Posted on July 7, 2019

In Search of Human Nature

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, September 1991

Carl N. Degler, In Search of Human Nature, Oxford University Press, 1991, 400 pp.

In Search of Human Nature, by Professor Carl Degler of Stanford University, is an attempt to understand how environment displaced heredity as the accepted explanation for human behavior. It would be hard to think of an intellectual revolution that has so profoundly influenced social policy, and it is high time it attracted the attention of a historian as eminent as Prof. Degler.

In Search of Human Nature, by Professor Carl Degler

His book is also a cautious account of how biology, after its virtual elimination as an influence on human behavior, has finally begun to regain some of the ground it lost to the champions of environment. The questions Prof. Degler raises are the very ones that have been forced underground: Are men and women different by nature? Are the races equally intelligent? Is eugenics moral? Is man formed more by his genes than by his environment? The search for human nature has great consequences, for the societies that men build reflect the answers they think they have found.

For the most part, Prof. Degler answers the taboo questions exactly as the current intellectual climate requires. Nevertheless, even if he lifts the lid of Pandora’s box only to slam it shut again, he gives us a glimpse of where resurgent biology might lead. He has drawn a rough map of the intellectual landscape, and though he warns us away from certain regions, there is some good merely in pointing out that they exist.

In Search of Human Nature is in two parts. The first and vastly better one traces the currents of thought that unthroned the view that biology governs behavior. The second part, which describes the new legitimacy of biology, is distinctly inferior. Whereas Prof. Degler has combed the archives for trenchant nature/nurture arguments of 50 or 100 years ago, his references to contemporary studies are embarrassingly one-sided and only serve current academic fashion.

Biology Regnant

In the first part of his book Prof. Degler explains that it was Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) who laid the foundations for the view that natural laws apply to men just as they do to animals. Darwin taught that man is a product of the same forces that created other living things: all are the result of millions of years of random evolution during which only the fittest survived. Though his influence came later, Mendel demonstrated the inevitable link between the biological characteristics of one generation and the next.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

These new doctrines could explain social class. If only the fit survive and prosper, the rich and powerful must have gotten that way because they were particularly fit. Darwin thought that evolution not only explained social hierarchy but justified it. It would be folly to try to raise the pauper to the level of the merchant if the pauper did not have the necessary biological endowment.

Likewise, no one needed to devise elaborate environmental explanations for different levels of achievement by race. Darwin thought that the races did not have the same average levels of intelligence. If the pauper was poor because he had bad genes, the primitive races were likewise shortchanged.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), worked these ideas into a system known as “Social Darwinism.” Government should interfere as little as possible with the struggle for survival, and should never tax the productive in order to subsidize the unproductive. Nor should individuals be too free with misguided charity. As Spencer put it: “To aid the bad in multiplying is, in effect, the same as maliciously providing for our descendants a multitude of enemies.” He thought that no environment could make up for debauched genes.

Better Breeding

Darwinism and genetics led to the eugenics movement. Although it is now condemned as sinister and right wing, Prof. Degler points out that in the early part of the 20th century it was thought progressive and humanitarian. Socialists were among its ardent proponents, and some of the most respected people of the time supported it. Winston Churchill was vice president of the International Congress of Eugenics, as was Charles Eliot, president of Harvard. Selective breeding had vastly improved the stock of domestic animals; eugenicists believed that people could be likewise improved.

By 1930, thirty American states had passed laws that allowed for the involuntary sterilization of such people as “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists.” Germany, England, and the Scandinavian countries also passed eugenics laws—all before Hitler came to power.

The Great Shift

Today, eugenics is in malodorous disrepute, environment explains behavior, the races are equal, poverty explains low I.Q. rather than the reverse, and governments routinely tax the competent so that the incompetent can multiply. What caused so revolutionary a change?

The attack on biology got under way in the 1920s, and no one is more responsible for its success than Franz Boas (1858-1942). He was a tireless proponent of the idea that environment, not biology, governed behavior. A Jewish immigrant from Germany, he established the study of anthropology in America more or less single-handedly, and ruled the discipline from its headquarters at Columbia University.

