John Locke and the Blank Slate

I’ve always been dubious of attempts to trace the origins of ideas back through generations of philosophers. They were, after all, individuals, and to understand them, one must take that into account. In creating such philosophical genealogies, one should consider the fact that, while thinkers separated in time by centuries may have had superficially similar ideas, it is far from certain that they understood the ideas in quite the same way, or endorsed them for the same reasons.

Take, for example, the case of John Locke. He is often cited as the father of the modern incarnation of the Blank Slate. In our own day, the “Blank Slate” refers to the notion that, for all practical purposes, there is no such thing as innate human nature, and our behavior is almost entirely determined by what we learn and experience. The idea was in vogue among behavioral scientists who should have known better through much of the 20th century before finally falling into the well-deserved disrepute it enjoys today. Locke seems a perfect candidate for the “father” of the idea. It’s all there in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The very title of Book I of the essay is, “Neither Principles nor Ideas are Innate.” The problem is that what Locke meant by “principles and ideas” was not quite the same thing as what later day anthropologists and psychologists understood under the rubric of “human nature,” nor is it likely that more than a handful of them would have agreed with his reasoning if they had actually taken the trouble to read his book. The idea that they were somehow “inspired” by him is the type of stuff that makes good filler in philosophy textbooks, but is highly questionable in fact.

For starters, Locke didn’t have the luxury of sitting on the shoulders of Darwin. An Englishman of the religion-drenched 17th century, nothing was more certain to him than the existence of God. He related his belief in God to his rejection of innate ideas in a way that one would look in vain to see repeated in 20th century journals of the behavioral sciences;

If the idea of God be not innate, not other can be supposed innate.

and he assumed that, if we had innate ideas, they must have been written on our minds by the hand of God. For example,

Hence naturally flows the great variety of opinions concerning moral rules which are to be found among men, according to the different sorts of happiness they have a prospect of, or propose to themselves; which could not be if practical principles were innate, and imprinted in our minds immediately by the hand of God.

and, referring to five supposed “innate ideas” set forth in a contemporary book by Lord Herbert,

First, that these five propositions are either not all, or more than all, those common notions written on our minds by the finger of God.

Locke also believed in a spiritual as surely as he believed in a physical world. Hence, if innate ideas existed, they would not have been written in the physical makeup of an organ like the brain, but on our souls. In his words,

It might very well be expected that these (innate) principles should be perfectly known to naturals; which being stamped immediately on the soul, (as these men suppose,) can have no dependence on the constitution or organs of the body, the only confessed difference between them and others.

When he spoke of “ideas and principles,” Locke had something very different in mind than the innate predispositions that we share with many animals, against the existence of which the Blank Slate orthodoxy of the 20th century thundered down its anathemas for so long in vain. Rather, Locke referred to principles that could be clearly set down in words and reasoned about in a way that excluded all other animals but ourselves. He referred to them as “speculative maxims,” and, since they were inscribed by the hand of God himself, they must necessarily be universal:

…this argument of universal consent, which is made use of to prove innate principles, seems to me a demonstration that there are none such: because there are none to which all mankind give an universal assent.

and, referring to moral principles,

But, since it is certain that most men’s practices, and some men’s open professions, have either questioned or denied these principles, it is impossible to establish an universal consent, (though we should look for it only amongst grown men,) without which it is impossible to conclude them innate.

Innate morality was inconceivable to Locke because he could not conceptualize morality as other than a set of clear rules that could be spelled out in words, and the resulting moral “maxims” then reasoned about and proved:

Another reason that makes me doubt of any innate practical principles is, that I think there cannot any one moral rule be proposed whereof a man may not justly demand and reason: which would be perfectly ridiculous and absurd if they were innate.

Furthermore, innate moral rules were impossible, because, if they existed, they must have been inscribed in our minds by God himself, and we could not be unaware that he had put them there, and would certainly punish their breach:

From what has been said, I think we may safely conclude, that whatever practical rule is in any place generally and with allowance broken, cannot be supposed innate; it being impossible that men should, without shame or fear, confidently and serenely, break a rule which they could not but evidently know that God had set up, and would certainly punish the breach of, (which they must, if it were innate,) to a degree to make it a very ill bargain to be the transgressor.


