exactly what the Blank Slate was all about.  It was essential that the ideal denizens of the future utopias that the Blank Slaters had in mind for us have enough “malleability” and “plasticity” to play their assigned parts.  “Human nature” in the form of genetically transmitted behavioral predispositions would only gum things up.  They had to go, and go they did.  Ideology trumped and derailed science, and kept it derailed for more than half a century.  As Boutwell has noticed, it remains derailed in sociology and a few other specialties that have managed to develop similarly powerful allergic reactions to the real world.  Reading Darwin isn’t likely to help a bit.

One of the best books on the genesis of the Blank Slate is In Search of Human Nature, by Carl Degler.  It was published in 1991, well after the grip of the Blank Slate on the behavioral sciences had begun to loosen, and presents a somewhat more sober and realistic portrayal of the affair than Cravens’ triumphalist account.  Among other things it gives an excellent account of the genesis of the Blank Slate.  As portrayed by Degler, in the beginning it hadn’t yet become such a blatant tool for social control.  One could better describe it as an artifact of idealistic cravings.  Then, as now, one of the most important of these was the desire for human equality, not only under the law, but in a much more real, physical sense, among both races and individuals.  If human nature existed and was important, than such equality was out of the question.  Perfect equality was only possible if every human mind started out as a Blank Slate.

Degler cites the work of several individuals as examples of this nexus between the ideal of equality and the Blank Slate, but I will focus on one in particular; John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism.  One of the commenters to an earlier post suggested that the behaviorists weren’t Blank Slaters.  I think that he, too, is suffering from historical myopia.  Again, it’s always useful to look at the source material for yourself.  In his book, Behaviorism, published in 1924, Watson notes that all human beings breathe, sneeze, have hearts that beat, etc., but have no inherited traits that might reasonably be described as human nature.  In those days, psychologists like William James referred to hereditary behavioral traits as “instincts.”  According to Watson,

In this relatively simple list of human responses there is none corresponding to what is called an “instinct” by present-day psychologists and biologists.  There are then for us no instincts – we no longer need the term in psychology.  Everything we have been in the habit of calling an “instinct” today is the result largely of training – belongs to man’s learned behavior.

A bit later on he writes,

The behaviorist recognizes no such things as mental traits, dispositions or tendencies.  Hence, for him, there is no use in raising the question of the inheritance of talent in its old form.

In case we’re still in doubt about his Blank Slate bona fides, a few pages later he adds,

I should like to go one step further now and say, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”  I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.  Please note that when this experiment is made I am to be allowed to specify the way the children are to be brought up and the type of world they have to live in.

Here, in a nutshell, we can see the genesis of hundreds of anecdotes about learned professors dueling over the role of “nature” versus “nurture,” in venues ranging from highbrow intellectual journals to several episodes of The Three Stooges.  Watson seems to be literally pulling at our sleeves and insisting, “No, really, I’m a Blank Slater.”  Under the circumstances I’m somewhat dubious about the claim that Watson, Skinner, and the rest of the behaviorists don’t belong in that category.

What motivated Watson and others like him to begin this radical reshaping of the behavioral sciences?  I’ve already alluded to the answer above.  To make a long story short, they wanted to create a science that was “fair.”  For example, Watson was familiar with the history of the Jukes family outlined in an account of a study by Richard Dugdale published in 1877.  It documented unusually high levels of all kinds of criminal behavior in the family.  Dugdale himself insisted on the role of environmental as well as hereditary factors in explaining the family’s criminality, but later interpreters of his work focused on heredity alone.  Apparently Watson considered such an hereditary burden unfair.  He decided to demonstrate “scientifically” that a benign environment could have converted the entire family into model citizens.  Like many other scientists in his day, Watson abhorred the gross examples of racial discrimination in his society, as well as the crude attempts of the Social Darwinists to justify it.  He concluded that “science” must support a version of reality that banished all forms of inequality.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I could go on and on about the discrepancies one can find between the “history” of the Blank Slate and source material that’s easily available to anyone willing to do a little searching.  Unfortunately, I’ve already gone on long enough for a single blog post.  Just be a little skeptical the next time you read an account of the affair in some textbook.  It ain’t necessarily so.


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.

