A Decade After Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, Why Is Human Nature Still Taboo?

Ed West, Telegraph (London), August 17, 2012

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?

Topics: , ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.
  • Church_of_Jed

    Liberal scientists don’t really believe in Blank Slate, but they know they better talk like they do or be cast out and lose their jobs and careers.

    Those who would cast them out don’t really believe in it, but they are at the top of the food chain built up on lies and a Fake Faith Called Equality, so they enforce the creeds with vicious jealousy.

    One of the main sacraments of their religion is to sacrifice anyone who dares question Equality or even imagine that White privilege might be good for something.

    • I wonder how many of them do.  I actually only started believing in racial differences *after* I realized that the media was grasping at straws to build an anti-white narrative in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting.

      Before then, I even acknowledged the fact that the hierarchy of victimhood is nonsensical and also the eschatology of social progress were nonsensical.  But still I clung to liberalism.

      I had to reject the core anti-whiteness before I could reject the other beliefs of political correctness.

      I’d like to think I was a fairly normal leftist, if a bit more willing to actually question authority.  If so, then the leftists really do believe that racial differences in intelligence are entirely accidental, for some reason or another.  Not because race doesn’t exist, or even that it’s entirely skin deep, but because all men were Created equal (i.e. leftist creationism).

  • Flytrap

    What’s amazing is that this article is from England and that there are nearly 400 comments at last count.  To quote Bob Dylan, “The times, they are  a-changin.”   Does anyone else feel like the world is a tranquil beach in Indonesia and the tide just went waaayyy out? 

  • Fighting_Northern_Spirit

    Waaay off topic, but Topper do you happen to play the drums?  I knew a great guy and great drummer who went by that nick in real life, and it would delight me to no end to see that he was a race realist like myself.

  • Jews will sue for anything lol.

    And whether or not such people should be born (matter of degree of disability, really – of course there should be some negative eugenics), society shouldn’t make them feel bad about what they can’t help, nor should there be a compensation culture.

    As for people like Savulescu and Singer, just today I was discussing online that they raise important questions, but that their proposed moral frameworks are non-pragmatic and theoretical.

  • Psychiatry is pretty much a pseudoscience, the neurodiversity (and often underlying biodiversity) is real, but I don’t like the a priori assumption of ‘disorder’ or ‘illness’ involved in the concepts or the diagnoses. 

    Psychiatry is obviously *not* a branch of medicine despite the brain being an organ of the human body, because psychiatric labels aren’t equivalent to those of physical medicine. I don’t rate the DSM or ICD approaches at all, nor do I trust professional diagnoses.

  • Pinker spread misinformation about Kevin Macdonald to discredit him, not so un-PC.