If, therefore, anything be imprinted on the minds of all men as a law, all men must have a certain and unavoidable knowledge that certain and unavoidable punishment will attend the breach of it.

It would seem, then, that when we attempt to lump Locke’s Blank Slate with that of a 20th century anthropologist, we are comparing apples and oranges. It’s hard to imagine that knowledge of a source of innate morality as different from the hand of God as evolution by natural selection would have had no impact on his thought. He was far from rejecting any notion of “human nature” carte blanche. For example,

Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles which (as practical principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing.


Principles of actions indeed there are lodged in men’s appetites.

In a word, then, it’s not really fair to tar Locke, or, for that matter, Rousseau and his “noble savage” with the same brush as the experts of a later day because they didn’t take the trouble to be born before the publication of The Origin of Species. The same excuse cannot be made for the obscurantist “behavioral scientists” of the 20th century.

The Reincarnation of Eugenics

There’s an interesting link over at Chicago Boyz to what typically passes for a discussion of eugenics  in our day.  Of course, the issue has become toxic, thanks mainly to the antics of the Third Reich, and freedom of speech no longer applies.  Attempts to discuss it rationally are futile because of the social consensus that it is evil.  Most of us understand this, so that discussion of eugenics today normally emanates from the realm of the pathologically pious, in the context of their usual attempts to demonstrate their superior virtue.

It was not always so.  For example, their were some very interesting pro and con articles in Mencken’s American Mercury back in the mid-20’s.  In one exchange, the pro was H. M. Parshley, little known today, but a progressive who edited the first English version of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” and the con was none other than the equally progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame.  In other words, eugenics was not a defining feature of the progressive narrative at the time.

Given the continued cancerous growth of the role of state power in people’s lives in the last century, and the emergence of totalitarian states that do not derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, but nevertheless presume to interfere in every aspect of the daily lives of their citizens, it would seem in retrospect that eugenics really was a very bad idea.  In fact, however, it has become a moot point.  Individuals already have the power to “vote with their feet” when it comes to controlling the genetic information they pass along to their offspring.  Their power to select for qualities such as intelligence, physical strength, size, emotional traits, etc., will only increase as our genetic knowledge continues to expand.  One can argue that the state should deprive individuals of the right to make such choices.  That, of course, would amount to a rebirth of eugenics.

On the Nature of Human Rights

Human rights have no existence independent of individual human minds. Like moral judgments, they are perceived as real, objective things, but do not exist as such. Rather, they are subjective mental constructs, existing in our minds in the same way that similar constructs exist in the minds of other animals. They exist because our minds evolved in a way that enabled their existence. Like morality, much of the basic mental machinery responsible for their existence likely came into existence long before the emergence of the genus Homo. And also like morality, the sophistication of the expression of this aspect of our nature in our species compared to others is due to our advanced cognitive abilities rather than any fundamental difference in the emotional mental processes involved. Our notion of rights seems superior to that existing in other animals merely because our ability to think about how we act is superior to that of other animals.

The human rights perceived by each individual mind cease to exist once that mind ceases to exist. That does not mean they are mere figments of the imagination, or that they should not be taken seriously, or, for that matter, that they should be taken seriously. It is a mere statement of fact.

Because rights are perceived as real things, and because of the significance we attach to them, attempts are often made to portray them as legitimate in themselves. A familiar example thereof is the US Declaration of Independence, which includes the passage:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

In fact, given their nature, it is impossible for them to have any such objective legitimacy as that claimed in the ringing words of Jefferson. Because they have no objective existence as real things, they can be neither alienable nor inalienable. Similarly, because they do not actually exist as independent objects in the way that we perceive them, they cannot be endowed, whether by some super being supposedly responsible for the creation or by any other agency.

Presumably the basic mental machinery necessary for us to conceptualize the concept of a right evolved because of its effectiveness in resolving conflicts. For example, the wolves in a pack do not fight to the death each time there is a conflict of individual interests over such things as who will eat first, or who will have access to females in heat. Dominant wolves have the “right” to take precedence in such matters. Such rights are certainly not inalienable in wolves. As dominant wolves weaken with age, their status can be successfully challenged by younger, more powerful individuals, resulting in the alteration of previously established rights. Rights are no more inalienable in our species. With us, too, they can change within the limits set by our nature. For example, in the late 18th and early 19th century, there was much debate over how to compensate the loss to slave owners of their “right” to the possession and service of their slaves. In our own day, the idea of the existence of such a “right” would be considered absurd. Similarly with the “right” of the Russian nobility to buy and sell landed properties that included serfs, and their “right” to demand the services of these serfs. Today such “rights” are dismissed as an evil and unjustifiable form of exploitation.