10 thoughts on “More Whimsical History of the Blank Slate”

  1. Well said,
    As a refugee from the social science department of my local university I shudder at the reality of what you say. I was fortunate as I was friends with a mature age student who had actually worked in various other careers before his academic career, such as it was. The entertainment was further enhanced as he used to quote Ayn Rand. You will not be surprised to know that one lecturer refused to mark any paper which mentioned her, the reason? Ayn Rand did not have her work peer reviewed, bwaaaa haaa, what a farce.
    Now to my point, when the university types bark at any mention of group behaviour, ask them the last time a scientific school rewrote their core theories after the intervention of an outsider? Ok I’ll answer my own q, Einstein, and then the community still had elements which attacked him. I saw a book recently in the local book shop that said, ‘What Einstein got wrong’, not what he got right. Anyway what he got wrong was to challenge the in group of the academic faculty.
    On a slight tangent, do you have any thoughts re Assange, I know he grates, has an ego, but during your recent election he exposed the blinding corruption and unethical by posting their own email, only to be attacked by the lefties as favouring Trump. Not that he was lying, oh no, that he was exposing the wrong truth, good grief, has there ever been a time when so many of your theories are being given a run and being proved to have some fairly strong legs.

  2. Your conclusions about Watson vs others that I’ve read leave me confused.


    And, Watson never stated that all complicated behavior patterns were learned. Nonhumans exhibited plenty of complicated “pattern instincts,” which allowed them to operate effectively in their environments. Watson did not want to put an end to research on instincts. He was unhappy that more was not known about them:

    No one as yet has succeeded in making even a helpful classification of instincts. It is far more difficult to make such a classification in the human realm than in the animal. Fairly serviceable classifications in the animal worlds are food-getting, home-building activities, attack and defense, migration, etc. (Watson, 1919, p. 234)

    Humans, in Watson’s view, had evolved to learn their adjustments to their many and varied niches:

    Now, all this has bearing upon the instincts of the1927 man. Just because he has had an evolutionary history is no proof that he must have instincts like the stock from which he sprang. (Watson, 1927a, pp. 228-29)

    Watson did eventually reject the concept of “instinct.” But that did not mean he denied that unlearned behavior existed. His books were full of accounts of unlearned behavior in humans and other animals. His last book, Behaviorism (Watson, 1930), contained two full chapters on the subject of unlearned behavior in humans. The problem was not the existence of unlearned behavior, but the careless and indiscriminate use of the term “instinct” by William James and others to explain away vast expanses of human behavior without actually doing a real experimental analysis of the origins of the behavior.

    A group of older writers…vied with one another in finding new and perfect instincts in both man and animals. William James made a careful selection from among these asserted instincts and gave man the following list: Climbing, imitation, emulation, rivalry, pugnacity, anger, resentment, sympathy, hunting, fear, appropriation, acquisitiveness, kleptomania, constructiveness, play curiosity, sociability, shyness, cleanliness, modesty, shame, love, jealousy, parental love. James states that no other animal, not even the monkey, can lay claim to so large a list. (Watson, 1930, p. 110)

    Thus, when Watson seems to reject “instincts,” we must be careful to see that he is rejecting a set of vacuous assumptions about complex human behavior, not the existence of unlearned behavior in humans and other animals.

  3. @David

    Emotional responses to Assange can change in a hurry depending on whose ox he happens to be goring at the moment, no? My personal opinion about him is nothing but that; a personal opinion. That said, I would like to see him and people like him in jail. I think countries have good reason to classify and otherwise protect some types of information. When someone decides to break the law and reveal such information, he is basically just setting himself above the law and setting himself up as a petty dictator. I don’t like dictators, and I never voted for Assange. I don’t concede to him the right to break laws that I consider reasonable, and to reveal information that was classified by people who were at least theoretically responsible to representatives I had a chance to vote for. The question of whether I personally find the information Assange revealed “useful” or “beneficial” or not is beside the point.

  4. @George

    I’m sorry if you’re confused. If, after reading the Watson quotes in my post, you still don’t believe that he was a Blank Slater, then we have a fundamental difference of opinion about what the term “Blank Slater” means. I doubt that anything I say will change your mind. I can only suggest that you read Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.” Perhaps then you’ll have a better idea what I’m talking about.

  5. I will read it, but what I’ve read in the “Not So Fast Mr. Pinker” review leaves me less than optimistic about what Mr. Pinker has to say about behaviorism.

  6. With the risk of causing insult, yet believing your quite capable of brushing aside unintended such, could I ask you to explain why you see the Nation State as seperate from or different from the role that the Church has played historically. To make more sense of this I have attached a short analysis by an anonymous author who is of the philisiophical materialist ilk, the false stimuli he/she writes about is based on the work of Tinbergen and his beak.

