It is hard to know whether Julian Savulescu’s suggestion that we have a “moral obligation” to engineer babies will help push the overton window towards a new and more frightening era of eugenics, or will arouse enough revulsion to make people take the threat seriously.
But one thing is for certain—it’s a good thing we live in a society where Savulescu can make such comments, and though I find the idea morally reprehensible, there is nothing reprehensible in itself in suggesting ways of tackling societal problems such as violence, nor of testing a moral taboo.
The issue of taboos is a central aspect of perhaps the most important book to be published in this still young century, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which came out ten years ago next month.
In it Pinker mentions a study that “asked about a hospital administrator who had to decide whether to spend a million dollars on a liver transplant for a child or use it on other hospital needs”, and which found that “not only did respondents want to punish an administrator who chose to spend the money on the hospital, they wanted to punish an administrator who chose to save the child but thought for a long time before making the decision”.
That’s why people don’t touch taboos; yet as Pinker argued in the book, the great taboo of today is that of human nature and the blank slate is a sacred doctrine. Despite the book’s impact, 10 years later the blank-slate model of human nature is still routinely discussed as fact, rather than fantasy, and continues to have serious implications for society (one of which may be that we are rushing towards the sort of projects suggested by Saveluscu).
The blank slate doctrine affects almost every area of our lives. Take, for example, recent moves in Ireland to set quotas on women in politics, a move that is moderate compared to quota systems already implemented in Scandinavia. Whether one thinks this is right or not, what is wrong is that the starting premise is a totally pseudoscientific view of human nature—gender feminism.
As Pinker wrote, there are two types of feminism: “Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive—power—and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups—in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.
“In embracing these doctrines, the genderists are handcuffing feminism to railroad tracks on which a train is bearing down.”
Gender feminism is no more scientific than astrology, yet the idea of total equality of outcomes is still some sort of vague official goal among the European elite, largely because “people’s unwillingness to think in statistical terms has led to pointless false dichotomies”, between “women are unqualified” and “fifty-fifty absolutely”.
The end result of gender feminism has been the blackening of the name feminist, which many women and men deny because they associate it with radical, unscientific ideas about “gender” being a “social construct”, ideas which are still taught as fact in British universities despite being as factual as creationism.
Then there is the false dichotomy about nature and nurture in child-raising. In education, for instance, public debate still revolves around the idea that intelligence is environmental, when all available evidence suggests that it is between 50 and 80 per cent nature. So when Chris Woodhead made the point that children from higher socio-economic backgrounds are, on average, cleverer, his views were considered outrageous.
Of course there are environmental factors that disadvantage poorer children, and these should be addressed, just as there are ways in which women can be given more choice in their careers, but that is the point of Pinker’s book—accepting human nature does not necessary mean embracing any ideology. The Harvard professor is no polemicist and he leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. Being a conservative, liberal or socialist are all legitimate stances, depending on what priorities one favours (stability, freedom or equality). But what is not legitimate is forcing debate to revolve around false facts.
I don’t agree with Pinker about everything; I find it unlikely that the home environment really has such a small influence on children’s outcomes, but I don’t pretend this is based on anything but my own experiences and prejudices. His belief that there is no soul—“the ghost in the machine”—I find too awful to contemplate. I have the right to choose not to believe those things; what I don’t have the right to do is force others to accept my premises, and to damn them as sinners or thought criminals if they don’t.
And that is exactly how advocates of the blank slate have come to dominate the public sphere for so long, and why terrible decisions have been made by public officials, based on faulty data.
As Pinker recalls: “Research on human nature would be controversial in any era, but the new science picked a particularly bad decade in which to attract the spotlight. In the 1970s many intellectuals had become political radicals. Marxism was correct, liberalism was for wimps, and Marx had pronounced that ‘the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’. The traditional misgivings about human nature were folded into a hard-left ideology, and scientists who examined the human mind in a biological context were now considered tools of a reactionary establishment.”
So Richard Herrnstein was called a racist for arguing, in 1971, that “since differences in intelligence are partly inherited, and since intelligent people tend to marry other intelligent people, when a society becomes more just it will also become more stratified along genetic lines”, even though he was not even discussing race. He received death threats and his lecture halls were filled with chanting mobs.
Then there was EO Wilson, whose Sociobiology concluded that some universals, including the moral sense, may come from a human nature shaped by natural selection. The aim of the book was to describe things such as violence and altruism through evolution, yet a widely-read article by a group of academics accused him of promoting theories that “led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany”.
As Pinker says: “The accusation that Wilson (a lifelong liberal Democrat) was led by personal prejudice to defend racism, sexism, inequality, slavery and genocide was especially unfair—and irresponsible, because Wilson became a target of vilification and harassment by people who read the manifesto but not the book.”
Other controversies down the years included the unmasking of the myth of the noble savage, with scientists who found murder rates in pre-agriculture societies were astonishingly high accused of justifying genocide; and rape, which gender feminists believed was not about sex, despite clearly being about sex.
The latter has been especially tragic because of the moral imperative behind the study of rape—to reduce its occurrence. As Pinker wrote: “Any scientist who illuminates the causes of rape deserves our admiration, like a medical researcher who illuminates the cause of a disease, because understanding an affliction is the first step towards eliminating it. And since no one acquires the truth by divine revelation, we must also respect those who explore theories that may turn out to be incorrect. Moral criticism would seen to be in order only for those who would enforce dogmas, ignore evidence, or shut down research, because they would be protecting their reputations at the expense of victims of rape that might not have occurred if we understood the phenomenon better.”
That, unfortunately, is how orthodoxies are enforced across a range of subjects, despite being incredibly weak. On the idea that intelligence is entirely environment, Pinker wrote that “even in the 1970s the argument was tortuous, but by the 1980s it was desperate and today it is a historical curiosity”. And yet now, in the second decade of the 21st century, it is still not considered decent to question the taboo about human nature when it comes to policy.
But just as the good name of feminism has been stigmatised by its radical wing, the whole of the social sciences have been damaged by the blank-slate orthodoxy, which has led to widespread anti-intellectualism, since the public at large come to view academia as a font of convenient untruths and agenda-driven nonsense (or to use the popular phrase, political correctness). Worst of all it has actually made it harder to help the most vulnerable, because we fail to take account of the fact that some people are less smart than others or, as Savulescu pointed out, more prone to vice or violence; and it has even made society less sympathetic to people who, because they have been less blessed by nature, lose out in the rat race.
A decade after The Blank Slate, why is human nature still taboo?