Given their nature as evolved emotional traits that emerged at times in which our circumstances were radically different from those we now find ourselves in, it would behoove us to be as circumspect in the establishment of rights as it is in how we distinguish between good and evil. Like good and evil, the perception of rights as real things will exist because it is our nature to believe in their existence. They exist, not in the way that we perceive them, but as subjective mental constructs, but are not any less relevant to our condition because of that. One way or another, they must be taken into account.

The U.S. Bill of Rights is an interesting example of how this was effectively accomplished in practice. Its authors considered such things as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly in their own best interests. To a large extent, the authors believed they already existed in the form of rights. They were accordingly codified in simple, easily understandable form by individuals whose claim to represent the people as a whole was recognized as legitimate. British Tories at the time dismissed these rights at the time as mere addenda to a “silly paper constitution.” They were, however, embraced by the people and have been hallowed by a long existence of more than two centuries. In a word, they are effective rights.

In contrast, the laundry list of contradictory “rights” set forth in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights are expressed equivocally, in a much less straightforward and simple manner, and were created by individuals who had no generally accepted license to represent anyone. They have been observed by the participating nations more in the breech than in the observance, are unfamiliar to most of the people in the world, and are, therefore, for all practical purposes, moot.

While I am hardly certain that they are best, my personal preference is that the rights we establish and defend maximize individual autonomy and minimize interference in our lives by the state or by other individuals, limited only by the proscription of acts that unduly harm others. The principles set forth in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Utilitarianism are a start in the right direction.

The Amity/Enmity Complex: A Data Point in Kyrgyzstan

The postmortems of the June outbreak of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan continue. As usual, they are full of as many proximate causes as you please, and ignore the ultimate cause: the Amity/Enmity Complex. Briefly put, it is our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups, favoring the former and hating and despising the latter. As the great anatomist and anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith put it, “Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.” Elaborating on the significance of the phenomenon, the great and now forgotten Robert Ardrey wrote, “What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years. But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.” The “falsehood” he referred to was, of course, the prevailing orthodoxy of his day that there was no such thing as innate human nature.

Since he wrote those words we have made great progress in the behavioral sciences. The role of the innate in our behavior is commonly recognized and heavily researched. In spite of that, we somehow continue to fail to “grasp our contemporary predicament.” We’ve finally begun to look at ourselves in the mirror, but have a persistent inability to focus on the blemishes. Thus, even as hundreds of papers are published about our innate fairness, altruism, and the other “kind” aspects of our behavior that we reserve for in-groups, when it comes to analyzing and understanding the consequences of our behavioral predispositions relating to out-groups, our heads are almost as firmly buried in the sand as they were decades ago. As each new Kyrgyzstan pops up on the radar screen, in spite of the constant, dreary repetition of the same phenomenon over and over and over again throughout our history, we paradoxically act as if we’d been blindsided. We cast about for good guys and bad guys, come up with all kinds of proximate causes in the form of good sounding explanations, and resolutely, firmly, and blindly refuse to recognize the ultimate cause; the Complex.

It is the ultimate cause of racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. It is the ultimate cause of religious bigotry, class hatred, ethnic violence, and terrorism. Perhaps most significantly, it is the ultimate cause of virtually every one of the countless wars we have fought throughout our history. By our continuing failure to recognize it and take steps to control it, we are putting ourselves at grave risk.

Genetic determinism was the chimera of an earlier generation of behavioral scientists. In fact, there is nothing “programmed” in our behavior that we can’t learn to understand and control. Men lust after women, but they do not commonly rape them in the street. We covet the possessions of others, but we do not routinely steal them. We hunger in a society that provides easy access to food, but, somehow, a declining but still respectable number of us manage to resist the urge to overeat and become obese. Our continued failure to recognize the existence of the Complex and somehow find a way to similarly control its constant destructive manifestations is comparably dangerous. It is high time that we stopped pretending that each new Kyrgyzstan was something new under the sun, and started looking for a way out.