    “The false stimuli of the Nation State and the Religious establishment.
    There appears to be a set of unconscious instinctual drivers that cause man to conform to the rule of the Nation State. Man from birth is taught that authority lies not in the family home, but externally. If we are bad we are told that the policeman will come and get us. The soldier, the sailor and the airman all work for the nation state. The rule of law is somewhere else, and the various institutions of the state are housed in grand buildings and the regalia fly’s from the town hall clock tower.
    Maybe the most insidious aspect of this is that man is therefore instinctually keeping himself in servitude. It is mans own instinctually followed responses and identification techniques that have caused him to recoil from the natural authority of the leader within the original group.
    The truly shocking element of mans transference of authority is that the actual authority figure has given up or transferred his role, outsourcing his responsibility to remain in a permanent state of childhood and comfort. ”

    It is slightly confusing out of the broader context of the work, but I hope you get the gist., I accept that its not fully relevant to the Assange issue but would be interested in your thoughts,.

  7. I’ve said it time and again, the problem is cognitive relativism. It’s roots are embedded so deeply, not just in academia but in everyday discourse as well. I doubt we’re ever going to fully remove it. It’s so patently absurd, how it ever attained such a privileged position is beyond me. It’s unfalsifiable, it’s self-refuting, and yet it reigns supreme.

  8. @David

    The role of the nation state has been both different from, similar to, and the same as the church, depending on what state, historical period, etc., you’re talking about. I can’t tell what the legitimate role is for each, because I know of no basis for any such legitimacy.

    As for the author you quote, I seriously doubt that we have an “instinct” to conform to the rule of the nation state. I doubt that nation states have been around long enough for us to acquire such an “instinct.” What the author may be trying to describe is the occasional tendency of behavioral predispositions to accomplish the opposite in the modern world of what they accomplished when they evolved. If so, he might have expressed himself a great deal more clearly. In any case, he’s probably overstepping the limits of what our limited knowledge of human nature will allow. His comments are just very speculative hypotheses, not facts.

  9. Re Nation State and Church, agreed, well said.

    Re the lack of facts and the hypothetical study of human nature, sometimes we must hypothesise on the basis of the effect it has on other entities. Lacking any possible way to have ‘evidence‘ when searching for black matter scientist have used the curvature of light through space to ‘show’ the existence of certain possibilities which can be answered by its existence.
    With this scientific method in mind, let’s consider the following.
    Religion triggers a response to Authority; this response is universal among those who are gullible, independent of the content and flavour of the differing scriptures or Gods.
    The Nation State likewise has many differing manifestations and symbols but the underlying fact remains that there appears to be an effect upon a large number of individuals that is uniform and quantifiable. The inability in the vast majority of people to be able to consciously understand that these entities are constructs and therefore moderate their reactions to it appears more elusive.
    Therefore can we extrapolate that man is tricked by the symbols and agents of the church (less so in recent times) and the Nation State. Etc, I think you’ll get what I’m saying here. Lefties seem to find this particularly difficult.

    When I read Eugene Morais, I’m always struck by the fact that he knows most will not understand what he is saying. He almost despairs that people can’t lose their socialised norms for long enough to grasp what he is saying. He, like Lorenz etc speak of animals when so often they are suggesting us, only they were only to aware of the backlash. Ardrey spoke of us as risen apes and where oh where has he gone.
    By concentrating on animals they are immediately released from one of the more bizarre elements of trying to discuss human nature in public forums, (not this one). If I had a dollar for every time I made a comments which cut religion only to be faced by a barrage of ‘read this, read that, he said she said’ I’d be a rich man.
    Anyway a rainy day on the East Coast of Australia and I’m talking too much,. Many thanks again for your blog.
    To sum up, do you think we can us the mentioned technique to point to elements of our instinct/nature?

  10. When you use terms like “gullible” and “tricked,” you are using pejoratives rather than neutral terms. That biases the conversation. If religious believers are gullible, than some of the most intelligent people who ever lived and a large majority of human beings are gullible. The term loses any real meaning. If they and patriotic supporters of nation states have been tricked, then there must have been some trickster. I doubt that most religious leaders are “tricksters.” For the most part they are strong believers themselves. Some political leaders can certainly be described as tricksters, but that is not universally the case. I realize I’m not immune to the habit of using pejoratives myself sometimes. “Do as I say, not as I do.” 😉

    The response to these entities is neither universal nor uniform. In the case of religion, for example, the pagan religions of the Slavs, Teutons, Scandinavians, etc., were vulnerable to Christian inroads, and were eventually supplanted by Christianity. That has certainly not been the case with Islam. I think it would be extremely difficult to quantify the responses to particular religions or nations states. In the first place it would be very difficult to pin down what, exactly, it is you’re trying to quantify.

    I hope the rain in your area is doing the farmers some good. Reading Jill Ker Conway’s book gave me a lively appreciation of how important rain can be in the outback.

    In any case,

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