What lies behind the denial of human nature?
Science has become moralised and politicised
This is part two of an article and yes, I’ve deliberately put it behind a paywall.
‘We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.’
I’ve tried a self-imposed moratorium on quoting George Orwell, and yet it’s hard to improve on this passage from his 1946 essay, ‘In Front of Your Nose’. It becomes especially difficult when faced with the 21st century’s growth of strange and wacky beliefs about human nature, all derived from the blank slate. Twenty years after Steven Pinker’s great work, the argument seems more hopeless than ever.
As a highly social species we are sensitive to taboos, prone to flattery and liable to confuse what is and what ought to be — and this makes discussion of what drives our own behaviour a fraught topic. Pinker wrote how: ‘When it comes to explaining human thought and behaviour, the possibility that heredity plays any role at all still has the power to shock. To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, war, greed, genocide, nihilism, reactionary politics, and neglect of children and the disadvantaged. Any claim that the mind has an innate organisation strikes people not as a hypothesis that might be incorrect but as a thought it is immoral to think.’ People feared the truth about human nature, he wrote, because it would justify oppression and discrimination, make hopes to improve their lot futile, and mean that life had no higher meaning.
As an idea, the tabula rasa has existed since ancient Greece, but until the 20th century it had been very much on the fringes, going against most of what we’d call folk wisdom. Long before genetics was a field, it was assumed that people had a nature, that this ran in families and was explained by something being ‘in the blood’. My relatives in Ireland would use the expression ‘S/he didn’t lick it off a stone’ when observing that someone had inherited a family trait, such as eccentricity, miserliness or alcoholism. Certain qualities or deficiencies were passed down from parent to child, and it went deeper than upbringing.
The growing popularity of the blank slate may have had something to do with urbanisation, and an environment increasingly cut off from the natural world. People who live around animals are bound to have a more realistic grasp of human nature, because it’s obvious that if you breed two intelligent creatures, or two placid ones, their offspring will more often than not share those characteristics, and it would be odd if the same wasn’t true for people.
Likewise the clear and distinct biological idea of sex: no one who lives in the countryside thinks a bull’s masculinity is ‘performative’, to use Judith Butler’s phrase; the idea that male and female differences are somehow socially constructed would be quite obviously bullshit to someone running for dear life across a field.