Darwin’s Unmentionables

Brilliant minds have always debunked prevailing orthodoxies. It’s a measure of the exceptional brilliance of Charles Darwin that he debunked the orthodoxies of religions both spiritual and secular. Of course, the comeuppance of the spiritual true believers was very much above board, punctuated by public spectacles like Clarence Darrow’s skewering of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial. The secular zealots who called the tune in the behavioral sciences through much of the 20th century were a different matter. Their beliefs touching on human nature were every bit as silly as Bishop Ussher’s claim that the earth was only 6000 years old, but they happened to control the message concerning what passed for “science” in such baliwicks as psychology, anthropology, and sociology. More astute than their spiritual brethren, they didn’t deny Darwin. They simply silenced him, or at least those of his theories they happened to find inconvenient.

Perhaps most inconvenient of all were the ideas in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872 a year after The Descent of Man. As Joe Cain writes in his introduction to a recent edition of the book,

Darwin’s rhetorical strategy for both books was simple: narrow the sense of a gap between humans and animals. He did this by depicting animals as far more sophisticated (that is, endowed with increasingly human-like qualities) than most people usually acknowledged. He also did this by presenting human beings as carriers of features which were simply extensions of those found in animals.

He complained how frequently observers underrated the faculties of animals, then gave accounts of a myriad of supposedly human qualities found in some form in animals: foresight, memory, reason, imagination, love, jealousy, the ability to learn from mistakes, wonder, curiosity, attention, tool use, inarticulate language, a sense of beauty, and aesthetics.

All this was, of course, anathema to the clergy of the Blank Slate. Something less than 100 years later they were hurling anathemas at the likes of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, who were saying what was essentially the same thing. They might shout down Ardrey and Lorenz, but it was not so easy to shout down Darwin. Instead, they studiously ignored him, or at least those of his works that touched on innate human behavioral traits.  They had good reason.  At a time (1968) when Ashley Montagu, high priest of the Blank Slaters, was writing things as phantastically silly about human nature as his spiritual counterparts ever wrote about their imaginary super beings, such as,

What is human nature? What is most important to understand in relation to that question is man’s unique evolutionary history, the manner in which an ape was gradually transformed into a man as he moved from a dimension of limited capacity for learning into an increasingly enlarging zone of adaptation in which he became entirely dependent upon learning from the man-make part of the environment, culture, for his development as a functioning human being; that his brain, far from containing any “phylogenetically programmed” determinants for behavior, is characterized by a supremely highly developed generalized capacity for learning; that this principally constitutes his innate hominid nature, and that he has to learn his human nature frofm the human environment, from the culture that humanizes him, and that therefore, given man’s unique educability, human nature is what man learns to become as a human being.


In fact, I also think it very doubtful that any of the great apes have any instincts. On the contrary, it seems that as social animals they must learn from others everything they come to know and do. Their capacities for learning are simply more limited than those of Homo sapiens.

it wouldn’t do to have people repeating things from the pen of a giant like Darwin such as,

Whenever the same movements of the features or body express the same emotions in several distinct races of man, we may infer with much probability, that such expressions are true ones, -that is, are innate or instinctive.

Most of our emotions are so closely connected with their expression, that they hardly exist if the body remains passive – the nature of the expression depending in chief part on the nature of the actions which have been habitually performed under this particular state of mind.

We have seen that in all parts of the world persons who feel shame for some moral delinquency, are apt to avert, bend down, or hide their faces, independently of any thought about their personal appearance.

and, speaking of a caretaker of the insane,

Dr. Maudsley, after detailing various strange animal-like traits in idiots, asks whether these are not due to the reappearance of primitive instincts – ‘a faint echo from a far-distant past, testifying to a kinship which man has almost outgrown’… ‘the savage snarl, the destructive disposition, the obscene language, the wild howl, the offensive habits, displayed by some of the insane? Why should a human being, deprived of his reason, ever become so brutal in character, as some do, unless he has the brute nature within him?’ The question must, as it would appear, be answered in the affirmative.

