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.