Boas would be delighted with the United States as it is today. He worked mightily for an open immigration policy, and championed the cause of Negro equality. He believed that intermarriage was the ultimate solution to racial problems and was convinced that human ailments could be solved by deftly tuning the environment. Biology was irrelevant.

It was Boas who first used the term “culture” in its current, debased manner, to mean all human behavior. Until his time, it meant the highest artistic achievements of an advanced society. For Boas, the most gruesome tribal rituals were just as much “culture” as were opera and literature. When people now use such contradictory terms as the “culture” of poverty, they are the direct heirs of Boas.

In Prof. Degler’s view, it is impossible to overestimate the influence of Franz Boas. Virtually all the foot soldiers in the attack on biology were either students of Boas’ or were heavily influenced by him. Prof. Degler also points out that the names most closely associated with the movement—Kroeber, Klineberg, Goldenwieser, Sapir, Herskovits—represented a sweeping change in the ethnic hue of the social sciences.

Some of these Jewish scholars were so single-minded in their campaign to discredit biology that Prof. Degler is moved to wonder what motivated them. As he points out, despite study after study designed to show that environment rather than genetics explained differences in human behavior, the new zealots never found what they wanted. Their results were no different from those that had convinced their predecessors of the primacy of biology. Blacks and Amerindians (which would be equivalent to most of today’s Hispanics) continued to score low on intelligence tests, committed more crimes, and stayed poor. What the Boas movement did was reject biological explanations for these differences and assert that environment was everything. The facts never changed; only the explanation did.

Prof. Degler concludes that this new group of scholars was unabashedly ideological. He quotes Otto Klineberg as saying, “I felt (and said so early) that the environmental explanation was preferable, whenever justified by the data, because it was more optimistic, holding out the hope of improvement.”

Margaret Meade, one of the few influential figures in the movement who was neither Jewish nor an immigrant, described human nature as “almost unbelievably malleable.” She taught that there was a “desperate need” to counter the fact of race with the doctrine that all behavioral differences were governed by “culture” rather than heredity. “Desperate need” and “the hope of improvement” do not make for scientific detachment.

Prof. Degler suspects that a combination of self-interest and charitableness drove the new doctrine. Jews, who had suffered persecution in Europe, were eager to beat down any idea that might justify treating peoples differently. At the same time, social “scientists” feared that if social problems were thought to be biological, the better off would see little point in trying to lift up the lower orders. Prof. Degler does not discuss the obvious professional interest in promoting the primacy of environment. If progress was to come from tuning the environment, who had a better claim to do the tuning than sociologists?

The Boas school went from strength to strength. As early as 1917, one sociologist was writing that “among scholars . . . . the ancient doctrine that some races are by nature inferior has been rejected. Every argument advanced in its support has been tested and found wanting.” Of course, nothing of the sort had been done.

Even as environment was displacing biology, its proponents were stubbing their toes on the successes of Asians. Poverty and social class were triumphantly trotted out to explain low black and Amerindian IQ scores, but Asians perversely scored as well as whites despite poverty and low social class. This was discreetly commented on in the 1920s and 1930s, Prof. Degler tells us, but was not permitted to stop the Boas juggernaut.

By the beginning of the 1930s, well before Adolf Hitler could have had any influence on sociology, the biological view had gone into eclipse. World reaction to the racial policies of the Third Reich certainly rang the death knell for eugenics and continues even today to hamper the study of behavioral differences. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the Boas movement was well on its way to triumph without any help from the Nazis.

Biology Returns

It was not until the 1950s that biology and Darwinian theory, even in small doses, were thought once again to influence human behavior. Prof. Degler suspects that it was the excesses of the environmentalists that prompted the return. Behaviorists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner claimed that man was so blank a slate that he did not even have instincts.

As one of the most doctrinaire behaviorists, Zing Yang Kuo, wrote, “all our sexual appetites are the result of social stimulation. The organism possesses no ready-made reaction to the other sex, any more than it possesses innate ideas.” Another wrote that the only instinctive human impulse was the motion of the fertilized egg towards the womb; everything else was learned.