In fact, Darwin was merely stating what anyone with a modicum of common sense might infer as an obvious consequence of his theory of evolution by natural selection.  It remained for later generations of behavioral scientists to execute the intellectual contortions and double back flips necessary to deny the obvious and prop up the blank slate.  They did so, not because the blank slate was even remotely plausible or reasonable after the revelations of Darwin, but because it was necessary to conjure up an imaginary race of “human beings” amenable to existence in the Marxist and various other utopias they were concocting for us.

It’s high time that Darwin’s “unmentionable” book was rescued from obscurity.  It deserves to be read.  Anyone who has been following developments in the behavioral sciences for the last decade or so, and, in particular, those that bear on innate human behavior, will notice that it has a surprisingly modern ring to it.  Consider, for example, passages like the following in light of recent research on mirror neurons;

We feel horror if we see any one, for instance a child, exposed to some instant and crushing danger. Almost everyone would experience the same feeling in the highest degree in witnessing a man being tortured or going to be tortured. In these cases there is no danger to ourselves; but from the power of the imagination and of sympathy we put ourselves in the position of the sufferer, and feel something akin to fear.

and, with respect to the recent trend to study children and infants at ever younger ages in order to isolate the innate in human moral behavior,

I shook a pasteboard box close before the eyes of one of my infants, when 114 days old, and it did not in the least wink; but when I put a few comfits into the box, holding it in the same position as before, and rattled them, the child blinked its eyes violently every time, and started a little. It was obviously impossible that a carefully guarded infant could have learnt by experience that such a rattling sound near its eyes indicated danger to them.

There’s another interesting facet of The Expression of the Emotions that reflects the true brilliance and greatness of Darwin.  In marked contrast to the status obsessed denizens of academia in our own day, he was quite capable of admiring and learning from those who hadn’t published in the most up-to-date and approved scientific journals.  One such whom he cited repeatedly in the book as an expert on human behavior was, in fact, a playwright; William Shakespeare.  For example,

The eyes and mouth being widely open is an expression universally recognised as one of surprise or astonishment. Thus Shakespeare says, ‘I saw a smith stand with open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news’ (‘King John’, Act iv, sc. ii). And again, “They seemed almost, with staring on one another, to tear the cases of their eyes; there was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture; they looked as they had heard of a world destroyed. (‘Winter’s Tale’, Act v. sc. ii.)


Shakespeare sums up the chief characteristics of rage as follows:- “In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man, As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger: Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Then lend the eye a terrible aspect; Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide, Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit To his full height! On, on, you noblest English.”

Oddly enough, the blank slaters accorded the highest respect they were capable of paying to an opponent to another playwright; Robert Ardrey.  For example, writing in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression, psychologist Geoffrey Gorer wrote,

Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters.

Alas, dear reader, we live in a corrupt age.  The great Darwin felt no embarrassment in heaping even more laurels on the brow of the illustrious bard, but Ardrey, “the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature” but a few decades ago, is forgotten.  You see, he published not a single paper with more than 100 citations in an approved journal.

The Blank Slate Vindicated: Der Spiegel Unearths an Old Believer

Apropos Spiegel magazine, it would seem their team of archeologists has just turned up a fossilized Blank Slater in the person of Jon Beckwith, the Harvard professor who was the first to isolate a gene. In a Spiegel interview, Beckwith railed against studies linking the MAOA gene to asocial behavior. Let’s let Beckwith tell us where the shoe rubs in his own words:

Immediately after the isolation of the gene we called a press conference in Boston to express our concerns. At the time, I didn’t know myself exactly why I was concerned. But in considering what it was that bothered me, I found that I was most concerned about genetic determinism.

It seems to me the good professor is being a bit disingenuous here. He isolated the gene in 1969, in the very heyday of blank slate orthodoxy, when all the “experts” in the behavioral sciences were gravely informing us that there was no such thing as human nature and that, for all practical purposes, all human behavior was learned; a product of culture and environment. This ideological narrative came with distinct political overtones.  Anyone who denied the received “Not in our Genes” wisdom ran the risk of being vilified as a racist and a fascist, and was dismissed as a “genetic determinist.”

In fact, real genetic determinists are as rare as unicorns. I know of no one who can claim the name of scientist without blushing who has ever denied the profound importance of “nurture” in shaping human behavior. “Genetic determinist” was really never anything more than an epithet used to denominate a member of an ideological outgroup. Back in the day, the Blank Slate true believers used the term to demonstrate freedom from such taints.

That was then and this is now. The Blank Slaters now rest slumbering under the mountain of evidence that buried all their fond hopes about the behavioral malleability of our species, and today no one in their right mind denies the importance of innate factors on human behavior. Still, now and then one hears these faint echoes from the past. Old Blank Slaters are like old Communists, defiantly true to the faith in spite of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Capitalist free-for-all in China.  Like them, they will remain Old Believers to the end. One can but wait for them to, as the historian Procopius always said, “Pass from among the world of men.”

As for that slippery MAOA gene, it would seem that Beckwith is a voice in the wilderness.  As he puts it,

According to a study, persons who were mistreated in childhood and also carried a certain variety of the MAOA gene were at increased risk for anti-social behavior. But in the meantime there have been ten studies that have tried to confirm these results. Most of them could not replicate the original findings.

…While no one notices, public opinion is influenced by false, long debunked ideas. In the case of the MAOA gene things went so far, that judges were asking geneticists whether genetics had now revealed that criminals don’t even have free will. The possibility arose that a single study that only investigated a single family could have influenced the outcome of court decisions – an amazing development!

Here the good professor is imposing on our credulity somewhat.  Things were never quite that cut and dried, even in the courts.  Psychiatric News, the journal of the American Psychiatric Association, spoke of “mounting evidence” linking MAOA with conduct disorder in an article published in 2004.  Since then, MAOA has also been linked to violent behavior (2006), childhood sex abuse and alcoholism (2007), and even credit card debt (2010).  Evidently the conflicting studies were published in rather obscure journals.  Sadly, Spiegel does not provide us with any links. 

As to Professor Beckwith’s contention that a suitably equipped expedition might capture a genuine Genetic Determinist in the wild wastelands of the dysfunctional and debauched American legal system, one can hardly dismiss the possibility with a wave of the hand.  Even rarer birds turn up occasionally in those realms.

The Politics of Genetic Determinism

Another article has just appeared on the website of the journal Evolutionary Psychology relating to the influence of our innate mental wiring on the likelihood that our political outlook will be conservative or liberal. Entitled, “Extending the Behavioral Immune System to Political Psychology: Are Political Conservatism and Disgust Sensitivity Really Related?” it isn’t fundamentally different from other papers that have appeared in behavioral science journals recently exploring the same theme.

The conjecture that human beings have an innate tendency to identify with ideological points of view that are either to the right or the left of the political spectrum has been around for a very long time, and recent research seems to verify it. However, such work must necessarily be carried out in the context of human societies charged with the types of emotion it seeks to study. It is hardly as irrelevant to those emotions as, say, research into the behavior of some new type of amoeba. It should come as no surprise if the results of such studies are crudely distorted and transmogrified into propaganda weapons by one ideological faction or the other.

Specifically, there is a danger that research in this area will be trivialized to “prove” determinist arguments the same way other research into innate aspects of human behavior has been used in the legal system to claim that criminals are not responsible for their behavior because “their genes made them do it.” An example of what I’m talking about turned up on the Foxnews website today. Referring to a different but related study, it carries the headline, “Researchers find the ‘Liberal Gene’”. This is immediately followed by the byline, “Don’t hold liberals responsible for their opinion – they can’t help themselves.” The rest of the piece is considerably more nuanced. For example, a bit further down we read,

“The way openness is measured, it’s really about receptivity to different lifestyles, for example, or different norms or customs,” he (research paper author James Fowler) told “We hypothesize that individuals with a genetic predisposition toward seeking out new experiences [a measure of openness] will tend to be more liberal” — but only if they had a number of friends when growing up, Fowler cautioned.

This isn’t a typical gene association study,” he said. “There’s a combination of genes and environment that matter.”

No matter, as all good propagandists and students of the media are aware, a great number, if not most, readers never look beyond the headline and the byline. That’s where you should always look if you want to get the “message” straight up. That “message” is set forth a great deal more explicitly in an “opinion” piece that is linked directly under the main article entitled, “A ‘Liberal Gene’ You Say — Now That Explains It All, Doesn’t It?” The author, Martin Sieff, quickly hammers the nuanced scientific observations of the original article into a handy propaganda tool:

Can there really be a liberal gene? They’ve got to be joking.