Foolishness like this was bound to provoke a reaction. As Prof. Degler notes in the second part of his book, animals obviously had instincts and it was difficult to argue that human behavior had nothing in common with that of other creatures. Likewise, the work of European ethologists like Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaus Tinbergen showed that even very complicated animal behavior was innate. If the honey bee was born knowing how to do the “waggle dance” that tells other bees where to find food, what possibilities might people be born with?

Prof. Degler therefore devotes 100 pages of his second section to the insights we have recently gained from the resurgence of biology. It is here that his work is spotty. After having explained in great detail how the Boas school discredited eugenics, racial differences, and even heredity, he says virtually nothing about recent work in these fields.

What then, are the new breakthroughs that Prof. Degler has found illuminated by biology? The incest taboo, he says, is now generally accepted as something close to instinct because animals refuse to mate with close kin. Human social rankings may also reflect biology because animals have “pecking orders.” The willingness of people to sacrifice themselves for their families also has a parallel among animals and may be part of human nature. All very interesting, but hardly shocking.

The only remotely controversial view that Prof. Degler airs is the possibility that men may be more aggressive than women because of hormones rather than because of what they learned in kindergarten. This might even explain why men dominate certain fields.

What happened to racial differences, eugenics, and heredity? Since Prof. Degler has pointed out that these were discredited, not because of new data but because of an ideological interpretation of old data, one expects him to explain recent thinking in these fields. Instead, he suggests that today’s “sociobiologists” are not interested in racial differences, for example, because they study traits common to all people. Also, they are likely to be political liberals who have “disturbing memories of the evil misuse of such inquiries in the recent past.”

This is disingenuous on two counts. First, there is a great deal of interest in genetics and racial differences. Second, everyone knows that to take a public position on the wrong side of orthodoxy is to risk professional oblivion. Any connection between race, sex, heredity, and social policy has been cast into the outer darkness and anyone who thinks about it is shunned as not merely wrong but wicked. Scholars are punished for politically incorrect research, and everyone knows it.

For this reason alone, it is significant that so many scholars have dared to flout convention. Evidence is constantly coming to light of the heritability of intelligence, of racial differences, and of biological predispositions towards criminality and even personality type. For the most part, In Search of Human Nature primly ignores it.

For example, Audrey Shuey’s work in the 1950s and 1960s that culminated in her magisterial The Testing of Negro Intelligence gets no acknowledgement. Nor does John Baker’s work on the anthropology of race or that of his fellow Englishman, Hans Eysenck, on IQ. Richard Herrnstein’s studies of the biology of criminality are regretfully and briefly mentioned, but Arthur Jensen is disposed of in a single footnote! Mark Snyderman gets a short mention for an obscure study on immigration legislation, but there is no reference to his 1988 book, The IQ Controversy, that patiently presents the evidence for racial differences.

William Shockley’s work gets no notice, nor does that of Raymond Cattell. Prof. Degler writes nothing about Thomas J. Bouchard’s recent, compelling work on identical twins separated at birth. Although their most prominent activities may be too recent to be included in a book published this year, the exclusion of Philippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario and of Michael Levin of the City College of New York would be entirely consistent with Prof. Degler’s selective scholarship.

In Search of Human Nature poses as a dispassionate history of ideas. Its style is professorial and its tone is detached. For this reason it is especially indefensible that Prof. Degler should deliberately (and surely it was no accident) exclude the work of scholars whose views he finds inconvenient. They are very much part of the history of ideas, and a historian must grapple with them, if only in an attempt to refute them. When an author is prepared to accuse the Boas school of giving the data an ideological coloring, it is all the more disappointing to find that he himself has chosen simply to ignore recalcitrant data.

Prof. Degler gives the false impression that practically no one is studying certain fields. On questions of race, especially, he implies that this is because everyone agrees that people like Boas and Klineberg are the final authorities. In his defense, it is possible that Prof. Degler could not have published a book that did not hew to the glib orthodoxies of our era. Nevertheless, it is a sad day when a distinguished historian writes, for whatever reasons, a book that distorts history.