But no here it is, straight from Fox News today: James Fowler, a professor medical genetics and political science (cool combination) says liberals can’t help being – liberal.

Sieff goes on to “rearrange” the research paper to suit his own political point of view:

Of course, what Fowler calls the “liberal gene” he also explains as being the “open minded” gene. And that might well apply to modern conservatives instead of liberals, because which of them is more open-minded?

After all, Fowler defines his “liberals” as being open minded and open to new ideas and new solutions. But does that fit modern American liberals, who stick to disastrous failed ideas and policies in the face of all the evidence? Or does it apply to American conservatives, who are right now thrashing out a redefinition of conservative policies for the new century?

So perhaps Fowler’s “liberals” were really open-minded conservatives all alike, and his “liberals”, while certainly not conservative, were just rigid, closed minded defenders of a disastrous, failed status quo all along.

The deterministic message is again served up straight in the “zinger” lines at the end of the article:

This means of course, that conservatives should show more tolerance the next time they hear President Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After all, they can’t help it, can they?

It also means that so-called principled liberals, like Obama, are far more likely to run the country into the ground than cynical opportunists like President Bill Clinton did. Obama and Pelosi, by contrast are what they are, and they always will be. Not even national ruin will change them.

My intention here is not to single out conservatives for criticism. Leftists can and will bowdlerize exactly the same research papers to create deterministic mythologies supporting their own points of view. In the process they will be just as adept as conservatives in transmuting nuanced predispositions into rigid instincts.   In fact, there is no single gene that determines an individual’s political point of view, nor is environment irrelevant to shaping that point of view, nor are our highly developed rational minds incapable of overriding ideological predispositions. Perhaps more importantly, the degree to which ideas are true or false is not altered by the degree to which they fall on one side or the other of the political spectrum. Researchers might do well to lay more stress on these facts in their research papers, and at the same time bear in mind the fact that they are not immune to the emotional behavior they are studying themselves.

The Case of Margaret Mead: Icon of the Blank Slate

Margaret Mead

I wonder how many of the people who have been furious detractors or avid supporters of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa have actually read the book. Very few, if the comments I’ve seen about it are any guide. The book is supposed to be one of the holy Gospels of the Blank Slate, or the theory that there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as innate human nature, a palpably false notion that somehow managed to mesmerize the practitioners of the sciences of human behavior through much of the 20th century. How such a seemingly innocuous little book could have risen to such prominence and been accorded such ideological significance is a subject that may well busy future generations of psychologists.

On the face of it, the book seems to be a collection of observations concerning the natives of Samoa written by a talented and intelligent young anthropologist who had visited the islands for a period of something under a year. A student of the noted psychologist Frank Boas, she was particularly interested in finding if the apparent stress and strain of adolescence for girls growing up in western societies was really unavoidable, or merely the reflection of a dysfunctional culture. I find no intent to deceive in the book, no excessive confirmation bias, and no evidence that Mead was a person easily duped by the individuals she was studying into believing something that she wanted to believe, but that was actually false.

Boas did Mead no favor by writing in a foreword to the book:

The results of the painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization.

The statement is both crudely unscientific (a brief study like Mead’s could “confirm” no such sweeping conclusion one way or the other), and self-contradictory (why would human beings “react to restraints” if it is not their nature to do so?). Such inflammatory nonsense amounted to putting a target on Mead’s back. I am not familiar enough with her work to know if she ever made such a sweeping claim herself in some other work, but nothing like it appears in Coming of Age. In Dilthey’s Dream, a collection of essays by Mead’s great foe, Derek Freeman, he makes the claim,

In the thirteenth chapter of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead went even further, claiming on the basis of her enquiries into adolescence in Samoa, that explanations other than in terms of environmental factors could not be made.

I have carefully parsed the chapter in question, and can only conclude that Freeman had a lively imagination. Mead did constantly stress the importance of culture in the book, but I find nothing, in the thirteenth chapter or elsewhere, that positively excludes other than cultural influences on human behavior. What she actually did say was consistent with a comment that appeared in a preface she wrote for the 1973 edition of the book:

But the renascence of racism among some scientists and the pleas for a harsh, manipulative behavioralism among some psychologists make me wonder whether the modern world understands much more about the significance of culture – the interplay between individual endowment and cultural style, the limits set by biology and the way in which human imagination can transcend those limits – than was known in 1928.

Here Mead is wearing her well-known political activism on her sleeve, but she clearly distances herself from the extreme versions of the Blank Slate that were prevalent in 1973 and explicitly acknowledges that there are “limits set by biology.” This statement, written near the end of her career, seems to position her closer to modern theories of human nature than to the extreme “nurture vs. nature” orthodoxy of the mid-20th century.

Freeman isn’t the only one who has transformed Coming of Age to an ideological icon in his imagination, attributing extreme claims to it that one searches for in vain in the actual book. In rounding up the usual suspects, we find that Steven Pinker, that master chef of philosopher soup, has done the same thing. In his book The Blank Slate, he cites Coming of Age as a prime example of the “noble savage” fallacy, claiming in particular that Mead portrays Samoan society as egalitarian. She does no such thing. Her book is full of descriptions of the hierarchical traditions of the culture, and the consciousness and importance of rank and status. As far as the “noble savage” is concerned, Mead explicitly rejected some aspects of Samoan culture as inimical to those values of Western civilization that she believed should be preserved.

As for Freeman, he was a strange bird. Like Sam Harris, he had the notion that his understanding of human nature was so acute that he could use it to cobble together a new morality. For example, again from Dilthey’s Dream:

One of my main conclusions then is that there is a need for a critical anthropology of human values. Human cultures being value systems are “experiments in living,” and a critical anthropology would be concerned with assessing the consequences of these “experiments in living” in the hope that we might gradually learn to select our values with greater wisdom.

He seems to have elevated Mead to the role of quintessential representative of the Blank Slate in his imagination, and was obsessed with the bizarre notion that, if he could only prove that her claims about sexuality in Samoan adolescents were wrong, he would not only debunk Mead, but single-handedly demolish the Blank Slate itself. In fact, whether adolescent Samoan girls in the 1920s were as chaste as the most straight-laced Victorians, or just as Mead described them, it would “prove” nothing at all about human nature. Factual or not, Mead’s version of Samoan sexuality was well within the parameters already observed in other societies by observers both modern and ancient.

The question remains of whether Mead’s findings about the relative sexual freedom of women and girls in Samoan society were true or, as Freeman claimed, a figment of her imagination based on the claims of Samoan girls who told her what she seemed to want to hear as something of a practical joke. It happens that there is much of relevance to this question in a book entitled An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands by an Englishman who had lived among them for many years published in 1817. Thanks to Google books, this account, a wonderful anthropological study in its own right, can be read online. In includes a section on sexual behavior, noting that married women tended to be true to their husbands, but that marriage bonds were weak, and many of them were married multiple times. Unmarried women, on the other hand, enjoyed virtually untrammeled sexual freedom. Quoting from the book (page 173):

If a man divorces his wife, which is attended with no other ceremony than just telling her that she may go, she becomes perfect mistress of her own conduct, and may marry again, which is often done a few days afterwards, without the least disparagement to her character: or if she chooses, she may remain single and admit a lover occasionally, or may cohabit with her lover for a time, and remain at his house without being considered his wife, having no particular charge of his domestic concerns, and may leave him when she pleases, and this she may also do without the least reproach or secrecy.

…once divorced, they can remain single if they please, and enjoy all the liberty that the most libertine heart can desire.

…As to those women who are not actually married, they may bestow their favours upon whomsoever they please, without any opprobrium.

Remarkably, the author claimed that, in spite of this, the women were relatively chaste, if not compared to Europe, than at least compared to other island groups in the region, including Samoa, to which the natives occasionally traveled in their ocean-going canoes. In a review of the book that appeared in the April 1817 edition of the British Quarterly Review we learn, for example:

The women are much less immodest than in the other islands, and maternal affection exists as strongly among them as among the nations where the instincts of nature are fostered and strengthened by the sense of duty.

In a word, score one for Mead. It would seem that Freeman was the one who had his leg pulled.

If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is that, before becoming firmly convinced about what an author said, it is useful to actually read her book beforehand.  Paul Shankman has written an account of the Mead – Freeman controversy entitled The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. An interesting review of the book may be found here.